Braiding is defined as “joining three or more pieces of hair or string-like material by putting them over each other in a special pattern.” As a child who wore braids, this was my first understanding of the word.

But there’s a more expansive definition, one that results in meaningful educational opportunities for our students. I begin with the book Braiding Sweetgrass, in which botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the act of planting, harvesting and braiding sweetgrass as a metaphor for how to treat one another, including all beings who inhabit the earth.

After reading this book, I realized that this exciting braided learning is already occurring in the Santa Fe Public Schools.

We see this vision in the concept of community schools, which rests on the simple observation that as a community participates more in the education of its children, the more the children flourish. While each community school is different, the goal is to enrich the educational environment through support from parents, community organizations, local businesses, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies.

All schools do this to some extent, but what I see as essential to consistently meeting this goal is a full-time, permanent “Community School Coordinator.” This individual is responsible for doing the constant braiding of these groups, based on the needs and assets of the learning community. For instance, on a recent Saturday at César Chávez Elementary, members of a group which happened to be named Las Trenzas (Spanish for “braids”) led a diverse group in telling their personal stories to one another. Participants left the session with a deeper understanding of community values, heritage languages and individual assets and struggles.

Community school coordinators use this knowledge, along with assets and needs surveys, to better understand their community, and then they supplement and enhance the classroom and parental experience. For example, a coordinator may see a need for the school population to learn innovative, inexpensive ways of shopping and cooking. The coordinator then arranges for Cooking with Kids, a local nonprofit, to come into the classrooms on a regular basis, where those needs are met with lessons that combine math and nutrition concepts, with the fun of hands-on cooking and eating fresh vegetables and fruits.

Community schools are designed to facilitate this braiding process, and I would encourage all of us to advocate for more funding for these schools. We should also encourage and direct funding to innovative programming that is already available in some schools — such as combining literacy with math and science (the Math Amigos program), or combining high school academics with career pathways and dual credit, as found in Early College Opportunities High School and at other high schools.

Students make personal discoveries when immersed in interactive, braided learning. I recently discovered this for myself during a daylong cooking class. Ostensibly we were learning to make tortillas, tamales and chicken molé. Our instructor, however, seamlessly braided Spanish language lessons into hands-on demonstrations and student practice. As a result, conversation in English and Spanish was rapid and nonstop, full of laughter and storytelling. We learned to cook, but we also learned about one another.

Santa Fe Public Schools also is braiding relationships with institutes of higher education. Let us ensure these relationships are widely known to our middle and high school students. Expand AVID and Breakthrough programs to provide the mentors and tutors needed for students to prepare for and envision themselves as successful college students. Finally, we must make sure students are aware of and take advantage of free tuition and scholarships.

Let the braiding flourish at SFPS.

Melinda Silver is a Leadership Circle member in the Coalition for Public Education.

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