The magic of the holiday season inspires a diversity of traditions that fill our lives with joy connecting with friends, family and community. Traditions can offer us a sense of comfort and calm in an ever-changing world.
However, there are some traditions that do not inspire comfort, but complacency. Each year, for the past decade, we look at New Mexico in the rankings of education and childhood well-being, and we see ourselves at the bottom of the list. Las Cruces, our state’s second-largest school system, has decided that enough is enough. Educators and their unions; students; parents; elected officials; businesses and chambers of commerce; NMSU faculty and students; judges and health advocates; and many more have rallied around a belief that “education is a shared responsibility.” We have all come together in a brave and courageous way to ask how we can work differently and smarter to support our young people and their families.
Through a research based model called “community schools” we seek to transform our capacity as a community to work together to overcome the barriers that our students and families face at home and in school. For many years, community schools have been expanding the role of schools. Instead of shutting down in the evenings, weekends and summers, community schools have remained open to serve a variety of needs. This could include hosting public meetings; town halls and lectures; a variety of out-of-school time programs for students and families such as GED and financial literacy classes; and school-based healthcare that serves the whole community.
Community schools have also focused on integrating community-based curriculum into the school day. This could mean tapping into the local expertise of businesspeople and families as guest speakers, or field trips and community service projects. Finally, community schools have given the entire community – students, families, school staff, and the broader neighborhood, a voice in their school. Where else is the community coming together to say, “Your voice is welcome here”?
Unlike so many other education programs that come pre-packaged, community schools are flexible and defined by a community’s needs and vision. Community schools begin with a deep community assessment process that lays the groundwork for a long-term plan to build the capacity of the school. Community schools are not about doing something “to” a school, but supporting a school and community to facilitate change from within.
In Las Cruces, the community school movement grew out of the SUCCESS Partnership, an education initiative founded in 2013. It is a diverse group of over 100 cross-sector organizations comprised of parents, education professionals, nonprofit organizations, businesses, regional partners and community leaders who are committed to supporting education in Doña Ana County. The collaboration serves to achieve improved outcomes in education from prenatal to career readiness. The partnership is supported by nonprofit organizations like Ngage New Mexico and the National Education Association.
In January 2017, Lynn Middle School was launched as the first community school in Las Cruces. Since then, more than 50 volunteers have spent more than 350 hours on the community assessment process at Lynn. Through surveys, interviews and focus groups, these volunteers have engaged over 800 students, families, staff and community members in identifying a set of priorities for Lynn.
During this process, Lynn has already began forming partnerships and achieved remarkable success. Partnerships with NMSU Stem Outreach Center, Ngage New Mexico, the city of Las Cruces, and the Boys and Girls Club have added an extra 20 hours of after-school programming for students every week. Collaboration with Families and Youth, Inc., the Hunger Task Force, and Roadrunner Food Bank has helped to distribute 1,500 meals to hungry children who otherwise may not have a stable source of food, and over 600 baskets of groceries to families in need.
We are grateful that local leadership on our School Board and City Council are moving this work forward so that in the near future, every child will have opportunity to attend a community school.
SUCCESS Snapshots is a biweekly column highlighting the prenatal to career SUCCESS Partnership education initiative in Doña Ana County. Read more at www.SUCCESSdac.org. If you would like to be involved, please contact Lynda Garcia at Lynda.Garcia@uwswnm.org.