(See this article in the Las Cruces Sun News)

LAS CRUCES — In 2008, statistics showed that if a student started high school in Las Cruces Public Schools, he or she was more likely not to graduate within the LCPS system than they were to walk across a stage in a cap and gown four years later.

“In 2008, our (four-year) graduation rate in Las Cruces Public Schools was 46 percent. We’re at 76.6 percent now,” said Tim Hand, chief of staff for LCPS. “Given the right support, and given the right systems in place, there’s no reason that a 100 percent graduation rate isn’t attainable.”

Hand made the remark Tuesday evening in the cafeteria of Centennial High School, where roughly 60 attendees, ranging in age from 13 to 84, spent more than three hours focused on a single goal — improving graduation rates in Doña Ana County.

The countywide high school completion meeting was the first event in a new initiative, called the SUCCESS! Partnership, being launched by Ngage New Mexico, a Las Cruces-based nonprofit focused on improving educational outcomes locally. The effort is funded through grants from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Foundation and the Daniels Fund.

In 2014, the four-year graduation rate was 81 percent nationwide, but only 69.3 percent in New Mexico. Elsewhere in Doña Ana County, the Gadsden Independent School District had an 80.1 percent graduation rate last year, while Hatch Valley Public Schools was at 68.9 percent.

Improving outcomes

The SUCCESS! Partnership identified eight strategies for improving the graduation rate:

Implement early detection and intervention for students who are falling behind, focusing on social and emotional factors.
Emphasize the connection between education and careers, including career coaches, internships and vocational topics.
Educate, support and train parents in an effort to encourage engagement.
Implement targeted academic interventions through tutoring.
Offer additional high-quality professional development for educators.
Promote a culture of support through counseling, mentorship, and better utilizing existing resources like Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Club.
Increase flexibility for students, with regard to scheduling, credit recovery and course offerings. This strategy also includes minimizing standardized testing.
Offer material incentives for students who demonstrate academic success.
“What we saw in spades tonight was that, in order to truly measure the success of our students, we’re going to have to look at the collective impact that our community has on their success as human beings,” Hand said. “Academic achievement is important, but there is so much more to student success than academic achievement.”

Hand said that education has the ability and responsibility to foster hope and to promote emotional intelligence.

“As a community, we need to make sure that we are redefining success in a way that is attainable for all students,” Hand said.

Students offer input

Victoria Munn, 18, is a senior at Rio Grande Preparatory Institute. She serves on the school’s new student advisory council, which was created to advise the school board and Superintendent Stan Rounds on issues impacting students.

“My principal, Ms. Davis, thought that it would be good for me to come and represent my school,” Victoria said. “I think it is so amazing. As a student, I haven’t really seen this side of academics — people coming together, acknowledging that there are problems and working together to come up with solutions. It’s so nice that so many people showed up and they’re talking about it.”

Annalisa Ruelas, 13, is an eighth-grade student in the Leading Edge Accelerated Program at Mesilla Valley Alternative Middle School. Two years ago, she was struggling in school — her grades were slipping, she was getting into trouble and she wasn’t focused on her schoolwork.

Annalisa is Victoria’s younger sister. She saw the meeting as an opportunity to become more involved in education, and asked her sister if she could attend the summit with her.

“I was very excited, and very into it,” Annalisa said. “Because I want to do the same — I want to graduate early, if I can. I want for other kids to feel the way I do, and understand that it’s important to focus on school.”

Andre Gonzales, 18, a senior at Centennial High School who also serves on the student advisory council, participated in Tuesday’s convening.

“This is absolutely awesome,” he said. “Just seeing the different sectors of the education system coming together and talking about one of the main issues that we’re always talking about, the high school graduation rate — seeing all of these issues being brought up, and making sure that student voices were a part of that conversation, it was really great.”

Andre said that, by utilizing breakout groups, attendees were able to come up with practical, actionable solutions.

“This was a collaborative effort,” Andre said. “We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel; we were trying to figure out how to better utilize the wheel.”

It takes a village

Ashley Echavarria, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces, said the challenge presents a welcome opportunity for her organization to expand its services, and be even more engaged in the community.

“For decades, Boys & Girls Clubs have been playing a really important role in improving graduation rates,” she said. “What this conference did tonight is just open up the doors for relationships and collaboration, so that we can look at expanding our services in ways that help kids succeed, which is ultimately the Boys & Girls Club’s mission.”

State Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, helped facilitate the event. Soules is a retired educator who taught for many years at Oñate High School.

“There was an incredible group of people here that were all engaged, all the way through, talking about what’s best for our students — how we get more students graduated from high school and into a future career, and what we need to do, as the adults in the community, to make that happen,” Soules said.

David Greenberg, Ngage New Mexico’s director of education initiatives, said he is always impressed by what the community can accomplish when people are brought together.

“It was shocking to me to see how many people didn’t know each other,” Greenberg said. “Just creating these ad hoc connections is going to further the mission in the short term, but the entire coalition is absolutely going to be able to improve high school completion in our county in the long term. We are building a foundation that is thoughtful, inclusive, and representative of our county. And it’s going to yield some powerful change.”

Find out more about Ngage New Mexico by visiting www.NgageNM.org.

Damien Willis can be reached at 575-541-5468 or dawillis@lcsun-news.com. Follow him on Twitter @damienwillis.