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Community Schools the New Mexico Way

Santa Fe cityscape with the Bataan Memorial Building in foreground and mountains in the background

In New Mexico, students who face barriers to school success—including poverty and systemic racism—are not exceptions in the state; rather, they are the norm. For most of the state’s history, the education system has struggled in a social and economic context that has been unable to lift a large proportion of young people out of poverty or address the barriers that poverty creates to school success.

However, in the past 2 years—in part as a result of the court decree in the Martinez/Yazzie lawsuit challenging educational inequalities, and in part as a result of new revenues flowing into the state from an oil and gas boom—these issues have been put front and center. The state has begun to address many of the long-standing adequacy and equity challenges that have characterized the education of its children and to make progress toward a stronger, more equitable system.

This report focuses on community schools as an evidence-based approach that can help the state improve the educational success of New Mexico children, even as the state recovers from the COVID-19 crisis. A community schools approach involves schools partnering with the local community to provide high-quality teaching and learning and additional resources and supports to help mitigate the barriers to school success that poverty erects. Community schools are built with four pillars—integrated health and social supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, strong family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practice—in a way that meets community needs and uses community assets. Together, these pillars provide more than wraparound services. Collaborating with local partners, community schools use a whole child, whole school, whole community approach to redesign school in ways that promote learning.

National research finds that, when well designed and fully implemented, community schools increase student success and reduce gaps in both opportunity and achievement. Although schools alone cannot “fix” widespread poverty, interventions that provide additional supports and resources can mitigate its disadvantages by reducing gaps in students’ learning opportunities, improve students’ outcomes, create more positive school climates, and foster trusting relationships among adults and children that are crucial for learning. In a study examining community schools in Albuquerque Public Schools, Las Cruces Public Schools, and Santa Fe Public Schools, the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC) found results similar to those of other studies. Community schools that had been in operation for more than 5 years and that had fully implemented the pillars showed better-than-average growth in student achievement scores.

Moreover, community schools address the 2018 findings of Martinez/Yazzie, a lawsuit ruling that New Mexico’s education system failed to provide public school students a sufficient education. These findings outlined the need for and shortage of expanded learning time, including after-school programs and tutoring, and the lack of social and health services available to all at-risk students (i.e., socioeconomically disadvantaged children, English learners, Native American students, and children with disabilities). Community schools are also promising sites for developing culturally and linguistically responsive programs collaboratively with tribal governments, given their close connections with communities.

Community schools are not new to New Mexico, and educators, advocates, and the general public increasingly support scaling them with state support. Most recently, New Mexico community schools—like others around the country—have demonstrated their potential for supporting students and families in times of crisis. In response to school closures in the COVID-19 pandemic, they have helped move teaching and learning online, worked with partners to equip students with technology for distance learning, shared food and essential supplies from their food pantries, monitored students’ well-being by phone and video conferencing, and even tapped into an emergency fund to address the most dire financial needs of their communities.

This report offers a set of short-term and longer-term recommendations that build on New Mexico’s progress and respond to widespread support. These recommendations focus on creating the capacity and infrastructure required to scale, over time, the community schools strategy (including expanded learning time) to all schools in which at least 80% of students come from low-income families.

Immediate, low-cost steps that could be taken during the COVID-19 recovery period include:

  • Support districts, tribally controlled schools, and Bureau of Indian Education schools to blend and braid funds to support community schools, including state funding for at-risk students, expanded learning time, and state grants through the Indian Education Act, as well as federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grants and school improvement funding. This could include permitting combined applications, budgets, and reporting.
  • Position community schools to become hubs for aligned and coordinated programs across agencies by providing leadership and guidance from a cross-agency body, such as the governor’s Children’s Cabinet and the Department of Indian Affairs. This approach would increase access, as well as create funding efficiencies by avoiding duplication of essential supports for children and families.
  • Develop targeted educator professional development programs that teach the competencies required for managing successful community schools and expanded learning time, planning and implementing services and strategies in collaboration with communities and tribes, and blending and braiding funding.
  • Collect sufficient data to enable oversight of community schools and to inform ongoing school improvement. In addition to the comprehensive data required of all schools, the state could collect leading indicators and process data to better understand the degree to which the community schools framework is being implemented.

In the longer term, the state can adopt policies and make new investments that enable all of New Mexico’s highest-poverty schools to become comprehensive community schools:

  • Reinstate funding for K–5 Plus and Extended Learning Time programs and increase investments in community schools.
  • Establish a system of regional supports to offer technical assistance and professional development to help districts implement community schools and expanded learning effectively, including tribal collaboration where appropriate.
  • Create incentives for local nonprofit and business partnerships to ensure local participation and community-wide ownership.

This research was supported by the Thornburg Foundation. Additional support came from the Learning Policy Institute’s core operating support from the Heising-Simons Foundation; Raikes Foundation; Sandler Foundation; S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation; and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support.

Community Schools the New Mexico Way by Jeannie Oakes and Danny Espinoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.