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Our Future: New Mexico Shows How Public Ed Can Thrive After COVID-19

Zia Middle School, Las Cruces, NM. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / cc

“I think we’re all going to be different after this,” Mary Parr-Sanchez told me in a phone call, “but I don’t know how.” Parr-Sanchez is the current president of NEA-New Mexico, the National Education Association’s affiliate in the Land of Enchantment, and “this” of course is the profound trauma of schooling amidst COVID-19.

All public schools in her state and nearly all nationwide are closed for the rest of the academic year due to the pandemic, and teachers and school support staff are approaching the final weeks of a remote learning stopgap effort.

Parr-Sanchez’s comment reflects a national conversation that is slowly pivoting away from crisis schooling to how to reopen schools in the new school year. “For most children, the school year ended in March,” economist Susan Dynarski wrote in the New York Times. “The sooner we face it, the faster we can fix it.”

But New Mexico’s education system was broken to begin with, Parr-Sanchez told me.

“Our current governor [Michelle Lujan Grisham] is showing impressive leadership, but our previous governor of eight years drove education into the ground,” she said, referring to former Governor Susana Martinez, whose administration’s response to the economic downturn during the Great Recession was to slash education spending, expand privately operated charter schools to compete for funding, and impose a punitive regime of evaluating teachers and schools based on high-stakes standardized testing.

Some of the heavy-handed evaluation systems Martinez championed have been repealed by Governor Lujan Grisham, but New Mexico still funds its schools less than it did in 2008.

Much of what Martinez imposed on New Mexico were pillars of education policy that started with No Child Left Behind legislation passed during the George W. Bush presidential administration and extended under the Barack Obama presidency.

“I loved being a teacher in the 1990s,” Parr-Sanchez recalled, “but since No Child Left Behind [which became law in 2002], all the joy was taken out of teaching. The test-and-punish program got us nowhere, and for the past 10 years, teachers have felt like they’ve been under assault.”

Despite these onerous policies, Parr-Sanchez saw the emergence of a different, more promising school model in her state.

“When I first learned of the community schools model, it hit me like a lightning bolt,” she told me. “I loved it because it focused on [the academic and non-academic needs of children], and the focus was on learning and a culturally relevant curriculum, not just test scores. The movement for community schools brought the joy of teaching back for me.”

Now, she is convinced the community schools model is the most promising way forward for schools as they reopen to the new realities of recovering from the fallout of COVID-19.

“In our state’s response to the pandemic, we’ve had to be very sensitive to issues of poverty, and the state has challenged districts to reach all children, including special education students and homeless students,” she explained. In this kind of emergency situation, she believes community schools have an advantage because “the model enables you to look at the whole child.” (A whole child approach considers more than just students’ academic outcomes to include attention to students’ health, mental, socioeconomic, and cultural conditions that often have more impact on students’ abilities to learn.)

“What happens during the school day is not enough to improve the trajectory of children until you deal with what is really going on in children’s lives. Are they hungry? Are they homeless? The testing agenda took us away from addressing this. Community schools can bring us back.”

An Alternative to Testing and Privatization

In her praise for community schools, what Parr-Sanchez is referring to is an education approach that has taken hold in a number of school districts, from Albuquerque, to Florida, to New York City.

Some 5,000 community schools already exist nationwide, according to a 2018 count taken by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy shop in Washington, D.C. In New Mexico, a June 2019 memo to the state legislature from the state department of education listed 29 community schools, and others have taken up that approach since.

Community schools look different from state to state, and even different from school to school, but at the heart of the model is an emphasis on meeting the multiple needs of not only students but also the community. The basic idea is that schools should serve as hubs in the community and partner with local organizations that serve the many needs of families and students. Schools are the delivery source because that’s where children and families are. Also, the school’s curriculum should reflect the local culture and interests of the community, and the governance should be shared among the various stakeholders the school actually serves.

The movement has flown mostly under the radar, except in the most diligent education policy circles, but the idea was in the education platforms of leading 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary candidates, including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

In its blueprint for reopening schools, the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest national teachers union, states, “If experts deem it safe, summer may be a way to start planning a community school model.” And a review of school reopening plans conducted by NPR noted that since public schools have become the nation’s default food distribution centers in an emergency, the community schools model may offer a viable strategy to add housing, mental health, health care, or other services “on top of that.”

To many, the idea of saddling schools with even more responsibilities beyond academics seems an overreach, especially when schools, when they reopen, will be sorely challenged to create safe spaces for children and deliver even basic instruction in core academic subjects.

Parr-Sanchez disagrees. “The current crisis is exposing the inequality not only in schools but in our society and making people more aware of the conditions of children,” she told me. Community schools are designed to address that very issue, she maintained.

Indeed, the indisputable lessons the pandemic has taught the nation is that local schools are, like it or not, the nation’s safety net for children and families, and that vast inequities in public education and society at large are blocking children’s access to learning—whether it’s being able to get internet service or having a home where children can do schoolwork.

We also learned that teacher-student relationships are at the center of the education process, and when those break down, learning breaks down too.

Because the community schools model emphasizes local needs and combining multiple services for students, Parr-Sanchez and others believe the model will get more attention as schools reopen. She credits the community school movement not only with changing her “personal trajectory” but also the trajectory of education in the state, and she believes it could change the trajectory in the nation as well. There is some evidence she may be right.

New Mexico’s Troubled Schools

Education policy experts expect schools to struggle with addressing learning loss and social-emotional trauma caused by the coronavirus.

Experts warn that children returning to schools when they reopen will have multiple health and psychological needs, and families who have experienced unemployment and the effects of the economic downturn will be hard-pressed to provide the basic supports students need to be able to engage in school work. Further, school leaders are expecting severe budget cuts, and some are already firing and furloughing staff to prepare.

Yet in gauging whether a community schools model is a realistic reform effort to take on during such difficult times, it’s hard to believe states will be as disadvantaged as New Mexico already was before the disease struck.

“We have super needy kids,” Parr-Sanchez told me. “In some of our poorest counties, particularly in the northwest region, as many as 40 percent of children have food insecurity, homes often have no running water, and many roads are unpaved. These counties are also hotspots of the coronavirus.”

In 2017, the state was tied with Louisiana for the second-highest poverty rate in the nation, 19.7 percent, according to World Population Review. Personal finance site WalletHub ranked New Mexico as the worst state in America to raise a family, based on a range of factors, including education and childcare, where the state ranked last, and socioeconomics, where it ranked 48.

In its most recent annual state-to-state comparison of overall child well-being, the Annie E. Casey Foundation rated New Mexico at the very bottom. The highly respected analysis was especially brutal in ranking New Mexico 50 in education due to the state’s poor fourth-grade reading test scores (with only 25 percent of students rating “proficient”) and high percentage of high school students who do not graduate within four years (29 percent).

The state also ranked bottom or near bottom on a number of other factors including health care, economic conditions, and household and community circumstances. New Mexico, along with Mississippi, has the most children living in high-poverty areas—24 percent.

All these adverse conditions correlate to big problems for children’s education attainment unless the government can come up with significant amounts of school funding to address complications caused by poverty and its related trauma. Yet New Mexico’s school funding is both too little and poorly allocated.

In an April 2019 analysis of state-level school funding in the 2015-2016 school year, written by Bruce Baker, Mark Weber and Matthew Di Carlo for the Albert Shanker Institute, New Mexico ranked above average, 13, for its “fiscal effort,” a measure of the state’s school spending as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product. But part of that above-average ranking is due to the fact the state’s GDP severely lags most other states, ranking 38 according to Wikipedia. The state struggles in other funding measures, according to the analysis, ranking 44 for how it funds its highest-poverty districts, and it is in the bottom third for its “progressivity”—a measure of state and local revenue in higher-poverty districts compared to the lowest-poverty districts.

All of these factors have crippled academic achievement in New Mexico. The state’s eighth-grade students’ scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a periodic exam often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, have not seen any progress in their reading scores since 2002. In the most recent round of exams in 2019, reading scores declined modestly from where they were in 2002. Eighth-grade math scores on the exams seemed to be on an overall trend of slight improvement in the first decade of this century, but they have been generally dropping steadily since 2011.

But if the community schools model has proven to be a practical option in such tough circumstances as there are in New Mexico, it is certainly a viable option for schools facing adversity when they reopen in the new school year.

A Community School Takes on COVID-19

Parr-Sanchez first heard of the community schools model in 2013 when she was teaching at Picacho Middle School in Las Cruces. Her students were “100 percent disadvantaged,” she told me, and the model made immediate sense to her.

Median household income in the district is almost $5,000 less than that of the state42 percent of children live in single-parent families, more than a quarter of households lack broadband internet, and over 18 percent of public school parents are unemployed (even before the virus hit).

By 2016, a partnership that included the local teachers’ union, which Parr-Sanchez represented, leaders of community and youth-focused nonprofit organizations, and representatives of the business sector had spearheaded a successful effort to get the district’s first community schools program located at Lynn Middle School in 2017.

Progress happened quickly, according to a report by New Mexico in Depth. The article quoted Principal Toni Hull who said that by 2018, absentee rates at Lynn Community Middle School had dropped substantially, a new disciplinary code emphasizing conflict resolution instead of suspensions cut discipline incidents in half, and the school district’s grade on the state report card rose from an F to a D.

By 2019, Lynn Community Middle School was providing, through its community schools initiative, a wide range of services to students and families, including an on-campus dental clinic, mental health services, a food bank, summer programs, horticulture classes, service learning projects, money management and nutritional education, a garden and cooking club, and a family center, which provides “clothing, hygiene items, access to technology, [and] a healthy snack bar,” according to Las Cruces Sun News.

Drawing from the success at Lynn, Las Cruces city officials and the school district worked together to expand the community schools program districtwide, according to local television station KTSM, starting with three more schools.

Among those schools was Doña Ana Elementary, which officially kicked off its community schools program in February 2020. Then the pandemic hit.

Doña Ana, a rural village about 10 miles outside of Las Cruces, already faced formidable educational challenges, Doña Ana Elementary principal Cherie Love explained to me in an email. Family food insecurity is widespread, the community lacks affordable housing, and the local economy is stagnant. “Reliable transportation and money for gas is also a challenge for our families,” Love said.

Prior to the opening of its community schools program, Doña Ana was already providing free breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack to 100 percent of its students and a free dinner and snack to about 120 students enrolled in its extended learning (afterschool) programs. But the community school’s effort enabled Doña Ana to respond rapidly once the disease broke out, Love said.

First, because Doña Ana had adopted the community schools model, it had in place the personnel to meet the multiple needs of a traumatized community.

“Our community schools coordinator worked our help desk to provide information to parents and channel their questions to the appropriate departments and people,” Love told me. “We provided mental health support to students and their families through our school counselor and our school special education psychologist.”

Through its community schools program, the school had already provided training for families on how to use an iPad or laptop computer. “Many of the families who attended these classes have reported that they are now using this iPad to support their child’s learning,” Love said.

Also, because it followed the community schools model, Doña Ana had in place the partners it needed to bolster support for students and families. Among those partners is New Mexico State University, which provided school supply packs to more than 200 elementary students.

Another partner, local nonprofit Ngage New Mexico, provided parents a webinar in Spanish and English on “Creating Effective Home Learning Environments.”

“In our village, families do not have access to a hospital, urgent care facility, library, and other services that families have when they live in a city,” Maria Zuniga told me. Zuniga is the community schools coordinator at Doña Ana, a key staff person in facilitating all the communications among the school, district administration, partner organizations, and families. “But now that we are a community school, we can work together to help our families have the same opportunities that families have in the city.”

“Doña Ana has an advantage because we have the resources of a community school and a community schools coordinator,” third-grade teacher Henry Jasso told me. “If our students, staff, or members of our local community need something, I know I can go to Mrs. Zuniga, and she will use her connections to get the help to answer questions and meet needs. Because our school has built partnerships with various organizations and individuals, we have resources, people, and organizations that want to help our community.”

Love said her school’s community schools model “strengthens our goal of making Doña Ana Elementary the hub of the neighborhood. When school reopens, I envision us providing quality academics with on-site health and social services and parents working with school staff to ensure children are physically, emotionally, and socially prepared to learn.”

A ‘Political’ Problem

Skeptics who dismiss anecdotal evidence of the benefits of the community schools model should know there are quantitative data supporting the model too.

A research study released in early 2020 by the Rand Corporation looked at the results of the community schools program in New York City and found that schools using the model were able to increase attendance and graduation rates, improve school climate and culture, raise math scores, and ensure higher percentages of students advanced to the next grade.

Older studies of the community school model’s impact have found similar results in terms of improving attendance, quality of school life, and graduation rates. The model’s impact on academics is more mixed, according to these studies, but those outcomes would likely take longer to show up.

So what’s stopping more widespread implementations of the community schools model?

“This kind of focus on the whole child is political to some people, and there are ideologues who won’t support it,” Parr-Sanchez suggested.

Indeed, there are dividing lines in this ideology, and they aren’t even along party lines.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo responded to the pandemic’s impact on education by announcing vague plans to “reimagine” schools as something no longer reliant on “all these buildings, all these physical classrooms”—a rejection of the whole idea of schools as a physical presence that can serve as a hub for the community.

Former Florida governor and failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush declared in an op-ed in the Washington Post that online education was “the future of learning” and that the lesson to be learned about the pandemic was that the “longer term” plan for public education is to “continue without access to classrooms.”

And U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has announced new grant money for those school districts willing to “rethink education” as long as the education is somewhere other than “what takes place in any given physical building.”

Parr-Sanchez is hoping the opposite will happen. “After this, I think schools will be viewed as essential and that we can just own that truth without having to fight for it. So then the issue is how do we do it right, and we look to community schools as a model. And we fund them.”

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Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging cen...