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New Mexico Legislation Focuses On Educational Inequities

A bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Michelle Grisham would put $30 million over two years into schools that serve a greater proportion of low-income students, and give the state a chance to assess various programs.

by James Barron, The Santa Fe New Mexican / March 25, 2021

(TNS) — Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart on Wednesday championed some of his department's successes during the just finished 60-day legislative session — and the family income index was among them.

Stewart touted the two-year, $30 million pilot project as "innovative" because it is designed to provide funding directly to schools that serve a greater proportion of students from low-income families.

"What this is going to do is really move forward innovatively," Stewart told the Interfaith Coalition for Public Education. "I don't know of any other states that have done it this way. I think this puts New Mexico ahead."

The funding could be used for a variety of initiatives, such as math and reading intervention programs, hiring more school counselors and social workers, creating family resource centers or adopting culturally and linguistically diverse classroom materials, the Public Education Department said in a statement.

Stewart said the index aims to help correct educational inequities highlighted by the landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, in which a district judge ruled the state was failing in its constitutional duty to properly educate all students.

While the bill has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, El Camino Real Academy would get a little more than $300,000 from the initial $15 million portion for the 2021-22 school year, Salazar Elementary School would get about $90,000 and Aspen Community School is set to receive $150,000, Santa Fe school board member Carmen Gonzales told the coalition.

Stewart said the two-year program will give the department a chance to examine what types of programs and services work in helping at-risk students earn the education they deserve, and he hopes it eventually will lead to long-term funding. Because schools will have latitude in how they use the money, the index will provide flexibility in making adjustments to the project, if needed.

Stewart also pointed to investments the Legislature made in Native American education, especially after the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit highlighted the struggles Indigenous students have experienced in the public school system. He said $4.5 million went to tribal libraries and another $4.5 million went to tribal education departments to increase services provided through those entities as well as Native-language programs.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed the digital divide on tribal lands, and Stewart said $5 million went toward broadband in those areas.

Stewart also said $20 million went toward developing more community school programs, and he said he hopes every new school eventually becomes a community school.

"It provides those services and academic support to students and families," Stewart said.

K. Elise Packard, co-founder of the Interfaith Coalition for Public Education, said the group embraced a community school model that emphasizes local governance and partnerships with community businesses and leaders to go along with a robust curriculum that engages students while supporting teachers.

Stewart agreed, and he said there is a danger in developing community schools that focus on just a few important activities — like the occasional eye exam or dental visit — and not much else. He supports a model that accentuates the strengths of a community while finding ways to develop partnerships and programs with businesses and leaders to address a community's needs.

"That means their families are integral [to] it. There is a strong engagement program with families that bring them into the school and help contribute meaningfully," Stewart said. "It's not just, 'Let's do an event here or an event there.' It's about, 'We've got either an opportunity we can seize or a problem that we want to solve, and we're going to try to hit these particular goals through the work that we do. We're really focused on building the right kind of partnerships and strategies to hit those goals.' "

Melinda Silver, an artist and coalition member, said she was heartened by Stewart's response, which was more consistent with her vision of community schools.

"I didn't think the presentation in the PowerPoint was nearly as really robust as his answer," Silver said. "I think his answer [to Packard's response] addressed a lot of the questions I had about his presentation because the presentation seemed to be more on social services and wraparound services [provided to students and their families]."

(c)2021 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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