Editor’s note: Despite cuts to the New Mexico budget after an unexpected and dramatic decline in oil and gas revenues earlier this year, grants for the community school programs in Taos have been preserved so far.
With all the travails Taos County educators are dealing with these days, they really needed some good news – and it arrived in spades May 14.
Vista Grande High School, Peñasco Elementary, Enos Garcia Elementary and Taos International School all received $150,000 grants to implement their plans for restructuring as community schools under phase two of the state Public Education Department’s Community Schools Initiative.
“We are super excited,” said Amanda Flores, community schools site coordinator at Vista Grande, in a May email. “Our goal is to truly become a community hub in Taos. We want to provide support to students of all backgrounds in Taos County.”
Flores added that VGHS has planned programming for next year based on the needs assessment they conducted over the last year under their $50,000 phase one community schools grant. This included organizing a community-wide council and conducting several meetings to get a big-picture view of what stakeholders want from VGHS and what they have to offer in the way of support and programming.
Under the new grant, Vista Grande will expand its counseling services for students and their families in collaboration with a peer-led mental health program run by VGHS students. The school will also offer substance abuse and health/wellness classes with support from Taos Alive, Taos Pueblo and Communities Against Violence.
Flores added that Vista Grande will augment its after-school clubs, focusing on art – in collaboration with Harwood Museum – and outdoor education.
The school will also expand its garden and food sovereignty program with support from Taos Land Trust and Native Roots. This will include classes, a free grocery program for families and a culinary arts CTE pathway for students.
According to Flores, a portion of the grant will go toward professional development as well. VGHS will focus on culturally and linguistically responsive teaching in collaboration with Sharrocky Hollie, a nationally renowned educator who has trained thousands of teachers in cultural responsiveness. Eaglewing Redesign Collaborative will support the school with trauma-informed teaching and STEM Arts Lab will help teachers integrate arts into the curriculum.
Has COVID-19 changed Vista Grande’s plans for using the funds?
“Yes, absolutely,” said Flores. “We plan to address COVID-19 through our expanded counseling services, by offering professional development around trauma-informed practices so that teachers are equipped to support students in this time of uncertainty. Our goal moving forward is to create community resiliency in all we do as we face COVID-19.”
“There were dozens of schools that applied, and only about $1 million up for grabs, so we feel very fortunate,” said Michael Noll, community schools coordinator for Peñasco Schools.
Noll, who just came on board in February of this year, hit the ground running. He sought out community organizations, established partnerships and then worked with them to create programming and develop budgets. This gave him the content he needed to write a persuasive grant application.
“I’m relatively new to this community,” said Noll, “but there are people who’ve lived here their entire lives, and their families have been here for generations. They know way more about what this community has and what it needs than I ever will. So we’re calling upon their expertise.”
The school will collaborate with Peñasco Theater Collective on creating a drama and circus arts program. With support from the Embudo Valley Library and Northern New Mexico College, staff will also develop a robotics program.
The New Mexico Acequia Association will help students create a school garden and also provide cultural programming about traditional farming practices in Northern New Mexico. True Kids 1 of Taos will collaborate with the school on a media arts program.
The school will also expand its partnership with the Boy’s and Girl’s Club of Picuris Pueblo to include tutoring, games and activities. Roxane Sanchez, a local yoga instructor, will create yoga programs for students.
A large portion of funding will also go to health-related programs. Las Cumbres will provide an on-site nurturing center where students can go for social and emotional support and get connected with additional social services.
The school will expand its partnership with Taos Behavioral Health to provide on-site counseling and other services. El Centro Family Clinic will provide on-site physical, mental and dental health services.
Natural Helpers, a peer-teaching program that has been successful in a number of New Mexico districts, will teach students and staff how to be a peer mentor that students can confide in. They will learn how to receive difficult information and proceed with it to ensure that kids get the help they need.
“The grant was officially awarded to the elementary school,” Noll said, “but since all of our schools and students are located on one campus, a lot of the programs that the grant will fund will also be available to middle and high school students.”
Enos Garcia Elementary
The community school model is built on four pillars – integrated student supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, family engagement and collaborative leadership and practices.
cording to Paula
Oxoby-Hayett, community school coordinator at Enos Garcia, the school will focus on creating a system to identify families in need and get them connected with available resources.
“We are incredibly lucky because we have many community organizations already working with us,” she added. “Now we want to create a system with shared goals and outcomes, so we can support our partners and offer families a coordinated system of care.”
Oxoby-Hayett noted that the pandemic has changed the school’s planned use of the funds. Enos will now conduct a needs assessment during the coming school year to understand the new challenges that COVID-19 has posed to the community.
To address expanded learning, the school will augment its before- and after-school programming to support student learning and lighten the load of working families who would otherwise have to pay for child care.
To support family engagement, Oxoby-Hayett said the school plans to leverage existing opportunities for families to participate and share ideas but also to create new opportunities.
“We’re hoping to double the number of parents participating in our Community School Council and create more volunteer opportunities,” she said. “We’ll continue to offer adult education – both English as a second language and parenting classes.”
As for the fourth pillar, collaborative leadership and practices, the school will develop agreements with its Community School Council partners and offer them the necessary training to support the community schools model.
Besides addressing the four pillars, Enos will work toward a more data-driven approach to evaluating what works and what doesn’t.
“We will collaborate with Taos School Zone, which is supporting us and other community schools in developing consistent data collection and evaluation systems,” Oxoby-Hayett said.
She noted that, under the phase one planning grant last year, Taos School Zone had helped kick-start the community schools effort by putting up the funds to cover her training and first-year salary.
Taos International School
“We are approaching this totally as a community effort,” said Nadine Vigil, director of Taos International School. “It’s really to get community partnerships in place with our school to help ensure that our kids are successful.”
Last year, Vigil hired Tania Abeyta – who was already on staff at TIS – as community school coordinator. Abeyta conducted the needs assessment and asset-mapping under the phase one grant last year.
Vigil said that she relied heavily on the TIS advisory board’s support in writing the grant application and determining where to put the funding so that it would have the greatest impact.
“We’ll put money into after-school programming to extend learning opportunities,” she said, “and also into after-school tutoring. One of our ‘biggies’ will be a Resource Room where we’ll have a food pantry, hygiene products and other supplies, so kids can feel comfortable about coming to get what they need.”
Vigil said a lot of absenteeism stems from a basic lack of necessities kids need to keep clean. “We’re also getting a washer and dryer, so we can assist with that,” she added. “As kids are growing up, they’re vulnerable – but they’re very conscious of their health and how they look.”
TIS will reach out to community pantries for help in stocking the Resource Room with food that students can take home on the weekend. In a related effort, the school has enrolled in the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks – including dinner – to students and their families.
Vigil said TIS will also use the funds to enhance its social work program. They currently work with Taos Behavioral Health but want to put more focus on students’ emotional health. She plans to hire a part-time school nurse as well.
As part of its family engagement effort, TIS will start offering adult education in both English and Spanish as a second language. “This is not just about our students,” Vigil said, noting that it’s important in the Taos community for adults and children alike to have dual-language facility.
TIS will also use the funding to enrich its professional development program. “Part of this will involve training our staff and support organizations in the basics of community schooling,” she said.
Vigil added that community schools take a “whole-child” approach to ensuring students’ educational and life success – which means focusing on their social and emotional development as well as their academic learning.
A different paradigm
Catherine Horsey, who coordinates the efforts of Taos School Zone, was thrilled to hear of the four schools’ awards. She has worked with several of them since the Community Schools Initiative first launched in 2018 to build partnerships with the communities and apply for the phase one needs assessment grants.
“I think it’s important for folks to understand that community schools aren’t just a program, but rather a different paradigm for schools that seeks to educate the whole child, removing impediments to their learning and emotional well-being,” said Horsey. “Based on a recent statewide conversation among members of the community schools coalition, that’s a message we all need to work on.”