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 19 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 Peññasco 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.”
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.”
Note: Enos Garcia Elementary and Taos International School plans with the grants will be featured in a followup story.