"Community schooling is about finding out what our Enos Garcia community needs," said Sarah Bradley, who took over in July as principal at the Taos elementary …
"Community schooling is about finding out what our Enos Garcia community needs," said Sarah Bradley, who took over in July as principal at the Taos elementary school. "What do our students need to succeed at learning - and what do our parents and teachers need to help them get there?"
Bradley is by no means a newcomer to Enos Garcia, having spent six years as a kindergarten teacher and then 13 years as Title 1 literacy teacher. But she's taken on the top job at a pivotal moment, as the school has been designated a pilot project in the district's community schools initiative.
Boots on the ground: the community school coordinator
As soon as she settled into her new office, Bradley hired Paula Oxoby-Hayett as community schools coordinator. "Once we've assessed our needs," said Oxoby-Hayett, "we'll do asset mapping. Our first step is to see what's available already here, and what are our strengths. That way, we can really draw on those strengths without duplicating our efforts, and if there are any gaps, we'll see how we can take care of them."
In economically challenged schools like Enos Garcia, teachers typically find themselves taking on the job of social worker as well as educator. Oxoby-Hayett's mission is to lighten their load, relieving them of the social worker role so they can devote themselves fully to what they do best - teaching.
State level funding is in the works
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's "education moonshot" program has prioritized community schooling at the state level. New Mexico House Bill 589, which she signed into law in April, builds on the Community Schools Act of 2013, and provides each district with a $50,000 grant to conduct a needs assessment.
Once the district has submitted the assessment and asset map, it is eligible to apply for a $150,000 grant for each of the three subsequent years to implement its plan. If the district can demonstrate need, it can apply for renewal of the grant for a fourth year. The bill also provides funding to develop pre-K and early childhood education curricula.
The district's community schooling initiative started with a 2015 dialogue between superintendent Dr. Lillian Torrez and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation. "The [LANLF] president spoke at one of our events that year, explained the concept and recommended that we pursue community schools," said Torrez. "We've been moving forward ever since."
How does Torrez see the project unfolding at Enos Garcia? "I envision us partnering with our families and the community," she said, "including tribal partners, nonprofit community-based organizations and local businesses, to provide well-rounded educational opportunities that support student success. This will be based on a structural framework that will be long term and will reflect the culture of Enos Garcia Elementary."
In order to succeed, a community school has to find ways to gather accurate data about the real needs of their specific students and families within their actual cultural contexts - rather than deal in academic abstractions. "We can't just theorize about what our families need," said Oxoby-Hayett. "We need to base our assessments on solid data about real people."
To that end, she's developed a questionnaire for parents that asks blunt questions in a nondemeaning way. "I could use help with (check one or more): clothing/shoes, dental care, food, counseling, high-quality after-school programs," and so on.
Another question: "When your child misses school, what are the reasons? My child is sick; I need my child at home; I don't always have a way to get to school; my child doesn't want to come to school; I have out-of-town appointments for myself."
Rather than expect students to deliver and return the questionnaire, Oxoby-Hayett has aggressively sought out events and occasions where she can engage parents face-to-face and have them fill it out on the spot. "If I hope to get good data, I need to go after parents rather than wait for them to come to me," she said.
Oxoby-Hayett has set up an unoccupied classroom as a community school "nerve center." It provides a place to store and stage donated food, clothing and school supplies for distribution to students and families, but also serves as a "dynamic space" where teachers and other staff can meet with parents and students to navigate family issues and work out solutions.
Volunteers: a rich resource
A strong tradition of volunteerism in Taos has helped kick-start the community school transition at Enos Garcia. "People in our community are very generous," said Bradley. "They went to help, both financially and with their time. They just need an access point."
Assistant principal Nicole Mora-Atencio mentioned David Doolittle, a retired Air Force officer and Vietnam vet who has been looking after the safety and security of the school for the last two years.
"At my age, it just seems right to give back to the community," Doolittle said during his morning playground detail at the school this week. "I got involved through my church [First Presbyterian], and I'm working on recruiting a half-dozen others. We just have to get them fingerprinted." (Volunteers need to undergo a background check as well as fingerprinting in order to help out at a school.)
"If he sees anything that's a concern for our students, he's on it," Mora-Atencio added.
Lauria Urbanejo, another retiree, first volunteered four days a week for Mentoring Kids Works, one of Enos Garcia's after-school programs. For the last two years, she's assisted on a daily basis in a third-grade classroom.
"We also have the Ancianos," said Bradley, referring to a seniors organization with centers throughout Northern New Mexico. "They're here to support students emotionally. Some of them have been around long enough to see children go from pre-K all the way through fifth grade. They've become part of the community, and the kids call them Grandma Ruby or Grandma Frances."
Enos Garcia also houses Las Cumbres Nurturing Center. The staff of three supports students emotionally, offers parenting classes and also does "family navigation" to help families resolve issues that may impact their kids' performance at school.
Are other Taos schools enjoying the same degree of community support? "Yes, absolutely," said superintendent Torrez in an email. "We have about 45 nonprofit organizations and about 80 community volunteers that we are working closely with throughout the district."
Partnerships make community schooling happen
Torrez noted that several Albuquerque schools have offered guidance to help the Taos district create its own model of community schools. The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County (ABC) Community Schools Partnership has actively promoted the concept and practice of community schooling for 12 years and has teamed with the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association (teachers' unions) to implement community schooling as well.
With 100 of Bernalillo County's 130 schools qualifying for federal Title 1 assistance due to their economically disadvantaged status, it was critical for ABC to mobilize partnerships in order to rally support for the concept.
"Leveraging existing resources to both address needs and build on community assets is a core tenet of the community school strategy," said county commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, chair of the ABC Community School Partnership Board, in a statement. "The investment in a community school coordinator provides a key resource in a school to ensure that the right programs and services connect with the people that need them most."
Do community schools work?
Recent surveys from organizations and districts across the U.S. have reported more detailed results:
A return on investment study conducted by The Finance Project and the National Center for Community Schools shows a social return of $10-$14 for each dollar invested in community schools.
Students in high-implementing community schools in Tulsa, Oklahoma, had math scores 32 points higher than those in other Tulsa schools, and reading scores were 19 points higher.
Community schools in Baltimore had significantly better attendance and lower chronic absence than noncommunity schools. Early chronic absence rates decreased by 4.1 percent, as compared to a 3.6 percent increase at noncommunity schools.
What about the actual, measurable benefits of hiring a community school coordinator like Oxoby-Hayett? A study conducted by the ABC Partnership at Manzano Mesa Elementary School in Albuquerque showed a $7.11 return on investment for every dollar invested in the school's coordinator. That number reflected actual grant dollars, volunteer hours, professional time, programs and in-kind services such as materials, supplies and other physical donations - all provided to students, families and communities at no cost to the school district.
To develop her skills and connect with her counterparts nationwide, Oxoby-Hayett will attend "Community Schools Fundamentals" in mid-October, a three-day seminar in New York City hosted by the National Center for Community Schools.
"We are building our village at Enos Garcia," she said. "Educators want to share their love for learning. We'll take care of the rest."
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