C.J. Grace, who stepped up as principal of Taos High School in June, welcomes the changes coming down the pike for New Mexico schools. "Governor [Michelle Lujan] …
C.J. Grace, who stepped up as principal of Taos High School in June, welcomes the changes coming down the pike for New Mexico schools. "Governor [Michelle Lujan] Grisham's policies represent a paradigm shift for the state - the students, the families, the teachers, the school districts," said Grace in a recent interview with Taos News.
"We're in the process, as a district, of applying for community schools funding," Grace added. The first phase of the governor's program provides $50,000 to districts that meet the criteria, and subsequent phases will make more funds available.
What does the "community schools" concept mean, exactly? "One of the major opportunities for the districts with these new programs is to do a needs analysis based on who their students are, what the needs are in their community and what assets they have in their community," Grace explained. "Schools are being asked to think about the needs within their community and design a program that fits those needs - rather than pick a program and make it fit."
Grace replaced principal Robert Trujillo, who resigned after holding the position for seven years.
Since assuming her position, Grace has been impressed at the offers of support from across the community. "We've got a ton of partners who have reached out to show any and all support that they can," she said. "We've established partnerships with Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, Community Against Violence, Taos Alive and Taos Behavioral Health, to name a few. They're all working to bring in social/emotional support and wellness for our students."
Grace oversees a staff of 93 and manages an operating budget of $19.1 million. During strategic planning sessions over the summer, she and her staff clarified their three top priorities for the year: the academic achievement of students, the safety and security of the high school community and parent engagement.
What about security on campus? The school has safety and security plans in place, and Grace plans to conduct training on campus throughout the year to build capacity and continue to improve campus-wide security. She hesitated to get into the details, however, referring those who are interested to the district's published policy. "What we explain to parents, teachers and students who are part of the school community is different from what we share with the public."
Grace considers it critical to get parents engaged and keep the lines of communication open. "High school is a time when students are discovering and increasing their own autonomy," she said, "so we'll be looking for the strategies that best fit the students and families. Communicating with parents on a regular basis will support that goal."
To that end, Grace will host a coffee get-together in the THS lobby from 8 to 9 a.m. on the first Friday of each month. It will be an open community meeting where parents can discuss topics of concern.
Grace holds degrees from Loyola University in Chicago and the University of Colorado at Boulder. She began teaching in Colorado but has spent six years in Taos, first as director of Vista Grande, a charter high school, and most recently as director of federal programs for the district. There she administered federal and state grants and oversaw federal assessments, both of which will serve her well as principal.
Another facet of Grace's background aligns her strongly with the Taos community. "I'm a bilingual educator," she said. "I've had the opportunity to teach in or serve as administrator at mostly bilingual schools throughout my career."
She plans to expand THS's participation in New Mexico's Seal of Biliteracy program, which encourages students to achieve bilingual proficiency. "Last year, we had 40 students graduate with the seal on their diploma out of a class of 175," she said, "and it appears on their transcript as well." She also plans to expand the school's Tiwa program, which has continued to gain a larger following each year.
As a firm believer in the community schools concept, Grace comes to Taos High School at an opportune moment.
"The intent of Governor Grisham's work is to empower and support communities," she said. "I think we're going to reap the benefits from that as the programs are established and begin to support our students and families."
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