Taos School Zone and partners boost community schools

‘Kids can’t learn if they’re coming to school hungry’

By Doug Cantwell
Posted 2/3/20

When she unveiled a new online “asset map” to help drive the community schools initiative in Taos, Catherine Horsey got some oohs and aahs at last week’s (Jan. 21) school board meeting. The map gives educators a comprehensive, fingertip guide to several dozen nonprofits that have signed on to support the schools – the very backbone of the community school concept.

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Taos School Zone and partners boost community schools

‘Kids can’t learn if they’re coming to school hungry’


When she unveiled a new online “asset map” to help drive the community schools initiative in Taos, Catherine Horsey got some oohs and aahs at last week’s (Jan. 21) school board meeting. (Visit the asset map at taosnonprofits.org.)

The map gives educators a comprehensive, fingertip guide to several dozen nonprofits that have signed on to support the schools – the very backbone of the community school concept.

“Taos School Zone is a collective impact project,” said Horsey, its coordinator, in a Jan. 24 interview with the Taos News. “This just means we’re trying to bring together existing resources and get everyone working together on shared goals and outcomes.”

Since its launch four years ago, TSZ has been convening nonprofits, teachers and other community stakeholders to coordinate what might otherwise lapse into a crossfire of well-meaning organizations working at odds with one another.

“We spent a bunch of time listening to the nonprofits,” said Horsey, “asking them, ‘Would you like to work with the schools? Why do you not work with the schools? What are the impediments?’ And they told us. People here will tell you what’s on their mind.”

To engage the educators, TSZ started holding teacher recognition breakfasts twice a year at each school in the district. “We would just feed them and listen,” she said, “and we learned a lot.” Adopting a community school model, they realized, would mitigate many of the issues nonprofits had and make it easier for teachers to make their needs known.

Leading the community school movement

With the Taos Municipal Schools’ blessing, Horsey started looking into the community school model even before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office and signed the 2019 Community Schools bill into law.

The new legislation provided substantial funding – a $50,000 planning grant for each district – plus three consecutive years of implementation grants at $150,000 each year. If a district can demonstrate need, it can also qualify for a fourth year.

The School Zone had been researching the different community school models since 2017, trying to figure out which one would best fit the district. “In Taos, we tend to like locally bred things,” said Horsey. “So the district adopted a grassroots model, which means ‘let’s figure it out here.’”

To date, TSZ has worked with three schools in the Taos district and one in Peñasco to help them reinvent themselves as community schools: Enos Garcia, Vista Grande High School, Taos International School and Peñasco Elementary.

Funding a site coordinator

TSZ, in fact, put up funding to cover the Enos Garcia community-school site coordinator’s first-year salary and some training as well. “We told Enos that, regardless of whether they got the planning grant, they would still be able to do this thing,” Horsey recalled.

Enos did get its planning grant, Horsey added, but that just enabled them to start some programs that might not otherwise have been funded.

“It also made Enos Garcia the ‘flagship’ of the community school effort locally,” she said. The other schools, however, are right behind Enos. All of them will be applying for the $150,000 implementation grant in the next few months.

Grant writing legwork

TSZ also helped prepare the grant applications for two of the schools. “We worked with Vista Grande as well as Enos,” said Horsey. “It only made sense, because we knew more about community schools than they did from having researched them for so long.”

Three of the four schools – Enos, Vista Grande and Taos International – now have site coordinators. “They’re all very different and all awesome in their own ways,” she said. Peñasco is currently interviewing to fill that position, having just been awarded its planning grant in October of last year.

TSZ has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Taos Municipal Schools to plan community school efforts, figure out how to measure outcomes and then assess whether nonprofit programs are actually having an impact on kids.

According to Horsey, the challenge for Paula Oxoby-Hayett, the Enos Garcia site coordinator, is that there are so many nonprofits that want to help – but few that have actual metrics to document the success of their program.

“Adopting a community school model is a fundamental shift in how a school does business,” said Horsey. “Paula’s got to have really good criteria for who gets to come and do things,” said Horsey. “Otherwise, it’s chaos.”

Boots on the ground: the site coordinator

“The help we’ve gotten from TSZ has put us ahead in a number of ways,” said Oxoby-Hayett in a Jan. 27 phone interview. “Since my salary was paid for, it freed up the grant money to be used on other things – like training our staff to make home visits so they could understand our families better and really start building relationships with them.”

Oxoby-Hayett also noted a top-priority need expressed by parents: after-school programs. “Enos had these programs in the past, but we lost them due to lack of funding,” she said. “With the TSZ funding, we were able to bring them back.”

A native of Georgia, Horsey knows educational lingo and sounds like a school administrator. But in fact, she said, “I’ve never worked with schools before.” She’s a geologist by trade who spent several decades doing research for state geological surveys and then for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C.

“What I have done that’s relevant is consulted for the last 15 years on nonprofit management,” said Horsey, “mostly involving affordable housing, historic preservation, the arts and conservation.” She’s moved to a new place every few years throughout her career and so has learned to adapt to a new community quickly.

“I didn’t necessarily want to do this job,” she added, “but we had this election [at Taos Community Foundation]. I felt like everybody needs to do what they can. I thought if I could help this group get everything organized and on its way, that would be my contribution to the universe.”

As TSZ’s coordinator, Horsey is the only paid staff member. On average, she has about 20 volunteers who help with the legwork.

“We have folks like Eleanor Romero, who worked at Enos for almost 30 years,” she said. “Eleanor is kind of our community school liaison because she knows everybody. She and I go together to various schools and talk to them about how we can help. It’s really helpful to have somebody who’s from here if you’re not.”

It took TSZ a long time to build relationships in Taos. “There are so many entities that get started, last three years and then go down,” Horsey said. “People are a little skeptical about who you are, what you want to do and whether you pay attention to them.”

They had to do a lot of listening, but Horsey feels that it’s helped TSZ establish credibility. “We’ve raised money, too,” she said, “and that always makes you more credible.”

Where the money comes from

As a “special project” of the Taos Community Foundation, TSZ applies for grants from TCF but also raises a substantial amount of funding independently of the foundation. Some of it comes from private individuals, some from private foundations, and Horsey plans to go after nongovernment public foundations next. Because TSZ is not a stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit, TCF serves as its fiscal sponsor.

“TCF keeps our books for us and files our tax return – which is really nice – and they give us meeting space,” said Horsey. “They also give us a lot of moral support and talk about us to their donors. They’re very happy with what we’re doing, so that gets us even more support.”

While she willingly takes credit where TSZ has earned it, Horsey doesn’t hesitate to give credit where it’s due.

“C.J. Grace actually wrote the planning grant for Enos,” she said, “even though she’d already been appointed principal at the high school.” [Grace oversaw federal programs for the district before being named principal of Taos High in June 2019.] “I think she’s also going to write their implementation grant.”

“The superintendent in Peñasco [Lisa Hamilton] wrote their grant application,” Horsey added, “and the director of Taos International [Nadine Vigil] wrote theirs. How they crammed that into their schedules, I don’t know.”

Horsey can’t say enough about the teachers of Taos County. “They’re working their tails off,” she said. “They’re dedicated, they’re knowledgeable, they’re committed. But they’re dealing with issues that most of them were never trained to deal with – a lot of which involve trauma. Kids can’t learn if they’re coming to school hungry or their parents just went to jail the night before.”

For the kids’ and the community’s sake

“I have no doubt that we’ve missed some folks on the asset map,” said Horsey. “So I urge people to call us and ask, ‘Why aren’t we on this?’ You know, once it’s in the newspaper, then it becomes real to many people.”

“We have almost everything we need here in Taos,” she added. “We have expertise, we have people with time, people with money. We just need to bring it all together to create better outcomes for our kids – and also for our community. Because if we can’t take care of our kids now, when they grow up it’s not going to be a pretty thing.”


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