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Thanks in part to a $600,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Las Cruces Public Schools is adding two more community schools to improve the quality of education at the schools and the quality of life in each school community.
The grant came in July and teachers, administrators, students and parents were at Alameda Elementary School, 1325 N. Alameda Blvd., Sept. 2, to cut the ribbon on the school’s new designation as Alameda Community Elementary School.
The other new community school has yet to be selected, said LCPS Community Schools Coordinator Amanda Barela said. The second location has not been announced yet.
Then National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskselsen Garcia was in Las Cruces Jan. 19, 2017, for the ribbon-cutting that officially recognized Lynn Middle School as Las Cruces’ first community school – and an early model for the success of the program in New Mexico.
The Las Cruces Partnership for Community Schools, begun in 2016, is a collaborative effort among LCPS, the City of Las Cruces, NEA-Las Cruces, New Mexico State University and local nonprofits, businesses, faith-based organizations, students, educators and families, according to LCPS. The partnership’s goal is “transforming schools into neighborhood hubs.”
Since 2017, LCPS has added MacArthur, Doña Ana and Booker T. Washington elementaries as community schools.
Community is the key word, not only in the school title but also in the definition of its success. That’s because collaborative leadership and community engagement and involvement are essential, Barela said.
“It’s a strategy, not a program,” she said. “It’s not about giving people stuff.”
“Research is clear that community schools, designed to provide comprehensive academic,
social and health supports for students and family members, result in improved educational outcomes for students,” the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) said in a March 2021 report. “Community schools are particularly effective in communities of concentrated poverty, in which many families and neighborhoods have limited pathways to be engaged in their children’s education and are in need of additional supports (e.g., nutrition, home visits, medical, dental and mental health, academic enrichment, community-based learning opportunities), beyond what a traditional school typically provides.”
Because no two schools or school communities are alike, conducting a comprehensive needs assessment and creating a strategic plan are essential first steps in creating a successful program at any school, Barela said.
Lynn, for example, in partnership with Doña Ana Community College, has a dental clinic on site that is open to the public.
Another school might benefit from holding citizenship classes, Barela said, or its students and other children in the neighborhood might thrive with new or expanded after-school programming. A community school might also provide space for a community garden or an engineering program or knitting classes.
“We zoom in,” Barela said. “We look at accessibility. We remove barriers. People participate in what’s going on.”
Along with parent engagement, a successful community school needs support from school leadership and the school district, she said.
LCPS Superintendent Ralph Ramos is fully on board, Barela said. He has expressed interest in establishing community-school feeder patterns within LCPS that could provide students with a community-school background throughout their entire school careers, she said. That, in turn, could mean higher graduation rates and improved college and career readiness.
Partnerships with nonprofits like Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument and Cruces Creatives makerspace are also essential to success, she said, and “how we are engaging our community in teaching our kids.”
LCPS also has an important connection with Community Partners in Education (CPIE), which “connects K-12 educators and students in Las Cruces community schools with local community partners to ensure that all young people have access to the resources they need to reach their full potential,” according to the CPIE website.
Barela said NMPED and the state Legislature are also community-school funding partners.
Going forward, community schools will need to “show results,” Barela said, to sustain the initiative, including improved attendance, better test scores and a higher graduation rate. Ongoing assessment is also important to help determine if the school is meeting the community needs that have been identified.
Barela was born in Deming and grew up in Las Cruces. She is a Mayfield High School graduate with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work from New Mexico State University. Barela has been with LCPS since 2012 and became community schools coordinator last November.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation was founded in 1930 by breakfast cereal pioneer Will Keith Kellogg. Kellogg donated more than $66 million (equivalent to more than $1 billion today) in Kellogg stock and other investments to fund the foundation.
The foundation’s priorities are thriving children, working families and equitable communities, according to www.wkkf.org.
Its “priority places” are New Mexico, Michigan and Mississippi, the City of New Orleans and Chiapas and the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and central and south Haiti. Within New Mexico, the foundation works in Doña Ana, Bernalillo, San Juan and McKinley counties.