A new project at the University of New Mexico College of Education, designed to help transform the lives of students and their families by improving outcomes in community-based schools, is one of three new initiatives funded by the ECMC Foundation. Total support for the three initiatives is $1.27 million.

Dr. Vi Florez, Professor & PNM Endowed Chair, from the Department of Teacher Education, Educational Leadership, & Policy, is the principal investigator on the project titled, Community Schools and Universities: Working Together to Transform Lives.” The goal of the two-year, $600,697 grant-funded project is to renew educational efforts in the preparation of teachers by establishing strong partnerships with neighborhood community schools in the Albuquerque Public School district.

“Community schools are comprehensive and we as a comprehensive college, with faculty from across all disciplines; believe we can support local public schools to provide the essential supports designed to help students develop personally and academically,” Florez said.  “The proposed project begins to address the need for highly effective teachers teaching in high need schools and making a positive difference in the everyday life of children and families.” 

Community schools differ from regular traditional schools in a number of ways. Locally, community schools are defined as educational institutions that combine rigorous academics with a wide range of vital in-house services, supports and opportunities for students to promote student’s learning and development.

“Creating a community of practice by working directly with the schools to address challenges is a major focus for the partnership, plus it provides teacher candidates with unique opportunities to impact student learning.” – Vi Florez, Professor & PNM Endowed Chair, from the Department of Teacher Education, Educational Leadership, & Policy

“The community school unites the most important influences in students’ lives – schools, families and communities – to create a web of support that nurtures their development toward productive adulthood,” Florez said.

Florez says the web of support can be conceptualized as a trio designed to integrate three inter-connected support systems into one core structure in the community school:

  • A strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards;
  • Enrichment activities designed to expand students’ learning opportunities and to support their cognitive, social, emotional, moral, and physical development;
  • A full range of health and mental health services designed to safeguard student’s well-being and remove barriers to learning. 

Four neighborhood community schools, including Rio Grande High School, Highland High School, Atrisco Heritage High School, and George Sanchez K-8 School, are part of the renewed initiative. Teacher candidates from the UNM College of Education participating in this project will be placed in these high need rural and urban communities for field experiences that will allow them to better understand the various cultures and the challenges students and families experience in high poverty neighborhood communities.

The work began this fall at the schools. A cohort of 10–15 teacher candidates (student teachers) are co-teaching with master teachers for practicum and student teaching to meet state licensure requirements. Part of the program involves clinical experiences at the school that will provide cultural opportunities to help transform their own thinking and teaching.

Additional, field experiences will support the development of cultural competency and an integrated approach to teaching as called for in the Common Core Standards and the NMTeach assessment tool. The training on how to interface cultural competency skills with subject core academics and how to engage families with instructional programs to meet academic needs will be a major component of this project. 

“The schools identified for this project are facing high drop- out challenges due to the lack of proficiency in reading and mathematics,” Florez said. “Creating strong partnerships with elementary and secondary schools to address early literacy skills in reading and core academic subjects by grade level is important to the pipeline success, which means the full cycle of a P-20 educational journey – early childhood, elementary, secondary, and college.” 

The challenges educators face in these community schools are formidable. Thirty-one percent of schoolchildren in those communities live in poverty, 43 percent live in single-parent families, and 22 percent are part of families where the head of the household lacks a high school diploma.

A recent report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlights the need to produce better outcomes for children in the greater Albuquerque area. APS, the largest school district (by enrollment) in New Mexico, serves almost 90,000 students. Sixty-four percent of these students are eligible for free/reduced lunch, 18 percent are English language learners and 12 percent are students with disabilities. Only 54 percent of third graders in APS are proficient or above in reading.

The diversity in the district also highlights the challenges educators face – 66 percent identify as Hispanic (many of whom are Spanish speaking), 4.2 percent as American Indian (representing a variety of indigenous languages from within and outside of NM). The remaining students include African American (2.9 percent), Asian (2.3 percent), White (22 percent), while one percent represents other students.

“Creating a community of practice by working directly with the schools to address challenges is a major focus for the partnership, plus it provides teacher candidates with unique opportunities to impact student learning,” Florez added.

The grant is one of three funded by the ECMC Foundation for a total of $1.27 million. The two other grants will help the College of Education to increase its number of Native American teacher candidates and support a language diversity and arts integration initiative in an Albuquerque high need elementary school.

The mission of the ECMC Foundation is to “inspire and to facilitate improvements that affect educational outcomes—especially among underserved populations—through evidence-based innovation.” The ECMC Foundation is based in Los Angeles, Calif.