There was something poetic about Lynn Community Middle School’s dental clinic opening on Wednesday. That day the school hosted its monthly food pantry for neighborhood families. And it was the same day Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law House Bill 589, which sets up an initiative to take the community school model statewide.
Every Wednesday, students at Lynn Middle School will be able to get preventive dental care right down the hall from their classrooms. The clinic is staffed by dental hygiene students from Doña Ana Community College.
Those are just the kinds of things community schools are meant to do — bring social services to students so they can concentrate on learning, and become a resource for the surrounding community.
Elmer Gonzales, the dental hygiene program director at DACC, said his students will do a comprehensive oral screening, get a health history, and provide cleaning and fluoride treatments. If the children need more extensive dental care, they’ll be referred to a dentist. A grant from Delta Dental provided the equipment, and DACC is donating staff time including professors who will supervise the students. The clinic is the first of its kind at Las Cruces Public Schools.
“It’s good being in the school setting because it allows them not to miss a lot of class,” Gonzales said. “Here, we take them out for only about an hour.”
One of the clinic’s inaugural patients, an eighth-grader, said he doesn’t go to the dentist regularly because he doesn’t have a ride to get there. He was missing his PE class that afternoon. The clinic is working with Lynn community school coordinator Sylvia Chavez to make sure it schedules the students during electives or PE.
The clinic’s opening day and the governor’s bill signing Wednesday was a cosmic confluence. The community school measure puts in place a structure and application process to expand the model — Albuquerque, Las Cruces and Santa Fe all have community school programs — to districts across the state. The 2020 state budget includes $2 million to jump start the community schools initiative, and there is $1.35 million for school-based health centers, one of the key pillars of community schools.
Lujan Grisham also on Wednesday signed the omnibus education bills that give raises to teachers and other educators, send more economic resources to schools with a high number of at-risk students and extends the school year for many elementary schools.
“New Mexico understands our children are our future; we are clear we will do everything in our power to help them succeed,” Lujan Grisham said during the bill signing. “Perhaps the most significant investment we can make as a state is in our educators and administrators, and we have made a sizable one this year. I’m proud to say this has been a bipartisan effort. There is more we can do, and there is more we will do, and today I’m thrilled to say we have taken a leap forward in New Mexico public education.”
Ready to expand
LCPS is still in the early stages of its community school program. After two years of developing its model at Lynn Middle School, it began recruiting a new cohort of schools to consider becoming community schools.
David Greenberg, district coordinator for community schools, said 12 schools have expressed interest in exploring the option, and LCPS hopes to have three or four community schools starting the process for the upcoming school year.
“Lynn is in the beginning stages but already we’re seeing some incredible things happening,” Greenberg said. “It’s clear this is a model that’s working across the state and it reflects the values of our community. So we want to expand it and we want it to be accessible to every school that wants to pursue it.”
The district plans to apply for state grants to pair with local resources so it can hire a coordinator for each site, another pillar of the community school model. Coordinators recruit volunteers and community groups that offer after-school activities and mentoring, they arrange tutoring and monitor programs like Lynn’s food pantry and its healthy snack bar, and they schedule space for community groups that want to use the campus after-hours.
While community schools help at-risk students, Greenberg said it’s a model that works for every area and socioeconomic background, and said the district was not ruling out any school that wanted to take part in the experiment.
“It’s not just for certain group of students or a certain demographic, but it’s really how schools should look. They should all reflect the community,” he said. “We want to be as open as possible and go where the energy is among educators, families, students and neighbors.”