It’s late in the evening when I’m able to reach Yasmin Cervantes. She tells me she’s feeling nervous because she’s never done an interview before. We both chuckle. I reassure her that we’re just having a conversation about her experience. She chuckles again and begins to tell me about her day.
About 30 toddlers had already arrived on July 13 for their day at the UNM Children’s Campus when Daniela Baca learned someone who visited the center regularly had tested positive for COVID-19.
Within an hour, the facility had emptied out and she had contacted the state health department. “We needed to stop accepting children,” she said. “We switched gears into making sure that we notified families what was going on.”
By mid-day, Baca had shifted her focus from caring for children to working with a pandemic rapid response team composed of workers from several state agencies. The team tested all staff and children that came into contact with the person infected by the virus, sanitized every inch inside and outside. They also tried to find out every person the infected person might have come into contact to prevent the spread at other locations.
What does New Mexico want to achieve with its efforts in birth to age five programs, including standing up a brand new Early Childhood Education and Care Department? That’s the fundamental question Betsy Cahill, a professor of early childhood education, wants to answer. “We’re not just getting them ready for kindergarten; we’re getting them ready for life,” Cahill said.
Cahill, who is also co-director of the teacher preparation program at New Mexico State University, was taking part in the first round of community conversations taking place across New Mexico to assess gaps in early childhood programs and to come up with a strategic plan for the new department.
She had ideas on how to graduate more early childhood educators and keep them in the field, such as changing when students take qualifying exams and giving them practical experience early on so they know what they’re getting into. More than 80 people whose work touches young children attended the gathering Wednesday at Las Cruces City Hall. Among the crowd were brand-new Head Start teachers and experienced preschool directors, child care providers and foster parents, mental health specialists and educational nonprofits.
Participants were asked to identify what was working — and not — in areas such as funding, workforce development and training, New Mexico PreK and Head Start, and infant and toddler care.
Preschool teacher Brittany Polanco does an evaluation of a student at Alpha School in Las Cruces for
the New Mexico Pre-K program. Most government safety net programs like welfare, Medicaid and food stamps have a “cliff effect.” It’s when someone gets a raise at work that makes them ineligible for financial help from the government, and they lose benefits that are more valuable than that bump in salary. Most benefit cliffs are fairly small, but the one for child care assistance in New Mexico looks like Wile E. Coyote just chased the Roadrunner off a mesa. Advocates for working families are hoping to change that financial cliff in child care assistance into a glide path for parents who are working toward financial security. New Mexico Voices for Children said its data shows that nine out of 10 people who get help with childcare costs from the Children Youth and Families Department are single parents with two kids.
A visitor heading down NM-128 to Jal would be forgiven for believing there were more people driving pickups and equipment trucks on the congested state highway than living in the small oil patch town of just over 2,100 people. Jal is an old ranching community — JAL was a brand used for the John A. Lynch herd, brought to the area by settlers in the 1800s — but today, oil is its economic engine. And that engine is humming. New Mexico’s most recent oil and gas boom has filled Heaven in a Cup, a retro burgers-and-shake shack off Main Street, with hungry oil field workers. Encampments of RVs and campers have sprung up around town and the economic resurgence has helped refuel the tiny town that sits just across the border from Texas.
At its most idealistic, New Mexico’s citizen legislature system draws people with expertise and passion for their fields who serve so that they can make a difference for the state and for their constituents. That’s why I’m excited to talk with state Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, and Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, about early childhood education in New Mexico. It’s the kick-off of New Mexico in Depth’s Coffee Chats series in 2018 that will explore important issues with informal talks at venues across the state. The event will be at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Beck’s Coffee House in Las Cruces. And we’ll be broadcasting the talk live on our Facebook page.