Summit takes stock of education gains, goals for Doña Ana County

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Sylvia Ulloa/New Mexico In Depth

Students give their perspective on education in New Mexico during Ngage New Mexico's Success Summit on Monday, March 2, at Corbett Center on the New Mexico State University Campus.

It’s been five years since the Success Partnership convened its first summit to create goals for “cradle to career” education in Doña Ana County.

A lot has changed since then. Ngage New Mexico, an education-focused community organization that created the Success Partnership and organized a follow up summit Monday at New Mexico State University, wanted to put the changes in perspective with a comprehensive look at education data over that period from home visiting and preK to college and workforce training.

Since 2015, Las Cruces Public Schools started its first community school to bring social services and after school programs to students and on Saturday the district will inaugurate three more. Graduation rates jumped at two of the county’s school districts, from 75% in 2015 to 86% in 2019 at LCPS, and 67% to 77% at Hatch Valley Schools, while inching up at Gadsden from 81% to 82%. 

The all-day gathering was part pep rally to celebrate successes, part tough talk about bumps in the road to better education results and part brainstorming session to chart the course ahead.  

Lori Martinez, executive director of Ngage NM, an education nonprofit based in Las Cruces.

For Lori Martinez, executive director of Ngage, it was a moment to take stock about how to better serve students identified in the landmark Yazzie Martinez education lawsuit as being underserved by the state. 

“What is the story the data is telling us about how access, equity and opportunity are provided to our kids across that prenatal to career spectrum?,” Martinez said. “We can see from the data that we have work to do. We don’t reach low income students at the same rate as we do other students. We don’t reach students who are Hispanic. And in a county that’s primarily Hispanic or Latino, we have to pay attention to those things.” 

Several speakers at the forum mentioned the window that Judge Sarah Singleton’s ruling in  Yazzie Martinez that the state is failing its constitutional mandate to educate all its children, opened for big change in New Mexico. But they said it will take work to translate that opportunity into results.

Erica Surova, director of the Center for Community Analysis at NMSU, put together the first review of the education landscape in Doña Ana County in 2016 and updated it for the gathering. 

Sylvia Ulloa/New Mexico In Depth

Erica Surova, director of the Center for Community Analysis at New Mexico State University, gives a presentation on education access and results in Doña Ana County on Monday, March 2, at the Success Summit in Las Cruces.

She told conference-goers their work had expanded access to early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds, but she also sounded a note of caution about how students were doing in the classroom, when two-thirds of third-graders statewide still are not proficient in math.

“We don’t measure the value of our children by standardized test scores. But test scores do mean something,” she said. “I don’t know the whole story, but it’s telling me something.” 

While some might protest tests like the controversial PARCC exam, they show that low-income, English learners and special education students consistently perform lower than their peers, Surova noted. The surge in local graduation rates is great, Surova said, but it deserves scrutiny to ensure graduates are ready for college and career.

“What’s pushing the numbers up? That’s what I want people to answer, or help me answer. Give me the data, and let’s partner because we can’t fix things if we don’t know what’s behind it,” Surova said.

Being blunt was tough, she said, in a room full of advocates who have been working hard to improve education for the area’s students, several of whom spoke on a panel about the advances they’ve seen in their own education compared to their parents and grandparents. They noted greater access to dual credit classes, for instance. Among the downsides, they felt, was the loss of interesting electives in the drive to boost test scores.

Allyssa Wright, a student at Arrowhead Park Early College High’s medical academy, said that obsession with test scores ignored the value of pure learning, and that there were more important considerations: “What are you getting out of class and are you giving it your all?”

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