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What If Child Well-Being Drove Education Policy In New Mexico?

What If Child Well-Being Drove Education Policy In New Mexico?

By Loretta Trujillo | Executive Director, Transform Education New Mexico
Mental Wellbeing Student image

Four years after the landmark 2018 court ruling declaring New Mexico’s public education system to be “insufficient” in satisfying the state’s obligation to educate its children, we find ourselves reflecting on how we got here and where we are headed next. My name is Loretta Trujillo and I am the Executive Director of Transform Education New Mexico, a state-wide coalition dedicated to offering a vision forward for building a public school system that is rooted in equity and child well-being.

The beginning of this story isn’t the court case. Rather, we should go as far back as we can in our ancestral memory to find that knowledge has been passed from elders to children well before public schooling existed in the manner it does today. When we tune into that historical understanding, it makes sense that our literacies about the world transcend the timeline of the project of schooling. What Dr. Tomás Atencio, referred to as “el oro del pueblo”, is a rich cultural knowledge our students' lives are rooted in, but that traditional schooling has come to willfully and systematically erase. 

Let’s be honest, New Mexico’s young people have too many riches to count when it comes to cultural strengths and literacies. Why then do these same students struggle in school? Why are many of them not “proficient” in reading and math? The late Judge Singleton determined it was due to underfunding. What our coalition proposes, and what the Legislative Finance Committee presented in a recent education policy brief, is that simply throwing dollars at the problem isn’t improving outcomes.

WHAT EDUCATION POLICY HAS OVERLOOKED

Our children are culturally and linguistically rich. It’s time to dream of ways that this richness can be tapped, cultivated and seen as the asset that it is. Education policy needs to be anchored in community wisdom, and its solutions must build authentic teacher capacity to engage our student’s histories, literacies and identities. Concepts like “achievement” and “performance” have more to do with the outcomes of learning than the process. Until we have alignment around the difference between managing inequity as opposed to dismantling it, false solutions like more standardization of curriculum, continued reliance on testing data to inform decision making and pretending classrooms are neutral spaces, will never lead to true transformation of our schools.

IT IS TIME FOR BOLD, NEW APPROACHES

When there is a fuller understanding of what we mean by curriculum materials and instructional strategies that center culture, language and identity, New Mexico will be poised for better outcomes. Here are some concrete solutions to improve the capacity of our teacher workforce. 

Let’s fund teacher professional development for those who are already in classrooms so they can add tools and strategies to harness the cultural gifts students bring but are often not invited to build upon. Let’s open schools to community knowledge keepers to be meaningful partners in our student’s learning. More importantly, let us be steadfast in our commitment to abolish the notion that culture is an add-on, that simply naming cultural holidays on a school calendar or that isolated events to celebrate different cultures is enough — it never was. 

Transforming education must begin with recognizing the cultural richness of our students and our communities and replacing outdated methods with bold, new approaches that invite students to embrace who they are and where they come from.

WHAT WE HAVE TO GAIN BY TRANSFORMING SCHOOLS

In nearly 20 years as a classroom educator, what I witnessed over and over again was that students who came to school with strong connections to their homelands and their language identities would fight for educational opportunities because they believed their gains would pave the way for others. These same young people hold degrees from both in-state and out-of-state colleges and universities. Many of them are professionals in fields like medicine, banking, education and more. Others are running creative start-ups. 

The economic outlook of New Mexico will be brighter as we make space in our instruction to honor and build from the knowledge they bring from their cultural understandings. Our engineers of the future are more likely to come forward when we offer connections in science, math and design classes to the powerful epistemologies of their ancestors who engineered Chaco Canyon, the impressive pyramids of Meso-America and Egypt, and possessed the vision to harness solar power. 

We can have a future where families are thriving economically, where cutting edge solutions are developed to protect and sustain our natural resources, where entrepreneurs from our small towns and big cities are able to launch community-based economic development that allows our families to stay rooted to New Mexico without having to leave for higher wages and economic stability.

THE PATH TO TRANSFORMATION

In New Mexico we have powerful legislative statutes that protect the education rights of our diverse student groups. While this sets our state apart from other areas in the country, we also know that the Court found these same student groups have not been offered a sufficient education. This is where the issue of funding is most relevant. Funding IS necessary. 

Funding is part of the solution but what we need to transform education is a contextual awareness of the decades of underfunding that created an education debt with ties to other systems like housing, criminal justice and mental health that also play a part in our current reality. In the education ecosystem we believe our student’s right to a sufficient education includes access to culturally responsive behavioral health supports. In other words, we seek to advance an understanding that there is no distinction between education and wellness. 

We are calling lawmakers to look closely at the gaps in service providers across the spectrum of mental health programs in order to identify solutions that will address the total well-being of our children and youth — from those who struggle with depression to those whose families would benefit from case management with a culturally safe social worker to our students with disabilities who deserve access to individualized assistance from behavioral specialists and in-school supports to be cared for fully. Funding earmarked for such purposes has the potential to rectify the harm of broken systems and the toll they have taken on our families over time.

In 1973, our legislature had the foresight to enact in statute the guaranteed protection of language and culture. As 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, this moment calls on us to be bold and courageous, to fight for education justice in ways that dismantle broken systems rather than managing their brokenness. When the well-being of our children guides our decision making, true change is possible. 

Join Transform Education New Mexico in charting the course ahead as a coalition with community voices including parents and young people who are at the center of our work, and alongside educators and champions from across different realms who recognize the interconnections of the long-standing education debt accrued over time.

Siempre adelante!


Loretta Trujillo headshot

By Loretta Trujillo | Executive Director, Transform Education New Mexico

When we center culture, language, and identity, New Mexico will be poised for better outcomes. Here are some concrete solutions to improve our education system, starting today.

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