How Innovation Zones Will Re-engage Our Students
By The High School Innovation Coalition: Future Focused Education, LANLF, Ocotillo Strategies, Transform ED and NEA-NM
This article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.
What if our education system leaned on local assets and community-driven learning opportunities as key ingredients for substantial improvements to the student experience of learning? New Mexico has been implementing this on a slim scale, but it is about to experience a significant expansion.
We've seen student outcomes improve when schools prioritize student experiences and real-world relevance through community involvement and integrating challenging college and career pathways with high-quality technical education, work-based learning, and core academics. This is the methodology behind PED's Innovation Zones (IZ) initiative.
During the past Legislative Session, the State appropriated $40 million to fund the Innovative Zones initiative and increase access to high-quality work-based learning and career technical education (CTE) opportunities. This landmark appropriation will enable communities to make radical improvements to our education system.
Young people in New Mexico need this now more than ever before. The need for student engagement is crucial as we emerge from the pandemic in a state that leads the nation in youth disengagement. Together we must build an educational system that provides access to engaging, relevant, academically-challenging experiences for all students. In fact, the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit calls us to do this. Education approaches anchored in community wisdom will engage our students’ histories, literacies, and identities in new ways.
In particular, IZ schools are utilizing graduate profiles that enable local communities to define the knowledge and skills they view are important for their graduates. Students in IZ schools also pursue graduation capstone projects. A capstone is a months-long project rooted in authentic contexts and building on local assets and culture. Students engage in active, self-directed, and community-based learning experiences to produce a body of work that teachers periodically assess for evidence of competence. Capstones result in public exhibitions of learning to school, family, and community. These projects enable students to demonstrate that they have developed the skills contained in their graduate profiles - while applying that learning in the community.
Also, students in IZ schools participate in CTE and work-based learning opportunities that offer relevant, immediately-applicable learning experiences. These pathways connect young people to employers and the caring adults who work there. Students have the experience of being treated as assets in their professional setting and in the larger community.
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. The economic outlook of New Mexico will be brighter as we make space in our instruction to build from the knowledge they bring from their communities.
Community involvement, accountability, and reciprocity are equally important. Let’s open schools to community knowledge keepers to be meaningful partners in our students’ learning. When we do this, schools and communities can work together to develop meaningful graduate profiles and foster authentic academic and experiential outcomes to ensure that students have equitable opportunities for success after graduation.
The Innovation Zone model has the power to create deep student engagement, while holding student’s identities and well-being at the heart of the education experience. This approach is rooted in an understanding that the health and prosperity of New Mexico communities depends on local leaders’ capacity to orient young people to the wisdom of the places they call home. With this kind of an approach, students will be successful because of - not in spite of - who they are and where they come from.
The High School Innovation Coalition is composed of Future Focused Education, Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, Ocotillo Strategies, Transform ED, and National Education Association New Mexico.