What Educators are Saying about Innovation Zones

What Educators are Saying about Innovation Zones


In 2018, Future Focused Education began working in earnest on meeting the challenge posed by Judge Singleton in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit through a partnership with the New Mexico Public Education Department. Our interviews and focus groups with students revealed that our assessment system was failing. We advocated for community-based capstone projects as an alternative graduation pathway, which was implemented in 2020. In 2024, the New Mexico Legislature passed HB 171: "Modernizing Graduation Requirements," which put capstones and graduate profiles into statute. We believe that this change has the power to reorganize our schools and re-engage young people in their own learning by giving students, their families, and their communities more agency.

This Spring, we brought together community leaders, education policy experts, and accomplished data scientists to talk about the implications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in public education. We started with the voice of teachers and their hopes and concerns given the emergence of AI in the field. At Future Focused Education and the Instituto del Puente, we are committed to starting with the voices of those most affected by education policy. We also believe that we need to include experts from outside education to solve our trickiest problems. As New Mexicans, the dilemmas we face are more complex than the questions being asked in other states. Our job at Future Focused is to respond to that complexity with sophisticated strategies that are informed by our own local wisdom. 

Based on what we are learning, we think Innovation Zones are the first step to giving students a more meaningful education. The goal of the Innovation Zone (IZ) Initiative is to transform the school experience by prioritizing real-world learning, community input, and student agency. Ideally, this reinvigorates student learning and allows young people to explore their passions, connect deeply with their communities, and pursue a fulfilling present and future. 

As the school year came to a close, we decided it was time to see if what we hoped was happening at IZ schools was actually happening. We checked in with administrators and teachers to gauge how the Innovation Zone has changed the way students experience school. What we found was overwhelmingly positive: students have better attendance, are more engaged, and have a clearer vision and hope for the future. Below are some of the key takeaways.


increased student engagement and motivation

The capstone projects and work-based learning opportunities provided by IZ schools gave students hands-on learning experiences in the community, which increased student engagement and attendance. These experiences also exposed them to more career paths and opportunities.

Here’s what educators had to say: 

“Coming out of COVID, we have struggled to get students to school, to stay in school. Our graduation rate was low and kids were thinking why should I finish school? I can just go and be making $18 an hour at McDonald's, and I can just go for my GED. And so with Innovation Zones it's teaching kids there's a pathway here. Putting them into capstone projects/internships they get a little paycheck for it, and so it's almost incentivized. Come to school, follow this pathway, and this is what we can offer you. And that wasn't there before."

"They're on track to graduate. They're at school almost every single day. It's the social-emotional part, I think that is the biggest piece."

“For me, it's just seeing the students slowly realize that they can. They can stand on the same stage as some of the biggest schools in the state and be a winner. They are learning they can do whatever they’re dreaming of, and they don’t have to be limited, I’m slowly seeing that realization coming into them.”

“A lot of kids never get out of their neighborhood. They only see the jobs their relatives are working in or jobs like fast food so that is where they are working and they assume that is the only thing out there and the only way to make money. That is a big part of what we are doing, career exposure."

"That is where Innovation Zone hits the nail on the head. It's providing opportunities for kids to see what's really out there. They can dream and figure out, 'hey, I do want to go to college; I just never thought about it because I was never exposed to these things.'"


Students in internships are also more engaged in the classroom. It shows them the relevance of what they are learning and connects it to real-world experience, which motivates them to try harder in the classroom and to keep coming to school.

“Teachers have seen that the students who are participating in internships if their grade point average dips, they cut back on internship hours until they raise their grades and meet the criteria. They are seeing kids who participate in these programs, who may have been more difficult in the past, are actually making a connection out in the real world, and they don’t want to lose this opportunity, so they strive to work harder than they may have done in class before. So that has been big.” 

Going forward

As we go forward, we are going to keep asking ourselves: “Are students any better off because of the Innovation Zone Initiative?”

A good indication is whether they come to school more often, graduate in greater numbers, increase their sense of agency, and/or find more purpose in their education. This year’s findings look good in all of these areas and we are hopeful that we’ll continue to see more improvement with continued support. It is essential that we continue to keep innovating to provide students with reasons to keep showing up – in their classrooms and in their communities. 

Please join us by getting involved in one of our communities of practice or schedule time for us to visit your school. We’d love to learn about what you are doing and how we can collaborate.

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