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New Mexico Rural Initiative Shows Promise, Disappears

Declining population and dwindling economic opportunities are all too common problems in rural communities, but one New Mexico project found an answer to both through its schools until it lost its funding.

The state launched the New Mexico Rural Revitalization Initiative in 2005 with seven school districts, and officials modeled the program on what they'd seen working in South Australia. There, remote schools became integral to the community's survival, and schools and communities worked together for each other's benefit.

New Mexico has the fifth-largest land mass in the U.S. but ranks 45th in population density. With only 6.3 people per square mile, that means this state has its fair share of rural students.

When the state started its Rural Revitalization Initiative, officials required rural communities to create teams to talk about how economic activity and entrepreneurship would be introduced and expanded, the role schools and the community would play, and how those efforts would be sustained. That required the involvement of school superintendents and mayors.

These teams came up with school- and community-based projects. One school bred bees, made honey and lip balm from the wax, and sold it to the community. Another created an electronic embroidery business, while others developed teen centers, wrote and published bilingual cookbooks, and built and operated a catfish farm.

"It was amazing to sit back and watch what these people did," said Jim Holloway, New Mexico's retired assistant secretary of education for rural programs.

Holloway helped grow the program to 28 of the state's 45 rural districts, and the state planned to expand to all of its rural districts. The initiative built a reputation for success, and Kappan Magazine featured a seven-page spread this spring on it. (The educational policy magazine requires a subscription to view the article.)

The New Mexico schools involved in the state's Rural Revitalization Initiative needed money for their efforts, and the state provided it. Schools used the funds to buy resources such as embroidery machines and beehives, and the money covered training costs for teachers to learn how to offer these entrepreneurial programs.

The state gave the program $375,000 in its first year and nothing the following year. It picked up funding again in 2007 by designating $100,000 for the program, and that continued for the next few years.

In 2010, New Mexico voters put a new governor in office and a new secretary of education was appointed. The rural education office was eliminated, and the legislature stopped funding for the program for the 2010-11 school year.

"It just was one of those political things, and that's unfortunate," Holloway said. "There were some good things going on and some great possibilities."

Some of the school-based programs have continued while others haven't. An outside evaluation of the initiative showed positive results, such as improved school attendance, fewer discipline problems and renewed interest in academic pursuits, according to the Kappan article. But the programs weren't in existence long enough to be linked directly to test score increases.

"I can't prove it, but logic tells me if we'd been able to continue this, test scores would've gone up," Holloway said. "There was a positive atmosphere in these schools. If that's there and students want to be there, they're going to learn."

Holloway retired before the 2010 election and the program's elimination, and now he's consulting with rural communities nationwide in the hope of replicating the New Mexico project. And he hasn't given up hope that the project could receive funding again in New Mexico.

"We're still sort of waiting in wings," he said. "We haven't had a funeral yet."

Holloway can be reached at (505) 470-2562 or [email protected]

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