Partnering to Reduce Achievement Gaps in New Mexico
Today's post is the practitioner perspective on Monday's post: What is the Role of Noncognitive Skills and School Environments in Students' Transitions to High School?
In spite of recent increases, New Mexico has poor high school graduation rates compared to the U.S. average, with American Indian students and Hispanic students, in particular, struggling to graduate high school within four years. As a Santa Clara Pueblo Indian proud of New Mexico's many strengths and working at a tribally controlled school, I have long been personally invested in closing achievement gaps and supporting Native American students in their journeys through high school.
From 2013 to 2017, I had the opportunity to participate in REL Southwest's New Mexico Achievement Gap Research Alliance. With members including include staff from district, regional, state, university, and nonprofit groups, the alliance is addressing these concerns by working to identify obstacles to success and reduce achievement gaps among Hispanic and Native American students.
Monday's post outlined the outcomes and implications of the study conducted in response to our Alliance's wonderings about students' transitions to 9th grade. Study findings point to noncognitive skills and school environments related to study habits, a sense of belonging, and future orientation as being associated with better 9th grade outcomes. As the Curriculum/Professional Development Director at Santa Fe Indian School — a tribally controlled school that serves 7-12 grade Native American students using Bureau of Indian Education funds — I believe these findings validate our good work and give insight into our high graduation rate (in recent years, the 4-year cohort graduation rates fluctuate between 93% and 96%).
Research Findings Reflected In Practice
For example, Santa Fe Indian School places importance on creating a sense of belonging, with tribal leadership having intentionally set the foundation of Pueblo Indian core values into the very land and buildings through careful planning of school spaces and frequent visits. Also ensuring a sense of belonging, academic and dormitory staff offer on-going programing in conjunction with Pueblo community resources to address health and wellness. For example, every Thursday afternoon has activities for all students that address physical, mental and behavioral health, as well as tradition and culture. Often these activities are facilitated and taught by tribal members. Before- and after-school tutoring and study halls are designed to help students develop and improve study skills. Community-based education encourages students to directly apply their academic learning to solve community issues, such as using a simulation ("sim") table to model how erosion resulting from recent fires will impact Pueblo communities, which speaks to a future orientation. As our school justifies funding for such initiatives, being able to cite this research, conducted in our own state, is invaluable.
To look at the significance of the study from another lens, I also wish to highlight the importance of the process REL Southwest used to tap into the expertise within the Alliance and build further capacity. REL Southwest brought together educational leaders from state agencies, universities, schools, and educational programs from throughout New Mexico to form the New Mexico Achievement Gap Research Alliance, which gave input into how REL Southwest's research might be designed give concrete insights into how to improve graduation rates. Many in the group were native New Mexicans like me whose families have been in the state for generations. With a deep love for and commitment to our state, families, children, and education, we know New Mexico has many strengths — bilingual/multicultural people, vast rural landscapes, deep cultural values.
Alliance discussions, facilitated by REL researchers, helped us explore questions around how to identify those strengths to help improve New Mexico's poor graduation rates. Talking through concepts such as capturing "grit" and developing a survey that was culturally sensitive to all the Native American, Hispanic, and other cultures in our state activated our "researcher-selves". Additionally, technical support on survey development was offered not just to the Alliance members, but also to our school-based colleagues. As a state with a relatively small population, many Alliance members already knew each other and were grateful for the time and space that brought us together to inform the good work of REL Southwest. It was an amazing adventure in learning and knowledge sharing; I am excited to delve more deeply into other REL Southwest research findings.
Photo courtesy of REL Southwest