Perhaps one silver-lining amidst this horrible pandemic is that our society will more fully recognize the crucial role that schools play in our communities. It is clear that schools are much more than conduits of academic content – they are essential for the social-emotional development of students, and they serve as community hubs for basic needs such as nutritious meals and school-based health.
In Las Cruces, we have long recognized the potential for schools to serve a broader function, and we have recently invested in an approach to education known as community schools. This investment has paid off during the current public health crisis, as our schools have worked hand-in-hand with a multitude of community partners to rapidly and flexibly respond to the needs of our families and students. While our school doors may be closed, the system of relationships and community partnerships that Las Cruces has cultivated have helped us rise to current challenges
Las Cruces Public Schools formally embraced the community school framework in 2016 with a School Board resolution. In 2018, the Las Cruces Partnership for Community Schools was formed with the City of Las Cruces and several other organizations to support and expand the community school model. In addition to high quality academics, community schools encourage deep family and community engagement, promote a philosophy of shared leadership, provide basic needs and health services, and offer community-based extended and enriched learning opportunities. These evidence-based “pillars” are strongly backed by decades of research demonstrating their impact on improving outcomes for all students.
As of this school year, four of our district’s schools have full-time community school coordinators who strategically align resources with local needs and vision. However, our entire district has embraced the community school pillars in our response to the COVID crisis. Our educators districtwide connected with parents, our social workers and counselors triaged families needing support, and our administrators provided access to technology to help close the digital divide. Schools like Mesa Middle School that have longstanding community partnerships such as monthly Roadrunner grocery distributions have sustained and bolstered those initiatives. District staff continued offering meal services at multiple sites in partnership with Families and Youth, Inc, our homeless and migrant student support team helped to identify and distribute care packages to families districtwide, and our community outreach and bilingual services department hosted focus groups with families to better understand their perspectives on remote learning and how we can best support them.
Schools with full-time community school coordinators were able to respond at an even deeper level. MacArthur Elementary School is partnering with Amador Health Center to respond to mental and physical health challenges that school staff identified through a deep needs assessment process that involved directly calling all of MacArthur’s families. Lynn Community Middle School worked with doctors at Memorial Medical Center’s Family Residency Program to share customized video messages with Lynn families and students about the virus and public health response. Booker T. Washington Elementary School distributed masks to families and students, and received funding from Western Sky Community Care and Community Action Agency to support basic needs for families. To help ensure continuous learning experiences, Doña Ana Elementary School partnered with La Semilla Food Center to distribute 100 at-home gardening kits and enroll families in a series of virtual courses on gardening. Doña Ana and Booker T. Washington are also distributing learning kits assembled by the NM Farm and Ranch Museum, and Lynn provided a variety of learning kits developed by Cruces Creatives. As we prepare to enter the semester virtually, Doña Ana is partnering with Ngage NM and NMSU STEM Outreach Center to develop a series of virtual workshops for families in English and Spanish, such as Helping my Child with Remote Learning, Community Resources – Where Can I Go for Help?, Managing Stress with Mindfulness Meditation, How to Read with My Child, and the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program. Along with these workshops the school is also providing parents with a “tool bag” that will have materials to support them with remote learning, as well as backpacks and school supplies for all students.
It’s clear that the pandemic has laid bare longstanding inequities in addition to inflicting a new set of hardships and trauma that will inevitably end up in our classrooms, real or virtual. Our schools cannot and should not be responsible for meeting these challenges by themselves — it will continue to take our entire community working together to re-build and re-structure our education system so we are able to respond to the difficulties of the present moment and realize equity and success in the future.
If you are a community partner or individual looking to support our public schools, please sign up at https://www.communityshare.us/las-cruces/. Please also follow the Las Cruces Partnership for Community Schools on Facebook (@lcpartnershipcommunityschools).
-David Greenberg, Director of Community Schools at Las Cruces Public School