On July 31st, I began my journey as Advocacy Manager at NewMexicoKidsCAN, bidding farewell to Washington, D.C., and returning to the Land of Enchantment to join the fight to improve New Mexico’s public education system. After being away from home for nearly five years, the thought of exchanging an east coast bagel for a smothered breakfast burrito was exciting. However, my motivation extended beyond New Mexico’s cuisine; I was driven by the profound sense of urgency to confront and address the challenges deeply embedded in New Mexico’s education system. Challenges that are all too familiar and personal. January 31st marked six months since joining the team at NewMexicoKidsCAN. Over the past six months, a lot has happened, from local school board elections to the long-awaited release of statewide assessment data, and now the legislative session. Amidst it all, I wanted to pause and reflect on what I’ve learned during this period and what I believe must happen to continue improving New Mexico’s education system.

Lesson #1: The System is Broken
Every morning, Monday through Thursday (sometimes Friday), students across New Mexico walk into school, with their parents trusting that if their child works hard and shows up, they’ll be successful. However, the reality is that students across New Mexico are being underserved and let down by a broken system. Only 38% of New Mexico students are reading on grade level, while 24% are performing at grade level in math.

Still, the struggle with education in the Land of Enchantment persists, and year after year, we cling to the same excuses for our subpar educational performance. Some attribute this shortfall to the background of our students, their identities, their socioeconomic status, or their circumstances at home. Many people say, “pobrecito, if only things were different.” However, these students can succeed. All students in New Mexico can succeed. We just need to believe in them, provide them with the resources to be successful, and hold them to high standards.

Trust me, I know. I was one of those students, and I almost got lost in the system until I met a teacher who challenged me, believed in me, and held me to high standards. But I know my chance encounter with this teacher was just that — chance. As I prepare to watch my sister graduate from high school, I can see the drastic difference in my educational career compared to hers, and I worry that though she will receive a high school diploma, she has been set up for failure.

Lesson #2: Student Outcomes Must Come First
To fix the broken system and ensure New Mexico students have the skills and knowledge to be successful after high school, we must put student achievement first. Our state has a long history of putting politics, the status quo, and comfort, among other things, before student outcomes. This must change. The only thing that truly matters is student achievement and what we are doing to ensure our students can and will be successful.

Lesson #3: Assessment & Accountability Matters
I was in middle school when New Mexico transitioned to Common Core and the PARCC Assessment. Later, teacher evaluations and the A-F grading system were introduced. I did not realize what was going on, but I knew it was very political. Teachers were angry, and this seemed to be the only thing anyone was talking about. Then things worsened as time passed. There were protests and walkouts, but where are we now? The assessment is gone. The teacher evaluation system was repealed. The A-F evaluation system was replaced, but our students are still behind. We have to ask ourselves, are we better off today than we were then? We aren’t. We’ve regressed. Things have gotten worse. In 2017, my junior class had a 10% proficiency rate in math and a 42% proficiency rate in reading. According to the 2023 assessment data, the current scenario is alarming; only 5% of high school students at my former school are performing at grade level in math, and a mere 22% are reading at grade level. Surprisingly, no one seems to be concerned. Assessment and accountability are important. Until schools across New Mexico are held accountable for failing to provide students with a high-quality education, nothing will change.

Lesson #4: Different Results Only Come from Changed Behavior
We say that we are tired of being in last place, but are we? There seems to be resistance to change. If we want different results, we have to change our behaviors. This means teachers, parents, students, leaders, everyone has to change their behavior. We have to do things that make us uncomfortable. We have to do things we have never done before. We have to do things that are unpopular, like extending the school year. We will not get different results if we keep doing the same things.

Lesson #5: We Must Act Now
We are in an education crisis. We have been for many years, but the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis, and students across New Mexico are struggling. We can say it has always been this way or offer an excuse as to why our students can’t learn, but our students are in urgent need of support. We can’t afford to wait. As I write this, 15 days remain in the New Mexico Legislative Session, and what are our legislators doing to fix this? They are supporting a bill to lower graduation requirements and working to reintroduce a state board of education, a model New Mexicans voted to change in 2003. Lowering graduation requirements and spearheading an education governance structure that threatens public charter schools will not solve the problems plaguing our public education system. Our problem is instruction, and our students are in need of high-quality instructional materials, quality instructional time, and interventions to overcome math and reading deficiencies.

Lesson #6: We Must Believe in Our Students
To fix the education crisis in New Mexico, the first thing we must do is believe in our students. My life was changed by a teacher who believed in me, who believed that despite my circumstances, I could be successful. We have to believe that our students can learn, that they are capable, and that their potential is unlimited. Improving New Mexico’s education system will not happen overnight, but I am committed to playing the long game. I am thankful for the past six months and for being a part of the fight. I believe the best days of New Mexico are ahead of us, and I will never stop fighting for a better New Mexico.

Dominica Chavez is the Advocacy Manager at NewMexicoKidsCAN. A native of New Mexico, she left home to pursue higher education and recently returned with the goal of building a better New Mexico.


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