On Common Ground: Number 9, Fall 2001

What Does One Do When Change Seems Impossible?

By Owen M. Lopez

Although it can be said that every state is unique, it seems that New Mexico can be described as particularly unique. It is the fifth largest state in landmass, but yet has only 1.7 million inhabitants. It is one of the most culturally diverse states w ith approximately an equal number of Anglo and Hispano citizens, and with one of the largest Native American populations in America. New Mexico’s most distressingly unique feature is that it is one of the poorest, if not the poorest, of the fifty states m easured by per capita income, hosting the largest percentage of children living in poverty without access to health care. Conversely, New Mexico receives the largest per capita subsidy from federal dollars to support its national laboratories and other de fense and research installations. It is the only western state whose Latino population is diminishing as a percentage of the whole due to the lack of employment opportunities. As an economically impoverished state, it is predictable that New Mexico’s average teacher's salary is very low — $32,713. Therefore, many of the more qualified students in education flee the state for better paying jobs elsewhere. Moreover, because of th e low wage scale it is difficult, if not impossible, to attract qualified teachers from outside of New Mexico. Therefore, as night follows day, the average performance of New Mexico’s students on standardized tests ranks among the lowest in the country an d the high school dropout rate exceeds one out of three. Yet New Mexico allocates almost 50% of its state budget to public education, placing it among the top states in percentage allocation of resources for education.

The McCune Charitable Foundation, with assets of over $130M, has been in existence almost ten years. Although not large by national comparisons, the Foundation is the largest in New Mexico among the foundations that restrict their grantmaking to New Me xico. Its mission is to improve the spiritual and physical well-being of New Mexicans in the areas of arts, education, environment, health, youth and social services with a significant portion of the Foundation's grants allocated to support education.

We at the Foundation have gleaned over the years, from conversations with representatives of non-profit organizations involved in education in New Mexico, the following insights:

1. Public education is the most significant political patronage system that exists in a state where decent jobs are scarce, and this is particularly true in rural sectors;

2. There is virtually no possibility that more money can be allocated towards the state’s educational budget if we are to maintain other necessary under-funded government programs; and

3. Low salary levels probably are not the greatest obstacles to attracting and retaining qualified teachers; bureaucratic red tape and lack of institutional support are the primary culprits.

We at McCune have concluded that if we hope to be effective, we must find ways to be supportive of teachers in ways other than financial. We have reached this conclusion by combining anecdotal truths such as “any student is fortunate to have experience d more than one or two truly gifted teachers in a lifetime,” with what we have learned from observation over the last several years.

As would be expected, since the edu-cation system in New Mexico is so financially strapped, opportunities for professional development are extremely limited, and those few that do exist are amateurish at best. Therefore, when Jim Vivian, Director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, approached the Foundation in 1998 wi th the possibility of introducing the National Demonstration Project model in New Mexico, our interest was sparked. The Institute felt strongly that a coast-to-coast scope of sites would prove advantageous by bringing diversity to the Project; however, th e DeWitt-Wallace Reader’s Digest proposed funding for the Project to replicate nationally the Yale-New Haven model would only fully cover three sites. The Institute wanted to be able to incorporate all of the four applicant sites: Pittsburgh, Houston, Alb uquerque, and Santa Ana into the Project. With the understanding that the program would provide guidance and interaction by and with faculty at Yale, with both the faculty at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) teac hers who volunteered for the program, the Foundation agreed to support the effort.

The main benefits of the program are twofold: first, the inspiration that public school teachers receive while engaging in interdisciplinary seminar discussions with fellow teachers and like minded university faculty. The seminar’s purpose is to explor e and develop their knowledge and understanding of their disciplines and to create curricula that can be taken to the classroom to revitalize student learning. However, the value of having an annual workshop in New Haven each summer for both the university and public school teachers to interact with the Yale faculty and colleagues from other sites is inestimable. It is our belief that exposure of the APS teachers to advanced state-of-the art concepts in each of their curriculum areas will provide the kind of nurturing support that we have been so often told is lacking. It is also our hope that renewed, energized t eachers will reenter the classrooms to provide those rare opportunities where students can experience truly inspirational teachers. This APS-UNM Institute appears to be a valuable, meaningful approach to the cause of education in New Mexico when other necessary fundamental reforms appear so far out of reach.

Finally, I should mention that I had occasion in the fall of 2001 to attend the Institute’s National Advisory Committee meeting with President Levin and the administrative officers from the partnerships. The meeting was to allow university administrato rs, District Superintendents, funders, and national organizations involved in the initial four sites to report on their progress. The overwhelming positive response and obvious need for the continuation and expansion of the partnerships was evident. In my eight years as Executive Director of the Foundation, I have come to realize more and more that change can only be effective if it is done systematically. In this case, the change must happen nationally within the education system: from the top down, from the bottom up. But it must be given a chance to happen.

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© 2001 by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

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