Last fall, New Mexicans approved two constitutional amendments dealing with education. One provided millions of dollars for educational reform. The other revamped the state department of education, bringing it under the governor's authority.
Six months later, after watching the wheels of educational reform move hesitantly at first but spin with increasing smoothness and momentum as time has gone by, I have to say that many of my original doubts about the new department have proven wrong.
This is largely due to the extremely capable performance so far of Dr. Veronica Garcia, Gov. Bill Richardson's choice as our first secretary of education.
Last week I had a chance to see how clear-thinking Dr. Garcia truly is. Addressing a room filled with public school officials from all over New Mexico, she took the opportunity to remind them that while the Legislature had passed a recent bill on truancy supported by the governor, schools should not make the mistake of thinking that was going to solve the matter.
"We have to constantly examine," she said, "what it is about our schools that makes students want to stay away."
That she would think that way is very comforting. That she would have the nerve to bring the matter up to school administrators as a sort of gentle challenge is cause for enthusiasm. Now let's see what APS administrators do with that challenge.
The new law establishes a legal definition for truancy. It focuses on early identification of chronic truants. It provides incentives for schools to intervene early with truants and their families. It authorizes punishments when all else fails: for the parents and (in the form of loss of driver's license privileges) for the students.
Some districts will choose to view the new law as essentially adding the muscle of the courts to their efforts at coercing kids to show up. Those districts will do little beyond threatening and then hammering truants and their parents. They will fight a losing battle.
Other districts will use the new law as an opportunity to implement outreach and home visiting efforts to nonattending students. They will try tutoring, counseling, diagnostic assessments and social work. Those districts will have much more success than the first group in improving their records.
But there is a third group, the one Dr. Garcia was inviting every district to join, that goes further than trying to respond to the individual needs of the chronically truant student. This group of districts will actually examine the educational programs they provide; they will make an effort to develop new approaches to learning suited to the learning styles of the students and offer a full range of options designed to capture students' imaginations.
Dr. Garcia said there are currently 32 distinct educational reform initiatives underway in our state, many funded with the newly-available money from constitutional amendment 2. That's a lot of changes to incorporate into our classrooms all at once.
The danger is that faced with all those pathways to change, local districts might try to simplify life by opting for a new version of the one-size-fits-all approach that they have traditionally used. Just replacing the previous generic approach with a new, improved (but still generic) model will lead to only marginally greater success.
The experience of a woman we know illustrates this. From Mexico, with limited English proficiency and serious health problems, she's a devoted single mother of four desperately hoping for a better life for her kids. She knows that school is, in this country, the best way to get there.
The problem is her 13-year-old daughter. Myra has stopped going to school. She's tried three different middle schools this year. Pursuing adequate housing forced them to move out of her original school's boundaries. When the family car broke down in October, just getting to the original school became impossible.
Myra's English is better than her mother's, but it still causes problems for her in the classroom. Under the best of situations, she was barely getting by. Changing schools three times, negotiating new relationships with peers, missing weeks of assignments and having to deal with different teaching methods and expectations have created almost insurmountable barriers for Myra.
She skips any chance she gets ... and who can blame her? There is no way to salvage this year's credits, so she is spinning her wheels, occupying a desk. School for her is a constant reminder of her inadequacy. She hates it. Her battles with her mother over missing school leave both of them frazzled. She will certainly drop out if nothing is done to customize a program for her, one that capitalizes on her genuine intelligence and offers her real hope.
There are thousands of Myras out there in this community, this state, this country. How we might succeed in re-engaging them, in re-igniting the spark of enthusiasm long dormant, is the most important challenge facing our schools. Finding life in Myra's head is a far more critical mission for our society than finding life on Mars.