Digging Deep: Poverty In New Mexico's Districts

This is the third in a five-part series as a follow up to my initial research on district and state charter school grades in New Mexico. Find the first and second parts here and here.

Poverty. It's as New Mexican as green and red chile. We can't have a conversation about education here without looking at poverty. Thus, my next area of inquiry centers on equity, particularly around socioeconomics. In education, free and reduced lunch eligibility rates serve as a proxy for socioeconomic status (SES), which is the lens I've adopted. The number of students eligible for these means tested programs tell us roughly how rich or poor a given student population is.

As you'd expect, unfortunately, the top line FRL eligibility rate of 69% in New Mexico is one of the highest in the U.S. Only Mississippi and D.C. are in range. Yes, we are a state with pervasive and staggering poverty. Should we throw our hands up as it seems so many have, including our elected leaders?

We cannot submit to this fatalistic paradigm. As a child of food stamps and public housing, I find this mindset incomprehensible. Every student we discount or leave behind is a tragedy. Every one of the 30% of our students who doesn't graduate has a name. We need to make this much more personal on behalf of students. I know we can and must do better for our poorest students if we are to improve our 49th ranking for students' chance for success. Even some of our most affluent schools - with an "A" - have less than half their kids on grade-level for math. This should be a wakeup call for us all.

With this in mind, I approached the data with fresh eyes for beacons of light. Which districts and schools are disproving the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for students? What's behind their success and setting them apart? Are there schools with high concentrations of low-income students getting great results? My assumption is "yes, of course" and that we as a state can learn from those leaders. You know the drill, let's start with an interactive graph.

Orient yourself first. District and state charter grades move horizontally from left to right ("A" to "F"). The final column in yellow is a summary for all 149 LEAs (two state charters do not have FRL data I could find). Going up the left side is the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch (FRL) at each LEA. Up around the 70 percent mark is our statewide FRL average of 67.92 percent. Find the district near you, or that you attended as a student.

The breakdown of grades is as follows: 18 "A"s, 36 "B"s, 54 "C"s, 26 "D"s, and 15 "F"s. This we already knew. The twist here is we can see how grades intersect with socioeconomic status.

No "A"s Here - Delving into Districts

Looking at districts, we find five with above average FRL and a "B", since there are no "A"s: Truth or Consequences, Reserve, Portales, Loving, and Clayton. T or C and its 1,314 students and Portales with 2,803 are the only two of the five with more than 600 students. Both catch my eye as well for having more than half their student populations identify as Hispanic. I'm excited they seem to be disproving the tired trope that poor and Brown children simply can't reach high expectations.

Districts Above State Median FRL

These are all the districts in new mexico above the median frl rate of 67.92 percent.

What's going on in T or C? The city of 6,000 with six schools down south seems to have figured something out. With 95 percent of their students FRL eligible, T or C exceeds the state FRL average by more than 20 points. (This is also 30 points higher than Albuquerque Public Schools and puts them in the top ten of low-income LEAs.) According to NMPED's recent "Straight A Express", there are three key factors to their success:

  1. A Community United: Schools are at the heart of the community and the town is united in pursuit of educational excellence;

  2. School Board Involvement: The five-person board understands the importance of the work happening in T or C schools and recognizes progress made and yet to go; and

  3. Clear Behavior Expectations. All students and parents are aware of behavior expectations and school procedures.

These strike me as sensible things any motivated board can enact and, importantly, any superintendent can execute on. Though these strategies also require the courage to speak truth to power and challenge entrenched interests. We need elected officials who hold up mirrors while also leading us to new promised lands.

On the other end, we find House Municipal Schools near Clovis defying stereotypes in the opposite direction. Despite a below average FRL rate (39 percent), a majority White student population (~80 percent), and small classes (73 students across three schools), they receive a "C". House is surrounded by districts which are poorer, more diverse, and receiving the same or higher grade. What's not going well in House Municipal Schools? It certainly isn't because the students are too poor, too numerous or too Brown as I hear so often. Dare we say it's likely the adults in leadership who own responsibility?

Beyond individual districts, the sad reality is that these statistics leave more than 20,000 of our students in "D/F" districts, and more than 100,000 in "D/F" schools when looking at individual school grades. This means we have 20,000 students who, through no fault of their own, have entrusted their futures to districts underserving them. They are at a starting line a mile back from where they should be. How many community organizers, teachers, or entrepreneurs would these children otherwise grow up to become? Through this pernicious opportunity gap, we squander our most precious resource: our students.

All is not lost as I see great potential in the 34 above-average FRL districts that have "C"s. This encompasses about 1/3 of all New Mexico students. What are the right levers for these district leaders to pull to change the game? Perhaps like T or C they might benefit from a renewed clarity of purpose, a unifying vision? Are there culture issues to tackle? Where can the capacity of school leaders, teachers, and other staff be bolstered? With the right leadership, strategies, and tactics these 34 districts and 292 schools could fundamentally change the lives of their 108,662 children across New Mexico. Now that's powerful thinking.

I'll meet you here tomorrow as I take a similar look at our state charter schools.