New Mexico Graduation Rates: What Rural Districts Can Teach Us

by Seth Saavedra │Friday, March 2nd, 2018


This is the second in a month long series exploring graduation rates in New Mexico. Have topic suggestions? Shoot me a message or tweet.


While I consider myself a Burqueño through and through, the full answer is more complex.

By and large I grew up in urban, multi-storied Section 8 apartments, provided by the Albuquerque Housing Authority. I grew up riding the city bus and trading food stamps for cash, the life of a city kid. Some summers, though, I went north to my step-grandpa's place in Aztec, New Mexico.

A sprawling ranch may spring to mind. The reality consisted of a double-wide trailer situated on an indebted (and eventually repossessed) few acres. To my wonderment, there was satellite television. The kind that streamed to an eight-foot dish parked like a Statue of Liberty replica in the front yard. Watching Nickelodeon felt extravagant.

I'd feed animals, shovel the resulting product, and spend countless hours wading through cattails on the ditch bank.

 
 

My grandpa was a poor roughneck from Estancia who spent innumerable hours in his pickup traveling between diners, rodeos, and tack shops. He was a no nonsense cowboy who saw the world in black and white - and who'd do anything for his family.

His casket fit snuggly into a horse trailer on its way to the cemetery. Playing at his service, Garth Brooks' Rodeo captured perfectly the joys and pains of his life.

After my parents separated we moved in with my grandparents for a bit and I attended school in Aztec. I remember wearing cowboy boots, wanting to fit in. Ropes and spurs were what the cool kids had in small town life.

This rural sort of scene describes more districts than not in New Mexico: Out of our 89 school districts, 51 have less than 1000 students. Nearly 40 districts have fewer than 500 students, or about 40 students per grade.

Use the interactive graph below to see where these districts are across New Mexico:

 
 

About 18,000 students live in these 51 districts. And while larger districts get more attention (and money), there is much to learn from smaller districts. Students in these places are often just as poor and diverse, bringing similar challenges to school as their urban peers. To wit, it is well-documented that America's opioid epidemic is ravaging rural communities.

Smaller districts face unique challenges with technology and transportation, with bumpy bus rides of an hour each way not that uncommon. Yet there remains an undiscovered beauty beyond our biggest cities with small town school boards and superintendents able to innovate in absence of the immovable bureaucracy that plagues Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

As I did with New Mexico's ten largest districts, below is what stood out as I dug into graduation rates for districts with 1000 students and less. These communities are quite diverse and different, but for my purposes I've grouped them together for analysis.


Overall Rural Districts Outperform the State

In the aggregate, and for most subgroups, these 51 districts are doing better than the rest of the state. For example, out of the 36 districts with enough Hispanic students to report (some districts don't reach the reporting threshold), 24 graduate a higher percentage. For poor students, its 31 of 39 doing better. See for yourself:

 
 

A Number of Districts Standout

As I touched on previously, there is clustering of "A/B" districts on the east side of the state. Many of these same districts are part of Regional Education Cooperative 6 and stand out for their graduation rates. These include Dora (252 students), Elida (138), Grady (134), Loving (535), and Texico (567). Some are single school districts while others have three and four schools.

 
 

Dulce & Magdalena Doing Well For Native Students

Despite having earned unimpressive grades of "F" and "D", respectively, Dulce and Magdalena graduate their American Indian students at 20+ percentage points above the state average. Both perform well across all categories but still struggle with low proficiency rates. Hopefully they can build on their success in graduation rates to improve student learning as well.


Twenty Three Districts Defying Doubt of Poor Students

Just under two dozen districts beat the state average for Economically Disadvantaged students by more than 10%. They disprove the myth that poor kids can't learn - or that "we don't know how to teach them". These districts prove demography mustn't be destiny. In fact, in a state with as many poor students as we have, we can't let this myth live on any longer.

 
 

Outliers for Hispanic Students Exist Too

Seventeen districts reach that impressive 10% above median range for their Hispanic students. Ranging from Springer to Hagerman, these districts reach beyond narrow, complacent views and demonstrate what should be obvious: all students are capable of learning, but not all schools are capable of teaching them.

 
 

It's time we move beyond outliers and expect that all districts in every part of the state teach every child every day.

Our rural districts span a wide range of diversity and size. We are remiss to ignore them. As I've found through this analysis, many of them get impressive results for ALL their students. And they might teach the behemoth districts along the river a thing or two about what it takes.