The Site - Las Vegas, New Mexico

General Description of Las Vegas

The site for this research study was Las Vegas, New Mexico, a small rural community that sits at the meeting point of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the West and the Great Plains to the East. Located in the northeastern part of the state, this city of approximately 16,000 is small when compared to other U.S. cities, but it is one of New Mexico's largest (after Santa Fe and Albuquerque).

The founding of Las Vegas dates back to 1835, when 29 Spaniards petitioned the Mexican government for a land grant. These settlers built the town on the west bank of the Gallinas River, where they immediately developed a farming community using the water from the river to irrigate their crops. The railroad's arrival in 1879 quickly spawned two communities: the older Mexican farming community across the Gallinas River and the competing commercial district that grew from the railroad depot. West and East Las Vegas developed separately until 1970, when a merger joined the once-rival communities into one municipality.

Charming in its appeal, the city offers a mixture of the old and the new. Much European influence can be seen in many of the historic buildings that line the town square. In fact, 900 of Las Vegas's buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Buildings.

Formerly a Spanish settlement, the town's population has grown to approximately 16,000, with 85% of its residents Hispanic, 12% white non-hispanic and 3% other. When asked about their heritage, native Las Vegans are quick to respond that they are of Spanish and not of Mexican descent, and that generations of their families have resided in this community for over 150 years. Although many Las Vegans can claim Spanish heritage, the community has a strong Mexican influence because the land was originally owned by the Mexican government and because many Mexicans have migrated to the area from Mexico.

Since Las Vegas has only one factory ­ a medium density fiber-board plant ­ farming and ranching provide the major economic base for the town. Two post-secondary institutions, the State Mental Hospital, and two school districts provide most of the remaining employment opportunities.

Data indicate that the community is a closed one ­ that is, Las Vegans are very "close-knit". Distrustful of people who move to the community, they describe them as "outsiders", even when they have resided in the city for many years. As one teacher stated, "I'm even considered an outsider even though I got here in 1969." A common perception among residents is that community support is often extended to native Las Vegans but not to "outsiders". As one parent reported:

"There is a lot of discrimination against people who come from the outside in. And so within our school board system, they really have to use local people for principals."

Along with its distrust for outsiders, the community is extremely political. As one Las Vegan described it:

"We as a community have for many years been very political and there has been a considerable amount of political patronage that has transpired. People were hired and fired based on political approval."

Politics are definitely viewed by Las Vegans as a factor that impedes change within the school district. Comments such as "it is very political here," "politics is the biggest," "political upheaval," "political problems," and "political interference in attempts to remove poor, old-style teachers" are frequently articulated.

Moreover, the existence of many large extended families has created a community where many residents are related, either directly or by marriage, and this complicates the political climate. These factors are often characteristic of small towns.

As in other small towns, change in this community is viewed suspiciously, especially if it is initiated by "outsiders", and the political overtones often exacerbate the situation. As one Las Vegan emphasized:

"It takes a lot for people to dare to risk . . . people tell me, 'I can't say much, because I have a mortgage . . . and my wife has a job, and I can't afford to lose that.'"

Overlay the traditional Hispanic values that are found in this community and change is frequently perceived as almost nonexistent by many residents. As one white non-hispanic parent explained:

"Things in Las Vegas don't change very quickly. . . The Hispanic culture is not very quick to change. I know a lot of men who still go home every morning to have breakfast with their mother because that is what they do here. Girls are raised to be subservient. They are not raised to be educated and succeed . . . Even Mrs. Holguin [Memorial's principal] is very, very controversial because she is female. With some of the teachers here its been hard for my daughters because I have raised them not to be subservient, to be non sex discriminatory. That if it's OK for boys - then it's OK for the girls. That's been hard for them. The Hispanic way moves very, very slow."

The Las Vegas City Schools

Although East and West Las Vegas were merged into one municipality twenty years ago, the school districts that were originally established to serve these two communities remain as separate entities. Las Vegas City School District has a population of about 2,850 students, and approximately 85% of this student population is Hispanic. The district has seven schools: five elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. In kindergarten through twelfth grade there is a strong emphasis on at-risk programs such as mediation, drug-free programs, distance learning and technology.

Like many other school districts, the Las Vegas City School District has its share of gangs, graffiti, and drug activity but on a much smaller scale than what is found in larger cities. Moreover, Las Vegas School District staff are working collaboratively with local law enforcement agents to proactively deal with these problems.

The other school district, West Las Vegas School District, has a student population of 2,300 students. Students are able to move from one school district to another. In the last few years there has been a lot of discussion about merging the districts into one to provide better educational services and to save money. Thus, it appears that consolidation may occur in the not so distant future.

Since Las Vegans are concerned that many third- and fourth-generation residents do not speak their native language, they have made a concerted effort to teach Spanish language and culture in the public schools. The district has institutionalized strong bilingual programs at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Memorial Middle School

Memorial Middle School was built in 1969 to reflect the "open classroom" design that was popular in that era. Unfortunately, since the teachers were not trained in this instructional approach, the concept failed and walls were later constructed, to divide large, open spaces into smaller classrooms. The school operated as a traditional junior high school until the 1990-91 school year, when administration restructured it to implement a middle school educational approach called the Family Plan.

The school has approximately 600 students and serves grades six through eight. The ethnic breakdown of the student population is about 85% Hispanic, 15% white non-hispanic, and 5% other. Of these 600 students the majority are considered "at-risk," with 80% eligible for "free or reduced lunch," and 70% identified as coming from single-parent or step-parent households. The student to teacher ratio ranges from 14 to 22 per one teacher.

School staff members are predominantly minority, with approximately 81% Hispanic, 17% white non-hispanic, and 2% other. The school faculty is relatively stable with many of the faculty having been at the school for over ten years.

The school buildings were in poor condition until the last few years, when a bond election was passed allowing school officials to renovate the campus. Renovation will be completed January, 1996.

Next Page: The Inception of the Family Plan

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 5, Number 4, Confronting And Managing Culture In A Changing Environment (1995)