A Comprehensive Collaboration

by Mimi Mayer
Published in SEDL Letter Volume X, Number 3, April 1998, Pulling Together

SEDL joins an Albuquerque partnership linking schools, families, and community resources into a life-affirming system

Before the Rio Grande rolls south out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, it bows briefly to the east. The river brings a band of vivid green into sere brown and ochre rangeland dotted with small homesteads, modest industrial sites, warehouses, clusters of unassuming bungalows, and on an arid mesa, a growing number of colonias.

Albuquerque residents refer to the sector cradled by the river by the neighborhoods within it: Five Points, Los Padillas, Adobe Acres, or Isleta, after the American Indian Pueblo whose reservation marks the area's lower boundary. But many locals simply call it the South Valley.

Colonized by the Spanish around 1750, the South Valley is one of Albuquerque's oldest settlements. The area remains predominantly Hispanic. Today the traditionally rural valley grapples with encroaching urbanization from central Albuquerque. Many residents are burdened with poverty and chronic shortages of health and human support services.

And South Valley schools vary from others in Albuquerque. For instance, about 76 percent of the 2,250 students at Rio Grande High School, the South Valley's chief public secondary school, identify themselves as Hispanic; 41.5 percent of students in the rest of Albuquerque's schools identify themselves as Hispanic. Statistics compiled by Christina Carrillo and Lorenzo Garcia of the South Valley's office of New Mexico's Public Health Department expose more differences between Rio Grande High and other schools in the Albuquerque system:

  • Student participation in Bilingual Education and English as a Second Language programs in the 1993-94 school year: for Rio Grande students the rate was 67 percent; for all Albuquerque students the rate was 23.1 percent.
  • Children living in poverty, ages 12 to 17, 1993-94: at Rio Grande, 28 percent; at other Albuquerque schools, 17 percent.
  • Student participation in free-lunch programs in 1996-97: at Rio Grande, 35 percent; at other Albuquerque schools, 17.5 percent.
And in 1996 the mean annual household income for families of Rio Grande High students was $8,099, the lowest of all high schools within the Albuquerque system.

Health services have been scarce with pockets in the South Valley designated by New Mexico's public health department as physician shortage areas. Local children often lacked preventive and early intervention health care. School nurses reported that one-third of the children they evaluated had psychosocial issues requiring attention, while whispering the estimate was far too conservative. Some social, mental health, and family support services have been on hand, albeit scattered throughout the South Valley in a disconnected hodgepodge.

School nurses reported that one-third of the children they evaluated had psychosocial issues requiring attention, while whispering the estimate was far too conservative.

Well aware of these conditions, South Valley residents have worked to improve them for more than 20 years. Several service providers have moved into the community to attend to residents' acute medical and mental health needs. Yet the support they've offered has often been specialized, and demand has continued to outstrip on-hand resources.

South Valley residents needed a force that threaded through and nourished their community, much like the Rio Grande runs through and waters the area. They got it when the Rio Grande Cluster Human Services Collaborative opened its doors in November of 1996.

A Comprehensive Vision

Many observers credit Analee Maestas, then principal of the South Valley's Los Padillas Elementary School, with originating the vision for the Rio Grande Cluster Human Services Collaborative. Now assistant superintendent for the South Region Albuquerque Public Schools, Maestas dreamed of bringing together students, parents, schools, and community resources into a partnership offering comprehensive health and human services to South Valley students and their families. Anyone in need could access support services simply by asking, and partnership members would make requisite evaluations and referrals. Participating schools, community organizations, and family members would structure the partnership and coordinate its services. Finally, the South Valley public schools would serve as contact points for these varied services, referrals, and evaluations. That way, students and their families could easily access services through the schools, and service agencies could reach families through their schoolchildren.

"The dream was to support children, youth, and families, which would bring down some of the social barriers that affect learning and achievement. The success of the community is dependent on education providing a better quality of life for the entire community," Maestas says.

Since fall 1995 Maestas had fine-tuned her vision of the comprehensive partnership with Margie Aragon, a Los Padillas Elementary School teacher who now is its principal, and Vickie Otero, a registered nurse with extensive experience in the South Valley public schools. From the start Maestas, Aragon, and Otero envisioned the partnership as delivering four integrated services: physical health, mental health, human and social support, and family involvement in schools.

"It was an instant bond," says Aragon. "The mission came not only to one person, but to all three of us."

The group met regularly with community organizations in an informal network. But there were no resources to back a partnership, Maestas says. Then the women learned about two simultaneous opportunities: the City of Albuquerque's Department of Family and Community Services released a request for proposal for community services at the same time that the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) of Austin, Texas, began to seek sites where it could run trials of a new model for home-school-community partnerships. The women recognized this happy confluence and set to work.

"We just started planning what to do," says Otero. "Everything happened at the same time."

By May 1996 Eduardo Soto, principal of Rio Grande High, and Rommie Compher, principal of Polk Middle School, signed on to the project. Together the four educators and one health care professional formalized their vision for the organization in a grant proposal written for Albuquerque's family and community services department. They asked for $350,000, allocated over two years, to start up and implement a South Valley partnership. The city funded the proposal, and SEDL signed on as a partner, providing technical support and a structure for partnership development. On November 11, 1996, the Collaborative opened its doors.

"Our focal point was to stop [climbing] dropout rates at Rio Grande High," Aragon says. "You need your community, you need your schools, you need families to make a child into a productive, lifelong learner." So the partners asked South Valley residents to identify other needs then began interconnecting groups that could meet those needs with comprehensive services.

"I feel like we're Link Queens," says Otero, the Collaborative's program coordinator. "We're linking services to services, linking services to the community, schools, or families. Our purpose is to let people really know what's available to them, and what the schools need."

Today the Rio Grande Cluster Human Services Collaborative is a consortium of 14 public schools, about 40 health or social service providers and community organizations, and a shifting number of parents, students, educators, and businesspeople. Most Collaborative activities operate out of Rio Grande High, Polk Middle School, and Los Padillas Elementary, the program's pilot sites. Since the elementary and middle schools feed the high school, Collaborative programs can affect the same families with kids at different stages of their educations,

Maestas points out. That way, the program may have a greater impact on families. Should funding continue, the Collaborative will broaden services for all 14 schools; meanwhile, every school has parent support services on-site.

While health, social service, and education professionals play important roles in the Collaborative, its focus is families and family outreach. It is for students and their families that the Collaborative operates a family education center at Los Padillas Elementary School, an academic mentoring and a mental health and counseling service at Polk Middle School, and a medical and psychological clinic at Rio Grande High School.

Sometimes local institutions and organizations provide services from offices throughout the South Valley while Collaborative employees working in the schools direct clients their way. Some key Collaborative services, however, operate on school grounds. For instance, at the Rio Grande High health clinic — dubbed the Raven's Nest after the school mascot — and the Polk Middle School counseling service, several professionals practice part-time: a doctor, medical school residents, nurses, psychologists, and a psychiatrist from the University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Center along with public health staff. Mentors from AmeriCorps, the federal program in which adults swap one year of community service for educational scholarships, arrive at Polk after school to guide middle school students through academic and social predicaments. At all three schools a Collaborative partner called the Fleet Reserve Association maintains clothing banks.

Enter SEDL and the CAT

Complexity can undo ambitious comprehensive programs such as the Rio Grande Collaborative. Consider friction among partner organizations. Well-meaning and committed as partners are, they also may have clashing goals. Such circumstances can cause partners to lose focus and drift apart. And the sheer numbers of organizations and people active in the Collaborative have increased the odds of conflicting agendas. Other questions arise: How are partnership resources allocated? Who is accountable should disaster occur? How is policy set, and who sets it? How do partners mobilize for action?

The Rio Grande Collaborative Link Queens turned to the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory as a partner with experience in addressing these problems. SEDL has researched and promoted home-school-community partnerships since 1990, and Maestas had worked with SEDL on a modest school-based partnership in the mid-90s. In 1996 Maestas and SEDL joined forces again. The Rio Grande Collaborative became one of five sites where SEDL tested its new partnership design called a Comprehensive Action Team, or a CAT.

Each CAT is unique because each community grapples with a singular set of problems and conditions, says David L. Williams, Jr. Having worked with parental involvement, home-school-community partnership, and comprehensive services programs at SEDL for 22 years, Williams directed SEDL's CAT project and led the SEDL team that conceived the CAT model before his January 1998 retirement.

Williams and his team have identified a general approach that works with most Community Action Teams: Gather together families, students, school personnel, business- people, and staff from social service agencies to form a CAT. Teach CAT partners team-planning and team-building strategies so they can create and sustain their partnership. Promote local self-reliance so SEDL eventually steps away while the CAT strides ahead on its own.

The Rio Grande Collaborative and similar partnerships often work well as CATs because of their inclusive natures, Williams says. "It's really clear that the complex problems that children and youth face cannot be solved by the home alone, by the school alone, nor the community alone. These complex problems require comprehensive solutions," he continues. "The only way to solve these problems is by having representatives of these three groups come together in planning and implementing activities as partners. That's the purpose of the CATs — to bring these groups together so that all learners are more successful in school and in life."

SEDL partnership specialist Grace Lee Fleming worked closely with the Collaborative's founders at the organization's beginning. From the start, she says, the group and SEDL's CAT model were compatible. The Rio Grande partners had already established their plans and goals. "They had people ready to lead and facilitate the development of the partnership and only needed advice along the way," Fleming says. Most early members of the Collaborative were "school people. Our first step was to get them to think beyond the people in the room to other people in the community who are committed to youth and families."

Maestas and Otero maintain a different perspective. They credit Williams, SEDL partnership specialist José Velázquez, Fleming, and the CAT model itself for providing crucially important support and direction. Maestas, for instance, says the CAT model gave "us a strategic way in which to plan, implement, and begin to evaluate the Collaborative." SEDL staff also networked Collaborative partners with CATs in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, which allowed teams from all the CAT sites to share with, support, and learn from each other. Finally, Maestas says, SEDL's support was "critical because we hadn't done this before. We needed to have the steps all laid out for us, and SEDL gave us that technical assistance.

"We had a lot of doubts. We had a lot of apprehensions. We had a lot of crises," she continues. "I think the individual SEDL staff we worked with really helped us get past our apprehensions and doubts. We could just pick up the phone and call them."

Otero says SEDL's training gave Collaborative partners team-building skills that helped the group gel and build a common vision. "Without this, we would have really been struggling. They really gave us the foundation and the building blocks so we can continue growing. And they helped us celebrate our successes," she adds.

The Collaborative-SEDL partnership offered SEDL advantages too: it allowed lab specialists to observe and document Collaborative activities as insiders. And the Collaborative served as a test bed for the CAT model, allowing SEDL to refine the design.

"A Model Program!"

While ample research documents the efficacy of parental involvement in school improvement and community mobilization efforts, less is known about the impact of home-school-community partnerships. In a 1997 review of research on partnerships, Barry Rutherford, Beckie Anderson, and Shelley Billig (See "Resources for Family and Community Involvement in Schools,") found a pattern of positive outcomes associated with partnerships, even though it's difficult to assign direct causality from partnerships to school or student improvement.

For instance, students in partnership schools report more positive attitudes toward their educations, and parents' attitudes often grow more positive about schools with partnerships. Parents encouraged by partnerships to become more involved in their children's educations often interact more frequently with their kids at home, and parents sometimes gain new skills. Likewise, teachers' attitudes about parents brighten after working with them in partnerships. Some schools and school systems with strong parent-community partnerships report increased student attendance rates; reduced dropout, delinquency, and pregnancy rates; and improved discipline practice.

Even in the short life of the Rio Grande Collaborative, some of these outcomes have occurred. Maestas points out that suspension rates at all 14 Rio Grande Collaborative schools are dropping. And recently Eduardo Soto, principal of Rio Grande High, announced the school's dropout rate had dipped from 18.92 percent in the 1994-95 year to 14.87 percent in 1996-97. In a memo Soto attributed the success to faculty and staff, to new academic programs, and to "our Human Services Collaborative, which strives to meet the needs of our student population."

Then there's the Raven's Nest Health Clinic at Rio Grande High, where John Leggott, MD, practices two afternoons per week. During the 1996-97 school year, he says kids made "somewhere over 3,000 visits," to the Raven's Nest. Sure, he says, clinic staff do treat infected toenails and earaches and sore throats. But the care goes beyond simple health procedures. "We see a lot of kids who don't have access to primary health care services. And usually by providing them this type of an environment and by using a registration form, which is a screening tool for adolescent risk behaviors, we end up doing a lot of work in the mental health area.

"I'm a former teacher. I personally feel that schools have their hands full educating the kids who are here. Often the troubled kids, the kids who are just barely making it, are suspended and there's not enough, I don't think, services like this to try to keep kids in schools," Leggott continues. "We target the kids who aren't going to be in school by the end of the year if they don't get these kinds of services."

Margaret Montoya, the Collaborative's site coordinator at the high school, spotlights other benefits of the clinic: "It's really empowered the children into thinking about taking care of themselves." Furthermore, Montoya continues, parents are delighted the clinic exists. It and other school programs have changed parents' attitudes about the schools because the programs show that South Valley educators care about kids. "The parents feel their children are being taken care of. They feel their children are more important now," Montoya says.

Charlene Argo, site coordinator at Polk Middle School, says that before the Collaborative brought together all their resources, Polk's student support services were inadequate. "It was just like putting a Band-Aid on some major wound," she says. "Now we're really affecting the kids."

Parents have gained sunnier attitudes about the school. Moreover, when surveyed, parents indicated they felt their children were safer at school — with good reason.

Students referred to Polk's on-campus alternative school are returning to mainstream classes and staying in school rather than dropping out, according to Argo. Parents have gained sunnier attitudes about the school. Moreover, when surveyed, parents indicated they felt their children were safer at school — with good reason. "Discipline referrals have gone significantly down, especially the suspensions," Argo says.

Kids and families at Los Padillas and other South Valley elementary schools have embraced the Collaborative's programs. Schools have begun family reading nights and other activities that draw families to their children's schools.

Even with these successes, Rio Grande Collaborative members realize much work remains. Maestas, Aragon, Otero, and others want greater parent presence at schools — and not only by increasing parent usage of the Collaborative's services; they are welcoming more parents into the Collaborative as partners. To that end, the Collaborative funded parent liaison positions at four schools and launched parent training sessions at Valle Vista, Navaho, and Mountain View Elementary Schools and at Harrison Middle School, Aragon and Maestas report.

Velma Gurulé, the Collaborative's parent involvement coordinator, hopes to have a parent liaison placed at every Collaborative school. The Collaborative is expanding its parents' resource center from a single room at Los Padillas into a portable building located at Harrison Middle School in the heart of the South Valley. Gurulé understates the versatility of the current Family Center as "a place where all parents can come together and get information." The Center also is part meeting room, where families get referrals and assistance from the Collaborative's organizations, part classroom, where families take parenting workshops and adult education classes, and part library, where families explore resources on parenting.

To kick off its revitalized family involvement programs, the Collaborative dispersed fliers inviting parents to:

Asamblea de la Comunidad para las familias
del South Valley sobre la Educación

Dando la Bienvenida
Be an informed parent! South Valley
Community Family Conference on Education
Opening Doors

The fliers lured about 240 parents and 90 children to Rio Grande High on a Saturday. They took in exhibits of student artwork and essays and visited booths staffed by Collaborative partners. While AmeriCorps partners entertained kids in childcare, parents attended workshops conducted in English and in Spanish on parenting and schoolwork support skills with titles ranging from The Early Years — Foundation for Learning to Creando lectores en casa and Matemáticas con la familia. A raffle with prizes courtesy of several South Valley businesses wrapped up the conference.

Parents not only attended the conference, they planned the event with Gurulé and the Collaborative's parent liaisons. More parents are attending monthly Collaborative meetings and more are speaking out as full partners in the group, says SEDL's José Velázquez.

The fliers lured about 240 parents and 90 children to Rio Grande High on a Saturday. They took in exhibits of student artwork and essays and visited booths staffed by Collaborative partners.

Velázquez hopes the trend will continue. If Collaborative partners really want to represent the South Valley community, they should get families and students more involved in the organization, he suggests.

Even so, the group has gained attention from Washington. Aragon, Otero, and Maestas presented an overview of the Rio Grande Collaborative program at a national Head Start conference in Boston in May 1997 and at a US Department of Education conference on school improvement held in November in Dallas. "We're a model program!" Otero laughs.

Praiseworthy accomplishments for a group of schools, community organizations, and families that make their home in a river valley nourished by the Rio Grande. Velázquez summarizes the Collaborative's success succinctly, while explaining that SEDL is slowly pulling away from the group. He mentions the Asian proverb, Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.

How is that relevant to the Rio Grande Collaborative? Velázquez grins and says, "They know how to fish now."

Further information on SEDL's work with community action teams may be found in the Community Partnerships section.

Next Article: Designs on Comprehensive School Reform