A Comprehensive Collaboration
SEDL joins an Albuquerque partnership linking schools, families, andcommunity resources into a life-affirming system
Before the Rio Grande rolls south out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, it bows brieflyto the east. The river brings a band of vivid green into sere brown and ochrerangeland dotted with small homesteads, modest industrial sites, warehouses,clusters of unassuming bungalows, and on an arid mesa, a growing number ofcolonias.
Albuquerque residents refer to the sector cradled by the river by theneighborhoods within it: Five Points, Los Padillas, Adobe Acres, or Isleta, afterthe American Indian Pueblo whose reservation marks the area's lower boundary. Butmany locals simply call it the South Valley.
Colonized by the Spanish around 1750, the South Valley is one of Albuquerque'soldest settlements. The area remains predominantly Hispanic. Today thetraditionally rural valley grapples with encroaching urbanization from centralAlbuquerque. Many residents are burdened with poverty and chronic shortages ofhealth and human support services.
And South Valley schools vary from others in Albuquerque. For instance, about 76percent of the 2,250 students at Rio Grande High School, the South Valley's chiefpublic secondary school, identify themselves as Hispanic; 41.5 percent ofstudents in the rest of Albuquerque's schools identify themselves as Hispanic.Statistics compiled by Christina Carrillo and Lorenzo Garcia of the SouthValley's office of New Mexico's Public Health Department expose more differencesbetween Rio Grande High and other schools in the Albuquerque system:
- Student participation in Bilingual Education and English as a Second Languageprograms in the 1993-94 school year: for Rio Grande students the rate was 67percent; for all Albuquerque students the rate was 23.1 percent.
- Children living in poverty, ages 12 to 17, 1993-94: at Rio Grande, 28percent; at other Albuquerque schools, 17 percent.
- Student participation in free-lunch programs in 1996-97: at Rio Grande, 35percent; at other Albuquerque schools, 17.5 percent.
Health services have been scarce with pockets in the South Valley designated byNew Mexico's public health department as physician shortage areas. Local childrenoften lacked preventive and early intervention health care. School nursesreported that one-third of the children they evaluated had psychosocial issuesrequiring attention, while whispering the estimate was far too conservative. Somesocial, mental health, and family support services have been on hand, albeitscattered throughout the South Valley in a disconnected hodgepodge.
School nurses reported that one-third of the children they evaluated hadpsychosocial issues requiring attention, while whispering the estimate was fartoo conservative.
Well aware of these conditions, South Valley residents have worked to improvethem for more than 20 years. Several service providers have moved into thecommunity to attend to residents' acute medical and mental health needs. Yet thesupport they've offered has often been specialized, and demand has continued tooutstrip on-hand resources.
South Valley residents needed a force that threaded through and nourished theircommunity, much like the Rio Grande runs through and waters the area. They got itwhen the Rio Grande Cluster Human Services Collaborative opened its doors inNovember of 1996.
A Comprehensive Vision
Many observers credit Analee Maestas, then principal of the South Valley's LosPadillas Elementary School, with originating the vision for the Rio GrandeCluster Human Services Collaborative. Now assistant superintendent for the SouthRegion Albuquerque Public Schools, Maestas dreamed of bringing together students,parents, schools, and community resources into a partnership offeringcomprehensive health and human services to South Valley students and theirfamilies. Anyone in need could access support services simply by asking, andpartnership members would make requisite evaluations and referrals. Participatingschools, community organizations, and family members would structure thepartnership and coordinate its services. Finally, the South Valley public schoolswould serve as contact points for these varied services, referrals, andevaluations. That way, students and their families could easily access servicesthrough the schools, and service agencies could reach families through theirschoolchildren.
"The dream was to support children, youth, and families, which would bring downsome of the social barriers that affect learning and achievement. The success ofthe community is dependent on education providing a better quality of life forthe entire community," Maestas says.
Since fall 1995 Maestas had fine-tuned her vision of the comprehensivepartnership with Margie Aragon, a Los Padillas Elementary School teacher who nowis its principal, and Vickie Otero, a registered nurse with extensive experiencein the South Valley public schools. From the start Maestas, Aragon, and Oteroenvisioned the partnership as delivering four integrated services: physicalhealth, mental health, human and social support, and family involvement inschools.
"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. Butthere were no resources to back a partnership, Maestas says. Then the womenlearned about two simultaneous opportunities: the City of Albuquerque'sDepartment of Family and Community Services released a request for proposal forcommunity services at the same time that the Southwest Educational DevelopmentLaboratory (SEDL) of Austin, Texas, began to seek sites where it could run trialsof a new model for home-school-community partnerships. The women recognized thishappy confluence and set to work.
"We just started planning what to do," says Otero. "Everything happened at thesame 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 foureducators and one health care professional formalized their vision for theorganization in a grant proposal written for Albuquerque's family and communityservices department. They asked for $350,000, allocated over two years, to startup and implement a South Valley partnership. The city funded the proposal, andSEDL signed on as a partner, providing technical support and a structure forpartnership development. On November 11, 1996, the Collaborative opened itsdoors.
"Our focal point was to stop [climbing] dropout rates at Rio Grande High," Aragonsays. "You need your community, you need your schools, you need families to makea child into a productive, lifelong learner." So the partners asked South Valleyresidents to identify other needs then began interconnecting groups that couldmeet those needs with comprehensive services.
"I feel like we're Link Queens," says Otero, the Collaborative's programcoordinator. "We're linking services to services, linking services to thecommunity, schools, or families. Our purpose is to let people really know what'savailable to them, and what the schools need."
Today the Rio Grande Cluster Human Services Collaborative is a consortium of 14public schools, about 40 health or social service providers and communityorganizations, and a shifting number of parents, students, educators, andbusinesspeople. Most Collaborative activities operate out of Rio Grande High,Polk Middle School, and Los Padillas Elementary, the program's pilot sites. Sincethe elementary and middle schools feed the high school, Collaborative programscan 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 14schools; meanwhile, every school has parent support services on-site.
While health, social service, and education professionals play important roles inthe Collaborative, its focus is families and family outreach. It is for studentsand their families that the Collaborative operates a family education center atLos Padillas Elementary School, an academic mentoring and a mental health andcounseling service at Polk Middle School, and a medical and psychological clinicat Rio Grande High School.
Sometimes local institutions and organizations provide services from officesthroughout the South Valley while Collaborative employees working in the schoolsdirect clients their way. Some key Collaborative services, however, operate onschool grounds. For instance, at the Rio Grande High health clinic — dubbed theRaven's Nest after the school mascot — and the Polk Middle School counselingservice, several professionals practice part-time: a doctor, medical schoolresidents, nurses, psychologists, and a psychiatrist from the University of NewMexico's Health Sciences Center along with public health staff. Mentors fromAmeriCorps, the federal program in which adults swap one year of communityservice for educational scholarships, arrive at Polk after school to guide middleschool students through academic and social predicaments. At all three schools aCollaborative partner called the Fleet Reserve Association maintains clothingbanks.
Enter SEDL and the CAT
Complexity can undo ambitious comprehensive programs such as the Rio GrandeCollaborative. Consider friction among partner organizations. Well-meaning andcommitted as partners are, they also may have clashing goals. Such circumstancescan cause partners to lose focus and drift apart. And the sheer numbers oforganizations and people active in the Collaborative have increased the odds ofconflicting agendas. Other questions arise: How are partnership resourcesallocated? Who is accountable should disaster occur? How is policy set, and whosets it? How do partners mobilize for action?
The Rio Grande Collaborative Link Queens turned to the Southwest EducationalDevelopment 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 themid-90s. In 1996 Maestas and SEDL joined forces again. The Rio GrandeCollaborative became one of five sites where SEDL tested its new partnershipdesign called a Comprehensive Action Team, or a CAT.
Each CAT is unique because each community grapples with a singular set ofproblems and conditions, says David L. Williams, Jr. Having worked with parentalinvolvement, home-school-community partnership, and comprehensive servicesprograms at SEDL for 22 years, Williams directed SEDL's CAT project and led theSEDL team that conceived the CAT model before his January 1998 retirement.
Williams and his team have identified a general approach that works with mostCommunity Action Teams: Gather together families, students, school personnel,business- people, and staff from social service agencies to form a CAT. Teach CATpartners team-planning and team-building strategies so they can create andsustain their partnership. Promote local self-reliance so SEDL eventually stepsaway while the CAT strides ahead on its own.
The Rio Grande Collaborative and similar partnerships often work well as CATsbecause of their inclusive natures, Williams says. "It's really clear that thecomplex problems that children and youth face cannot be solved by the home alone,by the school alone, nor the community alone. These complex problems requirecomprehensive solutions," he continues. "The only way to solve these problems isby having representatives of these three groups come together in planning andimplementing activities as partners. That's the purpose of the CATs — to bringthese groups together so that all learners are more successful in school and inlife."
SEDL partnership specialist Grace Lee Fleming worked closely with theCollaborative's founders at the organization's beginning. From the start, shesays, the group and SEDL's CAT model were compatible. The Rio Grande partners hadalready established their plans and goals. "They had people ready to lead andfacilitate the development of the partnership and only needed advice along theway," 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 otherpeople in the community who are committed to youth and families."
Maestas and Otero maintain a different perspective. They credit Williams, SEDLpartnership specialist José Velázquez, Fleming, and the CAT model itself forproviding crucially important support and direction. Maestas, for instance, saysthe CAT model gave "us a strategic way in which to plan, implement, and begin toevaluate the Collaborative." SEDL staff also networked Collaborative partnerswith CATs in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, which allowed teams fromall 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. Weneeded to have the steps all laid out for us, and SEDL gave us that technicalassistance.
"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 usget past our apprehensions and doubts. We could just pick up the phone and callthem."
Otero says SEDL's training gave Collaborative partners team-building skills thathelped the group gel and build a common vision. "Without this, we would havereally been struggling. They really gave us the foundation and the buildingblocks so we can continue growing. And they helped us celebrate our successes,"she adds.
The Collaborative-SEDL partnership offered SEDL advantages too: it allowed labspecialists to observe and document Collaborative activities as insiders. And theCollaborative served as a test bed for the CAT model, allowing SEDL to refine thedesign.
"A Model Program!"
While ample research documents the efficacy of parental involvement in schoolimprovement and community mobilization efforts, less is known about the impact ofhome-school-community partnerships. In a 1997 review of research on partnerships,Barry Rutherford, Beckie Anderson, and Shelley Billig (See "Resources for Familyand Community Involvement in Schools,") found a pattern of positiveoutcomes associated with partnerships, even though it's difficult to assigndirect causality from partnerships to school or student improvement.
For instance, students in partnership schools report more positive attitudestoward their educations, and parents' attitudes often grow more positive aboutschools with partnerships. Parents encouraged by partnerships to become moreinvolved in their children's educations often interact more frequently with theirkids at home, and parents sometimes gain new skills. Likewise, teachers'attitudes about parents brighten after working with them in partnerships. Someschools and school systems with strong parent-community partnerships reportincreased student attendance rates; reduced dropout, delinquency, and pregnancyrates; and improved discipline practice.
Even in the short life of the Rio Grande Collaborative, some of these outcomeshave occurred. Maestas points out that suspension rates at all 14 Rio GrandeCollaborative schools are dropping. And recently Eduardo Soto, principal of RioGrande High, announced the school's dropout rate had dipped from 18.92 percent inthe 1994-95 year to 14.87 percent in 1996-97. In a memo Soto attributed thesuccess to faculty and staff, to new academic programs, and to "our HumanServices Collaborative, which strives to meet the needs of our studentpopulation."
Then there's the Raven's Nest Health Clinic at Rio Grande High, where JohnLeggott, 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, hesays, clinic staff do treat infected toenails and earaches and sore throats. Butthe care goes beyond simple health procedures. "We see a lot of kids who don'thave access to primary health care services. And usually by providing them thistype of an environment and by using a registration form, which is a screeningtool for adolescent risk behaviors, we end up doing a lot of work in the mentalhealth area.
"I'm a former teacher. I personally feel that schools have their hands fulleducating the kids who are here. Often the troubled kids, the kids who are justbarely making it, are suspended and there's not enough, I don't think, serviceslike this to try to keep kids in schools," Leggott continues. "We target the kidswho aren't going to be in school by the end of the year if they don't get thesekinds 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 intothinking about taking care of themselves." Furthermore, Montoya continues,parents are delighted the clinic exists. It and other school programs havechanged parents' attitudes about the schools because the programs show that SouthValley educators care about kids. "The parents feel their children are beingtaken care of. They feel their children are more important now," Montoya says.
Charlene Argo, site coordinator at Polk Middle School, says that before theCollaborative brought together all their resources, Polk's student supportservices were inadequate. "It was just like putting a Band-Aid on some majorwound," she says. "Now we're really affecting the kids."
Parents have gained sunnier attitudesabout the school. Moreover, when surveyed, parents indicated they felt theirchildren were safer at school — with good reason.
Students referred to Polk's on-campus alternative school are returning tomainstream classes and staying in school rather than dropping out, according toArgo. Parents have gained sunnier attitudes about the school. Moreover, whensurveyed, parents indicated they felt their children were safer at school — withgood reason. "Discipline referrals have gone significantly down, especially thesuspensions," Argo says.
Kids and families at Los Padillas and other South Valley elementary schools haveembraced the Collaborative's programs. Schools have begun family reading nightsand other activities that draw families to their children's schools.
Even with these successes, Rio Grande Collaborative members realize much workremains. Maestas, Aragon, Otero, and others want greater parent presence atschools — 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 launchedparent training sessions at Valle Vista, Navaho, and Mountain View ElementarySchools and at Harrison Middle School, Aragon and Maestas report.
Velma Gurulé, the Collaborative's parent involvement coordinator, hopes to have aparent liaison placed at every Collaborative school. The Collaborative isexpanding its parents' resource center from a single room at Los Padillas into aportable building located at Harrison Middle School in the heart of the SouthValley. Gurulé understates the versatility of the current Family Center as "aplace where all parents can come together and get information." The Center alsois part meeting room, where families get referrals and assistance from theCollaborative's organizations, part classroom, where families take parentingworkshops and adult education classes, and part library, where families exploreresources on parenting.
To kick off its revitalized family involvement programs, the Collaborativedispersed 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
The fliers lured about 240 parents and 90 children to Rio Grande High on aSaturday. They took in exhibits of student artwork and essays and visited boothsstaffed by Collaborative partners. While AmeriCorps partners entertained kids inchildcare, parents attended workshops conducted in English and in Spanish onparenting and schoolwork support skills with titles ranging from The EarlyYears — Foundation for Learning to Creando lectores en casa and Matemáticas con lafamilia. A raffle with prizes courtesy of several South Valley businesses wrappedup the conference.
Parents not only attended the conference, they planned the event with Gurulé andthe Collaborative's parent liaisons. More parents are attending monthlyCollaborative meetings and more are speaking out as full partners in the group,says SEDL's José Velázquez.
The fliers lured about 240 parents and90 children to Rio Grande High on a Saturday. They took in exhibits of studentartwork and essays and visited booths staffed by Collaborative partners.
Velázquez hopes the trend will continue. If Collaborative partners really want torepresent the South Valley community, they should get families and students moreinvolved in the organization, he suggests.
Even so, the group has gained attention from Washington. Aragon, Otero, andMaestas presented an overview of the Rio Grande Collaborative program at anational Head Start conference in Boston in May 1997 and at a US Department ofEducation conference on school improvement held in November in Dallas. "We're amodel program!" Otero laughs.
Praiseworthy accomplishments for a group of schools, community organizations, andfamilies that make their home in a river valley nourished by the Rio Grande.Velázquez summarizes the Collaborative's success succinctly, while explainingthat 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 eatfor 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 inthe Community Partnerships section.
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