School as Neighborhood Hub

School as Neighborhood Hub

'This is as much about the parents as the students,' Principal Peggy Candelaria says. 'By being around the teachers, parents are learning how to help their children with schoolwork at home.'

Identifying Needs, Then Meeting Them at the Schoolhouse

ABQ program may serve as national model

BY DEDE FELDMAN

Barbara Pacheco, whose daughter goes to Manzano Mesa Elementary School in the Southeast Heights, knows what it’s like to need help. A few years ago, she needed food for her family and sought out her daughter’s school community coordinator, Deanna Creighton Cook.

Pacheco walked away with enough food for her family and a coat. And then she paid it forward by asking what she could do to help.

Pacheco, who is bilingual, now coordinates 32 other parents to assemble student backpacks filled with weekend food for hungry students – usually more than 50 of them. She’s in charge of rounding up food for food drives and operating the school’s mobile food pantry.

“We come from different countries,” says Maria Valqui, another parent. “We don’t always have family here, so the other parents become friends with cupcakes and coffee, and the coordinator, she covers our needs.”

Valqui is the prime mover of the Preschool Co-Op, which began when parents told the coordinator that there was no affordable bilingual local childcare for their young children to allow them to work.

Two years later, Valqui and a team of preschool-certified parent teachers run a preschool program in a portable building on Manzano Mesa’s grounds. Valqui, originally from Peru, led her team through preschool training process at Central New Mexico Community College. The coordinator opened doors and got scholarships and funding from foundations, from the Legislature, wherever she could, to lift the concept off the ground.

“We did it!” she says.

The preschool program is just one of the ABC Community School Partnership’s efforts at parental engagement. The best known is the Homework Diner, a weekly after-school program that also started at Manzano Mesa.

Homework Diner, which was featured on NBC News in 2014, helps families meet their food needs while with the help of tutors learn how to help their kids with their homework. The schoolwork is followed by a meal prepared by CNM culinary students, which gives parents a break from the kitchen one night a week.

A chief benefit is that the program gets parents engaged in their children’s school progress.

“This is as much about the parents as the students,” Principal Peggy Candelaria says. “By being around the teachers, parents are learning how to help their children with schoolwork at home.”

Early news coverage had the phone of Homework Diner founder Jesse Munoz ringing with people from around the state and nation wanting to replicate it.

The project secured funding from Bernalillo County, the City of Albuquerque, the Albuquerque Public Schools and United Way, which is allowing Munoz to scale it up. Now in 23 Albuquerque schools, it is looking to expand to 30. There are now community schools in Santa Fe, Las Cruces, and soon, there will be one in the West Las Vegas school district.

The Center for Education Policy Research at UNM found a correlation between the program’s after-school activities, increased grade-point averages and school attendance. At Pajarito Elementary School in a low-income area of the South Valley, math scores increased 20 percent and reading, 13 percent.

Munoz wants to methodically identify and address the real needs of families – school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood – and with a little help from the business and governmental sectors match each school with the services it needs.

“Community schools don’t solve everything,” says APS Board Member Barbara Petersen. “But they are definitely a step in the right direction.”

Q-and-A with Jesse Munoz

Jose Munoz, a 6-foot-4 former offensive lineman with San Diego Chargers, is setting about to build a network of schools that do more than hold classes. He wants schools to serve as a hub of community activity – as a central node for dispending services to the surrounding neighborhood, whether it’s food assistance or a place that offers preschool services for working mothers.

He’s executive director of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Community School Partnership. From a shared office in the Bernalillo County Parks and Recreation Department, east of Downtown, he coordinates funding, brings together school coordinators, arranges conferences and runs webinars for groups hoping to replicate ABC’s signature programs.

In 2014, Munoz and his signature services, the Homework Diner and the Parent Pre-School Co-Op, were recognized nationally. To see what Munoz’s team has accomplished, the national Coalition of Community Schools brought its national conference here in April – an event that packed the Albuquerque Convention Center.

Munoz, who holds an MBA, is known in the field as “Mr. Community Schools.” He’s careful to say this is not about one man but is about one mission: “to bring the school and the community together to make sure kids are on track to graduate from high school ready for college, career and life.”

ABQ Free Press sat down with him to find out what he does.

What does your background in the NFL have to do with community schools?

 A: I was an offensive lineman in my 20s, playing with the San Diego Chargers and in Canada and Europe. Linemen get no glory and seek no glory, but they pave the way. I’ve tried to pave the way for community schools by developing relationships and building on the infrastructure that the county, city, APS, United Way and businesses have set up for us. They have a joint-powers agreement that mandates participation and blends $2.4 million in funding. It’s “all hands in” – another football saying.

What have been some of the milestones in your career?

 A: I was born on the South Side of Chicago and lived in Nevada, Indiana and Florida, and since 2008, New Mexico. My mom was a teacher for 37 years, and she’s an inspiration. After football, I started with the Boys and Girls Club as a teen director and served all over. I have a passion for kids. Some of the neighborhoods were really rough. There were multiple deaths in one gang area, but the teens continued to hang out, and finally, the families engaged, the schools partnered and the neighborhoods came back.

One of my milestones was when I went back to a graduation, and one of the kids from a tough neighborhood came up with his son and said, “If it wasn’t for this man, I would be dead or in jail.”

What’s the idea of a community school?

 A: It’s to support kids who need help by using the community’s assets. It all goes back to John Dewey in 1902, who said that schools are the social centers of democracy. Is there another building in the community that has the ability to gather in the population? No. Schools can partner with everyone and draw on existing resources from lots of different organizations. Parents, the community – they want to help. But every school is unique, and our program relies on the school coordinator and council.

Dede Feldman is a former state senator and author of the book, “Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.”

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Albuquerque’s definitive alternative newspaper publishing an inquisitive, modern approach to the news and entertainment stories that matter most to New Mexicans. ABQ Free Press’ fresh voice speaks to insightful and involved professionals who care deeply about our community.