February 24, 2022

Part 1: The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Education in New Mexico

“So many of the students I work with [at Doña Ana Community College] and frankly, at most institutions in New Mexico, are on the wrong side of the economic divide, the cultural divide, and the digital divide. When we talk about them, we talk about them as if they are the problem, that they’re the deficit—but they’re not the deficit…They’ve actually used incredible resourcefulness, intelligence, persistence—a whole set of skills to navigate the side of the divide that they’re on. I don’t think that’s a surprise to people here. But what I think is a surprise is how persistent the deficit model is.”

– Dr. Mónica Torres, President of Doña Ana Community College


The Deficit Model

One of the sentiments we heard the most frequently throughout the Southern Summit was the importance of narrative in shaping New Mexico’s educational outcomes. Both the educational stakeholders panel and nonprofit leaders panel pointed to the persistent “deficit model” as a major roadblock to systems change. This model, which frames students and their families and communities as the “problem” within the educational system, is scaffolded with centuries-old patterns of structural racism, economic disparity, rural isolation, and concomitant intergenerational shame.

Throughout this post, we’ll be referring to the panelists who presented at the 2021 Carl & Marilynn Thoma New Mexico Education Funders Southern Summit. To learn more about this convening, please refer to the introductory post for this blog series. To find out about our panelists and facilitators, reference the bios presented here.

Drawing heavily on direct quotes from our panelists, this post explores the origins and enduring effects of the deficit model and how communities and funders can work together to move from focusing on deficits to celebrating assets and setting high standards for our young people and communities. Next week’s follow-up post will explore the role of data and analysis in the stories we tell about education in New Mexico.

Growing up, many of our panelists experienced the pain of the deficit model firsthand.

Hope Morales, the Executive Director of Teach Plus New Mexico, related her experience of persevering despite low expectations and adverse childhood experiences. She told us, “I was supposed to become a statistic. I was born to a teenage mother. My father did ten years in prison for crossing drugs across the state line. Despite the challenges, despite the assumptions that were made about me, and what I was supposed to do and what I was capable of, I became the first in my family to graduate high school with honors. I was the first to go on to college and earn both a bachelors and a master’s degree. It was very important to me to stay in my community, not only to tell kids what was possible, but to show them what was possible.”

Lucía Carmona, the co-founder of the Raíces del Saber Xinachtli Community School, grew up in Mexico near Juarez in a community where Indigenous heritage was broadly demeaned and denied. According to Carmona, “Our students are behind because they don’t feel that they belong… We are not proficient in any language because we don’t know where we are or where we come from.” Like Hope, Lucía overcame the entrenched culture of deficit thinking, but now sees the students and communities she serves suffering the pain of being cut off from the “roots” of language, cultural knowledge, and a sense of community connection.  

Daisy Maldonado, the Executive Director of the Empowerment Congress, told a similar story about her work with the border communities in Donã Ana County: “When we go into the colonia communities and interact with people and talk with those folks, it is very clear the story they have been told. It really hurts my heart. I know what it’s like to be counted out; they’re always counted out. The youth are then viewed that way in school and their families believe that, and it just passes on to the young people… and they deserve more.”

In her work on substance abuse and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney of the Anna, Age Eight Institute, urged us to look beyond narrative and explore the ways in which systems and narratives can create a vicious feedback loop for the state’s youngest and most vulnerable populations: “Our system is not designed to support our kids and families with what they need. Our teachers should not be playing social worker, counselor, food distributor. Schools need to have those supports so that teachers can teach and kids can learn. We have kids who are going to school with 8, 9, 10 ACEs from a very, very early age. Those kids act out and get labeled and get told they’re the ‘bad kid’ and they live up to that expectation. Our teachers cannot handle that all on their own. Our schools need to be able to help identify these kids, give them the supports they need before there’s a problem, before they end up in child welfare, and give them the tools they need to survive and thrive. Also, I do think we need to get rid of the narrative that where you’re from gets you less tools to survive and thrive. I’m from Española, where we are labeled, and growing up there was the expectation that we would not be anything, that we would not do anything; schools aren’t good. We’re set up to fail.”

In addition to students and families repeatedly hearing that “schools aren’t good,” Tracey Bryan, outgoing Executive Director of the Bridge of Southern New Mexico, suggested that many students in NM also grow up hearing that “there are no jobs here.” Bryan bemoaned the exodus of young families from Doña Ana County, who are leaving despite the opportunities that exist at the nation’s first commercial spaceport, White Sands test facility, the border port at Santa Teresa, and at Electronic Caregiver, the first Fortune 500 company in the state. For Bryan, the problem isn’t the lack of opportunity, it’s the lack of awareness that those opportunities even exist for the region’s young people.


Moving from Deficits to Assets

Our panelists agreed that the only way to change the deficit model is to move to an assets-based understanding of education in our state. As Dr. Tim Hand, Chief of Staff at Las Cruces Public Schools, articulated, “I was a high school coach here for 15 years… and coaching really taught me to lean on strengths: strengths of individuals, strengths of the community, strengths of the human condition.” Lori Martinez, Executive Director of Ngage New Mexico, echoed these sentiments on the following day: “Neuroplasticity is a thing throughout your life…We can retrain our brains to think from a strengths perspective and to really look at the assets that we have in our community and embed those into our systems.”

If talking about “narrative” feels a little soft or subjective, it is important to note that the expectations we set for students have measurable consequences for educational outcomes. The National Center for Education Statistics’ Education Longitudinal Study tracked students from 2002 to 2012 and found that tenth-grade students “whose teachers had high expectations were three times more likely to graduate college than students whose teachers had poorer expectations.”

How can funders help educators and nonprofit leaders in New Mexico (or any other state) to move towards an assets-based model? Based on what we heard in Las Cruces, here are a few questions that our team is now asking more seriously when evaluating programs or organizations in New Mexico and beyond:


1. Do they treat history, language, and culture as assets?

When we think about assets in New Mexico, our panelists told us, it is critical to think beyond tangible assets like money or human resources to include intangibles like language, history, and culture.

For several of our panelists, ancestral wisdom and the resilience of previous generations are sources of strength and connection that foster whole-child learning. As Lucía Carmona explained, “Our culture used to be in museums—only rocks, only colorful things that were there from the past. But we are bringing this to the present to move forward to the future. We won’t move unless we grasp the ancestral knowledge that is available to us all over the world.” Raíces del Saber, the community school that Carmona co-founded with Carlos Aceves, combines Spanish and English immersion with Mesoamerican Indigenous ways of learning, including learning Nahuatl (Aztec) as a heritage language.

Dr. Dulcinea Lara gave us some insight into the history of the heritage of the Las Cruces area, explaining that, “the Las Cruces City Council passed an acknowledgement that we are Piro and Tiwa people here and that we are descendants of people in the Pueblo Revolution who rejected colonialism in the 1600s. Mesilla was a refugee town for Mexican people at the end of the US-Mexico War in 1850 who didn’t want to become United States citizens but rather go back to Mexico and live in Mesilla. That’s a revolutionary act of pride. Then if you go fifteen miles down the road, you’ll find a town called Vado. That’s a community that consisted of African American migrants who came from Georgia to escape slavery and Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. They became entrepreneurs and farmers. We are in a region of heroes, of businesspeople, of geniuses. When Dr. [Tim] Hand mentions that there are resources to be invested here, they’re going to be well spent. My students are incredible.”

The move towards seeing language, history, and culture as assets is already in progress at a statewide level, thanks to New Mexico’s updated social studies standards.


2. Do they hold students to high standards while honoring multiple kinds of intelligence and fostering youth leadership?

One adage that we heard many times over the course of the convening is that “no one rises to low expectations.” Programs that hold students to high standards and that help them scaffold smaller successes and “fail forward” (as detailed in this article on Edutopia) are the ones that are most likely to help students succeed in the long term.

Along with high standards, we also heard multiple panelists call attention to the importance of meeting students where they are and to recognizing diverse strengths and talents. On the second day of the convening, Lori Martinez related that, “Last night I had a great conversation at dinner about what we mean when we say “intelligent” or “smart.” What is smart? There are so many kinds of smart. Are we tapping into that with our youth at all in any kind of meaningful way? We hear a lot about how we don’t have sufficient leadership but if you look at a group of kids for a while, you’ll see the leaders emerge.” André Gonzales, our co-facilitator, echoed Martinez’s sentiments on the importance of nurturing and empowering youth leaders, relating his own experience in such programs growing up in Las Cruces.


3. Do they think holistically about student supports to help them meet those high standards and shift from talking about “entitlements” to “resources”?

Doña Ana Community College has received significant funding and accolades for its “Avanza” program, a system of integrated student support that pays particular attention to first-generation students, low-income students, students who speak a language other than English at home, and students who are parents. This is a program close to the heart of DACC’s President, Dr. Mónica Torres, who told us, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the tools and resources that we have for students. All of us (people who are resourced) have a network of resources available to us like tax incentives, like subsidies. For poor people we call them ‘entitlements’ but we don’t call them that for people who have money and resources. How do we change the language and say to students, ‘look we have this set of tools for you that are acceptable for you and we have tools for other people, too.’ Because when we tell students ‘look, we have this resource for you,’ they always come back with, ‘well there’s someone who needs it more than I do.’ We hear that all the time in southern NM… Part of it is humility and a generosity of spirit, part of it is being shamed for generations and generations for accepting those things… So I’ve been thinking about how we change the language so that people recognize these things as tools, and not as things that we give to poor people.”

*The Thoma Foundation is proud to support Amarillo College, whose comparable “Culture of Caring” program has garnered national recognition. Read the full press release here.


4. Do they make room for joy, art, collaboration, and project-based learning?

One of the attitudes that our grants team has encountered while researching ways to improve student outcomes among low-income and rural populations is the idea that these students need to “focus on the basics” (i.e., math and literacy) rather than “enrichment” activities such as art and project-based learning. At the Southern Summit, Dr. Tim Hand clarified that we desperately need to “flip the script” on this narrative: “There’s a reason that poorer states don’t do quite as well on these standardized tests and it’s because there’s an opportunity gap. Our students don’t have the opportunity to go travel and do hands-on like some of their more affluent peers. I’d like for school to be about the activities and then academics and literacy are just tools to get us there. If we could flip the script a little bit, it would go a long way. Kids get engaged in student government; kids get engaged in chess club. Kids get engaged in supercomputing challenges. I keep going back to that because how is that extra? How is that the thing that kids only get to do because they’ve raised the money? I believe now is the time to flip the script, but I’m in quicksand. It’s so hard to get anyone to think about anything different than what their experience was in school.”

That aspect of engagement, of sparking a sense of joy in learning, is an idea that several other panelists expressed as well. Dr. Dulcinea Lara reported, “People need to have their imaginations sparked… there needs to be art and beauty. When I heard that the Thoma Foundation—an art foundation—was interested in investing education and all of you thinking about education innovatively; we need to spark that imagination. Education needs to be fun, vibrant, colorful, and beautiful.”


Thank you so much for reading! We look forward to sharing more of our learnings in next week’s post, “The Stories We Tell with Data.”