1/15/12, Santa Fe, NM
The NM Legislature opened today with a press conference in the Rotunda of the Roundhouse on the State of New Mexico's Children and Youth and an address by Gov. Susana Martinez on the State of the State. Both events talked about needs of NM's children.
Veronica Garcia, Executive Director of NM Voices for Children, addressed the crowd in the Rotunda and held up the national Kids Count report that ranks states according to how well they are doing by their children. New Mexico is "dead last" in the nation in fourth-grade reading proficiency, she said, with 80% of children not meeting that standard. She said the Kids Count statistics reflect real people with real names -- Estevan, Pablito, Maria.
Only 40% of 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschools, she said. Only 24% of eighth-graders are proficient in math, and only 63% of high school students graduate on time. "It doesn't have to be that way," Garcia said.
Though the state is making an effort in business growth and job creation, it is not putting enough resources into health and education and economic support for the state's children, Garcia said. The state needs a high quality, sustainable early childhood system from prenatal care to age 5 including home visiting, child care assistance, high quality child care and education, NM PreK, among other things.
Investing in children birth through third grade makes a big difference to achieving success later in life. "Starting at third grade is too late," she said. "Starting at third grade is ... " and the audience responded "TOO LATE."
The press conference was part of Celebrating NM's Children and Youth Day at the Legislature, and it included passionate talks by three young people.
Athena Lopez, who became pregnant as a junior at Pojoaque Valley High School, talked about how hard it was for her to keep up her grades, take Advanced Placement classes, prepare to give birth and take care of her son. "I wouldn't trade him for the world," she said, but she advised young girls, "If you really mean anything to him (your boyfriend), he will wait for you." and to the boys, "If you love her, you will let her finish her education before anything else."
Six other high school girls were expecting babies at the school at the same time as her, she said. As president of the student body, she helped advocate for an early childhood center at the school for staff and students' children. Thanks to Pojoaque school officials and PMS, it is now under construction, she said.
She thanked her parents for their support, noting they had been role models by earning college degrees themselves while raising kids. Her parents are from Pojoaque, Nambe and Cochiti pueblos.
Christian Reyes, 13, an eighth-grader at Wilson Middle School in Albuquerque, said "I, like most of my friends, want to achieve the American Dream and have good lives." He identified himself as being from Albuquerque's International District. Sadly, according to the Kids Count annual book of statistics, New Mexico is not a very supportive state, he said. Only 62% of children graduate from high school on time, he said. The situation is worse for children from low-income families or children who are Hispanics or Native Americans.
He spoke alternatively in Spanish and English, quite fluent in both languages. "Wilson Middle School is helping me get ready for graduation," he said, noting the support of after-school programs like ELEVATE and a school-based health care program. "I hope the decisions of our leaders make people like me and schools like Wilson a priority this year," he said.
Alma Rivera of Santa Fe and northern coordinator of ENLACE, Engaging Latino Communities in Education, said she was a sophomore in high school when she joined the NM Youth Alliance, and "all these years later, I'm still a member."
The Youth Alliance represents the respect New Mexicans show young people by having them sit at the table to help make decisions about things that affect their lives. She talked about the success in doubling the number of school-based health centers, which was accomplished by adults working young people.
Through ENLACE, she gets to engage and encourage young leaders and help them see how to use their expertise and experience in being mentors to other youths. "Our young people are looking at cycles of addiction and abuse and are trying to set a new course." ENLACE had one of many displays at the Roundhouse about children and youth. Unfortunately, bad weather kept many NM Forum for Youth and NM Youth Alliance young people away from Santa Fe.
Alma said half of people graduate and half don't. When she was a young student, someone took a stand for her through ENLACE and said, "I know which half you will be in." Alma wants to see that graduation rates in New Mexico are not 57% but 90% or 100%.
"Imagine what's possible when we work together," she said. To young people, she said, "You have a voice. You have something to say."
Later, Gov. Susana Martinez addressed a joint session of the House and Senate and called for making New Mexico more competitive. She wants a fair tax and regulatory structure for business, and "common sense education reform" to help create a high-quality workforce.
"Sixty-seven children drop out of school each day," she said. "These are not statistics. They are our children"
She cited accomplishments related to early childhood in making Kindergarten to 3rd Grade Plus permanent. The program provides extra school time in the summer for children who need help with reading and math. She also talked about boosting NM PreK funding, and setting up a program to provide reading coaches in early grades. She spoke of the importance of the four-year, $25 million grant New Mexico received from the federal Early Learning Challenge Fund to support early childhood education. Her recent decision to expand Medicaid coverage will help NM's children and families get health care, she said.
Martinez renewed her call for the Legislature to pass a law requiring that third-graders who are not proficient readers to be held back to repeat the grade. She said compromises had been reached on making sure there were interventions earlier than third grade. She quoted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the effect that passing third-graders who can't read is doing them no favor.
A first-grader named Jamal read from a book he wrote about the power of reading to the applause of the legislators.
Martinez cited success stories in her speech, talking about how an early college high school in Doña Ana County uses a program called The Bridge to help high school students graduate with Associate Degrees and often vocational certificates. Not one student has dropped out of the high school. She wants to replicate the model elsewhere in the state.
She introduced children and teachers from Anthony Elementary School. The school has 100% children eligible for free and reduced price lunches. The school is 100% Hispanic. Sixty percent of the students learned English as a second language. Is the school in the top half of NM schools in achievement, the top third? No, Martinez said, it is ranked fifth out of the 831 schools in the state.
"Teachers at this school sent this very different message to the children. They raised expectations and said 'no more excuses.'"
The Gadsden school district also has a very strong prekindergarten program, partly funded by district funds and partly by NM PreK funds.
"Let's put our kids first this session," the governor said.
PHOTOS: top row from left, Veronica Garcia holds up Kids Count report; emcee Alicia Manzano exhorts crowd to be loud; Garcia and Bill Jordan from NM Voices for children sit at front of crowd in Rotunda before press conference.
Second row, from left, Christian Reyes from Wilson Middle School; Athena Lopez form Pojoaque Valley High School; and Veronica Garcia with Alma Rivera of Santa Fe.
Third row, ENLACE exhibit at Roundhouse; Hundred Languages of Children exhibit; and Family-Infant-Toddler Program exhibit.
Early Childhood Educator
NM Association for the Education of Young Children