Education Equity: Inspiring Voices from Albuquerque

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on
A social graphic post with an orange backdrop and a united states map that highlights new mexico. Text: Education Equity: Inspiring Voices from Albuquerque, VIRTUAL EVENT. Images: Headshot of Host: Lisa Wadors. Panelists: Sarah Caswell, Lisa Harmon-Martinez, Dr. Kitty Edstrand, and Janea Menicucci.

The blog below is a recap of a recent event moderated by Lisa Wadors Verne, VP of Programs at Benetech in conversation with education leaders in Albuquerque, New Mexico. You can find the replay of this event on YouTube and additional, related resources at the end of this post. 

On August 9, five education leaders convened by Benetech provided an optimistic briefing centering education equity in New Mexico.  They described the pioneering work of their organizations to collaborate and drive success and engagement for New Mexico learners after decades of inequality. 

“The time is now. These things are possible now – there’s so much excitement in New Mexico around this change that we’re seeing happen. We’re in the very beginning of a huge swell that’s coming in from teachers, students and communities and it’s really an important moment. Organizations around the country are looking to New Mexico now to learn how we educate and give all young people access and opportunity.” – Lisa Harmon-Martínez, Future Focused Education 

Impact leaders in Albuquerque who spoke at the briefing include: 

  • Janea Menicucci, Coordinator for New Mexico Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at Central Region Educational Cooperative (CREC).
  • Lisa Harmon-Martínez, Director of Learning by Doing at Future Focused Education. 
  • Kitty Edstrand, Ph.D., Innovation, Development, & Research Coordinator at New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
  • Sarah Caswell, Bookshare Outreach Coordinator in Albuquerque, NM. 

Systems Change for Equity 

The Nation’s Report Card released in July 2023, revealed that nationally only 33 percent of fourth graders and 31 percent of eighth graders were deemed ‘proficient or better’ in reading. Statistics like these are closely tied to students dropping out of high school. And for too many, dropping out leads to a vicious cycle of unemployment, poverty, debt, poor physical and mental health, and even incarceration.  

Fortunately, youth leaders, care givers, educators and community-based organizations throughout the US are recognizing the intersectionality of issues confronting their communities and are working together to create change. New Mexico is leading some of these important projects.  

Over the years, and especially through the post-pandemic lens, the systemic inequities faced by many communities in the US have been highlighted. In New Mexico, the 2018 Yazzie Martinez case was instrumental in highlighting that not all students were being served equally. The decision by Judge Sarah Singleton pointed to low test scores, low graduation rates, the lack of culturally appropriate curriculum, and high rates of college remediation, as evidence that New Mexico was failing students. She found that the state had failed to provide services and programs to advance equitable education, such as dual language instruction, social services, small class sizes, and sufficient funding for both teacher recruitment and retention, which heavily impacted students from low-income and Native American communities, who have disabilities, or are English language learners. 

“This decision, and where we are now, is not the fault of teachers in the classroom or even school or district administrators,” said Lisa Harmon-Martínez, Director of Learning by Doing at Future Focused Education. “Everyone is doing their absolute best to serve young people in the best way that they know how. It’s the systems – to support teachers, to understand cultural relevance, and engaging in their own experiences and serving young people of color in our state or students with special education services. And certainly, that’s also true for school and district leaders. We need to think about the Yazzie-Martinez decision, not in terms of individuals, but in the systems of support across the state, and how those can be brought together to make this change across the state.” 

Importance of an Authentic Learning experience 

Future Focused Education is trying to foster this change through programs like The Capstone Initiative, which aims to provide culturally relevant education to students. The organization partners with schools and others across the state – working with all students including indigenous populations, to create authentic learning. The Capstone initiative helps develop role and identity in community with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) for authentic community learning/building.  Lisa shared an example of their work where students guided their own learning independence and leveraged a strong tie to community in the Zuni Pueblo Capstone.  

Voice and Choice 

Janea Menicucci of New Mexico Universal Design for Learning is a nationally recognized expert who has been working to provide accessible supports to all students in New Mexico for over 15 years.  

For individuals with learning differences and reading barriers, UDL is especially important helping to recognize individual learner’s strengths and variability as well as their unique set of skills, needs and challenges. In the UDL Project, Janea teams with school districts based on their vision and goals, providing a multi-layer system of support. They leverage resources like Bookshare for structured literacy and reading and pair it with other empowerment tools to support math, writing, communication, and to determine how students learn best.   

“We need to move away from previous learning with tools that are one size fits all, so we are working to give voice and choice to build student agency,” said Menicucci. “It allows students to be the champion of UDL with tools that play to students’ strengths. We’re building student UDL teams in the district we are working with so that these students are leaders with a voice who take ownership of the learning process. When students access these tools, there are multiple layers and ways to use them, so Technology is a friend.” 

Envisioning accessible classrooms  

The 600 students who attend the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where Dr. Kitty Edstrand is the Innovation, Development, and Research Coordinator use a variety of cutting-edge assistive technologies in ways that work best for them. Incidental learning – through observations address their ability to have hands-on, real-life, authentic learning experiences to ensure general concept development is happening. Dr. Edstrand noted that one of biggest barriers to inclusion for students in their community and employment is social stereotype.  

When asked what she would change about existing education systems to help students receive an equitable education, Dr. Edstrand replied, “Allowing teachers to teach vs having to be advocates. Also, we need more access to all these amazing tools, paired with these different technologies — these apps, Bookshare — all of this electronic content is just life-changing for our students because now instead of having to spend $30,000 to print a Braille math book we can go to Bookshare or the National Library Service where that book is available electronically.” 

Community and Cultural Engagement 

Bookshare Outreach Coordinator, Sarah Caswell, works with local community, educational organizations and school districts in Albuquerque, providing teacher training and support. To support Native American students and programs like the Capstone Initiative, she is focused on increasing the number of Native American literature titles in Bookshare’s collection, so every student has the same opportunity to see themselves and their culture represented in their educational materials. 

“With Bookshare, we’re providing, an accessible resource for students who have alternative needs for their learning,” said Caswell. “A big part of that is not just having the resource like a screen reader or a web library that’s available to customize for the students, but we also must have relevant content for those readers. Part of what I’ve been doing here in Albuquerque is ensuring and working to build out the collection of content we have and ensure that for the tribal schools I’ve worked with, we have the books that are in their curriculum, in our library. Providing culturally relevant content, supporting spoken languages with human narrated content is a big part of what we are doing. Every student is entitled to the same education.” 

Improving educational outcomes. 

Benetech is a nonprofit education equity and technology company on a mission to provide access to equitable education as a fundamental human right. We want to level the playing field for everyone. Committed to empowering underserved students & schools in cities here in the US, Benetech has established Outreach Coordinators in regions like Albuquerque, Detroit, Clark County, Atlanta, and Memphis, to work with local community, educational organizations and school districts. Accessible, equitable, and culturally relevant learning experiences support students in building their confidence, improving educational outcomes and securing their bright futures in economic and civic life.   

Benetech is continuing to engage across communities to provide accessible and equitable education opportunities. Part of this work includes building specialized collections and partnering with publishers to provide more locally relevant content in accessible formats to students with learning differences. If you are an individual or foundation interested in supporting Bookshare’s efforts to expand our global collections of Indigenous literature and book titles in other languages, we’d love for you to get involved!  

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