When a headline broke in USA Today several years back calling Farmington, NM, “the worst place to raise a child,” my school took it personally. Having raised two daughters in the town, my wife and I had often commented to each other what a great community it was, and the great quality schools were part of that discussion. But the article went solely off of data, and I’m sure the authors had never set foot in our town.

Still, the article was a punch in the gut to our community and our schools. The data used to rank a community’s schools was the graduation rate. My school had taken a hit in this area under my leadership, dropping to under 68 percent. I knew we needed to address this. But how could we do more than we already were?

I began looking for ways to strengthen our support system to help struggling students. What I discovered was that outside community support was not only readily available, it was simply waiting for permission to be released into my school. Furthermore, it came from places I had not formerly expected.

Community mentors and their graduating seniors at the end of year banquet.

Many schools have counseling or guidance departments that leverage community resources to support struggling students—local counseling agencies; Boys and Girls Clubs; Big Brothers/Sisters; medical service providers; Children, Youth, and Family agencies; etc. All of these are critical supports, and they are at the ready to help youth in our schools. We began to invite these agencies to our strategic planning meetings, just to share what they offered and determine how we could further partner with them. One agency in our community, San Juan Safe Communities, developed a “trading card” program that selected high school students who were drug-free to promote healthy life choices to younger students. (See more at www.umattr.com.)

Then Leadership San Juan, a local community leadership development group that included representatives from the United Way and our community college showed an interest in partnering with us. One of my teachers took the lead in meeting with them and identifying some of our seniors who were struggling. They developed a list of local business and community leaders, including representatives from our own district, who would come in to mentor those seniors. Now, each week we have a steady stream of local businesspeople coming to eat lunch with our students and encourage them to reach their academic goals. A year-end banquet and special seats at graduation celebrated the strong support they provided our most at-risk seniors.

Deon Brown and Chris Parker, community volunteers who coordinate mentors at FHS for Freshman advisory.

We also realized we needed supports earlier than senior year. We looked for ways to strengthen our advisory system for freshmen, but our teachers were already overwhelmed. A community group made up of local pastors asked how they could help. Using nationally recognized curricula, the Four Corners Inspire program mobilized community volunteers to get background checks, prepare in advance, and come in once a week to share the lessons with our freshman classes. Not only did this address some of the social/emotional issues that students were struggling with, it also gave them another caring adult in their lives each week. Our hope is to expand this to our upper level classes in the years to come. (See a promotional video here.)

Giving struggling students care for their immediate needs was a priority, but giving them hope for their future was also necessary. Academics make more sense when students see the application, and this is something our local business and industry partners can provide.

We found that local businesses just wanted to be invited to speak to classes, serve on career advisory teams, or have students train in their workplaces. A local oil and gas business partner now provides an internship class at its office building each year, while also coordinating annual “It’s Your Life” presentations to freshmen with local business leaders teaching the lessons. Beyond that, it funded full-time staff to help students get into college and find scholarship funds. We call it Financial Aide College Entrance (FACE), and last year our graduating class of 350 students were offered up to $10 million in scholarships.

While we still have work to do to strengthen each of these areas, the results we have seen in the last few years have been incredible. Our graduation rate improved 15 percent and is now over 83 percent. We believe this will only improve as our student support network continues to develop.

I believe we need to open the doors of our schools!  Local community partners are out there and are open to helping if we simply invite them. When teachers find themselves overwhelmed with all of the additional responsibilities, sometimes the answer is waiting outside our school and in our communities.

Tim Kienitz has been principal at Farmington High School for eight years and an administrator for the past 20 years. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in The Kingdom of Tonga, spent 17 years in education on the Navajo Reservation, and is married to Cynthia Kienitz with two daughters, Ashley and Chantel.

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