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In a Struggling School District, Partnerships Bring Progress

The graduation rate in Cuba, N.M., rose to 95 percent after schools engaged family members, aligned with colleges and embraced Native culture.

A student in the Cuba school district in 2020. The district has overhauled its curriculum, added an Indian education department and hired Native American employees in order to improve graduation rates.

This article is part of our Learning special report about how the pandemic has continued to change how we approach education.

In the Cuba, N.M., school district, where one-third of the 741 students are homeless, the creation of a community school district was a response to vast needs.

The three-school district — elementary, middle and high school — is 79 percent Native American and 20 percent Latino. In 2018, 62 percent of the students graduated high school.

But the state of New Mexico, which has long struggled with chronic absenteeism and poor academic achievement, has embraced community schools. The concept, which more districts are adopting since the pandemic highlighted the central role of neighborhood schools, involves, among other things, integrating nonprofits, businesses and colleges on the school site to offer services to students and their families.

The state’s interest has trickled down to Cuba, where the amount of poverty, among other factors, has made it the state’s highest-risk district. Its children have a hard time finishing, let alone, succeeding, in school.

Karen Sanchez-Griego, who became superintendent of the Cuba school district in 2018, plunged into the effort, determined to make a real difference.

“If you don’t create the systemic change within your organization, then it just becomes a Band-Aid,” she said.

Dr. Sanchez-Griego overhauled the curriculum, added an Indian education department and hired Native American employees who spoke the Navajo language, Dine, “to better reflect and more fully communicate with the community,” she said.

She used part of the $150,000 provided by the state to hire a community schools director, Victoria Dominguez, a social worker and graduate of the Cuba district.

Ms. Dominguez established Cuba Cares, an on-site pantry with free food, clothes, cribs and even appliances. In a district where, Dr. Sanchez-Griego said, almost half the children are raised by their grandparents, Ms. Dominguez also hired two grandparents to fold clothes in Cuba Cares and connect with other grandparents who are raising children.

In addition, along with the Indian education department, she set up the Parent University to provide classes and gatherings for family members to learn and discuss the education development of their children.

The school district also created a partnership with the University of New Mexico and University of Colorado Boulder to hire students to research their own communities’ language and culture.

In 2022, the district’s graduation rate rose by more than one-third to 95 percent, Dr. Sanchez-Griego said.

“The district is really diving into breaking the cycle,” Ms. Dominguez said. “We have students who say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go to college, I’m going to learn this really cool trade.’ It’s so empowering to hear that when just a few years ago, that same student was saying, ‘I’m just going to be on my grandma’s couch the rest of my life.’”

Alina Tugend, a New York-based journalist, frequently writes on education for The New York Times and other national publications. She is the author of the book “Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong.”

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