By Nancy Harmon
If you listen to a lot of news coverage and often despair for the future of our country and our world, you are like me—and many of our fellow citizens. While being aware of what’s going on around us is essential if we want to be active, involved citizens, I recognize the dire consequences of news saturation on my mood and sense of well-being. The best panacea for the doldrums of the bad news cycle is some good news, and there’s plenty of it that gets little notice. Denise and I have intentionally set out to discover inspiring places and people here in Albuquerque, where we started in South Valley.
The South Valley is a lovely part of this high-desert city. The Rio Grande meanders through it on the east, lined by the longest cottonwood forest in the world. Acequias provide communal arteries for pumping water from the river to the many family farmers in the area. To the north is Route 66 and to the south Isleta Pueblo, a Native community dating back hundreds of years. The West Mesa is burgeoning with housing developments for young families and one community that somehow survives without basic infrastructure like water, electricity, and paved roads. These geographical features help to create the South Valley’s unique identity.
You can drive for miles through the South Valley along Isleta Boulevard and see signs in Spanish for tailors, car-repair shops, restaurants serving menudo, paleterias (shops selling popsicles of fresh fruit, lime, and chile) and other locally owned businesses. Brightening the sides of buildings are colorful murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe, flowers, chiles, and peaceful farms. El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) parade has grown over the last 15 years from a small local parade with floats created by school kids to an attraction with floats covered in marigolds and festive skeletons. The parade is so popular that it creates traffic jams on the bridge into the Valley. The one-of-a-kind National Hispanic Cultural Center anchors the culture of the Valley with an art museum, gardens, restaurant, and performance spaces. The rhythms of flamenco and world-beat music reverberate from the stage, and the latest exhibit in the art gallery featured the history and craft of piñatas!
In amongst the rural peacefulness and thriving culture of the area are the homes of residents, many of them Mexican American, who often struggle to make a living. Some work two low-paying jobs and send their children to under-performing local schools. Others work small farms and sell their crops at local farmers’ markets. A few have never left the familiarity of the area to cross the Rio Grande to the main part of the city to the east. Many people on the east side of the city have never visited the South Valley because of its isolation and a reputation for crime. But the unique identity of the Valley and the economic struggles of its residents have led to some interesting and successful innovations.
I worked for six years at South Valley Academy, which began in 2004 as a charter high school and now has expanded to include a middle school as well. In spite of the fact that 95% of its student body qualify for free breakfast and lunch, it has a reputation for academic rigor and requires a lot of its teachers and students, many of whom speak English as a second language. One of its most powerful programs is service learning. Every Thursday afternoon, the school commits to sending all students out into the community on school buses; students go to the same site throughout the entire school year. Freshmen tutor in elementary schools, sophomores are placed in nonprofit organizations, juniors are required to find their own placement based on career goals, and seniors research a social-justice issue and create a project with a community partner that contributes to efforts in that area. They present an exhibition to the community in the spring, showcasing their work and reflecting on the process.
The program is powerful for a couple of reasons. Because a majority of SVA’s students are immigrants living in this isolated, rural part of the city, the program offers a unique chance for them to explore the wider community and make a contribution to it. The sense of being valued at their site builds self-confidence and a feeling of belonging, and the real-world experience exposes them to skills needed in the workplace. School seems more relevant.
While their work in the community is the most important part of the program, the follow-up back at the school helps students to fit it into a bigger picture. Regularly scheduled classes and activities offered by service-learning staff help students to explore questions that deepen the experience: How does learning happen? What makes a community? What is justice? What factors influence change? Students also write résumés, practice phone and interview skills, and learn about budgets and setting financial goals. The entire school faculty and staff become participants during two site visits each semester that not only provide feedback on each student but also foster a connection between school and community partners. Those partners are invited to a celebration at the school at the end of the year, to thank them for their mentorship. At that time, the bond that has developed between the two is usually very apparent.
While South Valley Academy still has work to do on its scores for PARCC (the achievement test required by the state of New Mexico), I believe that service learning plays a crucial role in SVA’s high graduation and college attendance rates. When students have an opportunity to gain meaningful work experience in their community and feel a sense of consistent contribution to an important effort, they no longer need to be told that education really is important.
Our next blog post will continue the exploration of what works in Albuquerque’s South Valley, with an article on the South Valley Economic Development Center.
Questions to Consider:
1. What is the difference between service learning and community service?
2. In what other ways might educators bring schools and communities together to support real-world education?