SANTA FE, N.M. - In a room full of well-educated community leaders at the Zona del Sol youth and family center on Wednesday, it was a 19-year-old high school dropout who stole the show.
Jesus Aguilar, part of a panel organized by the city of Santa Fe Children & Youth Commission to kick off its Transitional Education Program, told the harrowing story of his young life. He joined a gang when he was 5, took a bullet in his leg when he was 6 and still suffers back pain after he was jumped and beaten by about 20 other thugs.
He used and peddled drugs, got mixed up with weapons, was involved in drive-by shootings, and spent time in jail for various transgressions.
“The only time I felt a part of something was when I was making trouble,” he said.
As might be expected, he dropped out of school along the way.
He, along with other dropouts, is the type of kid the Transitional Education Program hopes to save. It is designed to offer instruction to students under suspension from school so that they won’t be too far behind when they return to their regular classrooms.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first in a series to organize a collaborative effort between Santa Fe Public Schools, the Santa Fe Children & Youth Commission, New Mexico Voices for Children, the Santa Fe Regional Juvenile Justice Board and several other local groups.
“The message is that collectively we need to value our youth, and that means all of them,” said Santa Fe City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez, who moderated the meeting. “When you give these kids a chance to succeed, the potential is endless.”
Dominguez told a personal story of his own, about how 25 years ago he worked for the Department of Corrections. It was a profound experience for him, he said, hearing the stories of men who grew up without the opportunities he had.
“One thing they all talked about was either they were kicked out of school or dropped out,” he said.
As a former school board member and now city councilor, Dominguez said he’s worked to help keep kids in school, pushing for apprentice programs and workforce development issues.
“There’s a lot of things we’re doing good, a lot of things we’re doing right, but there’s always room for improvement,” he said.
Bad place to be a kid
There’s a lot of room for improvement, according to a recently released report that ranks New Mexico last in child well-being.
Chris Hollis with New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy group, cited that report and other statistics that show that only about one-quarter of Santa Fe’s students are proficient in reading by the third grade. About one-third of eighth-graders are proficient in math.
Hollis said that just this Monday his group launched a campaign aimed at 16 indicators that measure well-being.
Santa Fe Children & Youth Commission also began its own effort to address those indicators.
“We have to do more,” said Sue Anne Herrmann, chair of the commission’s board of directors. “This program will be a start to move children to a position where they can succeed.”
The commission is proposing policy changes that include expanding after-school mentoring and tutoring programs, behavioral health programs for youth, and early childhood development programs, among others.
Santa Fe Public Schools is on board and is developing programs that align with the other efforts as part of its secondary education reform plan.
Superintendent Joel Boyd said education is a fundamental civil right in America and it’s ludicrous to kick kids out of school. He said children sometimes make bad choices, and it’s up to adults to show them guidance and support.
Santa Fe School Board President Linda Trujillo said the district is committed to closing the gap for students who veer off track, but it takes the whole community to make it happen.
“Once we prove this program will work, others will join us,” she said.
State Rep. Jim Trujillo said programs to benefit youth at risk of dropping out are great, but it takes money to make them work. That’s why he’s pushing for the state Legislature to increase funding for education.
Rep. Trujillo said a possible source is the state’s permanent fund, which now totals $16billion. By 2028, that fund will double.
“I see a lot of reasons for the dropout rate,” he said, mentioning substance abuse, domestic violence and poverty. “We need to attack those problems, but we need money to do it.”
‘A fresh start’
Aguilar, the former gang member, is an example of what can happen if resources are aligned.
Life is still tough for him, he said, but he’s getting help through YouthWorks, a nonprofit group that assists disadvantaged and at-risk children.
“I’m working hard, not to change my life around but to get a fresh start,” he said.
Aguilar said it took him 14 years to get his head straight and four years to get back on the path of education.
He now spends four days a week at YouthWorks, working to get his GED. He expects to meet the requirements in about a month.
“I think this (program) will help out our youth in building a better community. Because back then, I had nobody,” he said. “I would talk to people and they’d look me in the eye, but they didn’t listen.”
Aguilar now feels he’s part of something again. He’s making music and writing poetry he’s hoping to put in a book.
He received a standing ovation from the gathering of about 60 people when he finished his story.
“This is the first time I’ve seen Santa Fe come together at every level,” commented Chris Sanchez, manager of the Children & Youth Commission, at the end of the meeting. “I truly believe that it will take a community to change a community.”