50CAN President Derrell Bradford interviews NewMexicoKidsCAN Executive Director Amanda Aragon regarding the launch of NMEducation.org, a news website that seeks to meet parent demands for greater insight and analysis into the Land of Enchantment’s schools. Amanda also shares more about her work, priorities during the pandemic and the state’s recent use of the National Guard to keep schools open during the Omicron wave.
Hey everybody, I’m Derrell Bradford, I’m the president of 50 Can and I’m excited to be here with Amanda Aragon today who is the executive director of our campaign in the great state of New Mexico, NewMexicoKidsCAN. How’re you doing, Amanda?
I’m doing great. How are you, Derrell?
I’m okay. So I and our very lucky colleagues have the pleasure of knowing you well, and working with you, but everybody else doesn’t have that pleasure. So why don’t you tell folks a little bit about yourself and how you got here?
Sure. So I’m a born and raised New Mexican. I was born here in Albuquerque. And I have– like my whole family’s here, big Hispanic family, both times, lots of family get-togethers. And I went to New Mexico public schools and elementary with my cousins every day, which was a tremendously cool experience. But then I graduated from high school here, go Rio Rancho Rams. And I left for college and had a couple of unique experiences in college, that really made me think about how well prepared or how not well prepared I was for college, especially in comparison to peers and other states. So I went to the University of Tulsa was around kids from Texas, Missouri, private schools, public schools, California, like everywhere across the country. And there were five New Mexicans at the University of Tulsa. And we all felt behind in comparison. So like, that kind of stuck with me. Graduated from college, worked in the corporate sector in the oil and gas industry for six years, and then made a huge career change to go work at the New Mexico Public Education Department. And so I was there for two years. But once I got there, it was very clear that we didn’t have an education. And what I was seeing other states had was a lot more engagement from our communities themselves, and from our citizens in the state, like, education policy at that point was very much like the governor was in charge, and the legislature maybe did a little bit, and everyone else had kind of, like, opted out. And that’s just not good for policy. It’s not good for education. So I caught up with you all at 50CAN the education advocacy fellowship, and launched NewMexicoKidsCAN four years later, or four years ago, and two years after I started working at the department.
So four years it’s been, time flies.
So I know a lot about your work, I know you care, a great deal about issues of measurement and equity in particular. But across our whole network, the last two years have really changed our approach and our goal setting because of the pandemic. But you talk a little bit about what you’ve been up to since 2020?
Yeah. It’s interesting, given that we’ve been a thing for four years, and given that COVID has affected us for almost two now.
I didn’t know we were a thing.
[laughter] We’re an organization. And it’s kind of like pre-COVID, post-COVID, right. Like we’ve had two years pre-COVID. We’ve had two years of our existence as an organization post-COVID Almost. And we were really struggling as an education system before. You could look at any of the data, we have roughly, Pre-COVID, 30% of our kids reading on grade level, 20% of our kids doing math on grade level. And I think it’s really important to state those in a different way. So, two out of every three kids in New Mexico classrooms can’t read at their grade level and four out of every five kids can’t do math at their grade level. So terrible. This is not a system that’s optimized to give give our public school students what they need. That was pre-COVID. And then we entered COVID and New Mexico had more aggressive restrictions on in-person learning than many other states. A lot of our kids were out of the classroom for a year. We also had a change in administration that resulted in kind of a stopping and attempted resetting but then COVID happened of any sort of accountability system that has led to two years of no student assessment data, no teacher evaluation, no school accountability. So now we find ourselves in a place of we were really struggling before, we know that our kids, our students in New Mexico, partly because of their demographics, partly because we closed schools for so long, probably experienced COVID to a much more intense degree than some of their peers across the country and yet, we have no information about what that actually looks like because we don’t have any data coming out of the system feeding us information about how our kids experienced that. And so that’s really shaping a lot of our work now. We’re calling for a lot more transparency and accountability in the system so that we can make sure that this massive influx of money we have, both from the federal government and our state government, is actually getting directed to the things that we know are going to help our kids kind of climb out of this hole that unfortunately our policies put them in.
New Mexico is in the news right now. I noticed your Governor is literally calling in the troops to help with teacher shortages. You want to talk a little bit about that?
Yeah. I have really complicated feelings on it. I don’t think you’ll find bigger advocates for safe, in-person learning than NewMexicoKidsCAN. We were calling for that for so long. So on one hand, I really respect our governor for doing everything that she can to supply people to staff our schools during the Omicron wave. I understand we have a lot of instructional staff at our schools that are sick. They’re out. If you don’t have enough people in a building, you can’t run that school or building. I understand that. It’s frustrating because I think I feel like a lot of people across the country where we’re looking at data everyday trying to figure out what mitigations are working, which ones are kind of more for show, how do we actually create safe environments for our students. And then I think just the logistics for anyone who has worked in government, you know all of those people have to be background checked. All of those people are going to have to be fingerprinted. All of those people have to be given a provisional substitute license. I just don’t think that’s going to happen quickly enough and call me optimistic, but I hope the Omicron wave hits and passes through New Mexico in the next two weeks. And so for me, the next two weeks are critical and I’m not sure that this is a solution that’s going to help us over the next two weeks.
Yeah. And I mean certainly, you mentioned it earlier, there is a growing awareness in the sense that enormous amounts of federal and state money have been deployed to help manage these situations but they don’t seem to be managed particularly well even if they are unexpected in their acuteness. And that too is not optimal. So we talked about the news. And you have some news. You are launching a new project today. Would you care to share with our audience what that project is?
Yeah, I would love to. So today, we’re launching NMEducation.org. It is an education news site meant to inform everyone in New Mexico about what’s happening in our education system. It is such a pivotal part of the environment we’re trying to create as a state. It’s a big policy issue. It’s a big part of every person’s life whether you’re a parent, you’re a family member of a student, you are an employer who’s hoping to hire New Mexico students once they graduate. It affects us all. So we wanted to bring a product to everyone for free that really spends all of our time talking about what we find to be the most important thing which is education. So it will be updated multiple times a week with stories that we think are compelling about New Mexico’s education system.
And I know, I mean, other people may not know this and I know some of our colleagues might not know this, where we feel like they aren’t real people but there are education reporters out there. What is different about your site versus a person covering your traditional education beat for a newspaper?
Yeah. I mean, I think you can see this across the country, journalism is in an interesting space right now. I think staffing newsrooms across the country is, for many reasons, a great challenge. And so, unfortunately, despite the best efforts of incredible partners in the press which we have here in New Mexico, they don’t have enough capacity to cover education to the extent that we think it deserves to be covered. So I like to think of NMEducation.org as a complementary component to our statewide newspapers, our statewide media outlets because we’ll just have more time to focus on one topic, education, where they might be doing a little bit of legislative session, a little bit of education, a little bit of economy. Just trying their best to cover all of the news across New Mexico. And we are singularly focused on education.
Awesome. Well, I know you’ve been trying to get this off the ground for a long time. I’m excited for you and I’m happy that you’re going to take this on in the great state of New Mexico. I have one last question and then if you have some final words for folks, you can give them. Green or red?
Red. I’m a big red chili fan unless I’m eating a cheeseburger and then it has to be green.
Okay. All right. Any final words, Amanda?
No. I just hope people will take a few minutes to check out NMEducation.org and of course, I’d love to hear any feedback that anyone has. But I think people are really going to enjoy it.
Okay, great. Well, thanks for spending some time with us today, and good luck with your latest endeavor.
Thanks, Derrell. I appreciate it.