UPDATE 1/31 2p: Peña-Hanson says she is no longer supporting both bills and that Gordon Bernell Charter School will focus only on HB 152.
New Mexico lawmakers are considering setting aside $6 million dollars in the higher education budget for some charter schools that educate adults. Last year, legislators changed the K-12 funding formula so public schools can no longer get money for students who are over 21.
That hit Gordon Bernell Charter School in Albuquerque particularly hard. Educators there work inside the Metropolitan Detention Facility and with people who’ve recently left lockup. KUNM spoke with the school’s director Kimberlee Peña-Hanson, who’s been working with the Higher Education Department for the past year to keep her school from shutting down.
PEÑA-HANSON: We knew we had to prevent our plane from crashing, that was our first goal. The second goal, however, was to ensure a pathway for adults statewide that were attending schools that provide similar infrastructure to ours. So we’re working closely with New America in Las Cruces and in Albuquerque to work together on the two bills. And that is SB 112 and HB 152.
KUNM: These measures would preserve funding not only for the students at Gordon Bernell, but for these other schools, as you said, is that right?
PEÑA-HANSON: It basically requires mission and vision initially designed to support students who are re-engaging, such as our adults. You have to have a certain percentage serving for five years or more. You have to be in good standing with your authorizer. Your governance council has to be in good standing. You have to be responsible fiscally. So it sets up all these standards so that schools that have been doing this kind of work can continue doing this work, but that we can let legislators know that we’re very serious about making sure it has measures in place to reassure taxpayers that money is being poured into programs that are successful with adults.
KUNM: Why do you think the movement to cap the age of public school funding happened? Was that just arbitrary or are there criticisms that you’ve heard of your program, or programs like yours?
PEÑA-HANSON: This is not new at all. It’s been something of concern to many legislators, the use of K-12 funding to fund adults. Last year, they had to respond to the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, so that was a big deal. But again, this has been something that’s been on the backburner for a long time. We were not ready for it to happen that quickly, though, and without the chance and opportunity to really discuss it first. For Gordon Bernell Charter School, since we have 80% adults in our program that receive this K-12 funding, it affects us most.
KUNM: What else do you want lawmakers to keep in mind about the role that your program plays in the community?
PEÑA-HANSON: We are at the intersection of criminal justice reform, recidivism, education, adult education and mental health and wellness. And so we are a small piece of these important reforms happening in New Mexico. I mean, there are some really exciting things happening around recidivism, around a trauma-informed approach, all of those things are models that we’ve embraced at Gordon Bernell Charter School for a long time.
We have a pulse on our demographic, we’ve been serving these families now for 11 years and we are able to keep track of their comings and their goings, so to speak, That’s not about quick completion, that is about going deep with our students and their families and really creating infrastructure around transitioning.
KUNM: Some people out there say opportunities like this should not be offered to people who are behind bars, that incarceration is supposed to be punishment only. What’s your response to that line of thinking?
PEÑA-HANSON: I invite these kinds of questions. I do not bristle, because the more I can educate stakeholders and legislators and the community, that’s great. The bottom line is that these are students and families that are in our communities. These are parents of students that are in schools statewide. These are individuals who have suffered generations of incarceration and trauma and drug addiction and lack of resources and access to education. I don’t want to focus on that without saying that our students come with incredible strengths. We’re trying to get away from “at-risk students” and say more “students with lived experience.” These are our community members and our families, and you can’t disconnect people from the community.
This coverage is part of the project: Your N.M. Government. Funding for our legislative coverage is provided, in part, by the Thornburg Foundation, the New Mexico Local News Fund and KUNM listeners like you.