KUNM

READ: APS School Board Candidates' Views On Racial Inequities

Oct 29, 2019

The Albuquerque Public School board members control a massive budget and policies affecting more than 80,000 students. Three seats are up for election this fall, and KUNM invited candidates on to a live radio show on Oct. 24 to ask what they hope to do about longstanding disparities related to race, language access, class and disability. 

The conversation is framed around the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez v. New Mexico case, a landmark lawsuit that established that the state violated the law and has failed to provide adequate education to students learning English, Native American students, students with disabilities, and those from families with low incomes.

Below are transcripts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Watch the entire hour-long show here:

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Yolanda Montoya-Cordova

Age 61

District 1 – South Valley (incumbent)

Deputy Secretary for the Department of Workforce Solutions, Graduated from Rio Grande High School

KUNM: New Mexico public schools have a painful history of forcing students to assimilate into White, English-speaking settler culture. And we know that, still, just a fraction of APS students from non-English-speaking families have their first language embedded in their schooling. As a board member, what steps would you take to ensure that all students have access to bilingual, multicultural education?

MONTOYA-CORDOVA: There’s a lot of things that APS is already doing that I’d like to see continued. I’m really proud of our bilingual seal programs, and I like the fact that we’re actually trying to increase the types and numbers of languages that we’re gonna be making available. I think children can be biliterate in their family language, their cultural language. I, as a student, grew up with a family that spoke Spanish, and school didn’t provide me that opportunity. Yes, I could take Spanish classes, but there wasn’t the cultural ethnic studies that was associated with that. When I went to UNM and took my first Chicano studies courses, I remember being extremely enlightened by that, and I wished that would’ve happened to me when I was [an APS] student, because I would’ve had a better understanding, a better sense of pride about where my family was. Yes, we live in the South Valley, it’s a very multicultural community, and that cultural piece needs to be represented in the classroom. So I like seeing our students having access to ethnic studies. I like the fact that we’re gonna promote more New Mexico history that’s inclusive history so that we can talk about our Native American brothers and sisters, as well as our Latino families that have been a part of the community forever.

KUNM: Students of color who have disabilities are disproportionately likely to face harsh discipline that takes them out of the classroom and puts them in early contact with the criminal justice system. If elected, what policies or budget priorities would you support to disrupt that school-to-prison pipeline?

MONTOYA-CORDOVA: I know with my background in child welfare and juvenile justice, I’ve been really concerned about the number of children of color that are system-impacted. A lot of the things we could have done to address that would be making school-based health centers available, so we’d have access to mental health, more training for our teachers on [Adverse Childhood Experiences] (ACES) and trauma-informed approaches or practices and restorative justice practices as well. I think it’s really critical that that lens is there, that that truth lies there. When we see the number of boys of color and kids with disabilities that end up through that [criminal justice] system, we need to ask ourselves why. I think there are things we can do to curb that tide, and again it’s things through supportive services, mental health services, and then just that opportunity for us to really, truly understand the makeup of the families that we’re serving and the impacts it’s having for these children as they’re trying to integrate into school. It’s also important that we focus on professional development with our teachers. I think our staff – all teachers, school principals, everyone – needs to be aware of what those children come with and what the needs are so that we can address those effectively.

MELISSA [Caller]: I live in the South Valley, and sometimes our schools are marginalized by the media. I’d like to know why the candidates think this is happening, and how, as a board member, they will address this?

MONTOYA-CORDOVA: I remember growing up in the South Valley and always feeling marginalized because I was from the South Valley. When I went to UNM, I remember people almost being apologetic that I had graduated from Rio Grande. It was definitely a mind-meld, I mean, I remember feeling somewhat self-conscious about that. But the South Valley is a beautiful community, and there’s a lot of new activity that’s going on there. As a board member, I’ve really tried to bring to light the strengths and the resilience of the South Valley. We’ve got some of the largest numbers of students participating in the biliteracy program, and the students coming out with that seal; that’s really incredible and important to me. I’ve also celebrated some of the schools we have, like Los Padillas actually pulling itself out of that [Most Rigorous Intervention] status and doing what they’ve done to engage the community. The South Valley has some incredible community schools. What I want to do with the media is I want them to pay attention to that and look at that, so that we can say “yes, the South Valley is celebrated, it’s a great community.”

KUNM: How would you address widespread marginalization of indigenous students in APS schools?

MONTOYA-CORDOVA: We need to take a real serious look at that Indian Education Act.  It’s never been fully funded. We have to own up to that, and I think that’s what the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit is telling us to do. We never really have had a way of bringing curriculum into the schools that’s really focused on our Indian population, and really recognizing and acknowledging that we’re sitting on Native land, this is about our Native American brothers and sisters. We should start with them, they’re the Indigenous people first. This is their country, this is their land. How do we make them feel that – all the way from artifacts in schools, to the way we name schools, so that we make sure we’re not marginalizing this population any more than we need to. I want to celebrate the beauty of that Native American culture. My family is from Isleta Pueblo; because we were never really part of that, I felt like I really missed a lot of that. I’m learning a whole lot more as I’ve been on the board, and I think that’s an area that we need to improve on.

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Madelyn Jones

Age 79

District 1 – South Valley

Business owner, Graduated from Highland High School

KUNM: New Mexico public schools have a painful history of forcing students to assimilate into White, English-speaking settler culture. And we know that, still, just a fraction of APS students from non-English-speaking families have their first language embedded in their schooling. As a board member, what steps would you take to ensure that all students have access to bilingual, multicultural education?

JONES: Actually, because of my age, and because of the fact that I live in an area where I’m White and other people are not… I grew up and live in a section where color’s not really noticeable down there. We have the Indian population, we have Spanish population, we have White population. South Valley’s like its own little town. Everybody’s the same. We grew up that way. My kids grew up that way. So what’s happening now in the schools is a question to me as to why it even happened in the first place. The question that I have is, why was that not part of the curriculum when my kids went to school down there? Is it just something new that has started? I don’t understand where it even came from in the first place.

KUNM: Students of color who have disabilities are disproportionately likely to face harsh discipline that takes them out of the classroom and puts them in early contact with the criminal justice system. If elected, what policies or budget priorities would you support to disrupt that school-to-prison pipeline?

JONES: Because I’m outside of the educational sphere, I see things completely different. I think that our problem is that we don’t see the students as children, period. Not Black, not White, they’re children. And all children come with a certain package of who they are, what they do, and how they do it. We keep splitting them into all these different groups, saying that “you have this,” “you have that,” instead of treating them as children needing an education.

MELISSA [Caller]: I live in the South Valley, and sometimes our schools are marginalized by the media. I’d like to know why the candidates think this is happening, and how, as a board member, they will address this?

JONES: The more that you talk about differences, instead of what is the same, then you start putting people into these cubbyholes. The South Valley has the reputation of being the place where crime is, and “everything that’s bad is in the South Valley,” and that is not the case. So it’s a lesson that has to be taught to everyone: that these differences are not the problem. The problem is that, from the time that a child is born, they’re in a family. And the family is the cohesiveness of what that child is going to be. And if the families have problems, then the child is going to have problems, and that’s where we need to start. But the media is just reacting to what is in our society today, which is a very high crime rate.

KUNM: How would you address widespread marginalization of indigenous students in APS schools?

JONES: Considering that I’m a businessowner, and we hire everybody, whether they’re Indian, whether they’re black, whether they’re Asian. And we don’t look at them that way. So maybe that really is the problem. Every child needs to learn how to read, whether they’re Indian or whether they’re White. It doesn’t make any difference. If they know how to read, then they will know how to see things around them differently. Maybe they see themselves as less. And never, never, never is any child less. So maybe we need to teach the children that they’re just the same as everybody else.

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Laurie Harris

Age 59

District 2 – Northwest ABQ

Retired educator; Taught at Jefferson MS, Cibola HS, Truman MS

KUNM: What trainings, books, conversations or other resources have been helpful to you in learning about how racism and race-based inequities affect students of color in New Mexico?

HARRIS: When I first came to New Mexico in 1997, we were in the middle of another lawsuit where we had not been appropriately teaching students who had language issues. We were making too many of them into special education. So all teachers were trained at that time, and still are to this day, on how to scaffold and help children with language problems to learn in the best ways possible and to give them support. Rather than trying to just introduce a topic that might be totally foreign to a student who speaks a different language, that you would introduce it in a way so that they would get background knowledge.

KUNM: Victoria, an APS parent who is Native American, sent us this next question through our Instagram. She asks: Are you familiar with the New Mexico Indian Education Act? What steps would you take as a board member to ensure the district complies with that state law? 

HARRIS: That’s not something I’ve researched or really studied enough to give a really good answer on that. But I do know that, in my 26 years, I’ve taught lots of diverse children, and I’ve learned a lot from them. I would say we need to listen to what struggles they’re having and try to meet those needs.

KUNM: Searchlight New Mexico recently reported on APS’ use of threat assessments – evaluations meant to flag students who might commit mass shootings. The report found special education students and Black students were disproportionately targeted for those assessments, though mass school shootings are typically committed by White students. As a board member, what steps would you take to address the unfair criminalization of students of color and students with disabilities?

HARRIS: These groups of students that we’re seeing now are much more open to social justice issues. Maybe that’s why some of these people that feel the most unfairly treated are sometimes the ones who are showing what we would consider behavior issues, but actually they’re just trying to stand up for themselves. So I think we need to start asking why they’re getting in trouble and what we can do to solve those issues for them.

For instance, I had a voter recently ask me how I felt about the students who left class for the gun violence issues. I think this voter was concerned that kids are leaving class to speak up for things that are important to them. But this group of students that we’re currently working with, they are going to continue to do that. It’s kind of a radical group of kids, and they’re not gonna put up with what they see as injustice. And so I think we just are gonna have to really learn to deal with that and live with them the way they are.

KUNM: Students of color who have disabilities are disproportionately likely to face harsh discipline that takes them out of the classroom and puts them in early contact with the criminal justice system. If elected, what policies or budget priorities would you support to disrupt that school-to-prison pipeline?

HARRIS: The work that’s going on right now in our district with restorative justice is the correct direction. I’m not sure teachers are all bought into the whole idea of restorative justice practices, but we’re talking about doing more professional development, more time spent training teachers so we can get them on board with those ideas and teach them the tricks and the tools that they need to not just rely on traditional discipline. It’s really all about looking at the reasons behind [the kids’] problems. Not just telling them, “this is bad, don’t do this again,” but showing them that in life, in the real world, we’re gonna have consequences that aren’t about shaming somebody, or aren’t about telling you that you’re bad. It’s more about making up for what you did or learning the natural consequences of things.  

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Peggy Muller-Aragón

District 2 – Northwest ABQ (incumbent)

Muller-Aragón did not respond to KUNM's multiple requests to participate. 

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Verland Coker

Age 26

District 4 – Southeast ABQ

Dropped out of Highland High School

KUNM: APS students say they often have teachers and curricula that fail to incorporate Indigenous histories, languages, or ways of knowing. What steps would you take to ensure Native American students get what they need to succeed in school?

COKER: First of all, some contextualization. I myself am Native American. I speak from experience in high school and in college as well; I had an issue at the Institute for American Indian Arts over racist material as well. Every single candidate here has an overall inadequate understanding of what the actual issue is in terms of Native American representation in the curriculum. The New Mexico standards themselves, for social studies, are woefully inadequate. There isn’t a single mention of even the word genocide, or dealing with, say, the boarding school issue. [The standards] phrase the participation of Native Americans in the American Revolution as what was the core ideals they shared with the American people: land rights and freedom of religion, things that the American people were actively infringing on. This has to do with APS saying to [the Public Education Department] that this is inadequate, that this is part of the reason why the Martinez-Yazzie case happened in the first place. We shouldn’t even have textbooks as a requirement. Sure, we can have some in the classroom, because they are useful from time to time, but they’re kind of a waste of money as we have them required. We should be shifting into open education resources, which allows for more diverse ways to do it and it’s nigh entirely free. It’s how I’ve gotten my entire education. It is a part of the overall crisis in education.

ELLEN [Caller]: I know that a small percentage of the blind community are not getting the instruction in Braille and other stuff that they need. How does this all fit in for the blind community getting the education that they need?

COKER: There’s not a lot of focus on the classical disabilities, as it were. We don’t really deal with these sorts of disabilities in a way that is inclusive to the classroom. It does link back to the textbook thing, because if we had textbooks as a non-requirement – and shifted to open educational resources – a lot of the money that goes to procurement of textbooks could then go to the procurement of materials for the blind. That’s a very easy budget solution, and that’s sort of like step one. The ideal goal would be to have project-based learning, 21st Century Education, that can involve students with these disabilities without excluding them. A lot of what happens in the classroom is that we sort of section these students off instead of actually integrating them into the classroom with their friends and everyone, and that’s one of the biggest issues in how we deal with inclusion overall, regardless of race or disability. A lot of it has to deal with the way we’re teaching in general: all of it’s based on memorization and regurgitation, and that doesn’t really help anybody, especially those with disabilities who need to develop the skills they need to actively work in the workforce, or to have a fulfilling life in general.

KUNM: A recent investigation by Searchlight New Mexico found that APS has been lying to federal regulators about its use of restraint and seclusion, practices that frequently traumatize students with disabilities. As a board member, what would you do to ensure that students with disabilities are safe and respected in schools? 

COKER: I was actually recently at an event hosted by Searchlight New Mexico. One of the things they addressed is that the seclusion and restraint issue is sort of an after-the-fact kind of thing. Like if you’re at that point, it’s already too late; you’ve already messed up doing your job as a special education teacher. And the reason all of this interlinks together with what I’m trying to push education towards – which is  21st century education – is that a lot of it is about addressing a frustration. The pipeline is that there’s an expectation that the student needs to meet, they can’t meet it, and the way they communicate that is different – for special needs students, that usually means that they act out. And when you focus on what expectation they’re supposed to meet, and why that expectation shouldn’t be expected or the viability of the expectation, you bypass the entirety of that punishment system of that physical restraint.

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Barb Petersen

Age 67

District 4 – Southeast ABQ

Retired educator; Taught at Valle Vista ES, Cortez ES, Acoma ES

KUNM: APS students say they often have teachers and curricula that fail to incorporate Indigenous histories, languages, or ways of knowing. What steps would you take to ensure Native American students get what they need to succeed in school?

PETERSEN: Children are different. Children come in the door with different assets and backgrounds, and we need to approach it out of respect for: who are you when you first walk in the door? Do you see yourself in the curriculum? As much as possible, is your language recognized and respected? We need to build on those strengths, because they are strengths. We just recently went through the adoption of social science materials, civics books, history books, and it’s a little appalling to see how little has changed since 50 years ago in what those textbooks look like. So one of the things we need to do is give teachers, especially those master ethnic studies teachers, the ability to have resources to purchase the materials that they know will respond to who’s in their classroom, and who our community is, what our real history is. The other part is professional development. Lots of times we see professional development as top-down, one-hit, “here’s what you’re supposed to do,” and no chance to deal with colleagues and to really explore ideas: “What does that mean in the classroom?” “How’s my teaching reflecting the children in my room?” Giving teachers that opportunity is essential.

ELLEN [Caller]: I know that a small percentage of the blind community are not getting the instruction in Braille and other stuff that they need. How does this all fit in for the blind community getting the education that they need?

PETERSEN: I think the challenge for APS is to figure out how to meet needs as seen by a family for a child. I know in the hearing-impaired community, for instance, there are people who strongly believe in using American Sign Language. There are other people who believe equally strongly in integration and other kinds of accommodations. So it’s a real challenge for a district: How do we open it up and listen to the variety of the spectrum of needs? Some of the best, most satisfying teaching I ever did was in an inclusion classroom where I teamed with a special ed teacher, and really working through: how do we make sure what we’re teaching is accessible to everyone? How do we make sure that the real particular needs of individual students are met, and at the same time create a community and environment that pulls everyone in and lets everyone develop relationships with each other? Again, a lot of it goes back to having time: time for teachers and schools to listen to families, time for teachers to listen to children, and time to work with each other as colleagues for how we meet those needs.

KUNM: A recent investigation by Searchlight New Mexico found that APS has been lying to federal regulators about its use of restraint and seclusion, practices that frequently traumatize students with disabilities. As a board member, what would you do to ensure that students with disabilities are safe and respected in schools? 

PETERSEN: I have no idea about the specific circumstances. I know APS as a whole has a very good policy on restraint and seclusion. I think adequate staffing and adequate professional development is absolutely essential. And again, being able to have the time to think about how we’re meeting kids’ needs. Because on the other side of it, I hear from parents who are saying “my child’s class was removed from the classroom and is missing instructional time because of how volatile some children are.” So clearly we have a responsibility, as a district, to meet the needs of the whole spectrum of children, whether it’s the most fragile, volatile child, or the child who comes in ready to go, academically.

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