A creative solution for low-income schools

Let’s humiliate the schools a little more, says the Public Education Department. That’s a great way to motivate and encourage students.

While this is going on, there’s news of a bright spot.

The humiliation: PED has released the “grades” of schools throughout the state, and the grades are a little lower than last year. This, says the department, is because of the standardized PARCC tests that were forced on school districts. Students didn’t do well on the unfamiliar tests, so the test results depressed the evaluations of the schools. All very logical, except if your motive is to give some encouragement to a state that is constantly being beaten up by low rankings.

Here’s the bright spot.

A school in Albuquerque came up with a program that empowers kids, brings parents into the education process, makes good use of school facilities, involves teachers and community volunteers in a friendly way, and supports learning, all at the same time. And it provides a free meal.

The program is called Homework Diner. It started at Manzano Mesa Elementary School, located in a low-income neighborhood in Albuquerque. It has spread to several other schools.

How it works: close to dinner time, children come to the school cafeteria with parents and siblings. First they receive tutoring and help with homework from teachers and volunteers, with parents participating. This gives the parents a chance to learn how to help their children with homework. After the homework session, parents and children together get a freshly cooked nutritious dinner.

Food is provided at low cost through Roadrunner Food Bank. Funding is from a combination of city government and private sources, so the families eat free. The dinner is prepared by students from the culinary arts program of Central New Mexico Community College (the former T-VI), with help from volunteers.

Early reports show this program to be a smashing success. It’s helped to raise the children’s performance in school, improved communication between parents and teachers, encouraged some parents to enter adult education programs, and brought families together. The free dinner – a luxury for overworked low-income parents — seems to have attracted parents who might not otherwise get involved in their children’s homework.

Especially great is the fact this is a grass roots volunteer-driven effort entirely outside the stultifying regulatory box.

We’re in a time of rampant frustration with the public schools’ uninspired uniformity, the top-down bureaucratic structure, the narrow curriculum and the obsessive emphasis on testing and grades. This is so refreshingly different.

Over recent decades, the education system has shifted from local autonomy to more and more centralization, beginning in New Mexico in the 1970s with state control of school funding and continuing with increases in both state and federal mandates. Certainly there were serious flaws in having school districts run entirely by local school boards, but we’re now seeing the fruit of all this centralization, and we’re not happy with the results it’s producing.

Homework Diner shows that the secret to breaking free can be simple. Do it after the regular school day, with volunteers and funding from whatever sources you can find. And feel free to vary the program to fit local preferences.

Any school can do this. Roadrunner Food Bank distributes statewide. A national organization called Cities of Service has even written a step-by-step manual on how to create a Homework Diner program and identified the necessary resources. The manual, with contributions from Albuquerque city government, is online at citiesofservice.org.

If I were a school principal trying to set up such a program, I would impose one condition on my planning: I would take not one dime for this program from the PED or the regular budget, because eventually somebody from higher up would try to control it.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2015

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