Donovan Nitonabah came to New Mexico with a broken heart.
At 16, he was already separated from his mother. Then his father died suddenly. The Navajo boy and his younger sister left their home in Window Rock, Arizona to live with their family in Santa Fe.
When he started classes at Capital High School, his grief was reflected in his grades.
“I was thinking about my dad and I couldn’t do my job,” Nitonabah said.
Then he met Sinte Torrez, a site coordinator for nonprofit communities in New Mexico schools, and slowly life began to change. Nitonabah, now 18 and senior, is one of 6,500
K-12 public school students in Santa Fe and Española benefited from the community program, whose mission is to empower students to stay in school.
As Communities In Schools celebrates its 10th year in New Mexico, it looks to success stories like Nitonabah to validate and encourage its role in helping children and teens inside and outside the walls of school.
Children at risk are identified in many ways, and each story is as unique as the student telling it, Torrez said. Some have incarcerated parents; others have two-parent families. Some have enough to eat; others find their only meals at school.
Traumatized students may lack concentration and have trouble staying awake or getting good grades. Some suffer from a lack of health care. It’s the strategy of serving students individually and holistically that creates success, Torrez said. It is a generational work.
The presence of the national Communities In Schools organization in Santa Fe is rooted in a grassroots program that began about 15 years earlier when the principal of Salazar Elementary School contacted parishioners at the United Church of Santa Fe. looking for volunteers to help children learn to read. .
This was the start of the Salazar partnership, which later expanded to other schools and was renamed Santa Fe For Students. One of the volunteers, Bill Carson, brought the local group under the wing of Communities In Schools in 2012 with the goal of expanding its reach in Santa Fe and beyond.
According to its annual report, all community-served children in New Mexico schools are entitled to free lunches. More than 91% identify as Hispanic and more than 77% report suffering from the emotional impacts of trauma. The program also supports students enrolled in special education.
When educators begin to see even subtle indications that a student might be in trouble, they turn to site coordinators like Torrez, who are trained in social work. Immigrant children who do not speak English are particularly vulnerable to dropping out of school, he said. English learners make up 45% of the list of communities in schools.
Nitonabah is a self-proclaimed introvert and has said he struggles to open up.
“When I met Sinte, I was in my shell,” Nitonabah said. “I used to go to his office for snacks. Now I consider him a big brother. He was always there to help me through things.
“Donovan wasn’t such a good student when I met him. I lured it with pizza,” Torrez said with a smile. “But I listened to it. I see it. I’m also part Native American.
Since Torrez started working for Communities In Schools eight years ago, the program has grown to have four site coordinators at Capital High alone, each serving 35 to 40 students.
His colleague, Adrian Sotelo, started working there as site coordinator three years ago. “We actually reach more students than that,” Sotelo said. “We like to say we have our official 35-40 – and then we have our unofficial 35-40.”
Sitting across from Sotelo, 17-year-old Emanuel Martinez Perez sported an enthusiastic smile and a lab coat, even though he had just come off the soccer field after group practice. “I play the tuba,” said the eldest. “But I also joined the medical program, so I still have my coat.”
Martinez Perez’s parents immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico a month before he was born. He came under the program’s cloak at the start of the pandemic, when he was a freshman and struggling with poor grades. The teenager was overwhelmed when his father’s construction job at a seaside resort cut his hours dramatically.
“There’s no way I’m giving up after all the hard work they’ve done to come here, but I was like, ‘How can I help my parents? I’m just a teenager. This’ was stressful,” he said.
Sotelo responded to the need. “I brought beans, rice, and tortillas, the staples of Latino households. We are aware of the community we serve, so we really try to be family-specific.
Sotelo inquired weekly about Martinez Perez’s personal care, family well-being and their emotional and financial stress levels.
“That’s why I was successful during this period. I haven’t fallen behind,” said Martinez Perez.
Sotelo said it’s often culturally expected that teenagers get jobs, “not for their own enjoyment, but to be able to pay the bills.” We teach them that they have the choice to go to school and succeed.
Sotelo was also able to help the family tap into emergency funding to pay the rent.
During the 2021-22 school year, Communities In Schools distributed more than $18,000 in emergency funds to 40 families. It also offered 50 service programs and delivered 93,000 meals through 13,458 hours of direct service. The organization received nearly $2 million that year from foundations, individuals, corporations, government entities, and public school funding, 80% of which was allocated for program costs alone.
According to a Communities In Schools impact report from that year, 71% of its students made progress in social and emotional learning and
80% improvement in attendance. Eighty-seven percent graduated.
According to the report, all Communities In Schools campuses have met or made progress toward academic goals.
In the coming years, Communities In Schools of New Mexico plans to expand its current programs in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties to support the social and emotional needs and academic growth of students, said Executive Director Julia Bergen. .
Capital High used to have a reputation for being a tough place, Torrez said. “Now he is competitive with others academically, athletically and in every other way.”
The school has demonstrated a 30% increase in its graduation rate since the program’s inception, according to the impact report.
Communities In Schools students receive tutoring and guidance, participate in programs focused on higher education and career development.
“A lot of us grew up like those guys, going to Head Start and low-income homes,” Torrez said.
After two years as a Communities In Schools student, Nitonabah is looking to graduate with a higher grade point average and, therefore, already has more options. He was accepted by the University of New Mexico but plans to study film at Santa Fe Community College, he said.
“They can be high risk or high need, but that doesn’t define them as individuals,” Torrez said. “He’s one of my greatest achievements, but he’s his own achievement. I’m just part of that story.