Aztec school district gets $700k state grant to transform high school education experience

Funding comes from NM Public Education Department through state Legislature

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON − A national committee comprised of college presidents, professors, school administrators and government officials was convened in 1892 and charged with the task of examining the job American high schools were doing educating their students − and developing recommendations for how those outcomes could be improved.

That so-called Committee of Ten issued a report two years later that led to the institutionalization and standardization of many of the ideas and practices that remain in effect in American high schools today.

Now, Kevin Summers, the superintendent of the Aztec Municipal School District, figures it might be time to revisit some of those notions. After 130 years of educators adhering to the same requirements, he said, there's bound to be some freshening up needed.

That's why he's so excited about his district's new Innovation Zones initiative. The district last week received a grant of more than $715,000 from the New Mexico Public Education Department to transform its traditional educational model and improve its high school experience, according to a news release from the agency.

The Aztec Municipal School District was one of 20 districts across the state to receive one of the grants, with the awards ranging from $150,000 to $750,000. The fact that his district was one of those receiving a grant at the high end of that scale was especially pleasing to Milo McMinn, Aztec's director of career technical education who authored the district's proposal.

Kevin Summers, left, superintendent of the Aztec Municipal School District, and Milo McMinn, director of career technical education, go over some of the details of the district's Innovation Zone initiative on July 25 at district headquarters.

"In a district like Aztec, because of our (enrollment) numbers, we don't get a lot of (career technical education) funding," he said. "But this allows us to do a lot more innovative stuff for our kids, which is very exciting."

State education officials, backed with funding and support from the state Legislature, have set a high bar for the program, describing it as something that essentially will revolutionize New Mexico's high schools, creating a new education model that improves graduation rates and makes the schools more relevant to students.

Each district chosen for the program has been given a great deal of latitude to achieve those outcomes the best way it sees fit.

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"Our program will look different from Rio Rancho's, and that will look different from Hobbs," McMinn said.

Summers said that kind of freedom gives grant recipients the power to be creative.

"We've got almost carte blanche authority from the state," he said.

Eventually, PED officials hope to identify the most successful approaches and elements, then export them to the rest of the state's public high schools.

"This pilot project recognizes and builds on work that's been going on across New Mexico for decades to enhance the high school experience," PED Secretary Kurt Steinhaus states in the news release. "These schools are already leaders in this work. Now they'll officially serve as incubators where new strategies can grow, evolve and flourish."

Centerpiece of the program

McMinn submitted Aztec's grant proposal in June, and the district found out late last week it had been chosen to participate in the Innovation Zones program.

That didn't leave much time to implement many of the ideas in the proposal before the start of the fall semester at Aztec High School and Vista Nueva High School. But McMinn said Aztec already was committed to making many of those changes regardless of whether it received the grant money.

The more than $700,000 his district will receive from the state will allow Aztec schools to greatly increase the scale of its efforts, McMinn said, noting that a paid student internship program with a price tag of more than $286,000 will be the centerpiece.

The changes Aztec officials hope to implement are centered on one idea, McMinn and Summers said − how can the district serve as a driver of economic activity? Aztec's Innovation Zone work is designed to help students identify their career interests and aptitudes, then funnel them in that direction through 11 career tech pathways that include animal science, natural resources, agriculture mechanics and machinery, teacher education, health care, welding, construction trades, information technology, computer science, military science, engineering, and other CTE offerings, including entrepreneurship and even unmanned aircraft systems operation.

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Those pathways would direct students toward classes that help prepare them for a college major, a certificate or licensure program, or a full-time job. That stands in contrast to the current approach of letting students pick their own random electives that often don't do much, if anything, to prepare them for the future.

"We want to give kids exposure to careers that are high wage, high growth," McMinn said.

Through a series of local partners, the district plans to offer 100 students each year a paid internship of six hours a week at a job that closely matches their career interests. That experience will provide the students with a little spending money and valuable hands-on experience, but it also will allow them to develop contacts that could lead to their being hired for a job upon graduation, McMinn said.

Summers noted that the district had no students involved in paid internship programs during the last school year.

Kevin Summers

"If we can change that number from zero to 100, that's amazing," he said. "That's almost our entire graduating class."

McMinn said it sometimes doesn't take much to generate a spark between a student and a potential career. He recalled his own experience, when he thought he wanted to be a police officer early in his high school years.

But after taking part in a ride-along program with a cop, McMinn decided that career wasn't for him. Almost on a whim, he tried an internship with a kindergarten teacher and discovered to his surprise that he was fascinated with education.

That kind of exposure to real-life work experiences can help students discover early on what kind of careers for which they are and are not suited, McMinn said.

The district's partners in the paid internship program runs all the way from entities such as San Juan College and the Jaynes Corporation, one of the state's largest construction contractors, to Kare Drug, a locally owned and operated pharmaceutical chain. Summers said the conversations he has had with business leaders in the program about what they are looking for from interns center less on specific abilities and more on strength-of-character issues.

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"They weren't able to pinpoint for us any hard skill," he said. "It was more along the lines of humility, discipline, responsibility and teamwork."

Summers said there are several metrics by which the success of the program in his district will be judged, including the graduation rate and enrollment in such programs as FFA. But he said a lot of it will come down to what he called the "sniff test," meaning if students simply appear to be more engaged in and excited about their education, the Innovation Zones initiative will be deemed a success.

"Our goal is to get everybody across our (graduation ceremony) stage and well on their way to an associate degree or certificate program, or provide them with a concrete connection to be able to enter the workforce immediately through their internship with one of our business partners," he said.

McMinn said a piecemeal approach to fixing the high school experience in New Mexico no longer makes any sense.

"Instead of putting another Band-Aid on our system, we're rewriting our system," he said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription: