District officials say early returns from Innovation Zones program in Aztec are positive

Community partners include businesses, schools, government entities

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The district received a $715,000 grant from the New Mexico Public Education Department last year to transform its traditional education model.
  • District officials put together a plan that is aimed at improving graduation rates and making schools more relevant to students.
  • The centerpiece is a a paid internship program that comes with a price tag of $286,000.

FARMINGTON — While some elements of the ambitious Innovation Zones program implemented this school year in the Aztec Municipal School District had to be put off because of a delay in the receipt of grant funding, district officials remain bullish about the prospects of the initiative and its centerpiece internship program.

The district received a $715,000 grant from the New Mexico Public Education Department last year to transform its traditional education model. District officials responded by putting together a plan that is aimed at improving graduation rates and making schools more relevant to students, namely through a paid internship program that comes with a price tag of $286,000.

The Innovation Zones program also includes the establishment of 11 “career tech pathways” that students are funneled into, including animal science, natural resources, agriculture mechanics and machinery, teacher education, health care, welding, construction trades, information technology, computer science and others.

District officials had hoped to fully implement the plan in the fall of 2022 at Aztec High School and Vista Nueva High school, but the program wasn’t fully funded by the state until January, so Aztec school officials had to scratch plans to launch the internship program at Aztec High School until the fall of 2023.

The program, however, did start this year at Vista Nueva, the district’s smaller, nontraditional high school that is designed to serve students in challenging circumstances. Dreher Robertson, the school’s principal and the director of San Juan College’s east campus in Aztec, said 63 of his students were eligible to take part in the internship program this school year, and 39 of them chose to do so, with all of them completing or on track to complete 60 hours of work, with the district picking up the tab for salaries.

Vista Nueva High School freshman Suela Clearwater, left, stands behind a display case at Flora Vista's Mirror Mirror Spiritual Healing with her mentor, Vanessa Jackson.

“It was easier for Vista Nueva to start the program,” said Cory Gropp, the district’s director of career technical education, explaining that the district received the grant only a few months before the start of the fall semester in 2022, leaving little time for planning to occur.

Vista Nueva’s enrollment, which is much smaller than that of Aztec High School, made it the ideal institution through which to pilot the internship program, he said. District officials could operate it on a comparatively modest scale at Vista Nueva, finding out what worked and what didn’t work, he said, then export to Aztec High School a year later. The former has an enrollment of approximately 80 students, while the latter’s student body typically runs between 650 and 700 students.

Early returns and lessons learned

While still in the process of collecting data, Gropp, Robertson and Brandon Thurston, the principal at Aztec High School, all seem pleased with the initial results. More than two dozen community partners — a combination of businesses, school districts and government entities — agreed to take on students in the program, giving them a place to work and earn valuable real-world experience.

Dreher Robertson

Robertson said his own school district is the biggest participant in the program, as several students who are interested in becoming teachers have interned at local elementary schools. But the list of partners also includes a funeral home, a bike shop, a welding business, a Farmington elementary school, a bakery, an auto mechanic, a construction firm, retail establishments and the San Juan County Clerk’s Office.

“Our community members want this,” Gropp said, referring to the response the district has seen to the program from those partners. “They’ve been asking for a long time, ‘How can we help?’ This helps bridge that gap.”

Cory Gropp

Gropp said one of the most important lessons district officials have learned about the program so far is that the process of arranging an internship at some of those community partners can be a cumbersome and complicated experience — especially from the perspective of a teenage student who has never experienced a process like that. But he said that degree of difficulty has taught students “stick-to-it-iveness” skills that will serve them well later in life.

Thurston said district officials also recognize the fact that their goal should not be to have every high school student go through the internship program. The career tech pathways program only requires students to complete a so-called “capstone” project in order to graduate — a requirement that can be met through an internship or a significant, community-based project they work on alone or with a partner.

Students are encouraged to complete multiple internships over the course of their high school years. That helps them clarify their ideas about what kind of career they do — and don’t — want to pursue upon graduation.

“A student can complete an internship and find out, ‘Nope, this is not for me,’” Thurston said. “They can explore different types of opportunities.”

He cited the case of a student who thought she was interested in becoming a veterinarian and served an internship at the Aztec animal shelter. But during that experience, she was distressed by the number of dogs that had to be euthanized, and realized it wasn’t the right environment for her. She is now serving an internship with a health care facility that serves people and seems happier with that choice, he said.

Vista Nueva High School student Brandon Gallegos, right, an intern at the Aztec District Court/Aztec Magistrate Court, poses with his mentor, David Baker.

Thurston said even a supposedly negative experience like that can be as helpful to a student’s long-term career prospects as a positive one.

“I would hate to have a kid follow a four-year path through a college and get out with all that debt and hate (their degree field),” he said.

Gropp recalled a similar experience he had during his high school years, when he caught a glimpse of his sister’s paycheck one week and got it into his head he wanted to be a nurse, like her. So he tagged along with her to the clinic she worked at one day, only to get an unsettling introduction to the field when a boy came in with one of his fingers cut off. Gropp took one look at all that blood and passed out cold, he said.

“They woke me up and said, ‘You can’t be a nurse — go home,” he said, laughing at the memory.

‘Can we get some help?’

Vista Nueva counselor and internship program coordinator Rebekah Deane said watching the program get off the ground this year has been an exciting — and, at times, overwhelming — experience. She said it’s been rewarding to see students overcome the sense of intimidation they feel and reach out to a business owner who might be willing to serve as their mentor, and the response from the business community has been just as gratifying.

“We’ve got people contacting us about internships, asking, ‘Can we get some help?’” she said. “It’s exciting to know we have even more spots available if we have students who want internships.”

Vista Nueva High School student Eddie Salazar, left, poses with mentor Robert Martinez during his internship at San Juan College.

Deane said she has learned that it’s a mistake to have the same expectations for every student in the program, so she has learned to be flexible in that regard.

“Some kids need to take it slower, and some kids are raring to go,” she said. “I’ve learned not to put everybody on the same path. Being patient with kids and where they are is important.”

Suela Clearwater, a freshman at Vista Nueva, is an example of the latter. She chose to enroll at the school specifically because of the paid internship program and quickly lined up a job at Mirror Mirror Spiritual Healing, a retail business in Flora Vista that sells objects related to metaphysics. The shop since has relocated to Bloomfield.

The experience taught her about the many elements that are involved in operating a business and the degree of dedication that is required to make it a success, she said.

This semester, Clearwater is serving an internship at the Mosaic Academy, an Aztec charter school, where she is working with younger students in an effort to decide if wants to pursue a teaching career. Down the road, she said she would like to serve an outdoors internship that involves working as a laborer.

“I just want to have that experience,” she said, noting that she believes having a variety of internships will help her rule out what she doesn’t want to do after she graduates.

She said she already has figured out it would be a mistake for her to go into a career she’s not excited about.

“It’s taught me to work hard, and when you decide on a career, you have to want to do it,” she said. “You have to put your all into it.”

The world of work was not something that was new to Caitlyn Swinney, a junior at Vista Nueva, when she took an internship at Aztec Rogue Foods earlier this year, since she already had a part-time job at McDonald’s. She acknowledged she was a little resistant to the idea when she was encouraged to find an internship by school officials.

Even though she said she enjoyed working with owners Greta Quintana and Isaac Lucero, Swinney said she learned the culinary field probably wasn’t for her. Aztec Rogue Foods, which closed recently, produced high-energy, packaged food designed to be consumed in an outdoors setting, such as jerky and trail mix.

“I probably will not be making jerky anymore,” she said.

Swinney is interested in exploring an internship in the early childhood education field and has a meeting planned later this month with officials at an Aztec preschool run by the local nonprofit group ECHO Inc. She’s hoping that setting will be more to her liking.

“I am really good with children,” she said.

Finding the right fit

The kinds of ups and downs experienced by Clearwater and Swinney are to be expected in a program of this nature, Robertson said, acknowledging that not every situation is a good fit for every student. But he takes a lot of satisfaction in the cases that work out well, citing some specific examples.

One of his students, a young man who is intent on establishing a career in the military, interned at Barefoot Bikes in Aztec and learned he had a knack for repairing bikes.

“He discovered, ‘Hey, this isn’t something I necessarily want to do forever, but it’s something I can do now,’” he said.

Another student, who interned at the Pocketstone Bakery & Café in Farmington, was such a good fit that she has been offered a regular job at the business — at a significantly higher salary than she was making as an intern, Robertson said.

Perhaps the greatest sign of the program’s success is the academic achievement of its participants, he said. Robertson said of the 39 Vista Nueva students in the paid internship program, only one of them has flunked a class — a sign, in his estimation, that they have bought into the ideals that the program is pushing.

As they prepare to increase the size of the program considerably this fall when it is introduced at Aztec High School, district officials are planning a meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 6 in the multipurpose room at the school for parents and community members to share their vision of what the district needs to be doing.

Brandon Thurston

“It’s an open forum,” Thurston said. “It’s a chance for those stakeholders to tell us what their desired outcomes for Aztec students look like or that, ‘I’m willing to step up as mentor.’ It’s a chance for anyone who’s interested to come plan with us.”

Thurston, who said he joined the district late last year specifically because of the opportunities the introduction of Innovation Zones and the paid internship program presented, already is sold on the worthiness of what the district is trying to achieve — and he looks forward to having the chance to convince others of that.

“All three of us have been in education a long time,” he said, gesturing to Gropp and Robertson. “And we’ve heard a lot of people talking about the relevance of education but who don’t actually provide us with proof of it. Well, if you give us 45 minutes to go through this program, we can give you several concrete examples of that relevance. That’s pretty cool.”

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 ormeasterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e.