Guest Blog by Traci Curry, NM Agriculture in the Classroom
Traci Curry is the Director of New Mexico Agriculture in the Classroom (NMAITC). NMAITC’s purpose is to educate the general public, with an emphasis
on K-12 students and educators, about the importance of agriculture. Contact Traci at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How is education being affected in these times?
The pandemic really brings to light that children’s first teachers are their family. It takes a village - we’re all educators. Family members should
recognize their power and responsibility to continue this journey. I think we put a little too much responsibility on classroom teachers. Families
need to read, explore and discuss ideas together at home, all year round.
During the pandemic, we are all looking for ways to adapt and thrive as fast as we can. Teachers are always in that position - they’re forever having
to adapt, change and figure new things out. They are well suited and well trained to meet the challenges of the time. If it’s for their kids, teachers
will do whatever they need to do. A lot of teachers worked through their spring break in anticipation of e-learning. Many of them also have their
own children to get schooled and have had to navigate everything under immense stress. They’re real troopers.
After visiting with teachers from across the state, I would say each school district is different in what they are doing to accommodate distance learning
but every district is doing something. It depends on their means. In Alamogordo, for example, the homeroom teachers called each of their student’s
parents to complete a survey to assess what was available at home so they could get the right resources to the kids who needed them. Some schools
organized a drive-through system for parents to pick up supplies. Others tapped into their busing system to deliver food and educational packets
via school bus. Some school districts made wifi available by installing it on a school bus and parking it in an accessible location. Some were
able to make Chrome books available to kids while others didn’t have enough resources. It has been an opportunity for communities to really come
together and address needs and fill the gaps.
Why agriculture education?
During the pandemic, we talk about what is essential. Our food systems are essential. We are currently seeing this with issues in the supply chain
and price changes. We really need to understand our food systems. There’s power in being able to get kids excited about growing our food. Less
than 2% of the US population is composed of farmers or ranchers. Getting students interested, looking at careers and possibilities of being real
world problem solvers is more important now than ever before. Agriculture education has the capability to address all that. To know agriculture
is to understand what our root systems are. What are our essentials and where do they come from? In our Know Ag blog, we are working to provide
resources for all learners that will help them value and know our essentials. We’re working with experts in the field to share their knowledge
and passion. Our biggest goal is to get kids interested in agriculture and natural resources. For example, we partner with Natural Resources Conservation
Service (NRCS) to provide the NM Grow Project which offers schools access to a complete raised bed garden system with hoop house attachments, drip
irrigation system and classroom hydroponic system with grow light as well as training from the experts to troubleshoot materials and make connections
across the curriculum. There are so many great opportunities to get students and teachers to "dig" ag!
Are you doing anything differently, and if so, in what way(s)?
At New Mexico Agriculture in the Classroom, we’re facilitating teachers taking stock of what materials students might have at home. We don’t want to
ask families to leave the house to pick up supplies, so we’re working to adapt lessons to something they have in their house. One teacher had planned
for her students to grow something from seed. She was worried about her kids not having seeds. We worked with her to make that part of the lesson.
Teachers and families could organize a seed hunt to find seeds already in the house, such as beans or seeds from apples. Or they could go outside
with the kids and ask, “Where do we find seeds? Where do seeds come from?” We’re trying to be the helpmates to these teachers. Now that teachers
are established and comfortable with their technology, we’re connecting with them and can conduct virtual classroom visits. We are willing to try
new tech platforms and have already used Google Meet Classroom (similar to Zoom) to work with classes. For instance, our NMAITC Coordinator, Britney
Lardner, will be reading a book with different pre-K, first and second grade classrooms and doing a hands-on activity. The teachers have already
prepared ahead of time with the parents. We’re also developing an e-learning section on our website called Know Ag. We’re
connected to the National Agriculture in the Classroom program, and our Know Ag blog will offer local resources and activities for informal teachers.
Since many of our lessons on our website are created for classroom teachers, we’re brainstorming how to adapt these great free resources for babysitters,
parents and grandparents working with their kids who are not formally trained teachers.
What are assets and needs you see as immediate and long-term concerns? Anything positive you see coming out of this?
The pandemic has really brought to light the disparities in this state. We’ve needed to address them for a very long time. In this state we’ve had
such great disparities between those with access and those without. School districts are now in tune more than ever before. They understand how
many students have resources, how many do not and are helping parents get these resources. We are gaining an understanding about how many kids
have access to Internet service, computers, tablets or phones so that they can use them to extend their educational opportunities. Also, people
don’t realize how much school takes care of key issues until something like this happens. School is also important for feeding kids, providing
medical services, and tending to both physical and emotional needs while providing structure and consistency that many students need.
We’ve heard the pandemic could come around again hard in the fall or winter. Now with e-learning and resources available that teachers know how to
use, it’s going to prepare us for such issues in the future. It’s an exciting time when teachers have more resources at their fingertips. They
had the technology but until now, didn’t have the resources to learn them effectively. Also, in response to the pandemic, amazing resources are
available now – publishing companies and museums have begun sharing their resources for free. There are some great opportunities out there when
it comes to learning.
Is there anything you’d like to share with the rest of the state?
Learning can take place anywhere, even in your yard! NMAITC hopes you will use and share our free resources and get excited about agriculture and natural
New Mexico Agriculture in the Classroom https://newmexico.agclassroom.org/index.php
Online Links and Resources:
On behalf of a broad coalition of individuals, businesses, and NGOs, New Mexico First is pleased to present a Letter to the NM House and Senate Leadership
on the 2020 Special Session of the NM Legislature. The intention of the letter is to promote sound democratic processes and outcomes during the special
legislative session. With gratitude to our legislative leadership, this broad coalition is offering suggestions to ensure community voices in policy
decision-making are heard. ..
New Mexico First, a nonpartisan organization committed to engaging New Mexicans in public policy and civic life, has released a policy brief on Cliff
Effects and Churning in Public Benefits. The staff and board of New Mexico First believe that sound public policy and a healthy democracy are strengthened
by civic engagement, public deliberation, and principled non-partisan research. This report expands on concerns raised at the May 2016 New Mexico
First Town Hall on Economic Security and Vitality for New Mexico. A bipartisan consensus recommendation was advanced and adopted related to cliff
effects. Recommendation #9 from the final report is to “Advance Family-Friendly Policies.” A specific strategy identified related to this recommendation
is to “eliminate disincentives to earning more income for people in poverty, such as cliff effects in work support programs.” In 2018, SJM18 was
passed by both houses of the New Mexico State Legislature with unanimous support. New Mexico First developed SJM18: Family Support Services Info.
The memorial addresses how families transition from poverty. The memorial was the first step in researching how New Mexico can smooth out the benefits
“cliffs” that families face as their earned incomes increase.
The policy brief addresses key issues, including definitions of the cliff effect and churning in public benefits; an overview of some core public benefits
available in New Mexico; policy options and department level quality improvement efforts that are working in other states to prevent the needless
interruption of services; and policy tools and opportunities that hold promise in NM.
Secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department, Dr. David Scrase, explains, “Both Federal and the NM State government provide significant help
to people in difficult life circumstances by providing food, clothing, utility bill assistance, and health insurance. Unfortunately, as New Mexicans
are able to find a job and begin to make their way back to independence, these benefits often are removed too soon, leaving our neighbors worse
off than before they sought employment. Solving this “cliff effect” is of critical importance in our state, where we have the third-highest poverty
rate and the highest food insecurity rate.”
Lilly Irvin-Vitela, report co-author and New Mexico First President, describes the issue. “Many working families in New Mexico and their children live
in poverty. This impacts access to food, housing, quality early care and education, afterschool care, healthcare, and other basic needs. Slight
fluctuations in earned income can impact eligibility for benefits, leaving a family in a worse financial situation than the one they were in before
a raise or promotion was earned. Furthermore, challenges navigating benefits eligibility and re-verification can create a cascading downward spiral
that intensifies the crisis a family is experiencing. Fortunately, there are a host of family-friendly policies and administrative changes that
other states are using with some success and that NM has begun to implement.”
Allan Oliver, Executive Director of the Thornburg Foundation, which funded the study, spoke about the importance of strengthening understanding about
the poverty trap presented by cliff effects. “Eliminating the “cliff effect” in our safety-net programs gives working families a clear path out
of poverty. When working families can’t afford to take the better paying job or pay raise, because they will lose medical coverage or childcare
reimbursement—our whole state loses. We lose from an underemployed workforce, lost revenue for the state and a failure to help our own neighbors.
This report lays out how the cliff effects and churning of public benefits creates real barriers for families seeking to better their own condition
and provides some clear options for policymakers to reduce or eliminate those barriers.”
The development of this report was made possible with a grant from the Thornburg Foundation, a funder of New Mexico First.
After more than a dozen years leading nonpartisan public-policy nonprofit New Mexico First, Heather Balas announced she is leaving her post.
Balas will begin work this month with the Santa Fe-based Thornburg Foundation to lead reform efforts in good government. As part of selecting Balas’
successor, board chair Valerie Romero-Leggott said the organization’s volunteer board members are already coordinating a national executive search.
Former state Lieutenant Governor Diane Denish chairs the executive search committee.
“One of the many legacies that Heather leaves with the organization is a strong team that will continue the arc of progress that New Mexico First was
founded to pursue,” Romero-Leggott said. “The board and I are confident there will be a smooth transition in leadership, in large part due to Heather’s
fidelity to the organization from her first day to her last.”
Balas joined New Mexico First as its deputy in 2005, upon returning to the state after a dozen years working in the nation’s capital and California
on public policy and voter education. By 2006, the Portales native was named New Mexico First’s president and executive director.
“It’s been one of my greatest honors to serve alongside dedicated New Mexicans who put the state’s well-being ahead of their own personal or partisan
interests,” Balas said. “When we come together, and when we are reminded that we are not as different as we sometimes believe, New Mexico is the
better for it every time.”
New Mexico First is known for its statewide town halls, where hundreds of New Mexicans from around the state gather to discuss challenges and opportunities
facing the state, as well as develop policy proposals to address them. During Balas’ tenure, the organization influenced dozens of laws and appropriations
in education, the economy, natural resources, good government and healthcare.
Balas said examples of those reforms of which she’s most proud include expansion of scholarships for nontraditional college students, statewide reductions
in student testing time, expanded watershed restoration and state water planning, passage of the constitutional amendment to create a state ethics
commission, loan repayment incentives to keep medical school students in New Mexico, as well as multiple conventional and renewable-energy reforms.
All policies were advanced on behalf of the people of New Mexico, prioritized through nonpartisan public deliberations, she said.
“Engaging New Mexicans in the public policy process – giving their ideas and their voices access to the halls of the Roundhouse and beyond – is really
our core competency,” Balas said. “Every day, New Mexico First sees proof that Democrats, Republicans and independents can and dowork together
for the common good.”
New Mexico First’s senior policy director, Pamela Blackwell, will fill in as the interim executive director over the coming months while the executive
search and selection processes are conducted. Romero-Leggott said the staff and board are grateful to Blackwell for her valuable experience and
leadership during this time.
During the interim, New Mexico First will host its biennial First Forum Lecture Series, the theme of which this year is “Sustainable Journalism: Preserving
the Fourth Estate.” The June 6 fundraiser will feature a panel of veteran New Mexico journalists discussing the need to sustain and grow New Mexico’s
reliable news sources. New Mexico First will also present its Spirit Awards, which honor public officials, civic leaders and journalists who make
positive impacts in New Mexico and put good policy or fair coverage above partisan politics.
Romero-Leggott said that the event will also recognize Balas’ tenure of service to the state.
“New Mexicans who have seen firsthand the impact that the organization has had under Heather’s leadership are encouraged to attend this year’s First
Forum,” Romero-Leggott said, “which will be both important in its own right and an opportunity — a golden opportunity — to thank Heather
for her tireless efforts, which we know will continue in her new role, as well.”