Educators push high standards amidst high poverty in the San Luis Valley

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San Luis, Colo. (photo by Coloradoguy.com)

The small town of San Luis near the Colorado border with New Mexico has already made a name for itself. San Luis has the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied town in the state. The town was celebrating another distinction when the Colorado Education Association visited Centennial K-12, honoring a student wrestler with a school assembly for a second-place finish in the state.

The school’s wrestling coach, Gilbert Apodaca, has ideas to further distinguish Centennial and San Luis beyond the mat. Apodaca, a member of Centennial Education Association, is the school’s lone high school math teacher, and his employer, Centennial School District R-1, is one of the state’s integration districts that first made the shift to teaching the Colorado Academic Standards for its students.

“I think it’s one of the best things we could have done,” said Apodaca. “We’re expecting kids to be able to describe the mathematics, understand the mathematics, and see how the mathematics are applied. It’s a big change, and we’re hearing feedback from our students and families about how rigorous it is. It’s a struggle, but we want our kids to have access to that struggle. It’s our job as teachers to make it meaningful and give them opportunity.”

‘Struggle’ is not a new concept for students growing up in the San Luis Valley. Costilla County is among the poorest in Colorado. Centennial K-12 serves a growing number of families setting in undeveloped areas, some going without electricity and running water. Valley educators explored poverty issues plaguing area families at a recent conference hosted by the Ethnic Minority Advisory Council of CEA’s San Luis UniServ Unit. Centennial Principal Curtis Garcia was a conference speaker and acknowledges extreme poverty has changed the nature of school work here.

Curtis Garcia and Gilbert Apodaca talk with CEA

Curtis Garcia and Gilbert Apodaca talk with CEA

“We’re not just focused on teaching, learning and academics, but really thinking about the whole child. So we’re concerned about access to health care, to mental health care, to other kinds of services that these kids need if they’re going to be able to function and succeed in school,” Garcia told CEA. “As a small rural district, we’ve taken on a lot of that initiative, a lot of that work, to identify families and help them get access to services.”

“In the classroom, you know who isn’t engaged and it’s a challenge to figure out why,” said Apodaca. “Is something going on at home? Have they had a good meal since yesterday at lunch?

“It’s not that the kid doesn’t want to try,” Apodaca added. “There’s something going on and we have to get to the root of it. So we have to dig deep, get to know these kids and see what’s going on, see where we can help them out.”

As Apodaca works to meet the needs of his students well beyond the classroom, he’s going through as much training and conditioning as his wrestlers to perfect his professional practice. With support from the Colorado Education Initiative and the Gates Foundation, Apodaca entered into a national math design collaborative to meet math instructors around the country. They share ideas on what’s working well and he introduces the latest cutting-edge strategies on math instruction into his small-town classroom.

Apodaca congratulates his wrestling team at a school assembly

Coach Apodaca congratulates his wrestling team at a school assembly

Born and raised in San Luis and himself a graduate of Centennial, Apodaca is unapologetic for pushing his students to reach high standards even when he knows many of them suffer in high poverty. “I firmly believe to give these kids an opportunity to actually succeed in their lifetime, we can’t lower the rigor. We cannot go down to their level. We need to give them an opportunity to succeed in life by raising the rigor… without it, our kids are going to fall behind and it’s going to continue the poverty cycle.”

Garcia enjoys empowering his teachers to push beyond what most would expect from a poor, rural district and create more authentic, relevant learning experiences for Centennial students.

“I see it as an opportunity for us in school to be able to own up to our responsibilities to think about the whole child,” said Garcia. “It’s that impetus that drives us to create change in our community and in our state to really get the resources in place to help these kids learn. The rigorous standards set the expectation.”

“It’s a rough area, but I wouldn’t be happier working in any other place in the state,” said Apodaca. “A lot of our kids come through some big challenges. I know for a fact they can do it, and if they come out of here, they’ll be some of the best out there.”

 

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