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Sierra Middle receives $1 million state grant for improvement efforts

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A Roswell school is one of three in New Mexico to receive a $1 million state grant to help it better serve students.

Ralph Matta, principal of Sierra Middle School (File Photo)

Sierra Middle School, which has a large number of academically struggling students, has received the Community Schools Implementation Grant from the New Mexico Public Education Department, Principal Ralph J. Matta said.

The grant was applied for by the school and Jennifer Cole, director of federal programs for the Roswell Independent School District.

The grant allocates $100,000 for the first year, a planning year, and $900,000 for the following two years to implement its strategies and plans for improvement.

As part of that effort, school and district officials held several meetings Wednesday and Thursday to talk to parents, educators and others in the community. An online survey also is underway.

“We are going through needs assessments right now,” Matta said. “We have reached out to a lot of different community organizations for focus groups such as CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) and other groups that work with students.”

The grant requires that the needs assessment is completed by Feb. 28, and Matta said that the school and the district should have a better idea about how the planning will proceed after that.

An example of a way that the funding could be used in years two or three, he said, would be to offer after-school tutoring.

According to the Public Education Department website, the Community Schools Act of 2019 establishes the Community Schools Program and provides funding. Eligible schools must serve a large number of economically disadvantaged students or have a demonstrated need to improve academic outcomes.

PED documents define a community school as “an integration of services focused on academic, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement, which leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities.”

A state official added that the grant requires that the schools’ plans focus on four core areas.

“This grant requires the school to use the four pillars of the community schools strategy to organize their school improvement plan,” said Nancy Martira, communications director for the New Mexico Public Education Department.

The four pillars involve integrated student supports, or working to provide mental and physical health services or coordinating with outside organizations to address barriers to learning; expanded and enriched learning opportunities, which could mean creating ways to apply classroom lessons in real-world settings, as well as expanding academic sessions to after-school sessions, school breaks or during the summer; collaborative leadership and practices, where parents, students, teachers and community leaders work together on various projects and initiatives; and family and community engagement, in which schools serve as hubs for adult and community learning programs and where interactions between school officials and families are encouraged and promoted.

Sierra Middle School, located in the southwest part of the city on South Sycamore Avenue, serves sixth to eighth grades and has about 661 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The school’s most recent grade, as issued by the Public Education Department until that rating process was discontinued, was an F for 2017-18. For the prior three academic years, the school received an F and two D’s.

Part of the reason for the low school grades was the lack of student proficiency on standardized tests, with only 19% of its students testing proficient in English language skills in 2017-18 and only 17% testing proficient in math.

The school also has 100% of students identified as economically disadvantaged, according to the New Mexico School Grades site, linked to the PED website. About 17% of the student population is dealing with some type of disability, and 7% of students are identified as English-language learners.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.