by Damien Willis, Las Cruces Sun-News
June 21, 2016

LAS CRUCES – For the third consecutive year, New Mexico ranks 49th overall for child well-being, according to the 2016 Kids Count Data Book, released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Mississippi is the only state that fared worse.

In education and childhood poverty, New Mexico ranks dead last.

Seventy-seven percent of New Mexico’s fourth-graders are not proficient in reading — the worst in the nation. At Las Cruces Public Schools, that figure is the same. And 79 percent of the state’s eighth-graders are not proficient at math; at LCPS, it’s even worse, at 86.5 percent.

However, New Mexico has made a little progress in some of the report’s 16 indicators — particularly in health, where the state rose four positions to 44th place. Amber Wallin, the New Mexico Kids Count director, attributes these improvements to the expansion of Medicaid.

“We can give a lot of credit for this improvement on the fact that New Mexico chose to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act,” Wallin said. “Some 35,000 kids who were already eligible for Medicaid but who were not signed up received insurance when their parents enrolled. States that didn’t expand Medicaid didn’t see such a dramatic increase in children with health insurance. It just goes to show that public policies can lead to dramatic improvements for our children.”

Nine percent of New Mexico children were uninsured in 2015. This year, that number fell to 7 percent.

Improving, but not catching up

In recent years, New Mexico has made consistent gains in four areas:

  • Children without health insurance.
  • Teens (16-19) not in school and not working.
  • Teens who abuse alcohol or drugs, and
  • Teen (15-19) birth rate.

Even in areas where New Mexico saw some moderate improvements in the raw numbers, in some areas — such as children in poverty and eighth-grade math proficiency — other states made larger improvements, and New Mexico’s ranking dropped.

“There are some bright spots for New Mexico in the Data Book this year,” said Veronica García, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which runs the state’s Kids Count program. “However, some of our success is overshadowed by the fact that other states are seeing more significant improvement. Once again, New Mexico is falling behind.”

A sense of urgency

“The true story in the report lies not in the ranking but in the trend,” said Tim Hand, chief of staff and director of assessment, analysis and research for Las Cruces Public Schools. “If we were 12th and dropped to 50th, there would be a sense of urgency in the community. The entire state would spring into action to find a solution. Instead, it’s ‘here we are again.’ As a community, we must find that urgency elsewhere.”

The report changed its methodology in 2012, and rankings from 2012 to 2016 are not accurately comparable to previous reports. But since 2012, New Mexico has never fared better than 49th in overall well-being, childhood poverty or education.

“At Casa de Peregrinos’ flagship pantry in Las Cruces, 39 percent of the people we serve are children,” said Lorenzo Alba, executive director. “That number has been as high as 43 percent in recent years. Hunger is one of poverty’s most heartbreaking symptoms. Without food, how can you educate a kid or keep them healthy? Government must partner with agencies like ours to ensure that children are taken care of. We must invest in our future — and our future is healthy and well-educated children.”

Reducing teen pregnancy

While New Mexico’s teen birth rate has been reduced by nearly half — from 64 births per 1,000 to 34 births per 1,000 — the state is ranked 46th in the 2016 report, due to improvements in other states. Still, the teen birth rate is the indicator that has seen the greatest improvement over five years.

“I’d attribute this to two factors,” said Earl Nissen, chairman of Doña Ana County’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Work Group. “One is the school-based health centers, working on family planning. The other is the implementation of a health curriculum which contains comprehensive sex education as a requirement for graduation. We’re no longer teaching abstinence-only sex education.”

In Las Cruces Public Schools, that curriculum is taught to all ninth-grade students.

“As a result, students feel more comfortable going to the school-based health centers to ask for contraception, and they are making better choices about their sexual behavior,” Nissen said.

However, Nissen believes parents need to have more open conversations with their children about sex.

“That’s one area that I see that we need to work on,” he said. “Also, I think we need to do more in the schools as far as parent education and human development courses. We have to get students to understand what parenting is all about.”

Research shows that when students come up with a parenting plan that includes when they plan to have a child, what they would like to accomplish first and what their parenting style will be, they are less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy, Nissen said — particularly if a student commits those plans to paper.

Mitigating childhood poverty

Many experts believe New Mexico’s low ranking in childhood well-being tracks back to having the highest childhood poverty rate in the nation.

“It’s a cycle that we have not been able to get out of,” García said. “When you have poor educational outcomes and a workforce that isn’t well-prepared for industry, you don’t attract the kind of businesses to the state that we should. As a result, more than 70 percent of New Mexico’s salaries are low-wage, and we stay in this cycle.”

García said more should also be done to train parents receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or welfare, for better-paying jobs.

David Greenberg, assistant director of Las Cruces-based Ngage New Mexico, agrees.

“It is going to call for long-term investment; there are no shortcuts,” Greenberg said. “That investment will pay off in the long run. As a state, we’re so reluctant to take big risks and make that investment. But these aren’t just numbers and rankings. These are our children.”
A community schools approach

“There is a light in Las Cruces, and that is in the community schools movement,” Hand said. “In its very design, community schools are aimed at mitigating the very impacts of poverty on the children in our community, and to do so quickly.”

The district is planning to launch its first community school — which adds a menu of wraparound programs, services and assistance to a traditional school — later this year, beginning with Lynn Middle School. The ultimate goal of the project, spearheaded by Ngage New Mexico in partnership with dozens of Las Cruces nonprofits and service providers, is to make every school in Doña Ana County a community school.

“There is a sense of urgency within this group,” Hand said. “My hope is that this report fuels the fire to do something now, to do something research-based and that has worked elsewhere.”

Community schools offer services such as school-based health centers, food pantries, resources for parents in need, access to social workers and after-school and weekend programs.

“With so many students coming to school hungry, malnourished and dealing with trauma, it really undermines their ability to learn in the classroom,” Greenberg said. “This is where the community schools movement makes sense. We can’t fix education unless we fix the social conditions that track back to the children’s homes — and are the real causes for their inability to have the opportunity succeed.”

Community schools tackle both — education in the classroom and the social conditions that extend beyond the classroom walls, Greenberg said.

“We need to rethink how our education functions in our state, and our communities,” he said.

To see the Kids Count Childhood Well-Being report, visit

Damien Willis may be reached at 575-541-5468, or @damienwillis on Twitter.

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