By Sylvia Ulloa, New Mexico In Depth October 21, 2019
Lt. Gov. Howie Morales was running late to an interview at the IHOP in Las Cruces.
His job these days puts him on the road a lot, but he still likes to drop his kids off at school in Silver City. That connection is something the former coach, special education teacher and state senator wants to keep with education in general.
“Education is always going to be at the heart of what I do because that’s why I got into public service,” he said on a recent October morning during a visit to Las Cruces, where he talked up a summit planned for Tuesday in Albuquerque on after-school and out-of-school time activities that would strengthen kids’ connections to school and provide more learning opportunities.
As a senator, Morales got involved in the full spectrum of education, from preschool to higher education. He credited early educators in Grant County for making him understand a successful higher education system started with strong early education such as home visiting and preschool.
“They helped me see things from a different point of view,” he said.
In 2015, he spearheaded efforts to create an Early Childhood Education and Care Department that would coordinate all services for children from birth to age 5. When Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, picked up the baton, Morales showed up at hearing rooms to lobby for its passage. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the department into law in March.
And now, Morales is looking at a different piece of the education puzzle. He’s pushing for learning opportunities outside the school day with the Albuquerque summit, which will focus on building an out-of-school-time network in New Mexico.
“I think it’s the next step in the transformation of our school systems,” he said.
Morales has a personal connection to after-school opportunities. His fifth-grade teacher organized informal basketball practices for him and other “little kids from the barrio of Silver City.” It kept him interested in school — so much so that he became a teacher and New Mexico hall of fame baseball coach.
He sees the potential of connecting kids to learning through arts, music, dance and science — “slime making, for example” — and dealing with problems such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), chronic absenteeism, juvenile delinquency and the achievement gap.
There’s been a relentless push to expand in-class learning time and increase homework — even for Kindergarteners — to improve New Mexico’s dismal educational results, but Morales said despite that he believes out-of-school-time opportunities can actually boost family time.
Some community schools are adding homework clubs, which can eliminate strife at home and lessen the gap between children who have parents that can help them and those who don’t, he said. And, having fun at school can boost attendance by making school a place kids want to be, he said.
Morales is inviting community school and community engagement experts, youth organizations doing work worth copying, parents and policy makers to his summit to explore the possibilities.
“Every great idea, every great opportunity starts somewhere,” he said. “And this is a start for us.”
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