New Mexico: A Community Approach to Raising Latino Graduation Rates

Image: A graduate at Northwest Florida State College's commencement
Nick Tomecek / AP

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Patricia Guadalupe

Many know the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. In New Mexico, more than 80 community organizations are getting together with one purpose: to help raise Latino graduation rates, according to a new report from the non-profit Excelencia in Education.

While New Mexico has the highest percentage of Latinos – 47 percent – of any state in the country, the Land of Enchantment still lags behind in high school graduation rates, 69 percent compared to 80 percent nationwide. The rates for Hispanics are worse: 68 percent of New Mexico’s Hispanic students graduate from high school, and only 59 percent of Latino males.

The percentages for those who continue on to higher education aren’t much better: less than half (42 percent) of the state’s Latino students attend community college. At four -year institutions, Hispanic students are twice as likely to drop out compared to non-Hispanic whites (30 percent versus 15 percent), with far fewer Latino students graduating than whites.

These are grim statistics that a group in the state’s largest city of Albuquerque – where nearly half of the state’s Latino population resides -- wants to change and they’re using a unique approach to tackle the problem.

The Unidos Project is a community-based organization that seeks to increase Latino educational participation.

“Unidos means ‘united’ in Spanish - it is very important to gather the whole community to help in this movement to achieve Latino student success,” said Jozi De León, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer at the University of New Mexico’s Division for Equity and Inclusion, and author of a new study, Community Organizing on Behalf of Latino Student Success: A Case Study of the Unidos Project in New Mexico.

“The prosperity and well-being of our community depends on our ability to increase the educational attainment level of Hispanics in the state.” De León adds that Unidos looked at what had been done before to increase the number of Latinos not only graduating from high school but continuing to higher education, and they decided to take what they called a “culturally responsive” approach that involves community groups and local and state organizations.

That included using the Acequia – the centuries-old water delivery and irrigation system native to New Mexico – as a metaphor for rallying the community and organizations behind student achievement.

Unidos has four strategies that are part of its approach: Abriendo La Compuerta (Opening the Gate) to increase education access and graduation rates; Aumentando La Corriente (Increasing the Flow) to help students understand why educational achievement is important; Recuperando La Corriente (Reclaiming the Flow) to help students complete the requirements for high school graduation or higher education completion; and La Limpia (Removing the Barriers) to identify and remove disparities and other barriers to achievement.

All have been established, says De León, to work toward a common vision of higher student achievement , understanding the community you are serving, and viewing the community, students, and parents as partners and assets.

Over the past several years when the project first began, more than 80 community groups and organizations have become involved.

“We’re not done yet,” said De León.

The non-profit Excelencia in Education in Washington, D.C., which advocates for greater Latino educational participation, provided technical support and other assistance to the Unidos project.

“This case study highlights Unidos’ community efforts to improve Latino student success and can inform other communities and national strategies,” said Deborah Santiago, Excelencia in Education COO and Vice President for Policy.