By Pamela Rentz and Sarah Meehan
Mental health issues, racial disparities and lack of technology access were problematic for New Mexico students prior to COVID-19. And the pandemic exacerbated those complications for students across Albuquerque Public Schools.
Albuquerque students worked with advocacy organizations, education officials and legislators throughout the 2020-2021 academic year after a survey by the Learning Alliance of New Mexico identified those issues as the three biggest concerns for Albuquerque students.
And their work continues. More than a dozen youth and young adults gathered this spring for the fourth annual summit of Youth Voices in Action (VIA), an organization of youth and young adults that teaches students to advocate around education issues. The May meeting was co-hosted by United Way of Central New Mexico and America’s Promise Alliance, a national network of groups designed to improve conditions for young people, as part of an event series exploring the states of young people in communities nationwide.
“Young people truly are the experts,” Emma Jones, executive director of the Learning Alliance of New Mexico, said at the virtual summit. “There’s so many things we’re naïve to because we don’t understand.”
Mental health issues
About a third of New Mexico high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless in the state’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. About 19 % of students surveyed seriously considered suicide, and 17 % made a plan to commit suicide.
High school students in the state also reported attempts at self-harm, such as burning or cutting, with female students reporting higher rates than males. Almost one-third of 9th grade girls who responded to the survey reported engaging in non-suicidal self-injury.
About 13 % of high school students reported being electronically bullied, with higher rates among girls (20 %) than boys (10 %). More girls than boys were bullied on school grounds as well, according to the survey.
Racial disparities in proficiency scores, graduation rates
Nearly half of the Central New Mexico population identifies as Hispanic or Latinx. The area is also home to nine tribal nations, and non-Hispanic Native Americans make up 6% of the population. The remaining population is 38% non-Hispanic White, 3% Asian, and 3% Black.
Despite recent improvements in the region’s high school and college graduation rates, central New Mexico youth fare worse in these areas than the national average. Bernalillo county’s overall high school graduation rate in 2019 was 63%; the national rate was 86%. The county graduation rate for Hispanic and Latinx students the same year was 73%, compared to an 82% national average.
Racial disparities in educational attainment are also evident: Less than a quarter of New Mexico students from Native American backgrounds are proficient in reading, and only 11% are proficient in math. Hispanic and Latinx students fare slightly better, with reading at 30 % and math at 17 %, but both fall far short of the state’s goals, and of white students.
Lack of technology, broadband access
One big concern for Albuquerque students, and educators across the state, is New Mexico’s lack of access to technology and high-speed internet. The problem became even more acute in 2020 as most schools across the state shifted to virtual learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 76,000 New Mexico students lacked adequate access to the internet at home in 2020, according to The New Mexico Public Education Department. About half of these students could have had access, if their families had enough money to pay for it.
New Mexico ranks among the lowest in overall broadband subscription rates in the nation, especially in rural areas.
In April, a New Mexico judge ordered state officials to provide computers and high-speed internet access to children without them, according to the Associated Press.
Pam Rentz is an intern with the Urban Health Media Project and a junior at Florida A & M University. Sarah Meehan is a UHMP instructor and former Baltimore Sun reporter.