When kids are at high risk for addiction, a good public school system can be one of the most effective ways to prevent drug use. On the other hand, dysfunctional schools can make drug use by students more likely.
In Española public schools, teacher turnover and problems with the administration have created a lot of instability for students. But students at Española Valley High School say it’s time to focus on what’s good about their school.
The district has been in the news a lot lately, and not for good reasons. Here are some of the headlines from just this school year:
· New Mexico Attorney General sues troubled school district
· AG’s Office raids Española schools
· Parents sue district in long-running coach drama
· School district gets a D on report card
· Española principal abruptly reassigned at scandal-ridden district
There’s another thing that’s been in the news a lot recently—New Mexico has the second-highest teacher turnover rate in the country. Just this year at Española Valley High School, students lost their Spanish teacher and their anatomy teacher, and they haven’t gotten a new music teacher since he left last year. Every year in recent years, they’ve had at least one new principal.
“Instability, I think by definition, sort of leaves you on shaky ground,” said John Sena, who teaches freshman English. “It leaves you not knowing what to expect next. And I think that’s kind of where we’re at. We’re trying to maintain the semblance of order at our school so that we can do good things for students.”
Students said they’ve gotten used to having teachers and principals leave. But it does make school harder, for them and for their teachers.
“Seniors have seen four, five different principals now,” Sena said. “Can you imagine what it would be like to have one principal start and be able to actually see programs through, and teachers know every year what to expect so that they don’t have to worry about those things and can worry instead about how [to make class] the best it can be?”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that problems in school are one of the biggest risks for things like drug use and gangs. Director Nora Volkow said for a community like Española, where a lot of kids are at high risk for addiction, having a stable school is especially important.
“Because if a child enters a school system and they don’t do well, that’s going to decrease their self-esteem,” she explained, “and decreases in self-esteem are one of the factors that may lead them then to go into gangs or to actually act up.”
But if self-esteem is important for preventing problems with students, the media isn’t helping.
Students said seeing their school portrayed in terms of problems all the time makes them feel like people have low expectations of them. And they say all the news about drug addiction in Española makes people assume they all do drugs, even though other schools in Los Alamos and Santa Fe have issues with drugs, too.
Robert Archuleta, the new principal who started in October, said all the bad media coverage is a problem for teachers and students just like any of the other issues the school faces.
“There is a lot of negative,” he said, “but there’s a lot of positive and I think that the media doesn’t do a good job of providing that information out to the public or to the communities or to the city. So it affects the students.”
Students said they think Española Valley High School has a reputation as a bad school and that that reflects badly on them. But really, they said it’s pretty normal. They feel normal and they try, and that should count for something.
Even though there are problems at their school, students said they think it’s a good place to be. They said there are some great teachers and a lot of talented students.
If the narrative about the school is going to change, students said a good place to start would be to create more art and music programs. Lots of their fellow students are good at those things, they said. The new principal, Mr. Archuleta, said he wants to do that. The students just hope he’s around long enough to follow through on his plans.
This series, Enduring Addiction, was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship, programs of the Center for Health Journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
KUNM's Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation. Find out more at publichealthnm.org.