Winter 2023-24 Newsletter

In Our Winter 2023-24 Newsletter:

  • A New Public Charter School Hopes to Open on Albuquerque’s Westside: Get to Know Its Dynamic Leader, Mercy Herrera, ESNM’s Future Schools.
  • ESNM’s “Access to Excellence” Brings Together Educators from Across New Mexico to Study High-Performing Schools.
  • In Other News: Changemakers Fellows Visit Houston, AIMS and Hozho Set to Expand.
  • What We Are Reading: Test Scores Matter, “Zombie Schools”, and More.

Equip Academy Aims to Open on Albuquerque’s Westside: Meet School Founder and ESNM Fellow Mercy Herrera

“There I was, teaching in the center of Harlem. Everything was stacked against these kids, and yet, they were flourishing and learning. There was a methodology behind it, and it was working. I said to myself, ‘I don’t know when or how, but someday, I’m going to start an incredible charter school back home in New Mexico.’”

For Mercy Herrera, that “when” is now.
This summer, New Mexico’s Public Education Commission will consider an application by Mercy to open Equip Academy of New Mexico, a proposed K-5 college prep charter school that plans to be located on Albuquerque’s Westside. Equip Academy will have a lead teacher and an assistant teacher in every classroom, and every classroom will be named for a different U.S. university. Teachers will use what Mercy calls an “inquiry-based approach,” where teachers often act as facilitators with their students’ “productive struggle” with the concepts they’re learning. “Our students – even at a young age – will be doing more of the talking in class,” she says.

Mercy knows a thing or two about elementary schools. Due to instability in her home growing up, she went to eleven of them in the Albuquerque area before she and her sister were taken in by her grandfather and schooled in Rio Rancho. “College always seemed so out of reach to me,” Mercy says, a motivator in opening a college-focused charter school. “College is not for a certain demographic. Regardless of where our students come from or what they look like, they will know that they deserve to attend the college of their choosing.”

Mercy’s journey to education entrepreneurship has been marked by leaps of faith.
While earning her undergraduate degree at the University of New Mexico, her first leap was applying to Yale’s Divinity School for a master’s program. Growing up in the church, Mercy had a heart for ministry and felt a calling to help others. Regarding her application to Yale, Mercy admits, “I didn’t tell a single soul that I applied.” She was accepted, and the little girl who once bounced around schools in Albuquerque thrived at one of America’s most elite institutions of higher learning.

A few years later, her second leap of faith took her to New York City, this time with her daughter in tow. “I went there without a job, but I did have a clear goal in mind – teaching,” Mercy says. And from 2014 through the pandemic, she taught at some of the highest-performing charter schools in New York, earning promotions into coaching and leadership roles while also earning a second master’s degree in elementary education. Whether in the South Bronx, Harlem, or Brooklyn, she saw first-hand how student-centered instruction and high expectations generated strong academic performance, despite her students’ racial demographics or economic status.

While working as an assistant principal, Mercy’s thoughts turned toward opening a school of her own one day, in a place more familiar (and with lower rent prices). “Since 2014, when I witnessed the power of a high-quality education, I knew I wanted to start an elementary school in Albuquerque, but I didn’t know how it would happen,” she says.

Enter Excellent Schools New Mexico and a LinkedIn message that simply asked if she’d be interested in coming home to launch and lead a great public school. “The note came at exactly the right time,” she says. Mercy applied – and was accepted – to ESNM’s Future Schools Fellowship in 2023, which enabled her to return to Albuquerque last August and will support her as she plans and is hopefully approved to launch Equip Academy. “My wheelhouse is empowering teachers to help students grow,” says Mercy. “ESNM has been critical in helping me understand and succeed in everything else that goes into launching a school – budgets, compliance, strategic planning… those kinds of things.”

ESNM’s Managing Director of Programs, Jane Henzerling, who leads the Future Schools Fellowship, has high hopes for Equip Academy. “As in every other stage of her life, Mercy is meeting this moment head on, fulfilling her dream of leading a school, while bringing a lifeline of opportunity to New Mexico families who so desperately want their children to get the best education.”

In the end, with Mercy, things always come back to faith. Faith in God, who she believes has guided her steps and encouraged each of her leaps. Faith in herself to meet the challenges of education, parenting, teaching, and leadership. And importantly, a compelling faith and confidence in every child that they can do great things.

“Children are innately curious; they are made wanting to learn,” Mercy says. “Our job and goal is to equip them to do that…equip them to fulfill their potential and live out their life’s purpose. That’s why it’s called Equip Academy of New Mexico. We will believe in every one of them.”

Access to Excellence: New Mexico Educators
Study High-Performing Schools

Over three days in January, ten educators from across New Mexico – including teachers, instructional coaches, and school leaders from Carlsbad, Clovis, Farmington, Albuquerque, Roswell, Las Vegas, and Silver City – trekked to Albuquerque to participate in ESNM’s inaugural “Access to Excellence” program. Designed to help teachers and principals see high-performing schools in action and gain insight into how they operate, the program offers a unique, immersive professional development opportunity.

“There are great teachers and school leaders across New Mexico who want their schools to be academically rigorous and serve all students well,” says ESNM Executive Director Scott Hindman. “Our goal is to show them what that looks like and create an opportunity for in-depth dialogue around specific learning and teaching strategies that are proven to produce results.”

The inaugural cohort spent time at Albuquerque Collegiate Charter School in southwest Albuquerque and at East Mountain High School in Sandia Park. Respective school leaders Jade Rivera and Trey Smith were generous with their and their teams’ time, attention, and expertise. The cohort not only learned from what they saw and heard at each school, but had opportunities to discuss their own challenges with one another and problem-solve collaboratively.

Following the experience, one attendee commented about how refreshing it was to spend time with other educators – from different parts of the state – who were wrestling with the same issues, shared an “our kids” mindset, and were committed to doing better for New Mexico students.

Another said that on her long drive home, “I was thinking about not only how I could bring things back to my school, but how more teachers could be part of this program!” Given the success of – and demand for – the first round of “Access to Excellence” programming, ESNM plans to run future cohorts in 2024 and 2025.

In Other News: Changemakers Fellows Visit Houston, AIMS and Hozho Set to Expand

Our Changemakers Fellows recently traveled to Houston to better understand K-12 systems improvements taking place outside of New Mexico. Our Fellows spoke with Houston Independent School District Superintendent Mike Miles (pictured above) and toured a district turnaround school. Fellows also visited KIPP Houston High School, the first high school opened by KIPP Public Schools, a high-performing charter school network that serves 120,000 students across 21 states and Washington, D.C.

The Albuquerque Institute for Math and Science (AIMS) recently announced that it would open a second school on CNM’s Westside Campus. ESNM funded AIMS’ strategic growth plan and intends to support AIMS as the school serves more families across the Albuquerque metro area.

Hózhó Academy (Gallup) recently received approval from the New Mexico Public Education Commission, New Mexico’s statewide public charter school authorizer, to grow from approximately 750 students to approximately 1,200 students. ESNM supplied Hozho’s first startup capital grant and made a zero-interest loan to help the school acquire and redevelop its current facility.

What We Are Reading

Test Scores Matter, “Zombie Schools”, and More…

New York Times:
The Misguided War on the SAT
“Colleges have fled standardized tests, on the theory they hurt diversity. That’s not what the research shows…Research has increasingly shown that standardized test scores contain real information, helping to predict college grades, chances of graduation, and post-college success. Test scores are more reliable than high school grades, partly because of grade inflation in recent years.”

Night of the Living Ed: Zombie Public Schools, Drained of Pandemic Lifeblood, Haunt the Land
“Call them ‘zombie’ schools. A significant but unknown number of public schools across the U.S., particularly in big cities, have lost so many students in the last half-decade that many of their classrooms sit empty…The harm from these half-empty schools is inflicted directly on all students in a district. Without enough per-pupil state funding to cover their costs, they require financial subsidies to remain open, forcing district-wide cutbacks in academic programs.”

American Enterprise Institute:
It’s Ok to Like Both Public Schools and School Choice
“How can we reconcile parental support for more choices with affection for their local public schools? It’s not hard, really. Parents want options. They may want alternatives when it comes to scheduling, school safety, or instructional approach. They want to be able to protect their kids from bullies or from school practices they find troubling. At the same time, they can value schools as community anchors, want to minimize how much time their kids spend in transit, and like their kids’ teachers.”

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