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The Dropout Safety Net



In mid-August, just a few weeks before school started, a small group of District 60 educators were working diligently to reopen a previously abandoned school that, three years ago, was boarded up.

Their goal, ultimately, was to have every classroom ready before school started so that they could turn around students on the verge of dropping out.

The expansion of Paragon Learning Center, an alternative school for at-risk students, is part of a five-year process to prevent Pueblo kids from dropping out. In 2010, Pueblo City Schools received the Expelled and At-Risk Student Services grant to help the district open the school.

There have also been efforts district-wide to decrease the dropout rate and for the most part, they have been effective. The dropout rate for the 2013-2014 school year was 2.9 percent, down from 3.7 percent in the previous year, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Each high school in the district has a slightly different dropout rate. At Centennial High School, the rate for the 2013-2014 school year was 2.5 percent; at Central High it was 5.9 percent; at East High it was 4.4 percent; and at South High it was 4.2 percent, according to the CDE.

But despite the decreases, for some kids, traditional high schools still don’t work.

“We wrote the EARSS grant so that we could get some funding to serve our nontraditional students in Pueblo and at the time five years ago, we didn’t have an actual school or program site to support our nontraditional students,” said Cheryl Madrill-Stringham, executive director of intervention programs in D60.

As Madrill-Stringham read about the lives of four frustrated students who have dropped out or on the edge of dropping out of high school in last month’s PULP, she saw the familiar stories of kids whose lives she is trying to change.

“As I read the article and I looked at the stories of each of the individuals, I was like, ‘Yep, those are our kids who need something a little different.’ They’re not going to fit into the massive 1,200 student melee,” Madrill-Stringham said. “We want them to know we’re here.”

Madrill-Stringham has been an administrator in D60 for just over 17 years and for years before that, she was a teacher and counselor. Her most recent project has been to expand Paragon, the district’s only alternative school, with the help several other educators, all of them equally passionate about turning around the lives of potential high school dropouts.

“When the kids get here, they can really learn in that supported, non-traditional way of being able to have more flexible time, flexible hours and caring, confident teachers who are going to support them.” – Cheryl Madrill-Stringham, executive director of intervention programs in D60

Paragon officially opened last year in the building that was once Hellbeck Elementary School. The school, which had been sitting vacant for three years, was furnished with abandoned desks from the small handful of other schools in the district that are currently sitting empty.

In mid-August, final renovations on the building were still being completed.

“Even though we’re just a few weeks from getting started, you can see we’re still putting in different carpets and getting rooms cleaned up and really creating that warm, welcoming environment,” Madrill-Stringham said.

“When the kids get here, they can really learn in that supported, non-traditional way of being able to have more flexible time, flexible hours and caring, confident teachers who are going to support them,” she said.

And the goal of the Paragon Education Center is just that—to be flexible and supportive for at-risk Pueblo students on the verge of dropping out.

“A lot of our students may be caregivers within the home. They also may be the primary breadwinner within their home,” said Jennifer Farias, a District 60 counselor on special assignment at the school.

With outside responsibilities, many students struggle to find time for their education.

Farias said the goal of the school is to “provide a flexible schedule that can support both of those worlds so they can go to their jobs, continue with their high school graduation requirements, as well as the need required of them to unfortunately be at home and take care of siblings.”

Also, many of the students need an adult mentor, said Yolanda Ortega, assistant principal and site administrator at Paragon.

“I think the warmth and the relationship piece of being able to have positive relationships with an adult, a familiar, constant mentor adult that is always there,” she said. “They want to make connections. It’s not that they didn’t want to in the traditional settings. It’s just harder, especially if they don’t stand out in gifted and talented, in athletics or whatever the case may be.”

Before the district implemented programs that resulted from EARSS grant, it had been without an alternative school for a few years. The Keating Alternative Education Center, a school for expelled and at-risk students in District 60, closed in 2009.

“When they closed that, the students that had attended there, or had the need to have something a little bit different for their education, were farmed out to their traditional schools,” Madrill-Stringham said.

“So, there was a period in time when Pueblo City Schools did not have any type of nontraditional or alternative programs for kids,” she said.

Once the EARSS grant was implemented, alternative programs started to reappear. Paragon opened to a limited number of students in September 2014 and this year, its programs are expanding to a larger demographic of Pueblo students.

Madrill-Stringham said Superintendent Constance Jones wanted Paragon to become “a place in which we could develop some other programs that would assist families.”

“So, she actually moved the department of early childhood education to this building as well and next year, there will be three preschool classes that will also be new to the building,” she said.

The expansion also includes in-class instruction, online learning and blended learning, which is a combination of the two.

“In the blended learning model, you have your teacher, you have your online education kind of working together and the truly online model, you have the curriculum and a teacher monitoring and working with you,” Madrill-Stringham said.

The school will also begin offering credit for students who work in jobs in fields they’re interested in this year.

For example, last year, the school had a student who had to work to support his family and didn’t have time for a more traditional education. His teachers said he was interested in the culinary arts and worked in a restaurant.

“So the nice thing is that now, if that was this year, we would be able to kind of come up with people in the culinary arts, we would be able to get him credit for his work,” said Dana DiTomaso-Junkman, dean of students at Paragon. “And that’s kind of where we don’t really do that, so to speak, like if I was at a traditional school.”

“It’s going to be nice now to have that piece of this puzzle where he can go to work, he can come to school, he can get his credits done, and he can finish out high school,” she said, “because I do worry that he’s not going to finish if he’s, you know, going to have to fit in the cookie-cutter mold of his school.”

Outside of the cookie-cutter mold, though, his teachers said he is thriving.

“He also got a new job at another restaurant and he was sporting clothes that he had bought. And so, he’s seen value in himself and the connection to the community but at the same time the need to finish his diploma,” Ortega said.

At Paragon, the emphasis is on being a different setting for students who struggle at traditional schools.

“If they’re motivated and they want to come, and they want to get credits earned, they can earn them at a level that is based on how quickly they want to progress through the curriculum,” Madrill-Stringham said. “But it’s different and it should be because we’re not a traditional high school.”

Different as it may be, Paragon will still participate in district-wide standards. For example, the school will still participate in standardized testing and the freshman seminar class, which was implemented by the Intervention Programs office.

The recent decrease in the dropout rate throughout the district can be credited in large part to a shifting focus on freshman students.

Over the past few years, many schools in D60 have been looking closely at a 2004 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University about high school dropouts. The study ultimately found that if a student had two or more F’s during their freshman year, they were 50 percent more likely to drop out of school before reaching graduation.

The Paragon School, formerly Hellbeck Elementary, opened in September 2014 to specifically focus on at-risk students. Photo by Nick Naglich

The Paragon School, formerly Hellbeck Elementary, opened in September 2014 to specifically focus on at-risk students. Photo by Nick Naglich

“So, if a student had two or more F’s as a freshman, they’re 50 percent more likely to drop out. That’s when we started creating safety nets in each of our schools,” DiTomaso-Junkman said. “So, what are we going to do next? How are we going to fix that, so to speak? So that’s when a lot of the schools started coming up with recovery courses.”

Recovery courses allow students to make up a class after failing.

“What starts happening is the older they get, the more recovery courses they get. So, then they have zero classes that are interesting to them and they’re in a lot of recovery courses” DiTomaso-Junkman said.

To negate this, the district started offering online courses for those students and focusing on the freshman year before the problem started happening.

“I think that’s been helpful because you would have seniors sitting in a freshman class and it wouldn’t work in a traditional school,” DiTomaso said.

Even at Paragon, which is focused largely on being different, success during the ninth grade  is emphasized.

“We’ll have a seminar class here at Paragon as well. It’s really geared at looking deeply at that student as they enter the ninth grade and make sure that they transition appropriately,” Madrill-Stringham said. “So, we’re very excited about that too because it’s almost a byproduct of the work we’re doing here.”

As a whole, Paragon educators are proud of the school they’ve created for at-risk students.

“We are so proud that this building is open because if you had come by a year and a half ago, it’d have been shuttered and there would have been no life,” Madrill-Stringham said.

As the school continues to expand, the educators are looking to the community to help their students.

“We really do ask anyone in the community who knows our story or knows our mission to feel free to contact us. We want our community to know that we need their help,” Madrill-Stringham said. “There shouldn’t be a student or family who can’t walk in the doors and have support in one way or the other.”

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Push to legalize marijuana upends governor’s race in New Mexico



ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico’s medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.

Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.

Apodaca pointed to New Mexico’s history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.

The research program stalled and it wasn’t until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.

“Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?” Apodaca said.

The push for legalization comes as New Mexico’s medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.

“We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use,” Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.

The state’s largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.

The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.

Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.

Apodaca’s plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.

Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place. She called for a “thorough analysis” of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.

Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state is lacking infrastructure and isn’t ready yet to legalize.

Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state’s largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.

Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.

“I just don’t see how it fits that we’re going to deal with addiction and yet we’re going to tell people, ‘This one is OK.’ I’ve watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana,” he said.

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‘For fun’ killing reveals vulnerability for homeless Native Americans in New Mexico



The morning a homeless man was shot and killed in Albuquerque, police say surveillance videos showed him running down a street before sunrise, and then gunfire flash in the dark.

Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

Ronnie Ross, a 50-year-old from the Navajo Nation town of Shiprock, had been shot a dozen times, including once in the forehead and temple, and four times in the back, according to a criminal complaint. Police say the two teenage suspects charged with murder this week apparently shot him “for fun” as they came and went from a hotel party nearby.

The homicide marked the latest in a series of brazen killings and assaults of homeless Native Americans in the city. In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up only 4 percent of the population, but account for 44 percent of people living on the streets, raising the likelihood they will be victimized when there is an attack on the homeless.

A 2014 survey showed 75 percent of homeless Native Americans in Albuquerque had been physically assaulted.

“Just being harassed is part of everyday life, but it’s not as much harassment as it is overgrown bullying,” said Gordon Yawakia, who works at the Albuquerque Indian Center and was once homeless himself. “What do you do when people are against you and then the authorities are against you and you’ve got nobody, you know?”

In 2014, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, both Navajo, were beaten to death as they slept in a vacant lot. While authorities did not say the men were targeted because they were Native American, activists disagreed and the deaths spurred the creation of a city task force to address Native American homelessness that now-former Mayor Richard Berry said could set the stage for changes for the population across the Southwest.

Now, Ross’ death is underscoring how difficult it may be to protect and find solutions for the city’s Native American homeless population.

“When I hear a story like this it adds fuel to the fire,” said Dawn Begay, who is the city’s tribal liaison, and works with the homeless through a local nonprofit. “Where we’re headed is a good direction but it has to happen faster.”

Ross’ killing in March came three months after the body of Audra Willis was found decapitated in an area not far from the Sandia Mountains that line the city’s east side. The 39-year-old had come from To’hajiilee, a tiny Navajo community west of Albuquerque, and records show she had multiple addresses during her time in the city, including at the Albuquerque Indian Center.

Willis’ especially grisly death sent shockwaves through Albuquerque, just as the beatings of Thompson and Gorman had three years earlier.

The two men had been killed on a July 2014 night when authorities say three boys — ages 15, 16 and 18_returned home from a night of drinking and decided to attack them as they slept on a mattress. The men were beaten with a wooden table leg, cinder blocks, and other objects, police said. One young suspect later told authorities that the teens had beaten dozens of homeless people, though apparently none others fatally.

In Ross’ death, the complaint filed against the 15- and 17-year-old suspects does not identify a motive, but says the two teenagers bragged to friends about the shooting.

According to police, friends and acquaintances of the boys — whom The Associated Press is not naming because of their ages — said the suspects had been showing off a gun at the party, and had said to others that they had shot a man. At one point, the younger boy also said to a close friend at the party that he shot a “hobo” in the back.

The boys made one more stop at the scene to find Ross still alive, prompting the older boy to shoot him multiple times, according to the complaint.

“It’s completely disturbing,” said Officer Simon Drobik, an Albuquerque police spokesman, said Tuesday. “They just shot this guy for fun.”

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The Last Castro; Raul retires as Cuban president



Raul Castro turned over Cuba’s presidency Thursday to a 57-year-old successor he said would hold power until 2031, a plan that would place the state the Castro brothers founded and ruled for 60 years in the hands of a Communist Party official little known to most on the island.

Castro’s 90-minute valedictory speech offered his first clear vision for the nation’s future power structure under new President Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez. Castro said he foresees the white-haired electronics engineer serving two five-year terms as leader of the Cuban government, and taking the helm of the Communist Party, the country’s ultimate authority, when Castro leaves the powerful position in 2021.

“From that point on, I will be just another soldier defending this revolution,” Castro said. The 86-year-old general broke frequently from his prepared remarks to joke and banter with officials on the dais in the National Assembly, saying he looked forward to having more time to travel the country.

In his own half-hour speech to the nation, Diaz-Canel pledged to preserve Cuba’s communist system while gradually reforming the economy and making the government more responsive to the people.

“There’s no space here for a transition that ignores or destroys the legacy of so many years of struggle,” Diaz-Canel said. “For us, it’s totally clear that only the Communist Party of Cuba, the guiding force of society and the state, guarantees the unity of the nation of Cuba.”

Diaz-Canel said he would work to implement a long-term plan laid out by the National Assembly and communist party that would continue allowing the limited growth of private enterprises like restaurants and taxis, while leaving the economy’s most important sectors such as energy, mining, telecommunications, medical services and rum- and cigar-production in the hands of the state.

“The people have given this assembly the mandate to provide continuity to the Cuban Revolution during a crucial, historic moment that will be defined by all that we achieve in the advance of the modernization of our social and economic model,” Diaz-Canel said.

Cubans said they expected their new president to deliver improvements to the island’s economy, which remains stagnant and dominated by inefficient, unproductive state-run enterprises that are unable to provide salaries high enough to cover basic needs. The average monthly pay for state workers is roughly $30 a month, forcing many to steal from their workplaces and depend on remittances from relatives abroad.

“I hope that Diaz-Canel brings prosperity,” said Richard Perez, a souvenir salesman in Old Havana. “I want to see changes, above all economic changes allowing people to have their own businesses, without the state in charge of so many things.”

But in Miami, Cuban-Americans said they didn’t expect much from Diaz-Canel.

“It’s a cosmetic change,” said Wilfredo Allen, a 66-year-old lawyer who left Cuba two years after the Castros’ 1959 revolution. “The reality is that Raul Castro is still controlling the Communist Party. We are very far from having a democratic Cuba.”

After formally taking over from his older brother Fidel in 2008, Raul Castro launched a series of reforms that led to a rapid expansion of Cuba’s private sector and burgeoning use of cellphones and the internet. Cuba today has a vibrant real estate market and one of the world’s fastest-growing airports. Tourism numbers have more than doubled since Castro and President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations in 2015, making Cuba a destination for nearly 5 million visitors a year, despite a plunge in relations under the Trump administration.

Castro’s moves to open the economy even further have largely been frozen or reversed as soon as they began to generate conspicuous displays of wealth by the new entrepreneurial class in a country officially dedicated to equality among its citizens. Foreign investment remains anemic and the island’s infrastructure is falling deeper into disrepair. The election of President Donald Trump dashed dreams of detente with the U.S., and after two decades of getting Venezuelan subsidies totaling more than $6 billion a year, Cuba’s patron has collapsed economically, with no replacement in the wings.

Castro’s inability or unwillingness to fix Cuba’s structural problems with deep and wide-ranging reforms has many wondering how a successor without Castro’s founding-father credentials will manage the country over the next five or 10 years.

“I want the country to advance,” said Susel Calzado, a 61-year-old economics professor. “We already have a plan laid out.”

Most Cubans have known their new president as an uncharismatic figure who until recently maintained a public profile so low it was virtually nonexistent. Castro’s declaration Thursday that he saw Diaz-Canel in power for more than a decade was likely to resolve much of the uncertainty about the power the new president would wield inside the Cuban system.

“The same thing we’re doing with him, he’ll have to do with his successor,” Castro said. “When his 10 years of service as president of the Council of State and Council of Ministers are over, he’ll have three years as first secretary in order to facilitate the transition. This will help us avoid mistakes by his successor, until (Diaz-Canel) retires to take care of the grandchildren he will have then, if he doesn’t have them already, or his great-grandchildren.”

Cuban state media said Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Diaz-Canel and thanked Castro for the many years of cooperation between the two countries, while Chinese President Xi Jinping also reaffirmed his country’s friendship with Cuba and expressed interest in deeper ties.

At the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert expressed disappointment at the handover, saying Cuban citizens “had no real power to affect the outcome” of what she called the “undemocratic transition” that brought Diaz-Canal to the presidency.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted at Castro that the U.S. won’t rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free!”

Diaz-Canel said his government would be willing to talk with the United States but rejected all demands for changes in the Cuban system.

With Castro watching from the audience, Diaz-Canel made clear that for the moment he would defer to the man who founded the Cuban communist system along with his brother Fidel. He said he would retain Castro’s cabinet through at least July, when the National Assembly meets again.

“I confirm to this assembly that Raul Castro, as first secretary of the Communist Party, will lead the decisions about the future of the country,” Diaz-Canel said. “Cuba needs him, providing ideas and proposals for the revolutionary cause, orienting and alerting us about any error or deficiency, teaching us, and always ready to confront imperialism.”

Diaz-Canel first gained prominence in central Villa Clara province as the top Communist Party official, a post equivalent to governor. People there describe him as a hard-working, modest-living technocrat dedicated to improving public services. He became higher education minister in 2009 before moving into the vice presidency.

In a video of a Communist Party meeting that inexplicably leaked to the public last year, Diaz-Canel expressed a series of orthodox positions that included somberly pledging to shutter some independent media and labeling some European embassies as outposts of foreign subversion.

But he has also defended academics and bloggers who became targets of hard-liners, leading some to describe him a potential advocate for greater openness in a system intolerant of virtually any criticism or dissent. International observers and Cubans alike will be scrutinizing every move he makes in coming days and weeks.

As in Cuba’s legislative elections, all of the leaders selected Wednesday were picked by a government-appointed commission. Ballots offered only the option of approval or disapproval and candidates generally receive more than 95 percent of the votes in their favor. Diaz-Canel was approved by 604 votes in the 605-member assembly. It was unclear if he had abstained or someone else had declined to endorse him.

The assembly also approved another six vice presidents of the Council of State, Cuba’s highest government body. Only one, 85-year-old Ramiro Valdes, was among the revolutionaries who fought with the Castros in the late 1950s in the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains.


Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed to this report.


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