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A critical partnership

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From left, Evany Sandoval, Itzayana Ontiveros and Marissa Vigil decorate cookies in a United Way Pre-K class on Thursday. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Katherine Freeman says United Way of Santa Fe County started its transition from a “charity” to a “change agent” more than a decade ago.

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From left, Jeremiah Gonzales, Tristan Muirhead and Landen Kee give thumbs up and stick out their tongues during a dance in Ian Schiefelbein’s class at United Way’s Early Education and Pre-Kindergarten program now at Aspen Community School. United Way will move its early childhood programs to the former Kaune Elementary School if a $3.8 million purchase from Santa Fe Public Schools goes through.

“We were looking to have more relevance in the community. We wanted to know: How do we invest the million dollars we raise each year in a way that would really effect change?” said Freeman, who has served as president and CEO with the local wing of the national nonprofit group since 2004.

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Jaxson Fleetwood, 4, enjoys a gingerbread cookie he decorated in a pre-K class offered by United Way of Santa Fe County, which now focuses on early childhood education and care. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

“So we went through a strategic planning process to help us determine what would be the greatest investment we could make in the community. And after a year of study, we decided that early childhood education and care was the best investment we could make.”

Though not a done deal, the local United Way hopes to affect more than the about 1,200 Santa Fe families it does now by expanding its programs to the former Kaune Elementary School on Monterey Drive west of St. Francis Drive off Cerrillos Road in the Casa Linda neighborhood.

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The school board has approved selling the former Kaune Elementary School in the Casa Linda neighborhood to United Way of Santa Fe County.

The Santa Fe school board on Monday approved a purchase agreement for $3.8 million that would turn the 5-acre property and the 39,000-square-foot building over to United Way, which intends to open an early learning center there.

Capable of serving another 200 children aged six weeks to 5 years old, purchasing the vacant school would expand programs United Way already operates at Aspen Community Magnet School, a short drive from Kaune, and the former Agua Fria Elementary on the city’s south side.

United Way and Santa Fe Public Schools had plans for a $19 million build-out at Agua Fria, but completion of that project is on hold pending approval of the Kuane sale.

Santa Fe Public Schools already spent about half that amount to relocate its Nye Early Childhood Center to Agua Fria. United Way was to put up $10 million for the second phase of the project, but may not have to now.

While the programs offered at the Agua Fria campus will remain there, Freeman said the opportunity to buy Kaune is a way for United Way to expand services and save money.

“We’ve had pre-K classes (at Kaune) before, and determined that we could purchase and remodel the building at less cost,” she said.

Another nice thing, she said, is that, if the sale goes through, United Way could start operating programs out of the building as soon as next year.

Before the sale becomes final, the proposal has to go through a public input process and earn approval by the state Board of Finance, which could come as soon as next spring.

One neighborhood meeting attended by about 20 people was held earlier this month. Superintendent Joel Boyd said it’s his understanding that the community would like to see the building re-purposed as an educational facility for children, as it was for 60 years before the school district closed the school in 2010 as a cost-saving measure.

“We’re going to continue to have conversations to make sure our neighbors understand how it will be used and that any questions or concerns are answered,” he said.

An investment in education

Freeman says a confluence of research is what led United Way to focus its efforts on early learning.

“The economic research by Art Rolnick had just been published and that was the first really quantifiable study about the economic return of early childhood impact,” she said.

Meanwhile, the research of Jack Shonkoff, now director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, was showing positive effects of early intervention on the development of a child’s brain.

“The brain research was robust and paralleled the economic research that was coming out,” Freeman said. “Along with trying to eliminate human suffering, we felt investing in early childhood learning would bring the biggest return on our investment.”

Some of the latest data show there’s a long way to go.

The U.S. Department of Education released a report Tuesday that shows New Mexico ranked last among all 50 states, and ahead of only the District of Columbia, with a graduation rate of 68.5 during the 2013-2014 school year.

Santa Fe’s graduation rate of 64.3 percent that year was below the state average, but four percentage points better than it was the previous year.

Superintendent Boyd says the school district has a lot of work to do, but early learning is a key component to achieving district-wide success.

“Our goal as a community is to ensure that every child is ready when they enter kindergarten. That requires more than just pre-K learning; it requires sufficient support for expecting mothers, it requires support for newborn children and their families. And that requires significant partners throughout the city, not just United Way of Santa Fe County,” he said.

But Boyd said the type of partnership SFPS has with United Way is critical and unprecedented in the state, “where we align services throughout the city to ensure that every child from the time they are born until the time they enter public schools has all they support they need in a coordinated way, regardless of their level of income.”

More than 70 percent of students in the public schools system qualify as being economically disadvantaged.

Local control

Freeman said each local office of the United Way is governed by an independent board of directors. Most local offices focus their efforts in either education, health, or family economic stability.

“We kind of go across all of those,” she said. “Ours is unusual because we manage so many direct services.”

Among them are the First Born program, which provides weekly visits from trained professions who offer guidance to first-time parents from pregnancy until the child is 3; Great Start, another home visitation program designed to provide support for families with newborn children; and Family, Friends and Neighbors, again offering weekly visits to help children get a jump on learning, and to help caregivers learn about childhood development and early education techniques.

United Way also administers the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, aimed at improving reading skills by providing children with a book each month from birth to 5 years of age. It also host events such as toddler dance parties, story times and art activities, along with workshops for parents covering such topics as positive parenting, raising boys, and temper tantrums and time outs.

Right now, all those programs are based out of the Santa Fe Early Learning Center at Agua Fria, where SFPS built a nearly $10 million facility to house its Nye Early Childhood Center, a pre-K school for children age 3 to 5.

In addition, United Way operates an early childhood development center for roughly 80 children about to enter kindergarten at Aspen Community Magnet School through its Santa Fe Children’s Project.

Freeman said it’s unclear what, if anything, would happen at the Aspen campus on La Madera Street if the sale of Kaune goes through. She said Kaune would provide “a full-day, full-year” early childhood school, meaning the pre-school would offer services all day, year round. The building would house classrooms, childcare facilities, space for professional development and host some of the same parenting programs held at Agua Fria.

“Our goal is to provide the full continuum of early childhood education and care prenatally through age 5,” she said.

Charters not interested in Kaune

SFPS last utilized Kaune as a temporary school while Atalaya Elementary was undergoing remodeling last year. Boyd said now there is no current need for an elementary school in that part of town and the neighborhood isn’t keen on a secondary school being located there.

In 2010, a purchase agreement for $4 million was in place for Desert Academy charter school to locate there. The Board of Finance approved the sale with an amendment that gave financial protection to the school district if the academy defaulted on payments. But the deal fell through amid objections by some neighbors who argued that the charter school for students in grades seven through 12 was a bad fit for the neighborhood and concerns by school board members over the sale.

Boyd said state law requires the school district to offer property for sale to area charter schools, but none of them, including the New Mexico School for the Arts, which recently purchased the Sanbusco Market Center near the downtown Railyard for an undisclosed amount, were interested in buying.

Boyd said proceeds from the sale would be used to help replenish the district’s operating budget.

“We’ve been using cash (reserves) the past couple of years because of insufficient revenue being provided by the state,” said Boyd, whose district sued the state last year for under-funding public education. “We’ve been put on notice by the financial rating agencies that rate our bonds that, at this point, we really need to consider replenishing our cash.”

Boyd said some of the proceeds could be used as startup money for building projects at the secondary level, which he said would be easier to do than to go to taxpayers and ask for more money.

“At this point, it appears to be a win all the way around,” Boyd said of the potential sale of Kaune. “It’s a win for the neighborhood, a win for the kids, a win for United Way and a win for the district.”

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