posted on January 19, 2018 by Center Staff
Moneka Stevens-Cordova asks questions that have stumped schools for years. “How can we engage students? How can we ignite a passion in them and help them discover the assets that they can bring to their community?” As the Community Engagement Director of the innovative Health Leadership High School, Stevens-Cordova found answers that most traditional schools could never imagine, and she helped the studentsof Health Leadership High School plant a few seeds of their own in the process.
Last year, Stevens-Cordova contacted Travis McKenzie, Executive Director of Grow the Future New Mexico, to design a project that would engage and challenge students, enhance community access to healthy foods, and educate students about food justice and sustainability. Grow the Future, a nonprofit organization promoting food justice, works in conjunction with Lorenzo Candelaria’s 300-year-old Cornelio Candelaria Organics farm to provide the Albuquerque community with fresh fruits and vegetables. “Our students got the chance to meet with Lorenzo, learn about farming, learn the basics about planning, and also were able do a service project, actually harvesting and planting within the farm,” said Stevens-Cordova. But the project didn’t fizzle out when plants were harvested and final grades were submitted. At Health Leadership, community partnerships undergo enduring maintenance. Students continued working with Travis McKenzie and Grow the Future to construct a community garden right in the school’s backyard. Two students are still interns at Grow the Future, where they demonstrate a continued commitment to providing their communities with access to healthy foods. “They might not necessarily want to pursue a degree in that field, but they see its importance now,” Stevens-Cordova noted. “The hope is they will remain interested in this work and that they might explore further opportunities to advocate for access to healthy foods. They might even find other passions along the way as we continue to expose them to communities.”
Projects such as this are not uncommon at Health Leadership High School. Community partners co-develop curriculum with teachers, and students complete 15 to 20 projects per year, each with a service component. Stevens-Cordova’s work with Community Engagement is a core component of the Three Pillar system upon which the school is built. The other pillars include 360 Degree Student Support and Learning by Doing. “All the pillars work in tandem to create a comprehensive system of support,” explained Stevens-Cordova. For students, Community Engagement at Health Leadership is a means of providing students with hands-on learning and constant encouragement. When asked why community engagement was particularly important at a school dealing with issues of public health, Stevens-Cordova replied, “Not only do we want to expose students to health career opportunities, we also want them to have an investment in their community,” and students who feel supported are higher-achieving.
Moneka Stevens-Cordova understands the students she works with because she was one of them. She was raised in one of Albuquerque’s disadvantaged neighborhoods and dropped out of high school on her first try, but she later graduated with the support of her community. One master’s degree later, Stevens-Cordova smiles when she says, “I know the cliché, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ but it’s so true. It takes a village to provide support to students, and in my South Broadway community people took care of one another. Yes there were issues, yes there were challenges, but there were also resources and assets. My community nurtured me, my community cared for me, my community saw the assets that I could bring even before I did, and they pushed me towards the master’s degree that I eventually completed.”
Now, Stevens-Cordova helps students who may not have succeeded in traditional schools find internships, apply to colleges, and make community connections. “All of our students have so many assets and strengths to provide, and our role here is for them to see that, for them to believe in themselves, invest in themselves, their education, and their community.” For many students these are the words that they’ve been waiting to hear.