Michelle Valverde's O'Donnell Hall office is filled with a medley of items reflecting her community outreach work at NMSU. There's the laminated paper wheel she has used in workshops, explaining to parents the components of equal opportunity to learn. Then there's the colorful pictures drawn by children she's worked with. Books and other reference materials fill the shelves. Boxes containing more teaching materials are lined up against one wall.
As the director of the Borderlands Center for Educational Studies (BoCES), Valverde is constantly interacting with parents, kids and educators, as well as looking for creative and innovative approaches to addressing the educational opportunity gap.
Born and raised in Deming, Valverde attended the University of Arizona where she earned her bachelor's degree in sociology. After earning a master's in social welfare management and planning from the University of California at Berkeley, she became interested in the impact of formal education on society.
"If we do a better job so everyone has an opportunity at educational success, we can impact some of the social problems we have in the United States," she said. "Drug abuse, violence, incarceration - there's a correlation with formal education. So, I made a switch and decided to get a Ph.D. in education."
She earned her doctoral degree from NMSU in 2000.
Since coming to NMSU, she has helped coordinate workshops and community dialogues about critical education issues.
Although BoCES was created in 1989 by a group of faculty in the College of Education, Valverde and some senior advisers helped revitalize it in 2010 with support from Dean Michael Morehead's office. Additional faculty members joined the BoCES advisory committee this year, along with three NMSU students.
"We do parent engagement, youth engagement, and parent and youth leadership development," she said, emphasizing the role of community effort in education. "If we start working together as a community, and support each other, we can make a difference. We all have a role to play."
In 2010, Valverde and her colleagues hosted Building Community Capacity for Educational Excellence, a series of workshops for parents and youth.
"Sheila Black, previously a development officer of corporate and foundation relations in the NMSU Vice President's office, found out about the funding through the New Mexico Public Education Department from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009," Valverde said. "We had a couple of days to apply, and we got it. Our three priorities in the proposal were mentoring, valuing culture and race, and high expectations. We were trying to put the notion of the public good back into education."
Valverde recruited participants for the community dialogues. Her search wasn't limited to parents and teachers; the discussions included legislators, school board members, judges, higher education faculty and staff, and community-based organizations.
The community dialogues included a total of about 70 participants.
"We were able to reach out to people who also were concerned about education," she said. "The director of bilingual programs in the Las Cruces Public Schools and the principal at the early college high school were instrumental in helping us get parents, K-12 staff and administrators, and parents involved. We had a few private nonprofits and community groups represented. NMSU Service Learning students helped organize literacy activities for the kids."
She credits Lucia Veronica Carmona for helping her develop curriculum for the workshops. Carmona is the community engagement director at the Institute for Community Engagement.
Last fall, BoCES spearheaded the Closing the Opportunity Gap project, along with NMSU's chemistry and curriculum and instruction departments, after being awarded an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access grant of $20,000 from NMSU.
"A lot of people know it as the educational achievement gap, but for us at BoCES, we see it as an opportunity gap," she explained. "We see that there are these differences historically in terms of groups of kids who have had different levels of opportunities when it comes to education. Perhaps expectations haven't always been high for them. Perhaps they haven't had excellent instruction and rigorous curriculum that's motivating and relevant to their lives. So there are all these different elements that lead to opportunities to learn."
The purpose of the Closing the Opportunity project was to demonstrate to middle school-age kids the importance of high school and continuing on to a university degree. It was based on research that showed Latino students who enter ninth grade with an education plan beyond high school are more likely to graduate from college.
The middle schoolers also got a sneak peek at university life through an NMSU campus tour, during which more than 150 students met with college student role models, and were treated to a chemistry presentation by NMSU Professor Antonio Lara.
At the time, Valverde was working as coordinator for BoCES. She was recently hired as director of both BoCES and the Alliance for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.
"An important next step is to continue to try to solidify BoCES, and get it institutionalized at NMSU so we can continue these activities," she said. "We're kind of in transition right now, with me wearing this new hat, in support of both BoCES and the Alliance."
Valvede has a son who is a recent graduate of NMSU; her daughter is a junior studying conservation ecology in NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
"I really enjoy being able to help make the connection between NMSU and parents, youth and other community entities," she said of her new role. "Plus, I have a wonderful support team among the BoCES internal advisers. Rudolfo Chavez Chavez and Herman Garcia have especially been instrumental in our success."