Education comes in all sizes and shapes. At its best it’s custom made to fit the student like a glove, carefully designed to fulfill that student’s needs and prepare him or her for the challenges and opportunities of a productive life.
But too often in the real world the only thing available is a generic, off the rack, one-size-fits-all solution that no one is completely happy with, despite the best efforts of the remarkable people who serve at all levels in the teaching professions.
So it was particularly exhilarating to spend a few minutes with three members of Juan Montes’s Puente team. Montes runs the federal Title V program for Hispanic serving institutions at UNM-Taos, and his people are always candid, knowledgeable and passionate about their program.
Margaret Garcia is the summer Puente program coordinator. Puente is a six weeks intensive held at UNM-Taos for both advanced placement students and those that struggle in the school system. It bridges the gap between public school and college.
“A lot of students struggle in the public schools,” Garcia said, “but programs like ours really try to integrate and show that it’s not all about your books. A lot of times the at risk students are the ones that need to have a hands on experience. There are a lot of different ways to learn, and we try to touch all of them.
“We bring students to the campus and show them around the college environment. They take a Compass test and depending on their scores they get placed into different levels of English, science and math. If they have a really good grade point average and do well in their classes they will get college credit. If they don’t have such a good GPA their school district can determine if they get remedial credit or just brush up on their skills. There is no fee for taking part in Puente.
“We work with about 35 Questa, Penasco and Taos students Monday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. On Fridays we go on field trips. We have gone to a sustainable farm and learned about composting, swales, berms, leveling the land and irrigation. We’ve done water testing on the acequias and the Rio Don Fernando. Another time we went to Ghost Ranch to study paleobiology. We try to tie the field trips to classroom time so it’s all connected and relevant to the students. We have three English, three science and three math teachers along with a lot of staff who do everything from serving as tutors to bringing our lunch.”
“We all work together,” Anicca Cox agreed. Two years ago she was a student and work study at UNM-Taos and now she is a Puente tutor. “On the Friday field trips we also serve as chaperones. I think the environment we create is vital to the seventeen and eighteen year olds who come to us. There are students and kids in general in Taos just dying because they’re not going to school. They can either end up on the streets or they can get their education, and programs like ours are here to help them. Eventually they can find something they are interested in that they want to keep pursuing.
“The point is to develop life skills whether or not college is the place you want to be.”
Nicole Romero just got her master’s degree and is back in Taos teaching English in the Puente program. “All of my students are great,” she says, “and I love the small classes and the field trips that we provide. It gives a bigger picture of education for them beyond what goes on in the classroom. It’s the kind of teaching that I am really inspired by. We ask our students to be more responsible for what they are learning and not expect us to follow them around and crack the whip. In a university setting as well as the working world collaboration and cooperation are highly valued. Education needs to be more self directed and self guided.”
“At the end of the six weeks we take the students to Albuquerque for four days and three nights. We stay in a nice hotel and go to UNM, the natural history museum and Explora,” Garcia summed up. “We try to show them that there are quality of life issues involved with higher education. It’s not just about making money. It’s about having a good life for yourself.”