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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In a nondescript one-story industrial building surrounded by a neighborhood of engine repair and body shops, rows of seamstresses lean into their industrial sewing machines and cut and stitch fabrics for West Elm, New York’s Canvas Home, and other retailers.

This little factory, called Southwest Creations Collaborative, provides not only stable employment in a state where nearly a third of jobs pay at or below the poverty level. It’s also helping its workers’ children overcome the longer-than-average odds in Albuquerque that they will graduate from high school and go on to college.

“We joke that the people who work here are simultaneously grateful and that they’re also thinking, ‘Wow, you guys are really in our business,’” said Jessica Aranda, director of the collaborative’s Hacia la Universidad, or “To the University,” program. “What other employer asks you to bring in your children’s grades?”

The program offers mentoring and tutoring if those grades suggests it’s needed, takes families on tours of college campuses, and helps them navigate the application and financial aid process.

The results have overcome any unease: 98 percent of these factory workers’ children graduate from high school, compared to the Albuquerque average of less than 63 percent, and 86 percent go on to college, versus 69 percent of other Albuquerque high school grads.

The program is already ahead of schedule in the number of people in Albuquerque earning degrees, toward an ultimate goal of 60,000 new local degree-holders by 2020.

It’s a tiny step toward fixing a big problem. But as federal and state policymakers struggle to increase the number of college graduates from the top down, this and other efforts in Albuquerque are trying to succeed by doing it from the bottom up.

“Truly each community knows itself better than anyone else does, rather than having these lofty ideas from Washington that aren’t grounded in the experience of an individual person,” said Christina Griffith, who helps propel 40 local high school students annually into college as part of another small local program underwritten by the Simon Family Foundation.

Related: While Washington wavers, states provide detailed college ratings

In a downtown diner where she often meets with promising high school students over lemonade — and after having just come from consoling one whose college plans were teetering because of family problems, and another whose father lost his job — she said, “So often the presumption is that we need to bring in ideas from the outside, but that often happens with the exclusion of the people who really understand the problems.”

And the problems here are particularly complex.

Only 38 percent of adults in Albuquerque have college degrees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, far lower than the proportions in what the city considers its economic competitors, such as Austin (48 percent), Seattle (49 percent), and Silicon Valley (55 percent). More than half the population is Hispanic or native American, groups with traditionally low rates of college-going, and with high levels of poverty; a quarter of Hispanic adults in Albuquerque never finished high school. That leaves them ill equipped to help their children navigate the complicated path to college.

But when advocates looked more closely at the gaps, they found that they were even wider than they seemed. Fourteen percent of children in Albuquerque are habitually absent from school, only a third go to preschool or pre-kindergarten, their scores in reading and math are very low, and 26 percent drop out before finishing high school.

Increasing college graduation rates strategies
A worker at Southwest Creations Collaborative with her daughter. Credit: Southwest Creations Collaborative

So it was the United Way, which works with charitable organizations of all kinds, that convened a meeting in a windowless conference room in its offices near the airport and started hashing out some ways to tackle this. The model? A local collaboration under which different organizations that dealt separately with domestic violence — police, a rape crisis center, sexual abuse service providers, safe houses and shelters, drug and alcohol treatment services, food banks — had pooled their resources to confront that seemingly intractable problem from all angles.

Related: Employers step in to help low-income students get through college

The low numbers of students going to college seemed a logical next focus for this approach, called “collective impact.” So, as if in a pastoral scene from the simpler era when the old Route 66 still carried smiling, waving vacationers through the heart of this town on their way west, social service leaders sat down with the mayor, school administrators, business and civic leaders, the newspaper editor and anybody else who had ideas for dealing with the issue all the way from prenatal care to careers.

“It takes an entire community to come together to move the needle in a significant way,” said Katharine Winograd, president of Albuquerque’s Central New Mexico Community College, who was one of the people at that table.

One student at a time

That’s because locals can deal with one student at a time, instead of seeing them as impersonal statistics.

“Truly each community knows itself better than anyone else does, rather than having these lofty ideas from Washington.”

They also understand that “things come up,” said Aranda, of Southwest Creations, one of whose first success stories just graduated from Texas A&M University with a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. “There might be a problem with transportation, some families might be struggling to keep food on the table, or it might be simple—we really need to get Junior a summer job.”

Under the umbrella of what would become known as Mission: Graduate, the Rotary Club and Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce have supplied volunteers to tutor kids in reading. The local PBS station produced public-service announcements for a campaign to improve school attendance, which also ran on billboards provided by the highway department, and on the sides of city buses. Businesses provided internships. Local banks helped design the curriculum of a certificate program to train bilingual workers for jobs as tellers. The University of New Mexico, whose campus is in the heart of Albuquerque, sends reports back to individual high schools telling them how their graduates fare after they arrive on campus so teachers can see how their students are doing and correct any shortcomings in subsequent classes. And the community college is in talks to offer classes in Spanish at a neighborhood organization called Encuentro for people who want to become home health care workers.

Related: From pews to classes, a new push for higher ed in church

“It’s all about making connections,” said Andrea Plaza, Encuentro’s executive director, in the onetime St. Vincent de Paul thrift store that serves as its headquarters, with inspirational messages on the walls and cracks in the floor. “It’s a relationship thing. People are coalescing around this. They’ve made a commitment to it, not because their organizations need it, but because our community needs it.”

Now, said Concha Cordova, vice president of the education and training organization Youth Development Incorporated on the city’s southwest side, “You walk into those meetings and you know everybody and you know their work, and we help each other.”

And not only out of altruism. Businesses are having trouble finding the workers they need. “We have a lot of self interest in this,” said Jim Hinton, president of Presbyterian Healthcare Services, the biggest health care company in New Mexico, in his office overlooking the field where the city’s famous annual hot-air balloon festival was about to take place. “We have to turn this beautiful place where we live into something beyond a postcard.” New Mexico universities and colleges, meanwhile, are trying to stem a decline in enrollment — including UNM, half of whose students come from Albuquerque. “Is it self-serving in a way? Of course,” said Kevin Stevenson, the university’s liaison to Mission: Graduate. “If we can prepare more students to go to college, and keep them here, that helps everyone, including us.”

A nationwide push

Increasing college graduation rates strategies
Employees at Southwest Creations Collaborative, which provides services to help their children go to college. Credit: Southwest Creations Collaborative

It’s also an extension of a trend by which, frustrated by dysfunction at the federal level, communities are taking matters into their own hands. At least 74 other cities nationwide, from Buffalo, New York, to Santa Ana, California, have efforts under way to increase the number of students going to college through something called the Community Partnership for Attainment. (The initiative is supported by the Lumina Foundation, which also is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.) This is happening at a time when an Obama Administration plan to restore the country to first place in the world by 2020 in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees is far behind schedule. State efforts in many cases haven’t fared much better.

Community leaders, by comparison, “can very quickly identify the barriers, and try to break those down,” said Josephine De Leon, vice president for equity and inclusion at UNM. “The impact is much more direct, it’s much faster. We’re boots on the ground, every single day. We know what the issues are, and we know the faces of the people it affects.”

High school graduation rates are up slightly since the initiative began in 2010, as is the proportion of those graduates who go to college, and the percentage who, at UNM, stay there beyond the first year. And Mission: Graduate is already ahead of schedule in the number of people in Albuquerque earning college and university degrees, toward an ultimate goal of 60,000 new degree-holders by 2020.

Related: One struggling city’s bold effort to increase its number of college graduates

Challenges remain. Scores in third-grade reading and eighth-grade math have fallen, for example. And Luis Gomez, who overcame his own undocumented status and other problems to graduate in May from UNM with a degree in accounting, and who now volunteers to mentor kids like him in local high schools, said the students he works with “don’t think they can make it. They don’t have positive role models to look up to.”

Gomez, who worked at a fast-food chain and as a waiter in a restaurant to pay for his tuition, said, “It’s really sad. I see the potential in them. They’re mostly discouraged.”

But sharing his own story helps, he said. “That’s when they start opening up. Because the way things operate here is very different than in other places.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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