Airon “Air” Malone pulls out of the Engage Santa Fe parking lot at noon each day in a purple van affectionately nicknamed “Barney.” He hits up Starbucks, the Santa Fe Place Mall and skate parks to recruit students for Santa Fe Public Schools’ high school completion program.
"When I get out of the car, I can't be like, 'Hey, you look like a dropout. Do you have your diploma?'" Malone says. "I could offend a lot of people. So I have to come at it from a very different angle."
As the sole recruitment coordinator for Engage, Malone looks for program candidates in the range of 16 to 22 years old. He tells people about Engage, hands out fliers, and asks if "you or anyone you know" needs to get their high school diploma. He acknowledges that many of them probably throw the pieces of paper out, but that doesn't stop him from trying.
Engage is not a GED program, but rather helps students complete their high school education to earn their diploma. Launched in 2014 as an effort by the district to combat a graduation rate that hovers around 67 percent, Engage currently has 77 students and 30 more expected in fall 2016, meaning the program could soon meet its 125-student capacity. Engage enters its third year under the leadership of principal Theresa Baca, who took over after the departure of SFPS Superintendent Joel Boyd.
Yet Engage celebrated just its fourth graduate this summer. Lexus Romero walked in the school district's summer ceremony at the SFPS administration building at 610 Alta Vista St. The district holds summer graduation proceedings for students who were unable to graduate in May due to missing credits. Romero kept working through Engage's summer session in order to obtain her diploma.
"We can do our own graduation party here on site, or they can participate in one of the high school graduations," says Engage Program Coordinator Diana Espinoza. "A lot of them don't feel connected to those schools. Maybe they went to Santa Fe High two or three years ago, but now they don't really know anybody. For them, it just feels weird to be in that kind of ceremony."
Four graduates in two years may not sound like a lot, but school officials say that with their busy schedules, it takes time for students to make up credits. Some work more than one job while taking care of their children.
"I think we face a lot of criticism, because we don't have that many graduates," says Engage math teacher Cassandra Cde Baca, "but it's never going to happen overnight. It's going to take a number of years. … Some of our kids come in and need 24 credits." Twenty- four credits, by the way, is an entire high school courseload. "You can't get 24 credits in two months."
Engage students must spend at least 10 hours on their schoolwork each week. Classroom work at Engage, located on Camino Entrada near the intersection of Cerrillos Road and Airport Road, consists primarily of one-on-one sessions with teachers, who are more commonly referred to as "graduation coaches." The coaches go as far as to drive to a student's house and knock on their door if they haven't shown up for school. Malone often tags along.
"There's some kids that need us to come and knock on their door every day and say, 'Hey, you're smart. Come get this credit done. You're already halfway done,'" Malone says.
Malone seeks out recruits in any location where youth congregate in Santa Fe. He creates his own fliers and places them on cars.
"It's harder to recruit kids in the summer," Malone says. "This summer was hot and nobody's outside."
Malone, 25, says he loves what he does. In addition to working 40 hours a week at Engage and taking a full load at Santa Fe University of Art and Design, Malone leads local hip-hop group SpaceMob SpaceCadets. He developed his can-do attitude through numerous personal struggles, including two periods of homelessness in Houston and Santa Fe, and having dropped out of SFUAD twice, once due to financial issues and later when he had a blood clot. Malone worked to pay off his school debt, lost 50 pounds to address his health issues, and took classes at Santa Fe Community College to reduce his course load when he returns to SFUAD as a junior this fall.
Though recruiting is one of his primary duties, Malone does much more. He says sometimes students are more likely to share their problems with him than with one of the coaches, who they see as authority figures.
Luis Vargas, 21, graduated from the Engage program in March. He starts classes at Santa Fe Community College on Aug. 22 and plans to get a degree in computer science. "Since I was a child, I've been fascinated with computers," Vargas says. "I opened up the box and said, 'What's this weird stuff?' I'd be looking at the computer chips. That sense of wonderment always accompanied me."
Vargas credits Malone with kick starting his self-discipline. "He helped me a lot," Vargas says, "knowing if I didn't do it, I was letting someone down. … He helped me get halfway. He'd say, 'I'll get you to school, you've just go to get through the rest.'"
When it comes to Engage, Malone says it's not really about the numbers. "Who's to say one program is not worth one kid's life? Even if we have only one graduate, he got his diploma from here and now his life's better," he tells SFR. "This school is about getting rid of obstacles. … We will do anything possible to help you."