Makayla Grijalva | News-Bulletin photo

Clair Toledo, principal of Los Lunas Opportunity Schools, has led a dramatic increase in the number of students.

When Clair Toledo first went to university, she had no intention of being an educator. Now, she lives and breathes making a difference in students’ lives as the principal of Los Lunas Opportunity Schools.

“I always say, ‘I never knew I wanted to be an educator; I never thought of myself as an educator,’ but when I went into education, I realized that I always was an educator,” Toledo said. “When I look back to when I was young, I was always tutoring my friends and helping them along.”

Toledo became principal of Los Lunas Opportunity Schools in December 2021 to lead the merger between Century High School and the Los Lunas Digital Academy. She said while the merge is an ongoing process, this will be the first year they graduate in a single ceremony, albeit with different gowns.

Last year, Toledo oversaw her first graduation as the principal of Century High School, and while they were “small but mighty,” she confidently knows walking across that stage made a difference in the students’ lives.

“Education doesn’t guarantee a great life, but a lack of education limits your life options. I really came through that experience realizing that every kid matters and we are the last resort to put them on that path towards employment and adulthood,” Toledo said, referencing her 10 years as an educator at SIATech, an alternative high school in Albuquerque.

“If we don’t catch them, then there is no safety net after us. That’s what I love about this work. That’s what I love about this position I’m in now. We are that safety net.”

In her short time with Los Lunas Opportunity Schools, Toledo has led a dramatic increase in students — from 25 regular students at CHS last December to 169 today, all the while increasing students in the digital academy by nearly 40 percent.

“I sincerely believe that every kid deserves an education, deserves to graduate and have world class opportunities,” Toledo said. “Instead of it being selective, it’s become very inclusive of who can come to our schools. Coming out of the pandemic, we have made an effort to take in virtually any kid who needs it.”

Leading up to the most recent school year, Toledo personally met with every single family to understand their unique needs and ensure the students’ success in their transition back to school.

Kristen Gamboa was inspired to nominate Toledo as an Unsung Hero after attending the Century High School graduation ceremony last year in her capacity as a board member of the Valencia County Hispano Chamber of Commerce. By the end of the ceremony, Gamboa said she was moved to tears after hearing stories of students who Toledo had helped guide to graduation.

“For those kids, it was like their moment. Most of them were like, ‘I never thought I would be able to graduate.’ Some had kids,” Gamboa said. “Everyone was coming from so many different backgrounds and needs and the fact that all of them could be met by the guidance and leadership of one woman, that all just seemed very genuine. The kids weren’t just a number she had to push through the system to graduate. It was so apparent.”

In her capacity as the economic development director for the village of Los Lunas, Gamboa and Toledo are now partnering to connect students with local business owners for jobs and internships.

Toledo joked that her colleagues at Los Lunas High School used to tease her about knowing the names and stories of every single student until they realized she does.

One example is a student who received her diploma in May from Century High School, Toledo’s first graduating class. She joked that the student probably doesn’t even know she had been advocating for her since she started high school.

Shortly after beginning at Los Lunas High School, where Toledo served as assistant principal at the time, the student transferred to CHS, continuing to fluctuate in and out of school due to the pandemic and various life circumstances.

“I secretly got her phone number, walked it over to the (Century High) principal and said, ‘Call this girl. She needs to be back in your school. She can do it. Call her; get her in.’” Toledo said.

After beginning at CHS again, the student persisted until she enrolled in the graduate program. Even after becoming pregnant during her senior year, the student earned her diploma, walking across the stage in May.

“Watching her graduate was so bittersweet to me because it was my first graduating class but, in some ways, I had my hand in her education when she was at Los Lunas,” Toledo said. “You have those moments where you see these kids that have come so far and you know what it took to get them there and they keep you going.”

Still, Toledo touts the staff behind her, which she continues to try to support and remove obstacles for so they can provide the best for their students.

“I can’t change a kid’s life by myself,” she said. “I can be their connection to school and I can be their warm and supportive adult. But, it’s the teachers on the front line who do the hard work to change the kids’ lives.”

Unsung Hero: Jessica Chavez

Chavez has been teaching at La Promesa, part of Belen Consolidated Schools, since it opened 22 years ago. She has taught kindergarten through fourth grade.

Unsung Heroes: Jocelyn and Chris Padilla Hunter

For the past 10 years, Jocelyn “Joshie” and Chris Padilla Hunter have been active in the 4-H community throughout Valencia County, not only going above and beyond for her own children, but also other youth involved in their club.

Unsung Hero: Gary Jacobson

A lot of local businesses will generously help support youth organizations and athletic teams, but not many will invite hundreds of teenagers to an after-hour event.

Gary Jacobson, the manager at Mitchell Starlight Cinema in Los Lunas, does just that every prom season for all students in Valencia County.

Unsung Heroes: The Keller Family

Since 1999, the Keller family — Mary Ann, Ron, Richard and Eddie — have hosted the Bosque Farms Car Show during the village’s annual community fair. Originally billed as the “Just For Fun” Car Show, the event started when Mary Ann was on the fair board.

Unsung Hero: Gwen Mosimann

Leading the effort to help find solutions for Belen Consolidated Schools is Gwen Mosimann, the first-year McKinney-Vento liaison for the district. Her directive is clear but daunting — find housing for homeless students and their families.

History of Valencia County News-Bulletin Citizens of the Year and Unsung Heroes

Since 1995, the Valencia County News-Bulletin has been recognizing a Citizen of the Year and Unsung Heroes each year.

Citizen of the Year: Holly Noelle Chavez

“She’s selfless … through blood, sweat and tears, and focus on what is best for the most vulnerable in the community, she does a thankless job, but she wakes up every day and does it.”

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Makayla Grijalva was born and raised in Las Cruces. She is a 2020 graduate of The University of New Mexico, where she studied multimedia journalism, political science and history.