A Huge Advocate for Students and Teachers

As published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, March 1, 2021

“New Mexico just lost a huge advocate for kids,” said Michael Chavez, superintendent of Hatch Valley Public Schools (HVPS).

The enormity of that loss advanced like a black fog across Las Cruces and New Mexico, as news of the tragic death of Las Cruces Public Schools (LCPS) Superintendent Dr. Karen Trujillo spread across social media.

Karen loved kids, and she loved teachers. She wanted both to realize their potential and to know that we, as a community, believed in them.

“Karen was truly a shining light in our educational community,” said Dr. Michael Morehead, past chair of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico’s Board of Directors and former Dean of the New Mexico State University College of Education. “Whether she was running a STEM program at NMSU, coordinating Educators Rising, an organization for future teachers, or as superintendent of schools. Students and teachers were always first in her thoughts. She was an unbelievable mother and family member. She committed her life to her family and her community.”

While her legacy is wide and deep here, I was privileged to be a part of the twists and turns of her journey over the past five years, and her commitment to education fueled her passion throughout. Working on behalf of The Bridge of Southern New Mexico, I got to know her as director of the NMSU College of Education’s SOAR Lab, Doña Ana County Commissioner, Secretary of the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED), LCPS Superintendent, and most recently as secretary of The Bridge’s Board of Directors. 

At the NMSU SOAR Lab, she was an enthusiastic supporter and the initial researcher working with The Bridge, DACC, and Gadsden Independent School District on the Blended Senior Year pilot that sought to transform the senior year of high school into the freshman year of college. She passed that torch to Dr. Rachel Boren when she accepted the opportunity to serve as Secretary of NMPED.

During her time as Doña Ana County Commissioner, she heard an overview of The Bridge’s ground-breaking work to forge strong career pathways to in-demand, high-paying jobs in the county. She realized its potential and wanted to replicate that effort statewide as Secretary, but sadly, didn’t get that opportunity.

However, her short time leading NMPED and advancing a clear vision for New Mexico’s students became an enormous blessing to Las Cruces when she accepted the role as superintendent. She said, “We’re just going to do those things here, and we’ll do them better.”

And she and her team were doing just that, undaunted by a ransomware attack in 2019 and, of course, delayed by the myriad of challenges posed by COVID-19.

She led through those incredibly difficult times with grace, dignity, and unwavering passion to help ALL students…especially those who face barriers to success. She demonstrated what great leadership looks like: fueled by passion and love for others; tirelessly committed to searching out and advocating for the best answers under the worst of circumstances; and empowering and encouraging all of those around her to bring their best ideas and efforts to the table to improve the lives of children and families.

As one of those rare individuals who can be all things to all people at all times and do it well, Karen’s love for and commitment to her own family were just as admirable — her husband, Ben, who serves at basketball coach and athletic director in Hatch, her son, and her daughters who played for their dad and graduated from Hatch.

Hatch Superintendent Chavez said he admired her greatly. He was really surprised that she continued serving as the announcer for the girls’ basketball games, even when she was the PED Secretary and LCPS Superintendent. 

“She just always had a heart for Hatch,” he said. “When the (COVID) vaccines rolled out, she worked with the hospitals in Las Cruces to get vaccines for teachers in the Gadsden and Hatch districts, too. Because of her, we were able to get 60 staff vaccinated. That’s just who she was as a person.” 

The Bridge Board of Directors extends its heartfelt condolences to Karen’s family and friends, and to LCPS educators, administrators, staff, and students who are grieving this tremendous loss.