State Board Candidate Sets Out To Defy Expectations

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When Nannie Abbey Marie Sanchez was in school in her hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., some people told her she had a choice of only three careers: fast-food worker, janitor, or "planting flowers."

Nannie Abbey Marie Sanchez

Ms. Sanchez defied those expectations and recently became the first person with Down syndrome to graduate from a business-administrative-assistant program at a local community college.

Now, she wants to improve educational opportunities for other students with disabilities. On June 2, the 23-year-old will compete in the Democratic primary for one of three open seats on the 15-member New Mexico board of education.

That means she may become the first person with the disability--a genetic disorder that comes with some degree of mental retardation--to hold an elected state office.

"I have learned that when you are born with Down syndrome, people try to put you in a box," she said in a recent speech. "They try to box you into special schools and classrooms because it is easier for the schools, not because it is best for you."

In an interview this month, she said most of her teachers in the Albuquerque public schools were supportive of her goals. But she said she has had to fight the education system repeatedly to gain opportunities and has learned how to overcome obstacles.

Rising Expectations

The National Down Syndrome Society in New York City does not have records of any other person with the disability who has run for a state office, Executive Director Myra Madnick said. But, with better early-childhood treatments and more "inclusive" education, the potential and expectations for Down syndrome students have increased dramatically in recent years, she added.

"More and more as these young people come up, it's not that unusual" to see them in high-level positions, Ms. Madnick said.

Ms. Sanchez is campaigning on pledges to increase awareness of disabilities, improve school facilities, raise accountability for school spending, and enhance the state board's relations with the governor and the legislature, she said. Most of all, she wants to make sure "every student is adequately prepared with the academic background and social skills" needed in life.

"I want to win, I want to grab that seat," said Ms. Sanchez, who works as an office assistant for Youth Development Inc., a group that provides social services to at-risk children and teenagers.

Her primary opponent, Christine Trujillo, 44, has 18 years of experience as a teacher. She now works as a bilingual and special education teacher in the 90,000-student Albuquerque public schools. Ms. Trujillo says it is unfortunate that she and Ms. Sanchez are running for the same seat, because their ideals are so similar.

"She's providing a great opportunity for people in the general public to see people with disabilities participate in the political process," Ms. Trujillo said in an interview.

Ms. Trujillo said the winner of the Democratic primary will have to work to stem a growing conservative current on the board after facing a Republican opponent this fall. The board, she added, will face a crucial vote later this year on whether to allow creationism to be taught in public schools, a policy both she and Ms. Sanchez oppose.

Nannie Sanchez's mother, RoseMarie Sanchez, believes her daughter will win and be able to handle the duties of the job.

"I think the first year she's going to need some help until she gets the hang of it," the elder Ms. Sanchez said. But, she said, "she's wanted to do this for a long time."

Vol. 17, Issue 36, Page 19

Published in Print: May 20, 1998, as State Board Candidate Sets Out To Defy Expectations
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