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SB 1, HB 5 will kill vital charter schools

Major changes are coming to education in New Mexico. With a record high budget available, increased spending is not the only paradigm shift apparent as legislators consider sweeping changes across the board. As bills move through the system, it remains difficult to anticipate any outcomes and impossible to consider all unintended consequences.

Embedded into both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 5, current language introduces an “age cap,” redefining who is eligible to receive public education funding. If passed, students over the age of 22 would no longer be eligible to earn a high school diploma, forcing schools like Gordon Bernell Charter School to close.

Gordon Bernell is an Albuquerque Public Schools charter currently serving adults on seven campuses. Originally opening 10 years ago with two campuses, one inside the Bernalillo Metropolitan Detention Center and the other located in Downtown Albuquerque, the intention was to transition students from school in jail out into the community. Designed to accommodate transitional high-risk students, our self-paced mastery-based curriculum allows students to complete credits in chunks and re-engage with education while navigating out of the tremulous cycle of trauma, poverty, low academic skills, unemployment, crime and incarceration. The mission and vision has always targeted adults, with the intention to stabilize families, and increase academic and scholastic achievement for generations to come.

Since then, additional community partners have approached the school, interested in our successful, replicable model. Now housed inside multiple long-term residential treatment centers that realize increased skills are highly correlated to successful rehabilitation, we also meet the high mobility demands and unique educational needs of Job Corps. Our Downtown Roma campus is set to relocate to our own brand new building early this spring, where it is evolving into a true community school serving transfer students from our other campuses, as well as any adult wanting to use education as a means to transform their lives.

Our school holistically supports our students: developing individualized academic plans; addressing self-regulation through trauma-informed mental health programs; devoting time to job-readiness and employability skills; and coordinating community resources to ensure student success in the community. We are the evidence-based model of a community school that the Public Education Department’s new administration envisions as the answer to underserved and low-performing populations in the state’s proposed revised ESSA plan.

We are not a low-performing school. Only a few points from a B on last year’s rigorous School Report Card, we have been proactively compliant with all accountability measures outlined by PED and APS, our local authorizer. We engage with over 1,000 students each year, are funded on only 425 and consistently graduate 50-60 students a year, while transitioning hundreds of others directly to the workforce and back to their families.

We serve an undeniable need in our community, giving one of our most vulnerable and unpredictable populations the opportunity to stabilize through education. Current legislation, if passed, will close us down.

Sponsors of the “age cap” language claim that adult students are funneling funding away from their younger counterparts and should access adult basic education programs, such as the GED or online private high schools. The reality is that adult dropouts never accessed their full K-12 funding, as it went unclaimed once they dropped out, and they are entitled to utilize their unused appropriated funds to re-engage with education and improve the future for their families.

The return on investment through education is saved in corrections and public assistance programs when adult students successfully reintegrate as productive members of the community. The idea of our students accessing other diploma equivalency programs is unreasonable. Test preparation and online programming prove unsuccessful because this population does not have the skills or the money to access them and requires comprehensive wrap-around services to break the cycles holding members back.

There has been an amendment proposed to save us, and the House Finance committee will be voting on it at 1:30 today. Please consider voicing your support, because without advocates willing to stand up for us, we will disappear.

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