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Teacher shortage is public health emergency, school board says

Lauren Reichelt, director of the Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Department, is spearheading the resolution that calls for the teacher shortage in New Mexico to be declared a public health emergency.

Lauren Reichelt, director of the Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Department, is spearheading the resolution that calls for the teacher shortage in New Mexico to be declared a public health emergency.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Perhaps you’ve heard there’s a teacher shortage in New Mexico, one that some lawmakers and educators have called a “crisis.”

Now, Española Public Schools is taking it a step further, labeling the dearth of qualified classroom teachers a “public health emergency” and urging Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to formally make that same declaration.

On Jan. 15, the Española school board passed a resolution that calls on the governor to address urgent needs that contribute to the teacher shortage, such as teacher pay and the system in place to develop young teachers at the state’s colleges and universities.

The resolution also encourages New Mexico’s congressional delegation and state lawmakers who convened last week for this year’s 30-day legislative session “to take every action required to abate the emergency.”

Lauren Reichelt, director of the Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Department, is spearheading the resolution.

Citing statistics from the state Public Education Department that say there are more than 2,100 unfilled teaching positions in the state, the resolution states that the failure to properly educate children “leaves communities vulnerable to economic decline, and results in a failure of human capital cutting across professional boundaries throughout New Mexico.”

“The social determinants of health are affected very much by children not having the resources they need, and one of the most important resources is our public schools,” Reichelt said in a phone interview last week. “In a community like ours, that’s where they build their life skills. And if we don’t have real teachers in the classroom, how are we going to produce nurses, doctors, police officers and all the people who work up at the lab?”

The lab, of course, is Los Alamos National Laboratory, a powerful economic engine and source of jobs in the area. And the reference to “real teachers” is in contrast to substitute teachers, teaching assistants and others with so-called “alternative” teaching licenses who often lack formal teacher training.

A version of the resolution approved by the Española school board was endorsed by the Rio Arriba Health Council earlier this month. It is scheduled for adoption by the Rio Arriba County Commission at its meeting on Tuesday.

Connecting with kids

Reichelt, a former teacher, has seen first-hand the impact substance abuse has had in her community during the 25 years she’s been with Rio Arriba Health and Human Services, a department she built from the ground up.

At nearly 90 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 population, Rio Arriba County had the state’s highest rate of drug overdose deaths from 2013 to 2017, according to New Mexico’s Indicator-Based Information System. The state average was less than 25 deaths per 100,000.

“The entire substance abuse issue we’re facing is just part of it,” she said, adding that schoolchildren face numerous other challenges, such as poverty, issues at home and even homelessness. Students need to have trained professionals in their school classrooms who know how to deal with kids experiencing stressful or traumatic conditions.

“If you’re not engaging kids at school and they are not excited about what they are doing, you’re going to end up with a lot of depressed kids who will get themselves into trouble,” she said.

Reichelt ran an unsuccessful campaign for Española school board in November. But her loss to Jeremy Maestas didn’t stop her from trying to pursue her agenda.

“I’m really interested in what happens in our schools, and when I was running for school board, everybody I was talking to was concerned about having long-term subs,” she said. “Even though I didn’t win, I felt I had to follow up and address those concerns.

“It’s not just an issue for this district, although it is a very poor district. It’s a statewide issue and a national issue,” she said.

Improving the pipeline

Part of the problem is a sharp decline in enrollment in teacher preparation programs over the past decade.

A recent analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that, since 2010, enrollment in teacher prep programs declined by one-third nationwide. New Mexico, perpetually near the bottom in education rankings, is one of nine states that experienced a 50% enrollment drop.

As a stop-gap measure to address the teacher shortage, New Mexico passed legislation that allowed people with any kind of college degree to obtain alternative licensure without having to go through a full teacher preparation program.

According to the resolution, which cites PED data, there are 6,257 people with alternative teaching licenses in New Mexico, representing about 12% of all teachers in the state.

“It’s scary when you look at 20 years ago. We would have like 150 teachers and now we have 50,” Susan Brown, interim dean of New Mexico State University’s college of education, told the Journal last month. “It’s so low and that’s why we have all these vacancies.”

Brown said the reputation of low salaries and a lack of respect for teachers are other factors that have driven young people away from the profession, and Reichelt agrees.

“Part of it is we don’t respect teachers the way we should,” she said, adding that many of them reach into their own pockets and purses to pay for school supplies. “We’re asking way too much of our teachers and not honoring them.”

Backed by higher-than-ever revenues from the oil and gas industry, the state Legislature has worked to increase teacher salaries. Teachers, whose starting pay is about $41,000 per year, received a 6% raise this year, in addition to an increased pay scale for beginning teachers.

Gov. Lujan Grisham proposed another 4% pay hike this year, while the Legislative Finance Committee suggested a 3% bump, but with higher increases for bilingual and special education teachers.

Addressing needs

In her opening address at the Legislature on Tuesday, Lujan Grisham said New Mexico has a “moral mandate” to transform its public education system.

She addressed several issues related to education, including teacher pay and the teacher shortage.

“We’ve got to pay educators more and we’ve got to hire more educators,” she said, adding that in her first year in office, the statewide teacher vacancy rate was cut by 13%.

She said that teachers have been subject to “neglect and disrespect” under the previous administration.

“Education was not a priority. It is now,” she said.

She talked about at-risk students and the need to “create and build relationships” with them, extending learning time for students and investing in a new early childhood trust fund to help pay for Pre-K and other services.

Also on her wish list is a new scholarship program to provide tuition-free college to residents of New Mexico, which could attract more students interested in pursuing a career in education.

“We know if young adults don’t find opportunity here, they will look elsewhere,” she said of the state’s high school graduates.

Her plans for education are meant to address a landmark court ruling from 2018 that New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate education to all students.

A spokesman for the governor didn’t directly answer whether Lujan Grisham would go so far as to declare a public health emergency, instead saying the administration is glad the Española school board agrees with the governor that “building up a robust educator pipeline and doing everything in our power to sustainably invest in our classroom workforce is a key priority.”

“As discussed at length in her speech Tuesday and in her executive budget recommendation, we’re moving aggressively toward rebuilding educator support systems, rapidly increasing educator pay, and improving recruitment and retention, among many other initiatives that will address the educator shortage,” spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.


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