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5,000 ‘missing’ students in NM found

Ben Ippel, a fourth grade teacher at Governor Bent Elementary School, teaches students remotely in his empty classroom. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included incorrect information provided by the state Public Education Department. Small group in-person learning during a two-week pause in January will be limited to students who have disabilities.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico school districts have made significant strides in locating the state’s thousands of unaccounted for students, although more than half remain off the grid.

Officials with the state Public Education Department announced Friday that nearly 5,000 students had been located, after announcing in November that districts were unable to account for the whereabouts of more than 12,000.

The seismic shift in education brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many districts to go virtual, left many families considering other options. Some moved to other districts while others decided to home-school their children, PED Deputy Secretary Katarina Sandoval told members of the Legislative Education Study Committee on Friday.

Roughly 15% of the original 12,000 missing students were found to be home-schooled now, Sandoval said.

“We will continue to confirm these numbers and anticipate this number to continue to drop,” she said. “It’s a work in progress.”

In a virtual news conference Friday, New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart described the state’s process for tracking down students, including mailers sent to all roughly 12,000 students. There were over 700 replies in the first 10 days.

“We know that during this pandemic, we have a high priority to make sure that all of our students, who have not been engaging either at all or engaging successfully in their academic program, get the supports that they need to get back into a thriving educational setting,” Stewart said.

That search for missing students has revealed how some families lack the resources to be fully involved in their child’s education as school becomes increasingly virtual.

Rebekah Richards, chief academic officer for the Graduation Alliance, told legislators of a student her organization was able to track down who had no internet or transportation at home. She said the state reaching out convinced the family to help their son finish the school year.

“When families are struggling to make education work and to make it continue to be a priority, that support allowed them to see the path forward,” Richards said.

Stewart urged families to seek support if they need it.

“You don’t have to do this alone,” he said.

It’s unclear which districts the remaining over 7,000 students originate from. But the department has said a vast majority of the initial 12,186 students unaccounted for came from 13 school districts, including Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.

Santa Fe Public Schools had 400 missing students, but Superintendent Veronica Garcia told the Journal last week all but 45 had been accounted for.

Still, Stewart recently told members of an influential legislative panel that tracking down the missing students was top of mind for the agency.

“It keeps me up at night and it probably should keep us all up at night,” Stewart said during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee. “We’ve got to do everything we can to find them.”

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.

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