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College’s history with teacher education

SANTA FE, N.M. — The following statements are with regard to the editorial column of Wednesday, May 1 in the Journal North, “Northern’s difficult moves.” I found the Journal’s remarks to be reasonable and well expressed, but I know little about Northern New Mexico College, matters of the present institution that the editorial addresses, and so I have no opinions about it. Another matter about which I do know I shall address. It pertains to an error in the Journal’s interpretation about what occurred at Northern New Mexico Community College in 2004 when it requested permission and funding for programs in teacher education leading to the baccalaureate degree.

I take issue with the comment in the editorial that “the drive to seek four-year college status was politically rather than practically motivated.” This is an incorrect statement; I know because I was there.

I was the last of three community college presidents at Northern during a period of 28 years of its existence, beginning in 1977 and ending in 2005. One of the reasons for its success was stability engendered by Boards of Regents of the time, a necessary ingredient for the success of any of our institutions everywhere. I speak primarily about stability in staffing and in finance.

Authority for four-year degree programs in teacher education was sought by the community college, in great measure via an effort initiated by our faculty and senior administrators, myself as president and the Board of Regents. I have written and published on this matter elsewhere, but since I am not hawking books, I’ll provide a brief summary here.

Public schools in north central New Mexico faced an acute shortage of teachers, especially in mathematics and science. Probably for more reasons than teacher shortages, local high school graduation rates were falling at an alarming rate. Our local high school, where my children graduated in the mid-1980s, was graduating in 2002 about half the number of students who had received their diplomas in the ’80s. The community college witnessed diminishing fall enrollment numbers owing to fewer and fewer high school graduates. During several meetings, an organization of northern area superintendents shared concerns with us on our campus in Española, and there began discussions of a possible action plan.

Northern New Mexico Community College had taken steps in trying to be of help to solve what we thought, at first, to be a problem perhaps of short duration. We and other community colleges began programs for certification of teachers who already possessed the bachelor’s degree or better, individuals who only needed courses in the field of education to obtain their professional credentials. The state Public Education Department of the time assisted us in the matter. Our efforts, however, fell short of the mark.

The plan became a proposal, presented to the Board of Regents of the community college, to seek financial support for programs to train teachers. The historical foundation of Northern was helpful in this way: It had been founded as the Spanish American Normal School at El Rito in 1909. Its mandate, as stated in the Constitution of New Mexico, required the Board of Regents to maintain control and management of the institution, including its instructional programs. “Normal School,” although not widely known, means teachers’ college in most parts of the world. The irony, if such is how it could be described, is that the present acute need for teachers would dictate that the community college would become what its founders had purposefully intended.

After careful deliberation and examination of all aspects of the proposal, in particular the need of the region for teachers, the Board of Regents provided its imprimatur. We presented our proposal for bachelor’s degree programs in teacher education during the 2004 session of the Legislature. The request did not receive wide, unanimous endorsement from a knowing public, as one well may imagine, outside of Española and Rio Arriba County, but we persevered. Member regents, having become avid supporters of the effort to seek support for programs in teacher education, worked diligently on its behalf.

Sen. Richard Martinez sponsored SB 163; Reps. Nick L. Salazar and Debbie Rodella and Speaker of the House Ben Lujan provided major support for this enabling legislation. SB163 passed both Senate and House with few dissenting votes. On March 5, 2004, Gov. Bill Richardson came to our campus in Española for the signing of SB 163 that permitted Northern to begin programs in teacher education in the ensuing school year, 2005-06. Apparently, we had made the case well, with the help of many people who understood the need for more and better teachers.

None of the protagonists in this effort – administrators, the college president, regents, legislators or the governor of the state – stood to profit politically, albeit what they had accomplished was very important to people of our region of New Mexico. None of the people whom I mention sought higher state office, to my knowledge. Now, tell me whether this seems like politics in the pejorative sense implied in the editorial?

Immediately in spring 2004, we developed, with the assistance of the Northern compact of superintendents, curricula and specific plans for programs in elementary education, special education and secondary education, which entailed illustrating the resources that would be available to begin instruction in these fields. We invited the Higher Education Commission – the national accrediting organization – to review our preparation of these programs. Accreditation was granted before I retired and left Northern New Mexico Community College, at the end of February 2005.

As if further evidence were needed of the acute need for teachers in northern New Mexico, the Legislature and governor have since approved the hiring of retired teachers, who may resume their former jobs in the classroom and simultaneously receive their pensions. In another example, school districts in Española and Santa Fe and more, I am told, have had to recruit teachers from abroad, teachers educated and trained in their home countries.

I became aware that, about a year after I left Northern while doing research for a book, in July 2005 a new administration and the Board of Regents sought and obtained broader authority, stated in Article 12, Section 11 of New Mexico legislation governing state educational institutions, and changed the name of the community college to the present Northern New Mexico College.

Maestas was president of Northern New Mexico Community College from 1996-2005.

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