Bills on governor's desk encourage longer school year - Albuquerque Journal

Bills on governor’s desk encourage longer school year

Carlos Lee, right, assistant principal at Aspen Community School in Santa Fe, talks with eighth-grade students Unique Gonzales, 14, and Max Encinias, 14, left, in their internet cafe, set up in a school hallway. Legislation sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham would encourage districts and charter schools to extend the next academic year to help make up for disruption due to the pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico legislators are doing almost everything they can – short of making it mandatory – to get public schools to extend the school year as part of a strategy to boost academic achievement.

They have passed legislation that would add flexibility to the state’s extended learning and K-5 Plus programs, in addition to authorizing about $280 million to pay for the extra school days, enough for any district or school that wants to participate.

The state budget package also would require districts to explain in writing how they will help students catch up if they decide against extending the school year.

The legislation won approval in the 60-day session and now awaits action by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired teacher, said the state has seen promising results when the school year is extended and students remain with the same teacher.

The strategy is especially critical, she said, after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education over the past year.

“We are facing massive learning loss for our most at-risk students,” Stewart said Monday. “There’s just no getting around it.”

Extended learning typically adds 10 days to the school year for any grade, while K-5 Plus adds 25 days for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, an education advocacy group, said she was disappointed to see this year’s legislation amended to make the programs optional rather than mandatory. Many students, she said, have spent a year away from the classroom.

Aragon also said it’s critical for schools to keep a cohort of students with the same teacher for the extra learning time, rather than just make a “good-faith attempt,” as now stated in the legislation.

“We know that kids learn best when they are in classrooms with their teacher,” Aragon said in an interview. “If we can get more kids more time, I certainly don’t think it will hurt – it’s the approach that makes the most sense.”

Increased flexibility

Extended learning and K-5 Plus are included in at least two bills sent to the governor:

• Senate Bill 40, which would add flexibility to the programs and make it easier to participate.

The legislation would eliminate extra testing requirements for K-5 Plus and streamline the application process for schools.

Districts could add extra days anytime in the next school year, including over winter break or at the beginning or end of the school year. There are also specific provisions for rural schools that operate on a four-day week.

The legislation also allows districts to tailor the extra time to individual needs. A school could add extra days for, say, a math boot camp in sixth grade or a robotics program in high school, Stewart said.

The bill was originally designed to require participation in extended learning or K-5 Plus, but Stewart said she couldn’t win support in the House for that provision.

• House Bill 2, the main budget plan for the state. The bill includes $110 million from the general fund and $50 million from an education reform fund to pay for in-person extended learning time programs.

For K-5 Plus, the budget has about $120 million.

Teachers who participate are compensated for the extra time, making an average of 6% more under extended learning time or 14% more under K-5 Plus.

The bill directs districts or charter schools that don’t participate to notify legislators and the Lujan Grisham administration how they plan to “recover instructional time that was lost to students due to the public health emergency.”

‘Teachers are exhausted’

Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Educational Leaders and Superintendents’ Association, said the flexibility was important to districts.

He said that he expects participation in the programs to increase but that removing the “mandatory” language from the bills was necessary, especially for small districts.

Teachers and school administrators, Rounds said, deserve a chance to decide for themselves whether to extend the year, given the stress of serving students simultaneously online and in-person during the pandemic.

“Our teachers are exhausted now,” Rounds said. “It’s been a very strange, tumultuous year for teachers under these circumstances.”

Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said the “optional” language also makes sense because some districts returned to in-person learning earlier than others.

Research on New Mexico’s K-5 Plus program, he said, demonstrates the importance of carrying it out correctly, with the same teacher remaining with the same group of students. The money would be wasted, he said, if districts can’t find enough teachers willing to do the extra work.

“The study showed that it was only effective if it was done with the same teacher,” Brandt said. “Most school districts have had a very difficult time being able to do that.”

Stewart, the senate president pro tem, said it’s important for districts to try.

“It’s astonishing how much more growth you get when you have the same teacher and you just extend the school year,” she said.

Lujan Grisham has until April 9 to act on bills passed in the final days of the session, which ended Saturday.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart suggested the administration supports the goals of the legislation.

“Increasing the time students spend learning is a proven strategy to improve academic outcomes,” he said in a written statement. Because of the flexibility in the legislation, he added, “we fully expect many more districts and schools to adapt an extended school year program in the coming year as a powerful tool to accelerate learning as students return to full in-person learning.”

Albuquerque Public Schools already has 10 elementary schools participating in extended learning programs this year, Associate Superintendent Antonio Gonzales said. The district will evaluate its next steps for the 2021-22 academic year, he said, once the governor takes final action.

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