First day of school comes early for some - Albuquerque Journal

First day of school comes early for some

Third graders at Lavaland Elementary School wash their hands after recess before heading back into the classroom on Wednesday’s early school year start. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

About 5,000 excited children carrying school supplies and backpacks reconnected with friends in playgrounds, classrooms and cafeterias as 20 Albuquerque elementary schools started classes Wednesday, a week earlier than normal.

The schools are participating in the Extended Learning Time Program, which adds five days at the beginning of the school year and another five at the end.

In addition, about half of those schools are extending the amount of time the kids are in school daily, which will add the equivalent of another 15 days to their school year.

School officials said the objective is to give students more time with teachers, more time for learning, reduce summer learning loss and improve test scores and literacy. Legislative analysts have said most research shows students will start this fall behind academically, and at least one report estimated they lost up to nine months of learning due to the COVID pandemic.

The pandemic forced the bulk of last year’s classes to resort to remote learning using home computers. In April, with about seven weeks of instruction remaining, students were allowed to return to in-person classroom learning while exercising COVID safety practices. Many kids, however, finished out the school year at home, said Emilio Romero, a teacher and librarian at Edward Gonzales Elementary School.

As the school year was wrapping up in May, those kids who returned to school “were kind of sad, because even though summer was coming, they knew they were not going to see their friends on a daily basis.”

On Wednesday, many of those same kids “had big smiles on their faces, getting to meet their new teachers, make new friends and see their old ones.”

Lavaland Elementary School first grade teacher Julie Anderson, works with students on their classroom listening skills. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Romero said most of the school’s classes had 90% attendance or more. “We had our meet-the-teacher day yesterday, and there were parents showing up half an hour early, lined up around the school and ready to come in. So everyone is really excited.”

And having the extra 10 days not only allows teachers more time to help plug gaps in a student’s learning, but also more time to get them prepared for middle school, Romero said.

And it wasn’t just the students who were happy to be back. Nicole Jaramillo, the new principal at Lavaland Elementary School, said, “All of our teachers and staff have been incredibly excited to see the students in person on campus, and not have to do the remote learning.”

One of her goals for the new school year, she said, is to build a positive and collaborative school culture “so students feel loved and safe on campus, because if we build that then they’re going to be ready to learn and succeed academically.”

Legislation supporting and funding the Extended Learning Time Program and a related K-5 Plus program was passed during the last 60-day legislative session. Employees who work at participating schools are being compensated for the additional time.

“A lot of credit needs to be given to these communities and these staffs, because they weren’t selected; they were invited,” APS Associate Superintendent Antonio Gonzales said. … “Principals have been hard at work preparing for their staffs. Everybody from bus drivers to food service workers, teachers, educational assistants – it’s a complete operational investment.”

Gonzales noted that three of the elementary schools – Los Padillas, Whittier and Hawthorne – were designated with “most rigorous intervention” status and have for the last three years been operating with extended hours. The schools incorporated a “genius hour” into their curriculum, offering “enrichment based on community assets,” Gonzales said. This includes classes in such things as mariachi, robotics and the Navajo and Spanish languages.

“Our approach is, let’s enrich the educational opportunity, let’s get our students in our community excited about what they’re doing in school,” he said. “Once the investment is there, from the student point of view, the research shows that proficiency will follow in different core subject areas.”

Those three schools, Gonzales said, now have higher retention in their teaching staff, higher student attendance and stronger math, reading and intervention programs.

“We’ve seen higher academic proficiency and outcomes in short cycle assessments,” he said.

APS Superintendent Scott Elder along with school mascot “Turtle” visit Mr. Buckner’s first-grade classroom at Helen Cordero Elementary School on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

In funding extended school hours throughout New Mexico, the Legislature provided enough money “so that every school, K though 12, could add 10 days, and enough high-poverty elementary school could add 25 days,” said Heather Bassett, policy analyst and legislative liaison for APS.

Based on surveys conducted by APS, not all parents and educators, particularly those involved in the middle and high school levels, were sold on the idea that adding more days would change student outcomes “unless we look at what we’re doing within those days and how we’re delivering services,” Bassett said.

“People want a fundamental change to what we do in schools,” she said.

Cutting into summer break was particularly tricky, because many survey respondents said their children needed the break for travel or to spend time with another parent in a different state. Others said that they plan vacations around summer break or that their older kids had to work, were enrolled in sports camps or were committed to internships, she said.

Even without adding days, APS’ average of 178 instructional days is near average of 180 days for school districts nationwide, Bassett said.

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