It sounds like a great idea. A big team that can reach out to absentee or stuck-at-home students via text, email or phone to offer support, coaching and encouragement to get back in class.
But in the case of a program to which New Mexico has committed millions of dollars in response to student absences during the pandemic, it’s hard to know if that great idea really works.
Last year, the state Public Education Department entered into a $4.6 million contract with Utah-based Graduation Alliance on an emergency basis — without a bidding process — to provide “academic coaching” in an effort that’s been dubbed ENGAGE New Mexico.
So far, with a $2 million contract renewal in the offing, the program has generated a lot of numbers — 39,000 referrals from students, parents or schools last year and 16,000 students who opted in for academic coaches. A PED report from July says 70% of high school seniors who participated graduated.
But a Graduation Alliance official, responding to a reporter for Associated Press/Report for America, wasn’t exactly reassuring about the program’s impact.
“Is it working?” he asked back. “That’s something we’re going to be looking at.”
Another report, by the Searchlight New Mexico independent news organization, said teachers and school staff had already been doing the kind of outreach to absent students that Graduation Alliance provides. Searchlight says a review of 748 pages of public records on the program shows no verifiable evidence that it helped students improve attendance, academic performance or graduate on time. No attendance records or grades for participating students were recorded.
A supportive survey of parents and students conducted by Graduation Alliance was based on responses from only 3% of participants.
To be sure, there are educators who support the work of Graduation Alliance, hired as PED was facing a genuine crisis when some 12,000 students had disappeared from school enrollment rolls by November 2020 and school staffs were stretched from the COVID impacts.
Some say the ENGAGE program provided an important layer of support for struggling students during COVID isolation, according to Searchlight. A PED deputy secretary said the company, with 200 employees at its disposal, quickly reached out to absentee students in high volume and provided structure and routine. Still, Searchlight reported that a majority of educators at the 20 school districts and 15 schools it surveyed had never heard of ENGAGE New Mexico.
Santa Fe Public Schools has its own three-person team that does the kind of outreach that Graduation Alliance was hired for. A district social worker who manages community outreach says the ENGAGE program provides “an extra pair of boots on the ground.” Meanwhile, SFPS has set up its own four-days-a-week homework hot line staffed mostly by volunteers.
Cobre Consolidated Schools referred virtually its entire 900-plus student enrollment to ENGAGE last year, Searchlight reported. But the district stopped once it was able to address attendance issues on its own and got digital devices out to students. Still, about a third of students ended up in the program, and Graduation Alliance provided weekly spreadsheets of contacts with the students. A Cobre official said the district’s own spreadsheets on student progress didn’t always show benefit from ENGAGE’s outreach.
At this point, the Public Education Department needs to demand more from this contract, specifically identifiable results. Of course anything that helps get kids back to the classroom, or helps them with schoolwork, either at home or at school, is a positive. A PED official says any support to keep even a small percentage of kids who were contacted from being part of those missing thousands of students should be considered a success. But going forward, the value of Graduation Alliance’s work must be better defined for the taxpayers footing the bill — by the company, PED and/or Legislative Finance Committee staff.
There are also questions about the no-bid contract granted to Guardian Alliance, founded in 2007 to specialize in “dropout recovery” and purchased last year by a giant private equity firm. AP/Report for America noted the National Association of State Procurement Officers recommends states require agencies to check if competitors for a particular service exist before awarding a no-bid contract. But PED left blank an application question asking what efforts were made to ensure there were no other capable companies before Guardian Alliance was awarded an emergency no-bid contract.
Are taxpayers getting their money’s worth? Graduation Alliance’s ENGAGE New Mexico may have provided an important service for thousands of school children or, as critics maintain, merely issued something akin to robocalls. Right now, no one can really say.
And that’s not enough to renew a $2 million state contract.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.