Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For years, a program that extends the elementary school year by 25 days has been a centerpiece of New Mexico’s strategy to boost student achievement.
Research by the Legislative Finance Committee and others shows the extra classroom time can have a powerful effect on kids who need to catch up.
But leading legislators suggested Friday that they may pause efforts to expand the program – known as K-5 Plus – after frontline educators outlined a number of barriers to carrying it out effectively and described overwhelming challenges trying to teach amid the pandemic.
Just 7% of students in New Mexico are participating this year in the program, despite sufficient funding for every eligible student.
In a legislative hearing Friday, a few teachers, principals and school administrators said the K-5 Plus program has been particularly difficult to operate amid the pandemic – as the onslaught of quarantines, extra paperwork and other disruptions exhaust students and families.
Signing up teachers and students for an extra five weeks of school in such an environment, the educators said, isn’t practical.
“It’s been a tough year for administrators and teachers and parents – for everyone,” Cody Skinner, an assistant superintendent at Artesia Public Schools, told lawmakers.
He suggested now is the time to offer schools money and flexibility to handle their own challenges rather than “making it a one-size-fits-all for everyone.”
Members of the Legislative Education Study Committee also heard testimony about budget deadlines that make K-5 Plus planning difficult and trouble recruiting the students who need the most help into the program.
The pushback comes after state-level policymakers have repeatedly tried to expand the program, which is aimed at schools serving low-income areas. It also has been seen as a way to help students catch up after the lost classroom time last year.
Research by the LFC has found that students who participate in the program are more likely to perform at grade level rather than fall behind, an effect that’s particularly pronounced for low-income and Native American students.
Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, has championed K-5 Plus for years, citing the research on its effectiveness.
But to have the powerful impact necessary, she said, the program must be carried out with certain standards, such as keeping the same cohort of teacher and students together in the regular school year and extra 25 days.
Stewart said Friday that her thinking on the program is evolving as teachers and administrators testify about the difficulty of teaching in the pandemic.
Earlier this year, she backed legislation that would have required extra days and learning time.
But “it does seem to me we need to pause a lot of things that are mandates,” Stewart said Friday. “It just doesn’t seem fair.”
Instead, she said, the state may pursue extending the school year or learning time in other ways, perhaps by phasing in changes over several years, rather than pushing to expand K-5 Plus.
“The pandemic has kept us from doing these programs as easily as we could be,” Stewart said.
New Mexico has had dismal proficiency rates. In 2019, for example, just 30% of third graders were proficient in reading.
Educators who testified at the Capitol on Friday said the teaching profession would benefit from increased pay and an acknowledgment of the time teachers put in outside of school to grade papers, plan and help students.
More planning time at school would help, they said, allowing teachers to better analyze student data and calibrate their teaching approach.
Dana Maes, a second grade teacher for Pojoaque Public Schools, said the pandemic and remote learning have given teachers a clearer view into the home lives of students and the conditions they face.
“We care for our students,” she said. “That’s what got us into education in the first place. … We just need more support and planning time to be able to do our jobs effectively.”