Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
“Guardedly optimistic” is how state Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said he feels regarding the chances that a $3.87 billion education budget makes it through this year’s short legislative session, underscoring his “year of literacy.”
The House on Thursday approved that budget, which now goes to the Senate – where, Steinhaus acknowledged, it could be amended, approved or rejected.
Even so, “I’ve never seen the executive branch and the legislative branch come together so quickly and so clearly aligned,” he said, noting that there was only a $1 million difference between the budget he and the executive branch prepared, and the education budget assembled by the Legislative Finance Committee.
Steinhaus, a lifelong educator who retired as Los Alamos Public Schools superintendent before being named Public Education Department secretary-designate in July, was confirmed as secretary on Wednesday.
Upon being named to the position, Steinhaus vowed to make this “the year of literacy,” and initiated a campaign to boost student achievement and well-being, have better and more transparent assessment of student skills, increase teacher salaries, provide more professional development and promote reading for children.
He said the campaign has thus far garnered a lot of attention.
“The deans of all the colleges of education met with me and they all brought books that they were donating to children; local school boards have done resolutions; and our governor, myself and many other people have been in schools, reading to children,” he said in an interview following his confirmation.
As part of the year of literacy, Steinhaus said, “the signature initiative that I’ve proposed to the Legislature is to fund training for every elementary teacher in New Mexico to learn the science of reading” using a program called LETRS – Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. “The teachers I’ve talked to who have taken this training say it is by far the best training.”
The cost of adopting the program statewide is $11.5 million, he said. LETRS gives elementary school educators a deeper understanding of how the brain learns to read, how to identify reading difficulties and how to assess the effectiveness of instructional resources.
People enrolled at state universities training to become teachers would also benefit from the program, Steinhaus said. “So when somebody becomes a brand new teacher, and they’re getting a bachelor’s degree … they will get this LETRS training and walk into a classroom already prepared to use the science of reading.”
Kindergarten through 2nd grade teachers are already learning the program.
Also encouraging is the Legislature’s support of an average 7% raise for all school employees, raising the minimum salaries of teachers, and providing an additional 3% on top of that to teachers who participate in schools that extend the school year, he said.
If approved, the minimum salary for teachers in the state’s three-tier licensing system would increase to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000, respectively. That would make New Mexico’s teacher salaries more than competitive “by putting us above Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas,” Steinhaus said.
The PED education budget also includes funding for a number of Indian education initiatives, including $15 million for the Indian Education Fund for tribal education departments, tribal libraries and Native American language programs.
Still, there is no avoiding the setback to the literacy initiative from the COVID pandemic. Many of the literacy programs around the state rely heavily on volunteers, who have been impacted by emergency safety measures to stem transmission rates.
Some of that has been mitigated by using online platforms to match tutors and mentors from throughout the state with children and adults in literacy programs that have seen their available pools of volunteers shrink, Steinhaus said.
Two literacy programs in the Albuquerque metro area – Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring program and Albuquerque Reads – have seen their programs curtailed. It’s a combination of schools implementing COVID restrictions and volunteers and mentors wanting to avoid close contact during the pandemic.
That has led to far fewer students receiving help.
Oasis program director Vicki DeVigne said pre-COVID, she had about 425 trained tutors working with 615 students mostly in first through fourth grades at elementary schools in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, Belen and Bernalillo. That pool shrunk to 110 tutors at the height of the pandemic, but is now back up to 240 tutors working with about 250 kids.
Most of the OASIS tutors are age 55 and older and many have underlying health conditions, “which is the very demographic that they say needs to be very careful about contracting COVID,” DeVigne said, adding that about 200 tutors “are sitting on the sidelines right now.”
Albuquerque Reads, a project of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, places trained tutors in three Title 1 Albuquerque elementary schools, working mostly with kids in kindergarten and first grade. Pre-COVID, the program had a pool of about 300 tutors to work with 250 kids a year. The number of tutors decreased during the pandemic to about 100, although the number has now risen to 150, and there are about 60 kids taking advantage of that resource, said program director Margarita Rodriguez-Corriere.
Because of social distancing guidelines, “we’ve adjusted our curriculum so that the volunteer doesn’t sit next to the student for more than 10 minutes,” she said. “We’re all working really hard to serve the kids, but COVID has made it really challenging.”
Recognizing that, Steinhaus said teachers, instructional assistants, volunteers and “all the people on the frontlines out in the schools are doing an incredible job in the face of the COVID pandemic.”
“I consider them our heroes,” he said.