Editorial: So where did 5,500 APS students go? - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: So where did 5,500 APS students go?

The numbers are not pretty.

Albuquerque Public Schools saw its student enrollment drop by about 5,500 students this school year alone. That’s a 7% decline in one year for the state’s largest district, which works for our students and our taxpayers.

APS’ current enrollment is 73,000 compared to more than 85,000 students in the 2015-16 school year.

Officials attribute the decline to both the COVID-19 pandemic and a long-term decline in school-age population.

Those are certainly factors — but most likely not the only ones. That begs the questions where are students going, and why?

Is the huge district simply going to need to right-size itself long term as families choose other options?

Are parents leaving the city or state, opting to home-school their children or enroll them in charter or private schools? Is APS’ size, quality, curriculum or safety a factor?

Data and answers are essential as the district faces an enrollment decline that would mean an expected $17.5 million cut to its operating budget for the 2022-23 school year.

(Add this to the 7,000 students not accounted for across the state in December 2020 and we have a serious need for more data behind that decline.)

APS Superintendent Scott Elder says the district needs to trim about 5% of its staff, which includes about 6,000 teachers, in the coming school year in response to the enrollment-driven deficit. About 300 staff positions districtwide will need to be cut, though there are about 200 vacant positions and consolidating low-enrollment classes and reassigning employees can help mitigate staff cuts. Elder also says APS may cut or curtail some student services.

APS and the state at large need answers, now. Why are students leaving by the thousands and where are they going? Are there changes our public schools can make to reverse or slow the troubling trend — one that calls for a thorough, third-party examination and frank answers for future budgeting?

Graduation rates are up but are incomplete

While we’re on the topic of APS, the state’s recently released annual report on graduation rates indicates the district continues to make incremental improvement on getting diplomas into students’ hands.

The APS graduation rate, 75.7%, improved for the sixth straight year in 2021 — a 14-percentage point increase over 2015’s rate of 61.7%. The recent increase was small, about one point over the previous year, and a bit lower than the state average. And while the numbers seem to be going in the right direction, success comes with a caveat.

Because of the pandemic, N.M. schools have largely avoided standardized testing through a federal waiver process. So the graduation rate data offers an incomplete picture: We know how many kids moved through the APS pipeline, but we don’t know how proficient they are in core subject areas.

That must change. State education officials will finally begin implementing an overhaul of testing set in motion by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s 2019 executive order but interrupted by the pandemic.

Most high school juniors will be required to take the SAT this spring, so this time next year the data deficit will finally have a new baseline and we’ll have more context for how students at APS — and schools across the state — are doing.

As it stands, the fact there wasn’t a dip in APS’ overall graduation rate is good news as many national experts predicted a decline in graduation rates due to pandemic pressures. Still, APS lags behind other districts. Extracting graduation rates of its charter schools, APS jumps to 80.4%. Even so, it still trails Rio Rancho (87.7%) and Santa Fe (83.8%)

Much of Elder’s tenure has focused on guiding the district through the pandemic. But as he lobbied for the job as he served as interim superintendent, he made a strong connection between transparency and accountability. “I think we need to tell people that it’s OK to share data that’s uncomfortable, share data that says, ‘We’re going to have to work harder’ or presents a picture that says, ‘Maybe we have to change the way we do things.’ ”

Again, more data appears to be key to determining what changes could help our students succeed.

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.

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