Teacher ranks grow while enrollment drops - Albuquerque Journal

Teacher ranks grow while enrollment drops

Albuquerque Sign Language Academy teacher Makayla Howard leads her class on Thursday, who follow along by holding up their fingers. Students went back to class on Wednesday. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

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There may be more than meets the eye when it comes to New Mexico’s teacher shortage.

While research centers and public agencies have widely reported a statewide educator shortage of over 1,000 this year, the ranks of teachers working in schools have actually gone up, legislative analysts informed lawmakers Thursday.

And, since 2012, student enrollment numbers have dropped by 8%, they noted.

“While enrollments have decreased over the past five years, the total number of public school teachers in New Mexico grew by 996 … including 470 teachers in charter schools,” analysts wrote in a hearing brief. They clarified to the Journal that the number referred to full-time teachers and included those such as special education teachers.

Faltering student enrollments across the state will force schools to be more strategic about how many people they employ, the researchers told lawmakers.

As of September 2021, there were 1,048 teacher vacancies across school districts, according to a report by New Mexico State University’s Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation & Policy Center. There were 1,727 educator vacancies total when including such staff as educational assistants and counselors.

But it’s unclear from that report which specific districts had the biggest shortages and analysts said that, while the report “implies the state had a teacher shortage, it does not show how long vacancies went unfilled, or average vacancies over months.

“It is an indicator which, while well-executed as a report, may not have given the full picture of need, for a number of factors,” analysts said in a written statement.

Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Scott Elder has said his district, for example, has eliminated hundreds of positions this year based on enrollment, in part by moving teachers to open positions and condensing classes.

While complete vacancy numbers were not immediately available for APS on Friday, analysts said the district told the Legislative Finance Committee that open positions in elementary schools are down to around 30, and special education openings neared 120 – down from 276 last year. An APS spokeswoman noted open positions are often fluid.

Some of New Mexico’s smaller school districts and charter schools, LFC Senior Fiscal Analyst Sunny Liu said, are seeing their own versions of the educator pipeline problem, particularly when it comes to recruiting for needed, specialized positions.

Those can include special education, math and bilingual teachers, analysts said.

“We have a lot of educators available to educate our students,” Liu said. “The issue, though, is do you have the right teachers, in the right schools, teaching the right students?”

One symptom of New Mexico’s difficulties with its educator workforce is that, according to preliminary data, teachers have begun to come with a little less experience and stick around for a bit less time.

In 2019, research showed, teachers averaged nearly 12 years of experience and had put in an average of about eight years with their districts. By 2021, those numbers had dropped slightly to just under 11 years of experience and about 7½ years with districts.

“More work needs to be done on the second half of that pipeline relating to what happens when these educators get into the classroom, and how are school leaders effectively supporting and addressing their needs,” Liu said.

New Mexico will also need a “targeted approach to recruiting hard-to-staff positions” in order to address such things as high teacher turnover, analysts wrote in the brief.

New Mexico’s dwindling pipeline of educators, Liu said, is linked to participation in educator preparation programs, which has dropped by 75% over the past decade. Analysts also noted that more educators are getting their highest degrees outside New Mexico.

School leadership is the top reason educators cite for leaving the profession, Legislative Education Study Committee Director Gwen Perea Warniment said. Other contributing factors include burnout and not having enough time to focus on teaching, she said.

On the plus side, teacher retention and candidates for jobs may be looking up for the upcoming school year.

Analysts said many districts are seeing improvements in those categories – such as APS, which told the LFC that retirements went from around 500 in 2020 to 50 this year.

Teacher Therese Garcia directs her class during an activity while some students pay attention at the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy on Thursday. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

Also helpful are investments in school leadership – the Legislature appropriated $2.5 million to support professional development for principals in 2023 – as well as in educators. Analysts cited more support for teacher residency programs, which received $15.5 million in funds from lawmakers in 2022.

Participation in teacher residency programs has grown, researchers said, which provides some hope.

“Hopefully soon, we’ll have our teachers where they need to be,” said Rep. Debbie Sariñana, D-Albuquerque.

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