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Report: New Mexico’s middle schools are struggling

With New Mexico’s focus centered on building reading skills among younger students and ensuring that high school students make it to graduation, the state’s middle schools have been slipping through the cracks.

Analysts with the Legislative Finance Committee detailed the challenges facing middle schools in a first-of-its-kind report that looked at everything from standardized test scores to truancy and social issues.

The report was released Thursday during the committee’s meeting in Albuquerque.

Middle schools are struggling with student performance, programming and funding, according to the findings.

Just 2 percent of middle schools earned a top grade of A during their annual assessments last year. More middle schools received D’s or F’s than either elementary schools or high schools.

Middle schools also are having a hard time implementing Common Core standards, many teachers don’t have degrees in the areas in which they teach, and disciplinary problems tend to increase during the middle school years.

The report also highlights the negative effects that truancy has on eighth-graders’ math and reading test scores.

Deputy Public Education Secretary Leighann Lenti said many of the findings in the report track with data that her agency has been collecting.

She pointed to a 6.2 percent increase in truancy between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years.

“We know there’s something happening with those students in terms of them feeling like it’s OK not to attend school on a regular basis. It’s a data trend that’s going in a direction that we don’t want to see,” she said.

Among the recommendations, committee staffers said New Mexico needs to do a better job of offering programs and extracurricular activities that will motivate middle school students.

Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, said truancy will continue to be a problem if students hate to go to school.

“I just do not feel that we have really understood the problem we’re having with these kids,” she said. “It just breaks my heart to drive past some of these middle schools at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the kids are out there smoking with nothing to do.”

Beffort and other lawmakers said the report offers a platform to address what some of them called a crisis.

State education officials said the middle school years represent a critical time to engage students and put them on a track to ensure they’re ready for college and a career.

Lenti said the department is working on initiatives aimed at keeping students in school and supporting them with issues beyond academics.

This spring was the first time districts could request funding to hire social workers for their middle schools. More than two dozen districts and charter schools applied for $1.3 million in available funding; the awards will be announced soon.

“Our hunch is that this type of support in a middle school, coming alongside what’s happening academically, will really help keep students on the right track and set them up for success,” Lenti said.