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Creative solutions needed for schools

I came to New Mexico in 2014 when my husband retired and returned to the state. A college teacher before the move, I took a position at a college in New Mexico. I had been told that New Mexico’s public education system was abysmal. Except for places like Los Alamos and the great University of New Mexico, what I was told seems to be correct. UNM, however, is facing deep cuts and declining admissions.

What I didn’t expect was that the ordinary college freshman here in New Mexico is much less prepared than students I had from inner city schools. For years I taught disadvantaged urban students, along with rural students, in remedial courses, and I can say that despite their often severe weaknesses, all could read and write. Many remedial students I have here cannot read – by which I mean that they struggle with the simplest texts of a page or more. The better students, those not placed in the remedial classes, mostly have reading and writing skills similar to those of the remedial students I had before. Yet these New Mexican students are bright and motivated.

I have learned from my students and from published information on education in New Mexico that it is hard to retain teachers because salaries are seriously non-competitive with those of other states. As a result, New Mexico depends heavily on substitute teachers. My students report they had often had several substitute teachers in a year for a single class. In addition to frequent turnover, substitute teachers often lack suitable training. Many of my students never wrote a single paper in high school. Some reported having unqualified teachers who depended on computer programs for their classes; there was no actual teaching or even interaction with students. As a result the students are unprepared for college – and these are the most successful, those who made it into a New Mexico college in the first place. My students do report that there are teachers who care, who stay, and who do try to teach, but not nearly enough.

I know that teaching conditions in many public schools in New Mexico are difficult, with severe discipline problems and problems related to the drug epidemic in pockets of New Mexico. Such schools in other states often offer what is ironically called “combat pay” to attract teachers who can actually handle those conditions. In this state, public school teachers with barely a living wage are now threatened with pay cuts, job loss and even the amazingly insulting plan to forbid them from using more than (a few) of their contracted 10 sick days per year. Morale is terrible. A friend of mine interviewed for a position at a New Mexican high school but withdrew her application after a day of meeting the faculty because, she said, everyone was so depressed that even one day there made her feel hopeless.

How are these students to make it in the world today? The agricultural, oil and gas fields, and physical labor jobs that were a mainstay in New Mexico are disappearing, and even the poorest jobs require technical, reading, math and writing skills that high school graduates – not to mention the many dropouts – simply do not have. I have read that employers in New Mexico are disadvantaged because they cannot find enough workers with more than functional literacy. That can’t be good for the economy.

I know that the governor does not wish to raise taxes, and I know that New Mexico’s revenues are weak. I ask, though, that New Mexico’s politicians, especially the governor, work to find creative ways to save New Mexico. Only Louisiana has an education system that is worse than New Mexico’s. Surely they do not want this to be their legacy.

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