‘We can do it and do it right’: Roswell puts pieces in place for preschool

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Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth

Preschool teacher Teresa Andreis works with her students at Berrendo Elementary School in Roswell. She has started a "First Fridays" group for parents to learn about being their children's first teachers.

Nearly 20 preschoolers wiggle on the rug around teacher Teresa Andreis in the cluttered and cheerful New Mexico PreK classroom at Berrendo Elementary School in Roswell. Wearing a black floral dress and knee-high boots, Andreis has a soft voice and wavy blonde hair.

“Raise your hand if you know one way you’re going to be a leader while you’re working in your center jobs today,” Andreis says.  

Hands shoot up.

“Griffin, how are you going to be a leader this afternoon? …. Just be nice to everybody? … Gabby, how are you going to be a leader? … Just help people?”

Similar hand-raising is taking place across Roswell, where the education community is being asked to step up to ensure children in this city of 48,000 in southeastern New Mexico are ready to learn as they enter elementary school. In the process, they just may be creating a blueprint to early childhood expansion for rural areas throughout New Mexico.

Roswell’s efforts come at a time when policy makers at every level in New Mexico are focusing intently on education for varied reasons, not the least of which is a court ruling last month that found New Mexico guilty of shirking its constitutional duty to adequately educate at-risk students.

Roswell Independent School District is looking outside for help. State and federal funding is integral to paying for education. But they’re also looking inward, tapping the talents of people within and outside the school district.

Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth

Jennifer Cole, director of federal programs at Roswell Independent School District, has been working with educators across Roswell to find ways to increase access to early childhood education in the community. (Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth)

Jennifer Cole, Roswell’s director of federal programs at RISD, is coordinating an ambitious plan to tackle some of the thorniest problems for rural school districts seeking to expand access to early education: a lack of teachers and funding.  Local officials want to recruit and train future teachers from the school district’s own student body. They’re creating an early childhood education program at the Roswell campus of Eastern New Mexico University and have streamlined the teaching program so Roswell students can get in front of the classroom sooner. At the same time, Cole is finding more state and federal dollars and using them strategically to make preschool available to more students.

“There is such a need for quality early childhood programs in this community, and we want to lay that foundation,” says Cole. “We know that we want to engage those families and help them become more involved in their children’s education, and understand the role that they play in helping them be successful K-12.”

Where they are

Roswell, the Chaves County seat, is a regional economic center. Agriculture looms large in its economy, with dairies skirting the city. It’s well known, even renowned, in pop culture circles for the 1947 unidentified flying object crash mythologized in shows such as “The X-Files” and “Roswell”, which has spawned a thriving tourism industry in its downtown. The holiday giant Christmas by Krebs is there, as well as the Dean Baldwin aircraft painting out near the old airplane boneyard at the south end of town.

Still, nine out of 10 of its students are considered economically disadvantaged. The school district is fairly successful against those tough demographics, earning a “C” grade in 2017 from the Public Education Department. But there are big challenges. The PED has told the district it needs to raise the graduation rate to to 80 percent within two years from 69 percent, which is just below the state average of 71 percent. Roswell is more than 150 miles from the nearest big city, so finds attracting teachers very difficult.

As a former Kindergarten teacher, principal and now district administrator, Cole can see a path toward universal access to early childhood education. She believes an 80 percent participation rate in early childhood programs — about double what it is now — will be a game changer in Roswell, setting students up to succeed in later grades.  

Cole also knows the obstacles. New Mexico suffers from a shortage of qualified teachers, and it’s hard to attract the shrinking number of new education graduates to small communities. Rural areas are spread out, making transportation difficult for working parents. Then there’s limited funding for early childhood education. While PreK is a bright spot in New Mexico — the state was ranked 15th in the nation by the National Institute of Early Education Research for 4-year-olds’ access to preK — only 35 percent of New Mexico 4-year-olds were in preschool programs in 2016.

Click on “County details” to see how much New Mexico PreK is in your area. 

In Chaves County, in 2016 there were only 260 pre-K slots for nearly 1,500 3- and 4-year olds, according to the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership. And with just one private NM PreK provider and five high-quality child care centers in town, the private sector is not currently in the position to help the public schools meet the need.

Andreis saw that need first hand as a kindergarten teacher. The year before she switched to teaching PreK, only 19 of the 61 Kindergarteners at Berrendo had been to preschool. Parents would tell her how excited they were to register their kids for school because most couldn’t afford private preschool. Still, the school wasn’t sure there would be enough demand when they added PreK.

“We had our very first preschool registration, and my principal and I were nervous wrecks,” Andreis says. “And the morning of, she called me on the phone about 7 o’clock in the morning and she says ‘you need to get here right now.’ I said, why? And she said, ‘we have a line to the road. We’ve had parents lined up since 6:30 in the morning.’”

Within an hour, the preschool was full, Andreis says.  

The details

When the state Public Education Department wants to show educators and administrators how to develop and implement programs, they often send them to Roswell ISD. Many of its educators were showcased in a PED video on New Mexico PreK. Roswell gets a lot of visitors, Cole says, because they try to implement best educational practices and emphasize consistency.

Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth

A boy plays in the Berrendo Elementary School class in Roswell. (Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth)

K-3 Plus works best when the summer students are paired with the same teachers they’ll spend the year with. Roswell makes scheduling those teachers and students a priority. They are one of just two districts in the state that have been approved for districtwide K-5 Plus, a pilot expansion of the K-3 Plus program to the entire elementary school.

When New Mexico PreK started in 2005, Roswell added those classes to Parkview Early Literacy Center, at the time the state’s only standalone preschool for toddlers with developmental delays. As NM PreK grew, they completely modernized the school and changed many of the classrooms to a “full inclusion” model that mixes special-needs students with typically developing students. Not only does that help to maximize state and federal dollars, it also helps developmentally delayed students catch up with their peers, says Jody Alpers, an early education consultant with PED based in Roswell.

As she looks for federal and state funding, Cole asks herself, “how can we combine those funding sources so that we can expand these programs that we know are evidenced-based and they’re working and effective?”

Homegrown teachers

Beyond leveraging early childhood resources and lobbying the state for more preK and literacy programs, Roswell is looking toward the future by developing a home-grown education workforce. That means enticing students starting as early as middle school, building a teaching career track at Roswell High School, realigning the early childhood program at ENMU-R and making opportunities for education students to do their teacher training at local schools.

The 2017 New Mexico Educator Vacancy Report produced by New Mexico State University showed there were 476 unfilled teacher positions in New Mexico in October 2017. The southeast region was short 131 of those, a jump of 36 percent from 2016. According to Cole, last year RISD hired 53 teachers — 45 on alternative licenses, which means candidates have bachelor’s degrees in other fields and are pursuing a teaching credential.

The pipeline isn’t looking any better. From 2010 to 2017, the number of students completing education degrees has fallen 42.2 percent at the University of New Mexico and 58.2 percent at NMSU, according to the report.

To fill that pipeline, Dusty Lewis, an academic adviser at Roswell High School, said the school is building an education pathway. In addition to classes at the high school, they’re also working with Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell to offer dual-credit classes for students in their senior year.

“We can’t complain about not having teachers,” says LaShawn Byrd, who helped to start an Educators Rising chapter as principal at Mesa Middle School. “We have to build some teachers right here. We have 1,300 kids; surely we can come up with some early childhood teachers, high school, middle school teachers out of all that.”

Once they inspire those students to jump into the field, Cole’s partner at ENMU-Roswell is working to shorten the time it takes to get them into the classroom.

Steven Starkey, director of STEM teacher education at the Roswell campus, had two big tasks: move the early childhood development classes from the Health Department into an early childhood education program, and streamline the education courses at the Roswell campus so that teaching students can transfer seamlessly to Eastern New Mexico University in Portales and complete their bachelor’s degree in education.

He started working on the project in December. Students in Roswell will be able to get on that shorter road to a teaching degree starting this month.

“Everything you take falls right into the Portales program and so it’s a smooth transition,” Starkey says.

The changes will make it easier for some students to get all of their teacher education in Rowell and will help train workers for the early childhood private sector, which should help boost childcare quality and options in Roswell. The campus is also talking to the regional Head Start coordinator to help some of their workers get early childhood education bachelor’s degrees — something many rural New Mexico Head Start programs lack.  

Kathy Macha is principal of Parkview Early Literacy Center, which was newly rebuilt to serve it’s small students. There’s more natural lighting, child height windows, special therapy rooms and where there had been a hallway with rows of classrooms, there is now four-classroom pods where the students and teachers can get together for group lessons and activities. (Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth)

Where they’re going

Putting all of these pieces in place is moving Roswell forward. In addition to the pilot K-5 Plus expansion, the PED more than doubled the district’s NM PreK slots — from 180 for the last academic year to 420. By comparison, Las Cruces Public Schools got its first 124 preschool slots this year. Add that to federally mandated and funded slots for developmentally delayed students, and Roswell Independent School District will have about 500 students in preK for the 2018-19 school year, taking it from around 40 percent coverage to  77 percent, within striking distance of its 80 percent participation goal.

The district will have full-day preschool in 10 of the 12 elementary schools, up from five schools last year, bringing those services closer to the neighborhoods where the kids live. Five of the expansion classrooms will be located at Parkview, taking the state-of-the art learning center to near capacity. The district is aiming for 100 percent inclusion classrooms at all of its preschools, Cole said.

And they’re just getting started. With other grant money, the district will be hiring a family engagement specialist to make connections with families with young children to show them how to become their kids’ first teachers, and they want to create resource centers at the schools where parents can check out books and educational toys for their kids, take parenting classes, and perhaps even citizenship, ESL and other Adult Basic Education classes from community college instructors.

“Early childhood is just a really exciting time for Roswell,” says Alpers. “I just see it that way: That the pieces are getting into place. That we can do it and do it right.”

Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth

Jody Alpers is an early childhood education consultant with the state Public Education Department and has been helping formulate a plan to increase access to preschool in Roswell.

 

The political equation

How Roswell and other rural communities start or expand early childhood education will hinge on who wins the governor’s race in November. New Mexico’s governor administers state programs — the main source of public school funding — and the winner’s priorities will guide the Public Education Department and Children Youth and Families Department, the two agencies that provide NM PreK and other early childhood programs.

Michelle Lujan Grisham

RISD’s 80 percent aspiration for preschool is a goal shared by Democratic governor nominee Michelle Lujan Grisham. In a May interview with New Mexico In Depth said she would make early childhood education a “hallmark” of her administration, and that universal access to pre-K would be a key part of that effort.

Republican candidate Steve Pearce, in contrast, says the education focus in New Mexico should be on improving K-12 education, so that any gains in the current early childhood programs don’t evaporate.

One area of early education that Pearce expresses strong backing for is the state’s K-3 Plus program, which adds 25 days to the school year for children in Kindergarten through third grade at struggling schools, or those with a high proportion of low-income students.

Courtesy of Pearce for New Mexico campaign

Steve Pearce

“Steve Pearce supports this program because it is key to ensuring students have the resources and learning environment they need to succeed,” the Pearce campaign said in a written statement. “The challenges for state government are how to make it more effective.”

State data have shown that low-income students who have received NM PreK combined with K-3 Plus catch up with their peers. The problem is that only 4 percent of New Mexico kids actually participate in both programs, according to analysts at the state Legislative Finance Committee.

Both candidates acknowledge that what works in Albuquerque or Las Cruces might not work in Roswell or Jal. They point to the need for flexibility from Santa Fe and from the Public Education Department to make decisions that work for individual communities.

Lujan Grisham says one effort she supports is mixed-age classrooms of 3- and 4-year-olds for preschool in smaller communities, and making it simpler for small providers to get NM PreK contracts.

“The Roswell Independent School District is doing important work and finding creative solutions to improve educational outcomes for kids, especially by expanding early childhood programs,” she says. “As governor, I’ll work to empower every school district across the state to do this sort of work and support their efforts to create programming that is tailor-made for their communities.”

Pearce says the best way to make improvements statewide is to put day-to-day management in the control of local school districts and charter schools. Regarding the work being spearheaded by the Roswell district, the Pearce camp says, “there are many experiments across the state and where successes can be copied, that is excellent.”