Using tech and circuit riding to beat the pandemic

Kelly Maestas starts each weekday the same way, cranking up a school bus parked at the Cuba Independent School District bus barn.The sun has already risen over the San Pedro mountains in the Santa Fe National Forest. But on Friday morning a smoggy haze lingers over this rural redoubt of New Mexico thanks to the Medio fire just north of Santa Fe, the Pine Gulch Fire in Colorado or any of the 90 large fires in California. 

A few years ago Maestas traded in a big rig for the school bus. Rather than bustling with students, however, it’s empty save for a few dozen bags of meals and school assignments for the kids on his route.Over several hours, Maestas will stop 65 times — each stop a home of a student or students who attend Cuba’s schools — racking up 112 miles.These days Maestas and 10 other bus drivers are an integral component of the Cuba school district’s response to a global pandemic that mingles old-timey itinerant circuit-riding with 21st-century tech.Every day, the 11 bus drivers put close to 900 miles on their vehicles delivering food and education kits to the district’s more than 500 students who have yet to return to the classroom and in many cases, can not access the internet from home. Because so many Cuba students lack sufficient broadband or cellular service, the school district, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, has distributed to every student special bracelets armed with a built-in USB-drive. Students use them to download lessons when they drive to an internet hotspot.

Is push for education equity at risk amid COVID-19 economic fallout?

Jasmine Yepa was happy with her daughters’ education at San Diego Riverside Charter School and Walatowa Headstart in Jemez Pueblo.Certified education assistants speak Towa, the Pueblo’s traditional language, with students while teachers build lesson plans in English. The education assistants also translate English lesson plans into Towa, giving children additional opportunities to hear and speak the language in a classroom setting.  

Through her work at the Native American Budget and Policy Institute, Yepa understands the importance of her daughters learning their culture and language to dilute what she calls a “white washed system” that assimilates non-white students into American culture. “Celebrating multiculturalism and multilingualism should help foster appreciation of diversity and foster respect for people’s differences,” she said. “It’s something that all policy makers should understand. Language and culture plays a huge role in not only maintaining our cultural way of life but also our core values.”

Then COVID-19 struck.

Public schools could avert deep cuts in June session, top lawmaker says

New Mexico has enough from savings plus new money from Washington to help public schools weather looming budget shortages, says Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a powerful lawmaker who helps to shape each year’s state budget. “It would be prudent to make some cuts but not deep cuts for the 21 budget,” Smith said Thursday morning of the public education portion of the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. 

On Wednesday during an online update on COVID-19, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed a desire to keep spending on public schools intact during a special legislative session she has called for June 18 to tackle a budget hole projected between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion for the state’s fiscal year that begins July 1. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico and the State’s effort to limit the impact of the disease on residents. The news conference is being held at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

On Thursday her spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, reiterated his boss’ position: It’s “premature to talk about cuts. We’ll know when the special session gets closer.”

The significant hit to the state budget is due to a near shutdown of the economy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a collapse in consumer spending and global demand for oil and gas, both of which feed New Mexico’s revenue base through wages and taxes. 

Smith based his opinion on multiple developments: the lion’s share of $120 million from the recently passed CARES Act in Washington that will go to the state’s 89 school districts and dozens of charter schools.

For some Native college students, online classes could be a deal breaker

Antennas and a satellite dish search for a signal on top of a house in rural Vanderwagen, NM, where there is not high-speed fiber or cable internet. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

When the University of New Mexico announced March 19 that all spring semester classes would move online and all students should move out of the dorms, 21-year-old communications major Hannah John went home. But she couldn’t stay long. Tall Ponderosa pines are the major architectural feature of Vanderwagen, population 1,700. Sandwiched between the Navajo Nation and Zuni Pueblo along New Mexico’s western border, it’s about half an hour away from Wingate High School, a Bureau of Indian Education school, where John’s parents teach.

Santa Fe Indian School pivots to offline learning to ensure access during COVID-19 pandemic

The Santa Fe Indian School campus, photographed this fall, has been closed for the pandemic. Faith Rosetta/SFIS

For their first online assignment, five of Jennifer Guerin’s 15 students in library science submitted homework. She expected it. Library science is an elective at the Santa Fe Indian School and Guerin had encouraged her students to focus on core classes, but the low turnout signaled that a shift to online learning might not work. Even with Chromebooks or laptops sent home with students, teachers had noted about a third of their students weren’t participating in online sessions.

State: NM public schools closed through end of year

State public education officials on Friday announced all schools under the purview of the Public Education Department will remain closed through the end of the school year. 

PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said the new measure is “absolutely necessary” to keep students safe and slow the spread of COVID-19 and was always the back-up plan. The decision is in line with CDC guidelines and the state’s mitigation policies, he added. “We know that we still haven’t reached the peak of this,” he said. “It’s quite clear that it is not yet safe to be able to bring our students back into school and that we still have more to do in order to make sure we can come back.”

The announcement extends the original return date of April 6 through the end of the spring semester, which for most districts goes through the last week of May. Stewart said teacher pay will not be affected, and in a press release the PED said “School personnel and contractors will remain on call and continue being paid as usual.

Summit takes stock of education gains, goals for Doña Ana County

It’s been five years since the Success Partnership convened its first summit to create goals for “cradle to career” education in Doña Ana County. A lot has changed since then. Ngage New Mexico, an education-focused community organization that created the Success Partnership and organized a follow up summit Monday at New Mexico State University, wanted to put the changes in perspective with a comprehensive look at education data over that period from home visiting and preK to college and workforce training. Since 2015, Las Cruces Public Schools started its first community school to bring social services and after school programs to students and on Saturday the district will inaugurate three more. Graduation rates jumped at two of the county’s school districts, from 75% in 2015 to 86% in 2019 at LCPS, and 67% to 77% at Hatch Valley Schools, while inching up at Gadsden from 81% to 82%. 

The all-day gathering was part pep rally to celebrate successes, part tough talk about bumps in the road to better education results and part brainstorming session to chart the course ahead.  

Lori Martinez, executive director of Ngage NM, an education nonprofit based in Las Cruces.

Lawmakers: Budget excludes rural, tribal voices in education

Bernalyn Via of the Mescalero Apache tribe visited the Roundhouse on Fb. 10 to lobby lawmakers. Photo credit / Trip Jennings

As the annual legislative session races to an end Thursday, think of the New Mexico Legislature as an industrial-strength strainer. Only a portion of bills will pass through. But some lawmakers are saying too many bills being filtered out come from communities that are home to students identified in the landmark Yazzie Martinez education lawsuit as shortchanged in the state’s public schools.The House of Representatives and Senate may be wrangling over last-minute changes to the state budget, but raging behind the scenes is a debate over whether the spending plan is responding to the court order that demands New Mexico educate its at-risk students better.

PED official: Solution to teacher shortage sitting in classroom

There are more than 335,000 potential teacher recruits in New Mexico — every child in the state’s public schools. 

That’s according to Gwen Perea Warniment, the deputy secretary in charge of teacher training and recruitment for the Public Education Department. She has a big job in a state where 644 classrooms were filled by long-term substitutes this school year. 

And as our report this week showed, that figure doesn’t really get at the state’s complicated hiring problem. It doesn’t show that rural and low-income schools have the toughest time hiring teachers, the massive lack in specialties like special education, bilingual and math classes, and that a growing reliance on people without education degrees has translated to greener teachers and higher turnover. Gwen Perea Warniment is deputy decretary for Teaching and Learning at the Public Education Department. (Courtesy of PED)

“There’s some important nuances to that because you have turnover in certain areas that’s much more severe than in others.

Teacher shortage deeper, more complex than vacancies suggest

For the first time in three years, the number of classrooms missing a teacher fell in New Mexico rather than increased. It was so hopeful a sign Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham bragged about the 13% drop in teacher vacancies in her State of the State speech. It’s pretty simple math — this school year 89 school districts across New Mexico couldn’t fill 644 teaching slots, while in 2018, that number was 740. 

But the state teacher shortage is deeper and more complicated than a tally of open teaching positions around the state, with superintendents performing calculus to figure out how best to meet the needs of students.  

Data from the Public Education Department shows skyrocketing numbers of people with bachelor’s degrees stepping into classrooms without teacher training. It’s a trend that syncs with a drop in the number of teaching candidates emerging from the state’s university education departments.  But those teachers quit at much higher rates than traditionally trained teachers because, and like many beginning educators, they don’t feel properly supported for the rigors of the job. 

The teacher shortage plays out in the day-to-day lives of students through larger class sizes in some schools, combined grades in rural areas, fewer electives and more online classes.  

“It’s very district and region specific,” Karen Trujillo, superintendent of Las Cruces Public Schools and former New Mexico secretary of education, said about how the state’s teacher shortage affects classrooms.

Trujillo created the annual New Mexico Educator Vacancy Report in 2015 when she was a researcher at New Mexico State University. As an example of how the teacher shortage affects small school districts more than it might large districts, she described a high school with just one teacher trained to teach English learners.  “If that teacher retires, the chances of that district finding an ELL teacher, just because there are not very many out on the market, are slim to none.”

If the New Mexico Legislature and Lujan Grisham are going to reverse the state’s teacher shortage, they will need an array of approaches to recruit and keep teachers from New Mexico, education advocates say.