(Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)
As many New Mexico public schools choose not to extend their school years, teachers in Alamogordo with decades of experience say for a longer year to make sense, districts should first give students the support they need to be able to make it into the classroom in the first place.
Legislative Education Study Committee Vice Chair Rep. G. Andrés Romero (D-Albuquerque) asked a panel of highly experienced teachers at Alamogordo Public Schools for their opinions of extended learning time near the end of a hearing on Friday inside The Tays Center at New Mexico State University’s campus in Alamogordo.
The question came two days after the head of the state Public Education Department told lawmakers that it is “not acceptable” that school districts aren’t using $400 million meant to extend the number of days in the school year.
Alamogordo Public Schools extended its previous school year by 10 days, said Melanie Hallbeck, a government and economics teacher at Alamogordo High School. She is opposed to statewide pressure and said districts should be able to choose.
The amount of days already allotted for public education in New Mexico is “incredibly sufficient,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s effective unless the systems are in place already for effective learning,” she said. “I don’t necessarily agree that quantity is better than quality.”
Sarah Johnston, a teaching coach in Alamogordo, questioned whether extended learning time is something that can work if schools cannot get students to come to class.
The Alamogordo district had difficulty tracking down students over the past year, she said, so it created a task force that works with teachers to find students and figure out why they’re absent.
“They’ve been working really hard — sometimes going door to door — just trying to figure out where they’re at and how they’re doing, and how we can pull them back into our schools,” she said.
It’s not just a problem in Alamogordo: By the end of 2021, there were 2,010 students across New Mexico who were officially unaccounted for, Searchlight New Mexico reported.
How teachers and students spend time in the classroom has a greater effect on the quality of education than the length of the school year, Hallbeck said.
Hallbeck, who graduated from Capitan High School in 1990, said she said her education from that very small school with very limited technology, “is the equivalent of anything I could have gotten anywhere in the country.”
“What that comes down to, I believe, is the quality of educators that you have in the classroom, the quality of support professionals that you have in the school building, and the ability and the time to teach and the time to learn,” she said.
If you can reduce the amount of white noise that comes at teachers and students all the time about other things that have to get done, Hallbeck said, you can focus on the meat and potatoes of teaching and learning.
A lot of students’ time is taken up with multiple tests, while teachers’ time is taken up preparing and assessing those tests, Hallbeck said. Teachers are also required to go through a lot of impractical training that doesn’t have tangible results in the classroom, she said.
Districts are not required to participate in extended learning, and Hallbeck said she does not think they should be.
“So I am not a proponent of extended learning time or K5 Plus, unless a school district actively chooses that and sees it as a very essential need,” she said.
District officials are trying to help students navigate the underlying issues that may be causing the attendance problems, Hallbeck said, by allowing teachers to refer them to “The Hub” where there are services, social workers and health care in one place.
Jackie Holycross, an English teacher at Alamogordo High School, said it’s important to find out why a student is absent.
“We can put all the systems in place, but we need to know what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “Parent contact is a huge part of that.”
She said the district lets teachers take the time to contact parents of students who don’t show up. She saw more attendance simply from telling parents that their student was missing or from texting the student: “What’s going on in your life? Why aren’t you here?”
But it does take time, she acknowledged, which is in short supply for teachers.
Romero said lawmakers should think about what the school day for teachers looks like, how that is divided up, and give them the leeway to do what they need to do. He is a social studies teacher and said he often calls parents on weekends because he doesn’t have time during the school day.
“For all of us here, how that school day looks for educators, not just the school year, is something we need to keep in mind,” he said.
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