The New Mexico Public Education Department has said the research is clear — extending the school year will help close an academic achievement gap in the state that stretches across socioeconomic lines.
In response to Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, a landmark education lawsuit in which a state judge ruled last summer that New Mexico is failing low-income kids and other at-risk students by underfunding public schools, the department and lawmakers have focused on an initiative called K-5 Plus. The summer program adds 25 days to the calendar for kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms at schools where at least 80 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal indicator of poverty.
Tim Hand, deputy secretary of public education, touted the program during a hearing Wednesday at the state Capitol before the Legislative Education Study Committee. “Given our marching orders, we’ve really put a lot of energy into making sure this opportunity is available to kids around the state,” he told lawmakers. “There’s not a district we haven’t called in trying to make sure that we honor the partnership that we have with the Legislature.”
But the Public Education Department, which funds the voluntary school program, doesn’t require students to participate.
The lack of a state mandate — combined with a requirement for students enrolled in the program to remain in the classroom with their K-5 Plus teacher during the regular school year — has posed challenges for school districts.
Districts can receive funding for K-5 Plus by creating programs in individual classrooms or by adding the extra days to the calendar at eligible elementary schools districtwide. In either scenario, the additional 25 days are not mandatory. Parents can choose not to enroll their kids.
School officials told lawmakers on the Legislative Education Study Committee about their efforts to promote the program in their communities. Some said without a mandate from the state, it could be difficult to persuade elected school board members — who have the power to hire and fire superintendents — to extend the school year.
“Tomorrow, if I said, ‘OK, we’re extending school to over 200 days,’ I don’t know if I could survive that politically,” Dana Sanders, superintendent of Los Lunas Public Schools, told the committee.
“I’m not sure I care,” Sanders added, “because I think that’s what’s right for kids. I do offer a couple of solutions. One of those considerations would be the state mandating year-round schooling, requiring attendance to the K-5 Plus program.”
Lawmakers did not respond to her suggestion Wednesday.
Deming Superintendent Arsenio Romero said in an interview after the hearing that principals and teachers made phone calls to families to explain the importance of attendance in K-5 Plus. “I just stayed away from that word ‘mandatory,’ ” he said. “We focused on telling families that this was an expectation.
“We’ve had years of experience with this,” he added, “and know in order to make sure we had the teachers hired and the instructional materials in place, it’s easier if the extra 25 days are an expectation from the start.”
The Deming district enrolled 84 percent of its roughly 2,300 students in grades K-5 at all six of its elementary schools this summer.
K-5 Plus, an expanded version of a previous initiative called K-3 Plus, which was offered in grades K-3, was hastily launched after this year’s legislative session with mixed results. Many state-chartered schools and public districts weren’t prepared to organize qualifying classrooms in time to meet an application deadline.
According to a state study, 24 percent of low-income students who participated in K-3 Plus scored proficient or better in reading and math compared to 12 percent of low-income students who did not participate. The state also found that having the same teacher in the summer program and in the regular classroom the following year was crucial to increasing a student’s proficiency level.
In the summer of 2011, the state spent $5 million to bring K-3 Plus to about 5,000 New Mexico students. This year, in an effort to comply with the ruling in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, the Public Education Department spent $29 million to bring K-5 Plus to 17,827 students. Looking ahead to the 2020-21 school year, the department said it already has received applications from charter schools and districts seeking a total of $68.4 million to offer K-5 Plus to 49,926 students.
Hand said he believes the increase in applications is due to more districts adding K-5 Plus at all eligible schools.
Data from Santa Fe Public Schools shows that offering K-5 Plus at select schools instead of in elementary classrooms across the district can make attracting students to the program difficult. Officials told the Legislative Education Study Committee last month they had expected 2,368 students to participate in K-5 Plus this summer but enrolled just 1,168 students at 11 of the district’s 12 qualifying schools — Amy Biehl, César Chávez, Chaparral, E.J. Martinez, El Camino Real, Gonzales, Nava, Nina Otero, Ramirez Thomas, Salazar and Sweeney elementary schools. Four of the district’s elementary schools have too few low-income students to qualify.
Superintendent Veronica García said in an interview Wednesday she hopes to be able to designate K-5 Plus schools so that parents and teachers can expect a longer school year from the start. Earlier this month, Santa Fe Public Schools sent teachers a survey to determine how many would be willing to work an extra 25 days.
“I think we can gain the most leverage in terms of improving student performance by going schoolwide with K-5 Plus at certain schools year after year,” García said.
“Of course, that depends on our teachers,” she added. “I’m cautiously optimistic we can find enough teachers to figure out how to do that for at least a couple of schools.”