While state leaders have been trumpeting a new surge in funding for public schools, educators are already feeling some growing pains.
Just days after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law sweeping education bills — with a spending hike of more than $480 million intended to overhaul a struggling system — the deadline passed for school districts to apply for a summer program considered pivotal to boosting student achievement.
The rush to request funds for the initiative by last week’s deadline, combined with new rules on how the program must be run, forced some local districts and charter schools to forgo K-5 Plus.
Researchers have said K-5 Plus, which offers 25 extra days of school for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, leads to lasting academic benefits — but only if a child’s summer teacher follows them through to the next grade level. To get the maximum impact from the program, the state is requiring schools to ensure students in K-5 Plus enter the new school year with the same teacher they had during the summer session.
The new rule didn’t deter Santa Fe Public Schools, which applied for funds to offer the program at every elementary site this summer.
But some districts and charter schools say they weren’t prepared to comply. They didn’t have enough teachers lined up for the summer program to meet the new requirement.
“We’re just too small,” said Ray Griffin, head administrator at Turquoise Trail Charter School. “We want to do the program, but we can’t.”
When Griffin asked his 40 elementary teachers if they would stay in their classrooms for another 25 days in July and August, just two said yes. “And those two happened to be in the same grade,” he said. “So how can we ever comply with that requirement?”
Bobbie Gutierrez, superintendent of Española Public Schools, had a harsher response: “Not giving us any time to plan is a move made by somebody not familiar with education,” she said.
Turquoise Trail and the Española district both had offered the previous version of the summer program, called K-3 Plus, designed primarily for low-income students in kindergarten to grade three. It served some 500 students in Gutierrez’s district last year, she said, and about 150 at Turquoise Trail. Substitute teachers, art teachers and middle school teachers sometimes stepped in to lead classrooms when another educator wasn’t available.
K-3 Plus had steadily grown since it was launched in 2007. Last summer, it had record-high funding of $28 million.
Now, the New Mexico Public Education Department is trying to determine how to distribute over $180 million appropriated by the Legislature to support K-5 Plus and another extended-learning program that adds 10 days to a school year — tacked on anywhere in the calendar.
The 10-day program is more flexible, allowing schools to apply it to certain populations, such as incoming high school freshmen, instead of an entire student body. According to the Public Education Department, K-5 Plus must be offered to all students in a school awarded funding for the summer session. But it isn’t mandatory for parents to enroll their children.
Districts and charter schools had to submit applications for both programs.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who co-sponsored Senate Bill 1 — which laid out the guidelines for the two initiatives — said the teacher requirement was necessary to ensure K-5 Plus sees results.
“The program is an extension of the school year,” she said. “It’s not summer school. It’s not a program for students that aren’t doing very well. It’s not a program that focuses on a particular group of students. The program works if it extends the school year.
“We don’t change teachers after the first five weeks of class for regular school,” Stewart added. “So why would we do it for an extension of a school year?”
But for Gutierrez and Griffin, the time frame for ensuring their schools could meet the teacher requirement for the coming summer was too tight.
“I think that maybe with time and planning, we could maybe achieve K-5 Plus in a couple of our elementary schools,” Gutierrez said.
She had another thought as well: “I think we need some changes within the legislation that helps employees understand that if they sign up to be a teacher at a K-5 Plus school, these extra days are part of the contract. We need some time to designate schools with the program so teachers know what will be expected of them.”
In lieu of K-5 Plus, Gutierrez and Griffin said they are exploring other potential community partnerships and funding sources, such as federal Title I funds for schools with a high number of low-income kids, to develop an alternative summer program.
Under SB 1, school districts will apply for future K-5 Plus funding in October.
For the coming summer, the Public Education Department said districts and charter schools will be notified by May 6 about which schools were approved for the programs and how much funding they will receive. Schools with higher rates of low-income students will be given top priority.
Participating teachers will earn between $2,240 and $3,279 for the 10 days of extended learning and between $5,601 and $8,197 for the 25-day summer program, depending on their licensure level.
Stewart said the number of applications to access funds for the 10-day extended learning initiative was far higher than the Legislature and state education officials had expected.
Both Española Public Schools, which has an enrollment of around 1,700 elementary students, and Turquoise Trail Charter school, with around 400 elementary students, applied for funding for extended learning time.
Superintendent Veronica García said Santa Fe Public Schools went all in — applying for funds to offer both K-5 Plus and extended learning at every school.
Some small schools, such as Tesuque Elementary and Acequia Madre Elementary, which have 100 to 150 students and just one teacher per grade level, most likely won’t be able to support the programs, García said, but she applied anyway.
“If I run into problems where I wouldn’t be funded, it would be in tiny schools,” she said. “But for my size of district, I think this is mostly doable.”
Referring to the new teacher requirement for K-5 Plus, she added: “I may have to go to PED and say, ‘This is a tiny school. May I pull a teacher from another school in this situation?’ And then it’s up to PED to decide.”
Cheryl Carreon, a special-education teacher in Las Cruces who taught incoming kindergartners in K-3 Plus classes in years past but is not eligible to participate this summer, said she hopes state leaders retool the rules to make the program more flexible for schools.
“I would hate to see some schools have it and some schools not,” she said. “… That hurts equality.”
Stewart said she understands changes might be necessary after the first round of K-5 Plus.
“I’m look forward to both positive and negative comments about what worked and what didn’t,” she said. “We’re really only taking the first big step toward trying to help these students achieve better.”