Amy Thomas is already thinking of the next batch of second grade students who will arrive in August at Santa Fe’s Piñon Elementary School.
Having transitioned online students back to in-person learning in the pandemic-tinged 2020-21 school year, Thomas knows she’ll have plenty of teaching to do when kids walk through Piñon’s front doors. As she discovered in recent months, some of the simplest procedures and routines, like how to label a paper, were lost, she said.
“I have to say, the biggest thing I’m worried about is their writing skills,” Thomas said. “They spent so much time on the computer.”
In hopes of reimplementing key lessons and concepts lost during the pandemic, students and teachers will come back to school sooner than ever, thanks to Santa Fe Public Schools’ decision to participate in an extended learning program funded by the state. In essence, it means 10 extra days have been added to the school year — most of them during a time that had traditionally been the end of summer break. It will boost instructional days to 185.
Fewer than 20 percent of New Mexico’s schools made it to the 180 instructional days mark, a requirement in most states, according to a 2018 legislative evaluation of extended learning programs. New Mexico opts to require 990 instructional hours instead.
For Thomas, the extra days are a boon. “I think it will help level the playing field,” she said.
For others, it’s a disappointment — some parents and teachers complain there wasn’t enough discussion on the matter before the district set next year’s school calendar, in which teachers will return to work Aug. 2 and students Aug. 6.
Denise Rappmund, whose 8-year-old son, Sacha, attends El Dorado Community School, understands why Santa Fe Public Schools would want to participate in the extended learning program. But she questions why more parent input wasn’t solicited before finalizing the move just weeks before the end of the 2020-21 school year. When she found out about the change in mid-May, she was irritated and confused.
“I kept thinking I must have missed something,” she said.
For the Rappmund family, the start of the new school year collides with a long-delayed funeral of a close family member. And though the district has offered, through individual schools, flexibility to families who may not be able to make the first day of classes, Rappmund said school in early August slices into family time.
“I get that they’re offering flexibility. I just find that to be awkward for all parties, when you have kids sort of trickling in at random dates. But also I just didn’t really want to cut my son’s summer short,” she said.
Santa Fe Public School’s decision to participate in the extended learning program adds a boost of $6 million to its $259.5 million budget. Outgoing Superintendent Veronica García said most, if not all, of those dollars will go toward providing the extra 10 days of instruction, noting regaining lost learning time is critical.
“It sends a very bad message to the Legislature when this additional funding is made available to provide extended learning opportunities to your students and you turn that down,” said García, a former head of the Public Education Department. “The likelihood of seeing additional funding for programming for students is important. I also feel it would have been unconscionable to not provide this additional support to our students given the last year we’ve had.”
Still, even teachers worry what early August will look like in their classrooms.
“Well, I’m a little bit apprehensive about it because I worry about what our attendance is going to be like,” said Mary Stipe, a sixth grade English teacher at Ortiz Middle School. “I have a feeling that we’re going to run into a good percentage of kids that [are] still out of the country and not back physically for school. I’m optimistic it’s going to be helpful for students.”
Stipe said she’ll have to change how she approaches her lessons at the beginning of the year to assess where students are in terms of learning.
Extended learning isn’t a new concept in Santa Fe or throughout the state. Such programs have been offered locally as “jump-starts” at participating schools, and about 1,250 of the district’s roughly 12,000 students participated last summer.
Debbie Rael, an associate superintendent for instruction and school support, is enthusiastic about the extra time students will get in August.
“Students who struggle in a typical school year likely have really had a different experience during the pandemic, which causes us to believe that more time in school, narrowing in on the curriculum is going to support them,” Rael said last week.
Stipe taught during Ortiz Middle School’s supplementary extended learning program last summer, and she saw how incoming sixth graders who participated were more confident with some learning strategies by the time late August rolled around. But that, she noted, was supplementary, optional.
“This is about recovery,” Stipe said.
As they considered the calendar, district leaders chose not to put additional learning days after Memorial Day 2022. But Nina Otero Community School teacher Jennifer Warren wonders if that would have been a better option.
“I wish there had been an opportunity to complete some sort of survey or give ideas as to how to add the additional 10 days,” Warren wrote in an email. “My personal preference would have been to add it to the end of the ’21-’22 school year so everyone could have ample time to plan.”
García, who is retiring this summer, said the district doesn’t conduct surveys regarding the calendar year, though it asked parents for input on a variety of subjects during the pandemic.
“We applied for a myriad of grants and programming; we do not survey our parents for every grant or program,” she added.
Warren wrote she didn’t know about the move to early August until May 12, six days after the school board approved the calendar. According to the school’s website, the calendar was published May 7.
García acknowledged the decision came in late.
“We were really behind the eight ball with time. I want to say it was much later than we would have preferred,” she said.
García said she sees extended learning as a short-term solution after a year of altered learning during the pandemic as well as a long-term signal of where the district and state are headed in terms of the length of the school year. The subject has provided vigorous debate locally and nationally — are there enough teaching days in the traditional school calendar?
García said she anticipates funding to extend the school year will continue across the state in coming years.
In the past, the district has participated in another extended learning program, K-5 Plus, which extends the year by 25 days for participating grade school students. But García said it was difficult to meet the requirements of that particular program this year; the district embraced extended learning across all grades. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that only one-third of school districts across the state participated in extended-time programs in the 2019-20 school year. During the pandemic, more than $100 million allocated for the programs remained untouched.
In a news release Friday, the Public Education Department said about 60 percent of the state’s students are projected to be part of either K-5 Plus or the extended learning program next year. The department called the increased participation a boost, but it still falls short of the Legislature’s hopes.
“Additional classroom time is a powerful tool to accelerate learning, and the two programs are a core component of the state’s strategy to improve educational outcomes for every student in alignment with the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit,” the department said in the news release.
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following error: an earlier version had an incorrect spelling for the name of Denise Rappmund's son, Sacha.