Superintendent Veronica García plans, at least temporarily, to convert reading instructors, digital learning coaches and other specialized support staff into classroom teachers throughout Santa Fe Public Schools.
During her annual State of the Schools address Wednesday afternoon, García announced Project Put Students First as her response to a teacher shortage that plagues the local district and many others across the state. She said she has identified 15 classrooms in which she plans to replace long-term substitute teachers with current staff members who are licensed educators working in different roles.
“For me, it is unconscionable to leave a classroom with a substitute when we have certified teachers in the district who could cover those classes,” García said in a phone interview following her address, held before a crowd at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
“We can’t have kids going two years without a certified math teacher,” she said. “We can’t let that happen.”
At the beginning of the school year, the district had 32 openings for full-time teachers, and García said the number still hovers around that level. District leaders will meet with reading specialists, digital learning coaches and other staff Thursday to ask for volunteers willing to become classroom teachers for a period of between nine weeks and a semester.
Under the district’s collective bargaining agreement, however, García has the power to transfer a staff member to a different role at a new school after other attempts to fill the position have been exhausted.
García said the effort coincides with increased marketing campaigns across the region to recruit future educators because New Mexico’s colleges and universities aren’t graduating enough certified teachers to fill empty classrooms.
She drew applause during her State of the Schools address when she called on the New Mexico Legislature to raise base teacher salaries by $5,000 a year — to $45,000, $55,000, and $65,000 under the state’s tiered system — to make the profession more attractive.
In the 2019 session, the Legislature included an education budget increase to raise base teacher pay to $40,000 from $36,000 for Tier 1 teachers, to $50,000 from $44,000 for Tier 2 teachers and to $60,000 from $54,000 for Tier 3 teachers.
“I’m concerned we’re burning out staff while not paying them enough,” García said. “I think some of the resignations and retirements we’ve received are due to feeling stressed out from having to cover too many classes, and that’s not fair to the kids or the teachers.
“At the end of the day,” she added, “we’re going to have to be able to get more teachers to come to New Mexico because the in-state pipelines have really dried up.”
In her speech, García connected the state of Santa Fe Public Schools to the challenges its students face at home. District data shows schools with the highest math and reading proficiency scores have the lowest percentages of students qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunch, a federal marker of poverty, and learning English as a second language.
“Where we see kids perform above the state average, we see lower rates of English-language learners and lower rates of kids who are economically disadvantaged,” García said. “Kids come to us across the district and across the state at different levels of development.”
To accelerate growth for students who start school behind their peers, García pointed to prekindergarten and K-5 Plus, a state-funded summer program that extends the school year by 25 days, as proven solutions. Last school year, 17.6 percent of students in the district tested proficient in math, while 31 percent were proficient in reading. Both those numbers are about 2 percentage points below the state average, but García has much loftier goals than that.
“Our aspirational goal is for 60 percent of our students to meet or exceed the standards for reading and math,” García said. “We have a ways to go, and it’s going to take collaborative effort from all of us together.”