We’ve been there. Both of us have taught middle school and we have seen firsthand the students who lacked social skills and motor awareness, had speech and vision needs, or struggled academically.

John, one such student, could not write a simple sentence upon entering sixth grade or articulate his needs well, either verbally or in written form. John also was reading at a second-grade level. Many students like John are either stuck in a Student Assistance Team process or struggle in school, either with English, math or both. Often, there are no interventions. Why, we wondered? How could these kids get all the way to middle school and not have been screened or gone through diagnostic testing to give teachers like us more information on how to help them?

The Student Assistant Team process typically includes educators, administration and the family working to determine how to best meet the various needs of a struggling student. It can take up to two years to work through the process. Constraints come from not having enough time and lack of adequate personnel to evaluate students, as well as the available staff’s heavy loads. Teachers not savvy about the Student Assistant Team can hinder it by slowing it down. John hadn’t even entered the Student Assistant Team process by middle school.

We need to do more for students like John. One solution is to use Child Find as a preventative measure. A screening, Child Find is available to all families who are concerned about their child’s development in speech and language, vision, hearing, self-help skills, fine and gross motor skills, and cognitive or social-emotional development.

Four-year-old Jeffrey is a good example. Jeffrey’s mother noticed that he didn’t have as many words as his peers, had difficulty remaining engaged in play activities and had no safety awareness. When a family friend told Jeffrey’s mom about Child Find, she was highly appreciative of finally finding help for her son, but also said she “wished she had known a year ago.”

Jeffrey qualified to receive school-based therapy for communication and social-emotional development. He went on to enter kindergarten in an inclusive setting with services already in place. New Mexico’s Public Education Department should make a concerted effort to educate families statewide on the use of Child Find so that students most in need don’t get lost in the shuffle.

Research has shown that dropout and retention rates are lower for students who have participated in pre-K and that students who attended pre-K are at an advantage with reading. We and other Teach Plus Fellows are recommending that the Public Education Department develop a plan to raise awareness of the need for more high-quality pre-K and formulate a plan to ensure it comes to fruition within the next five years, in addition to using Child Find to help those most in need.

We recommend $10 million more in increased funding for pre-K in this next legislative session to ensure that all 4-year-olds in our state have access to high-quality preschool programming within five years. We must work to expand preschool in the areas in our state that are most in need, especially in rural and highly populated areas, and ensure that new preschool programs target at-risk populations.

Every New Mexico student deserves a strong foundation. This is why the use of Child Find to identify our neediest students and expanding high-quality preschool programs with trained staff is so important in our state. Students such as John and Jeffrey need to be identified early so they can be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

Brittany Behenna Griffith and Darlene Fortier are Teach Plus New Mexico teaching policy fellows. Behenna Griffith teaches early childhood special education at Nye Early Childhood Center in Santa Fe Public Schools. Fortier teaches third grade at Cochiti Elementary School in Bernalillo Public Schools.

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