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Education secretary visits local K3 classes

Christopher Ruszkowski shares a story Thursday afternoon with students participating in the K3 Plus summer program at Military Heights Elementary School. The new Acting Secretary of Education for New Mexico, he has been visiting various school districts since taking the top post to see how state initiatives are working in classrooms and to meet with educators, administrators, elected officials and others. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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The book that Acting Secretary of Education Christopher Ruszkowsi read to young school kids at Military Heights Elementary School in Roswell Thursday afternoon was a humorous, revisionist version of the three little pigs, but the book he is reading for his own edification is “The Smartest Kids in the World.”

After only a few weeks as head of the Public Education Department, Ruszkowski, formerly New Mexico’s deputy secretary and once a public middle school teacher, is periodically taking days to travel the state to visit school districts offering the K3 Plus program, which provides about five weeks of instruction to kindergartners through third-graders prior to the start of the academic year.
Ruszkowski also has taken some time in various cities, including Hobbs and Eunice, to talk to teachers, superintendents and elected officials.
Part of the lesson of the “Smartest Kids in the World,” Ruszkowski said, is that the best-performing students worldwide spend much more time learning than lower-performing students, whether that learning occurs in traditional classrooms or not.
“So many other countries are extending the time, and I think that is something we can learn from other places, not only in terms of K3 Plus but in terms of virtual learning and personalized learning options,” he said. “Our kids now could be learning 24 hours a day. That possibility is there.”
He said the K3 Plus program is an innovative way New Mexico provides additional learning for school kids, especially for those struggling academically.
“I think K3 Plus, this idea of extending the learning time, this additional 25 days, is something not many other states do, having worked and taught in other states,” he said. “This idea that the state provides grant funding to extend the learning time is very unique, and I wanted to get the chance today in visiting Eunice and visiting Roswell to see what that looked like in the classroom. What I ultimately saw was good instruction and good collaboration.”
K3 Plus funding has made headlines in recent weeks because some school districts in the state announced eliminated or downsized programs, citing public education cuts that were made by the state earlier in the year as part of efforts to reduce the budget deficit.
But Ruszkowski expressed appreciation for Roswell, which decided to transfer $268,260 from federal Title I funds to the K3 program. That federal money was added to $1.27 million in state funds. The state money could fund 1,303 students, and the federal money allowed another 544 kids to participate, bringing enrollment this summer to 1,848.
“We (transferred) approximately $300,000 of our Title I program to support our K3 Plus program,” RISD Interim Superintendent Susan Sanchez said. “We felt that we needed to stay invested in K3 Plus, as we have all these years since it started. We’ve seen the benefit of the K3 program based on data that shows our third-grade students are proficient if they’ve been through the K3 Plus program.”
She added that, with the federal money, the district also was able to allow full days of teacher planning for 25 days before the June 12 start day of instruction. Some districts chose to reduce planning days to half days, she said.
K12 public education funding remains a perennially difficult issue. A June 2017 report by the U.S. Census Bureau ranked New Mexico 34th in the nation for 2014-15 funding, with per student funding averaging $9,752, about 14 percent lower than the national average. State education funding dropped in 2010 but began increasing again in 2013, but critics of state funding decisions say that funding remains inadequate and is compounded by the high poverty levels of families, making it difficult for many to have ways to supplement public offerings.
Ruszkowski said that he thinks taxpayers, legislators and other investors in the education system want to see tangible gains in student achievement before they will sign on to funding increases.
“Our taxpayers and our constituents are rightful in asking our system — that’s at the federal level, the state level, the district level, the school level — to show a return on investment,” he said. “I think that what we have seen over the last 10 years is our taxpayers and our constituents wanting to see a return on tax dollars. I think what the governor and our team is trying to say is that we are developing initiatives that show results, whether that be K3 Plus, pre-K, Principals Pursuing Excellence — these are all programs that Roswell has.”
He said that teacher and teacher aide salaries are a complicated topic that has three major components. Starting pay has increased in the state five years ago under current leadership, he said. Total compensation packages, including benefits, are competitive, he said. What that leaves is giving local officials power to create differential compensation to reward teachers for outstanding student achievement or for taking on high-need subjects or high-need schools.
“There is this ongoing conversation about how we reward and retain the best in the system,” he said. “How do we give our districts and charters the flexibility to be creative with compensation? Most of these costs and most of these decisions about differentiated compensation are at the district level.”
Ruszkowski said that he is committed to public education, having worked the vast majority of his career in public education in various states, under both Democratic and Republican leaders. But he acknowledges wanting to allow families equal opportunities to control educational choices.
“Overall, as a system, we are trying to democratize choice,” he said. “If some of these families have the ability to move to another neighborhood, or figure out how to enroll their kids in a magnet school, or explore other options, then why don’t all families have those choices?”
He also remains committed to the controversial PARCC test, which caused protests by students one year in Roswell. Only 11 states continue to use the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career testing, down from 24 from when it was introduced in 2010.
“This test is becoming arguably the best assessment in the nation,” he said, “in terms of the quality, in terms of the rigour, in terms of its alignment to our New Mexico standards. … Our kids who are scoring well in PARCC are doing well in college.”
He also said that he has heard support for PARCC from some local educators who want consistency in assessment tools and are pleased that they are receiving preliminary results from the PARCC tests earlier, which gives them time to prepare curricula for the year ahead.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.