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Teacher hosts special education roundtable; Public Education Department Secretary listens to teachers’ concerns

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Christopher Ruszkowski, Secretary-Designate of the New Mexico Public Education Department, visited the Daily Record after the meeting to report on roundtable on special education. (Trevier Gonzalez Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

A roundtable discussion centered on special education held in Roswell Wednesday evening sparked a conversation for new initiatives to be set at RISD schools.

During the closed meeting, which lasted over an hour, organizer Jamie Furney, a Mesa Middle School special education teacher, and Christopher Ruszkowski, Secretary-Designate from the New Mexico Public Education Department, along with nine other special education teachers attended the meeting.

The schools represented were Goddard High, Roswell High, University High, Berrendo Elementary, Missouri Elementary and Mesa Middle School.

Voicing concerns

Ruskowski said over the past couple of years the state has been working on teacher leadership across the whole state and hosting a teachers’ summit, which is a two-day event celebrating the profession of teaching and being involved in conversations and other events.

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Jamie Furney said she attended the summit last year, met Ruszkowski there, and voiced her concerns about lack of focus on special education at the summit. Ruszkowski and Furney’s dialogue since the summit led to the creation of the roundtable on Wednesday.

“This is a great thing for Roswell and underserved special education students,” Furney said.

Furney said the meeting was fabulous and productive and the teachers in attendance said Ruszkowski was personable and interested. Furney said he was particularly helpful in addressing the concerns involving special education and knowing on which level, building, district or state, the issues needed to be addressed. The focus of the meeting was improving more communication and Furney said it made a difference that the state was listening.

The discussion consisted of concerns and solutions to improve the experience and process for special education teachers.

Ruszkowski said the five following items were developed from the discussion into a to-do list:

• Do more to recognize and celebrate special education teachers.

• Focus more on special education at the teachers’ summit.

• Offer more professional development opportunities in the summer for special education teachers statewide.

• Offer hiring stipends and incentives to new special education teachers and the profession.

• Develop career pathway programs for students able to go into the skill or trade workforce.

“One of my biggest takeaways from tonight is that the PED should be developing with teachers a bigger calendar of professional development offerings for our special education teachers,” Ruszkowski said. “I thought that was really astute and thoughtful insight tonight that I heard.”

Roundtable in action

Furney currently teaches life skills in a contained classroom at Mesa Middle School and said her job is the most rewarding thing she has ever done. Furney said this was a mid-life career change after she adopted her son who has special needs. Seeing the state of education for special education students encouraged her to go back to school to become a special education teacher.

“This is a great thing for Roswell and underserved special education students,” Furney said reflecting on the roundtable.

One of the disadvantages that prompted Furney to create the discussion involved teacher of the year awards and other incentives because those distinctions are based on evaluations and students’ test scores, which would make special education teachers ineligible.

Furney also said she noticed the state would offer help and allocate funds for STEM teachers, but there was a lack of line items for special education teachers.

“When we sat down, he was willing to determine which level the concern needed to be addressed on,” Furney said. “He was willing to admit that recognizing special education teachers is something the state needs to take on. That was really telling for me.”

Summit and network

The teachers’ summit and the teacher leader network were items Ruszkowski told the Daily Record about after the meeting.

Ruszowski said the summit grew from 300 teachers to 1,000 in the second year. The summit this year will be on June 18 and 19; attendance is supposed to be near 1,350 different teachers visiting classrooms.

The teacher network was launched recently and has one teacher from every school in the state and there are currently 600 teachers representing their respective schools and six different regions participating. Ruszkowski said this has come together in the last six months. He hopes it will continue to grow, and he has been visiting those schools since the network began. A statewide student leader network is in the works for high school students. Currently, 25 students are participating.

“The good ideas and best practices are happening in the schools and in the field,” Ruzkowski said. “Not in what I call the Paseo de Peralta beltway. The best ideas are coming from the classroom and our districts on the rise, like Roswell.”

Santa Fe, Las Vegas, Truth or Consequences, Ruidoso, Albuquerque, Roswell and Gallup schools all had meetings with the secretary.

State’s report card

When asked about the state low ranking, Ruszkowski said the true progress will be seen in the spring of next year after students taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and he thinks the post-high school bill has merit.

“Every kid should have the opportunity,” Ruszkowski said. “And does have the potential to be on a plan for their future — that plan should include at least one college application. That plan could include enrolling in the military or in a trade school. If we believe that every single one of our kids has boundless potential, which I believe, then we have to put them on a path to having a plan post-graduation.”

The legislative session is at the midpoint and Ruszkowski said compensation increase and exemplary awards for teachers are the top priorities for the state.

Ruszkowski encourages Roswell teachers to have their voices heard, as he supports teacher compensation and awards. The Secretary-Designate said he would like those from Roswell to also attend the open mic at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Saturday at 10 a.m.

Ruszkowski encourages students in the Roswell Independent School District students to rise to the challenge in their education, to be well-rounded and specialized, and be aware that the world is getting more competitive and more fierce, which means they should study more and think about entrepreneurial jobs.

Next steps

Hope Morales, who attended the meeting, said her work with Teach Plus helps teachers be involved with policymaking and offers recommendations focused on New Mexico students. Morales said the teachers present were passionate about their students and their craft.

“There is a lot of potential in Roswell to do great things,” Morales said. “We have a lot of stakeholders that care deeply about education, I think the right conversations are starting to happen. People are very focused on students and solutions to move our city forward.”

Furney said the next step is to work with Morales and Susan Sanchez, the RISD interim superintendent, and a group of local special education teachers to find solutions within the district.

“It’s a positive impact on education in Roswell,” Furney said. “I am excited. It is going to take time. Nothing happens overnight. The fact that the people who make the change want to talk — that makes a difference.”

City reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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