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Communication with legislators, leaders key to improving schools

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The 2020 New Mexico Legislative session will include “stage two” of the “moonshot” to improve public K12 schools, and teachers should communicate regularly with education leaders and public officials to let them know what changes they think should occur, according to panelists speaking to educators Saturday in Roswell.

“You are the experts in educating our children,” said state Rep. Phelps Anderson, Roswell-District 66. “If you see your decision-makers out in your community in the off-season, you say, ‘Oh, we are here at Dairy Queen. I feel uncomfortable walking up to them.’ You know, walk up … and say, “Hey, would you think about this next time this comes around because this is really important to those in the classroom.’”

Anderson was one of eight panelists to talk to 16 current policy fellows of Teach Plus New Mexico during their mid-year retreat Saturday at Comfort Suites.

Teach Plus New Mexico is part of a national organization that offers programs to develop public school teachers into effective advocates for system and policy changes to improve student outcomes. State Director Hope Morales is a former Roswell elementary school teacher and administrator.

Morales said the policy group’s main policy concerns at this time, with four months left in the fellowship, include social and emotional learning and their impacts on student outcomes, ensuring that public funding benefits students, high-quality professional development, and opportunities for teachers of color.

She said the goals of the panel discussion were to learn about some of the priorities of the panelists and their organizations, to understand more about their decision-making processes and to learn about some specific strategies for advocating for change.

Besides Anderson, other panelists were state Rep. Greg Nibert, Roswell-District 59; Gwen Perea Warniment, New Mexico Public Education deputy secretary for teaching, learning and assessment; Tim Hand, PED deputy secretary for policy, strategy and accountability; Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy, Roswell Independent School District superintendent; Arsenio Romero, Deming Public Schools superintendent; Mona Kirk, Roswell Independent School District Board of Education member; and Marcos Franco, Mesa Middle School principal.

Nibert and Anderson talked about how the 2019 legislative session attempted to provide the “moonshot” that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wanted, using the increased state revenues from an oil and gas boom to boost funding to public schools by $448 million, or 16%, for a total of $3.25 billion. Legislation also sought to provide for reforms demanded by the Yazzie-Martinez court ruling that requires equitable education for at-risk and lower-performing student groups, such as those who speak English as a second language, Native Americans, those from low-income communities and those with disabilities.

Anderson said more needs to be done in 2020 and that unintended “mistakes” from 2019 will need to be fixed.

“Even though public education is the single largest item in the budget,” said Anderson, “it doesn’t necessarily receive the greatest amount of discussion.”

For example, he said, local district and school officials have noted that they were given many “unfunded mandates” by 2019 legislation, told to take certain actions but not given adequate funding.

As Nibert explained, decisions get made by 112 legislators, most of whom have no experience as teachers or in public education. One or two legislators with education backgrounds become the experts that many others rely on, but more input is wanted from the educational community, he said. He also said he would encourage educators to have decisions affecting them to remain at the local level whenever possible.

All panelists agreed that regular, personalized communication with state legislators is necessary. The legislators said form letters or emails aren’t likely to get their attention, especially during the legislative session when they receive 800 to 1,000 emails a day. But personalized communications from residents in their district — especially superintendents and board members, messages that contain specifics on how proposed legislation or funding allocation will affect teachers or students — are likely to get read or heard, Nibert and Anderson said.

Romero said the policy fellows now have an opportunity to work together to set statewide initiatives and goals, and added that they should connect to decision-makers at the local level.

“You also need to develop relationships with other counterparts in your community — your county representation, your city representation, your chambers of commerce, your economic development group, your Rotary club,” he said. “You help spread that message, and they are also supporting the schools.”

Franco said teachers must talk to their school administrators about policy and practice changes. “We don’t see it as, well, you are the leader, so tell us what to do. No, we are going to work together to create a school, a system that fosters high achievement.”

Kirk also stressed that teachers should initiate contact with school board members. Board members have to “stay in our lane. We cannot go out and research or investigate. We rely on you all to tell us what your opinions are. If you are told not to talk to your school board member, raise your hand and ask why. That’s the best thing you can do. Ask why. Ask why can’t I talk to them? I voted them in, and I should be able to talk with them.”

Legislators encouraged conversations prior to the legislative session, but Warniment also said that discussions with PED leaders during the rule-and regulation-making processes also is important. She called the rule-making phase an “empty space” that doesn’t receive a lot of grassroots input. Current issues that could use teacher input include Science, Engineering, Technology and Math instructional materials, teacher evaluation and educator licensure.

In terms of priorities, McIlroy said that top agenda items for the Roswell school district are being framed around the issue of equitable education, ensuring that students are given what they need to succeed. She said district and school administrators will be examining not just aggregate data but data on all sub-groups to determine whether students are gaining in achievements. She also said the district intends to reduce dropout rates among all student populations to 4% or less.

The state Public Education Department leaders said they are moving forward with existing programs and policy initiatives in spite of having no department head at this time, given the recent firing of the education secretary by the governor.

They said their goals include examining the entire ecosystem of the teaching profession, including educator preparation programs; developing “full-child” education that includes meeting students’ social, psychological and emotional needs; closing the achievement and opportunity gap among diverse student groups; and providing ample technical and career training opportunities for students.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.