As summer approaches, parents and teachers are figuring out how to keep kids occupied through the long months of vacation.
Legislation designed to make summer programs available to more students will extend the K-3 and K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Programs to provide greater access to summer programs for fourth- and fifth-graders at many schools across the state this summer.
But eligibility requirements, which some say are overly restrictive, could leave small schools and rural districts out of the expansion altogether.
A clause in a bill that was signed into law this month requires that schools ensure students will remain with the same teachers in the K-5 Plus program they had throughout the year. It's intended to provide continuity in the educational experience for students.
Yet at small and rural schools, it is often difficult to guarantee that a teacher at each grade level will be available over the summer.
The New Mexico Public Education Department sent out a letter on April 4 saying, in part: "if a school cannot assure student and cohort matching then the school is not eligible for participation in K-5 plus."
Turquoise Trail Charter Elementary in Santa Fe is one school that will no longer be able to provide the state-funded summer program to students because of the new continuity requirements.
Head Administrator Ray Griffin tells SFR that the charter school has participated in the K-3 program for four years and picked up the K-5 program last year. In the past, he says, the school supplemented gaps in teacher availability by hiring some teachers exclusively for the summer program.
The small school announced to parents last week that it will not participate in the K-5 summer program this year because it was unable to guarantee the availability of current teachers to stay over the summer.
"We really wanted to offer this program to our students," Griffin says. "As a long-term educator, I wish that the PED had made this a goal instead of a requirement. If we cannot offer a summer program it will really be our low-income and working families that will be most affected, because those parents are the most strained when it comes to having time and resources to spend on their kids when they are not in school."
An aide for PED Secretary Karen Trujillo promised SFR an interview with her this week, but did not respond before SFR's deadline.
The $180 million expansion of the K-5 program was enacted as part of a series of bills passed during this year's legislative session designed to meet requirements dictated by the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, in which a state District Court judge ruled that New Mexico's education system has failed to provide an equitable education to low-income students, Native Americans, English-language learners and students with disabilities. Among other systemic problems, plaintiffs highlighted the need for greater supplemental education programs such as the expansion of K-5 Plus summer school. New eligibility requirements for the program are based on a research-based study of K-3 Plus that shows students do better in summer programs when they continue with the same teacher they had during the year.
However, Griffin says it shouldn't be an all-or-nothing approach, and Mike Grossman, former superintendent of the Lake Arthur Municipal Schools and a plaintiff in the Yazzie-Martinez case, worries that the rigidity of the requirement for continuity could work to exclude the very students the legislation was designed to support.
Speaking to SFR by telephone, Grossman says the eligibility requirements "could seriously limit the ability of small schools, micro-school districts and rural districts to offer the program. If the intent was to address at-risk [English as a second language] and Native American children, and you can't offer the program because of these restrictions, then you are not satisfying the intent of the court's decision."
Grossman says districts that already suffer unequal access to the educational resources available to wealthier urban districts may be hit hardest.
"For small school districts, given the fact that it's hard to recruit teachers and you already have a problem filling teacher vacancies, the requirements could really be an obstacle in participating in K-5 Plus," Grossman says. "Frequently we have used combined grade levels to provide that summer school program for our students in the past."
Tony Archuleta, principal of San Diego Riverside Charter School in Jemez Pueblo, also participated in the Yazzie-Martinez case. He tells SFR that his school is lucky this year to have confirmed the availability of all teachers over the summer, and he's hopeful to receive funding for the program. But he says legislators should reconsider how to give students the best options available while also considering the less-than-optimal realities facing schools in smaller districts and rural areas by incorporating more flexibility into the requirements.
"Of course, we want to give students the opportunity for continuity with their teachers whenever possible," he says. "But having that as a requirement for participation is just absurd. An imperfect program is better than no program, no matter how you slice it."
In Santa Fe, Turquoise Trail Charter Middle School appears to be the only school that has seen a negative impact due to this restriction, and teachers at public elementary schools are thrilled to be able to offer summer programs to a wider range of students this year, says Georgia Baca, principal of EJ Martinez Elementary.
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia tells SFR the district has applied for funding for the summer for all Santa Fe elementary schools, and principals at participating schools have indicated they will have the teachers available. Though eligibility requirements are unlikely to disqualify Santa Fe public elementary schools, Garcia says, "It could become an issue in the future if I have a teacher who is pregnant, who retires, goes on vacation, or leaves short notice for some other extenuating circumstances, in which case we'd have to apply for an exception."