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Will More School Days Help New Mexico’s Students?

Depends whom you ask

(Anson Stevens-Bollen)

Will more school days help New Mexico’s students?

Yes ☐
No ☐
Depends whom you ask ☑

Capital High School history teacher Sarah Holmes says she’s been “really feeling the stress lately” at work.

Legislation passed in the 2023 session extended the high school’s calendar this year by 100 hours and added more professional development hours for teachers. Santa Fe Public Schools also recently switched to a different grading standard for its students. In addition, students and staff continue feeling effects from the COVID-19 pandemic—in both academic achievement and student engagement.

Regarding the latter, Holmes describes the changes in student behavior post-COVID as disengagement, with students speaking less during instructional time and withdrawing into their phones more often.

“I love Capital High; it’s one of the best schools I’ve ever taught at, and the kids are great, but they also went through COVID, and that was a huge part of their lives that was affected by COVID,” Holmes says. “I can empathize even when it’s challenging in the classroom.”

Students exit Capital High School at the end of the school day; one of them, Raul Alvarado, tells SFR he and others don’t support PED’s 180-day rule. (Mo Charnot)

These challenges provide the backdrop for the state Public Education Department’s recent attempt to add another change into the mix: a statewide rule that would require every public school in New Mexico to provide at least 180 instructional school days per year.

PED announced the rule at the start of March and, one month later, 63 New Mexico public school districts and charter schools went to court to try to stop it, suing both the PED and state Education Secretary Arsenio Romero. As of press time, the rule remained in limbo, after 5th Judicial District Court Judge Dustin K. Hunter issued a preliminary injunction against its implementation.

“I think one of the biggest signs here is that there is a lawsuit,” Holmes says. “That speaks volumes—PED isn’t addressing the issue the way it should be addressed. The classroom changed significantly, or at least it did for me, post-COVID. I’m not so sure the state recognizes that, and that, to me, is a little concerning.”

The next hearing on the legal challenge is set for July 2, making it unlikely the rule will take effect within the next school year. Regardless of which side prevails, the arguments prompted by the lawsuit reveal the deep challenges faced by public schools, and the schism between schools, lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration about the best way to counter systemic low student achievement.

Doing a 180

From the get-go, Secretary Romero has cited New Mexico’s consistently low standardized test scores as the catalyst for proposing an extension of the school calendar.

“We look at where we’re at as a state—we’re in last place, 38% proficient in reading and 24% in math,” Romero told SFR in an interview last year. “If we want to be able to have some of the same outcomes as these [higher-achieving] states, we’re going to need to be looking at what they’re doing…This is one thing we’re looking at.”

He also said as much in a letter to superintendents after proposing the rule in the fall of 2023:

“Far too many of our schools are underperforming. Students statewide have low reading and math proficiencies. This is unacceptable,” he wrote. “While some progress has been made, we cannot ignore the persistent low student achievement results and achievement gaps that continue to plague New Mexico’s public schools decade after decade. It is time to break free from the status quo and demand excellence from everyone who works within the state’s education system.”

According to standardized reading test data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress going back to 2002, New Mexico’s fourth-grade students’ reading proficiency rate of 21% in 2022, when it was named 50th in the nation, mirrored its rate more than 20 years earlier, despite small fluctuations over the decades.

Additionally, the pandemic significantly affected chronic absenteeism rates in New Mexico. The percentage of students who miss more than 10% of the school year rose from 16% in the 2019-2020 school year to 40% in the 2021-2022 school year, and only decreased by 1% in the following school year.

The governor underscored support for the 180-day rule as a way to improve student outcomes in her 2024 State of the State speech in January.

“Parents and kids deserve the very best from all of us in this room, and from our school system,” Lujan Grisham said. “We’ve seen in New Mexico, and from states across the country, that more quality instruction makes a difference. We’ve seen the proven effectiveness of more time in class.”

In fact, while 33 states in the country currently require their schools to operate on a minimum of 180 days, whether or not this significantly impacts students’ reading proficiency remains unclear, according to the same data that placed New Mexico in last place for reading proficiency.

Massachusetts, for example, since 2003 has consistently ranked within the top three states for fourth-grade reading proficiency, and requires a minimum of 185 days per school year. However, Colorado also consistently outperforms the national average of fourth-grade reading rates with a requirement of only 160 days, and ranked fifth in the nation (or fourth, if excluding the Department of Defense’s federal education program) in 2022.

Among the 11 other states like New Mexico with no minimum instructional day requirement, the data doesn’t skew one way or the other. Six of the states performed at or above the national average (Montana, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Nebraska and Ohio) in 2022, and the other six ranked below the national average (North Dakota, Oregon, Missouri, Delaware, New Mexico and Texas.)

Among the 10 states with the lowest scores in 2022, six states had 180-day requirements, three had no minimum day requirements, and one (Arkansas) had a minimum requirement of 178 days.

Extending the school year to 180 days is also far from the only proposed solution to low student achievement. Other suggestions include requiring structured literacy training for teachers; expanding bilingual education due to the high population of Spanish-speaking students in the state; addressing racial equity for children in New Mexico; reducing classroom sizes and more.

“This is a complicated web; there’s no one silver bullet,” Holmes says.

Moreover, the PED’s current rollout for state test scores can be unreliable. Case in point: Statewide and district-level test results for the 2022-2023 school year have yet to be added to the PED’s state testing website as of May, despite the PED’s comment to SFR in January that the scores should be publicly posted “before February begins.”

Raul Alvarado, a Capital High freshman who participates in the school’s Computer Science Club after school, says he and many of his classmates disagree with the adoption of the 180-day rule, while understanding the need to improve student achievement.

“During COVID, a lot of students’ grades dropped—even mine—and I think in general, it’s just to get all students caught up, this 180-day rule,” Alvarado says. “But I feel like the change is perceived as negative on both sides, since we’ll have to spend more time in school, and in general we don’t like spending more time in school. For a lot of students, I feel like more time in school would leave a bad taste in their mouths.”

And not just for students.

New Mexico Schools Superintendents Association Executive Director Stan Rounds (left) opposes the 180-day rule introduced by PED Secretary Arsenio Romero (above).

One size fits none

When PED first introduced the 180-day rule last fall, the department received more than 2,700 comments from teachers, most in opposition, New Mexico Schools Superintendent Association Executive Director Stan Rounds points out during an interview with SFR.

Some examples:

“Seems like a lot of money for more of the same educational system we have now. If the state is going to spend that money, we really need all kinds of other things to make a difference for our struggling students, not just more time.”

“Please pardon my cynicism, but it’s difficult to believe that adding more time would make any difference in student outcomes. I’ve been teaching for 24 years now, and since I started, the school days have gotten longer and the school year has gotten longer, and it’s never helped. Forcing the kids to spend more time in a place they don’t want to be would be unproductive, at best.”

“I speak for many of my colleagues and myself included when I state that no amount of self-care will save us from what the district keeps throwing at us. We are professionals and we care deeply for our students, but we are not super-humans, we can only handle so much overload.”

NMSSA spearheaded the lawsuit against PED, which, among other points, argues the 180-day rule is “invalid and unenforceable” because it is at odds with a state statute that only requires school districts to provide students a minimum number of instructional hours per year.

The plaintiffs cite the 2009 creation of a 180-day rule for school districts that the Legislature first put on a temporary hold, then chose to remove from statute before it could be put to use.

That argument seemed to sway Judge Hunter, who granted the school districts at the May 13 hearing a temporary hold on PED’s 180-day rule.

“The fact that the Legislature specifically enacted the 180-day requirement and then removed it is too overwhelming,” he said.

Rounds tells SFR he and the school districts would “love to see” the rule either put on a year-long hiatus or removed entirely.

“We want to go to this legislative session next January, and look at and work out the issues,” Rounds says, also noting the rule, if upheld, “clearly eliminates” the use of a four-day week in New Mexico, a tool used by 32 districts in primarily rural and isolated areas.

“That’s best decided at the local level, and this [rule] removes local control,” Rounds says. “We find that objectionable; we don’t think that’s the way you solve problems.”

Several state lawmakers agree.

Last December, The Legislative Education Study Committee sent Romero a letter opposing the 180-day rule, and cited as a major concern the rule “does not align with the Legislature’s clear intention to allow local flexibility” to school calendars.

Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, a member of the Legislative Education Study Committee, also cites the undue burden the rule places on the schools, especially rural districts that operate on four-day school week schedules.

“We made our schools turn backflips the year before to accommodate this new hourly schedule,” Herrera says. “I represent rural districts, some of them have school five days [per week] and some of them have four days [per week]. I’m not going to go back and make everybody switch one more time.”

Additionally, 40 state Republican representatives and senators signed a letter requesting the PED delay or remove the 180-day rule entirely, along with a notice of intent to join the lawsuit as plaintiffs.

Rep. Brian Baca, R-Los Lunas, who also serves as a deputy superintendent at Los Lunas Schools, says he found the PED’s decision to make a rule outside of the legislative process “disturbing.”

“This isn’t just a Republican or Democratic thing,” Baca tells SFR. “It’s actually pretty clear from the discussion regarding the 180 days and the legislative policies we put in place that we do support local control and do not support any legislation or rulemaking that forces districts into a minimum number of days.”

Baca says he believes the state’s biggest problem with academic achievement lies in inconsistency, citing recent changes in state testing as an example.

“We have hard-working staff, we have intelligent students, but we’ve had a lack of consistency in direction…it seems like every few years we’re switching over and always in a constant state of change, and we’re never able to actually do this continuous cycle of improvement,” Baca says. “Each district needs to be provided the resources and funding, and they are going to be able to best know what the needs of their students are, not Santa Fe. It is not a one-size fits all.”

Do the math

In response to SFR’s request for an interview with Romero about the lawsuit, PED Deputy Director of Communications & Public Relations Janelle Garcia sent a written statement that says while the PED does not comment on pending litigation, the department wants “to ensure New Mexicans that their Public Education Department remains dedicated to promoting a robust learning environment and fostering excellence in education throughout New Mexico.”

Lujan Grisham’s Communications Director Michael Coleman also responded with a written statement.

“We believe the public education department has the rule-making authority to set guidelines for school calendars in the best interest of students. Evidence shows more days in the classroom, not just more hours, improves student performance and ensures that New Mexico children receive the classroom time they need to succeed,” Coleman writes. “We believe the public education department has the rule-making authority to set guidelines for school calendars in the best interest of students. We are exploring our legal options as we continue to fight this lawsuit and do everything we can to improve the public education system in New Mexico.”

That being said, with the lawsuit in limbo, school districts’ budgetary needs also remain in flux.

In their complaint against PED, the plaintiffs argue implementing the 180-rule would cause “irreparable harm” to school districts by increasing their cost of operations with additional school days without providing funding to cover the new costs—claims the state refuted at a May 13 hearing in Roswell.

“Those would be self-inflicted harms,” Holly Agajanian, chief general counsel for the governor, said. “All these districts need to do is put together the budget and calendar package that they want, and a 180-day package. That expenditure of time is not an appropriate irreparable harm pursuant to New Mexico case law.”

Nonetheless, school officials have characterized the new rule as an unfunded mandate.

In Santa Fe, for instance, a May 2 SFPS Board of Education meeting included a budget presentation that estimated a $5 million shortfall for the district.

Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said SFPS may be able to make up for the shortfall via cash in the district’s reserves, but he and SFPS school board members both lamented the lack of state funding.

“We need the money to be there to support public education, and to let the superintendents, the staff, the teachers and everybody do the work to catch kids up from the pandemic,” board member Kate Noble said.

The board subsequently at its May 21 meeting unanimously approved next  year’s operating budget, estimated at $428.5 million, although that figure will likely change over the summer as the district receives more local, state and federal grants, according to SFPS Chief Financial Officer Robert Martinez. Board members expressed concern over the projected budget’s $24.2 million decrease from the last study session’s estimate of $452.7 million, referring to it as a ‘lean budget’ and continuing to criticize the PED’s state funding formula for the upcoming school year.

Socorro Consolidated Schools, a rural district serving about 1,300 students, has also faced considerable challenges with this year’s budget, which was due May 7 for the district. Superintendent Ronald Hendrix tells SFR his district received $1.9 million less in state funding than it did the previous year.

“Because of that shortfall, we had to cut back,” Hendrix says. “We’re dropping nine or 10 different positions and some programs, and we’re still not sure if that’s actually going to do it.”

Fifty-seven school districts across New Mexico, along with six (not pictured) charter schools, have joined the lawsuit against the PED over the 180-day rule. (Charlie McCarty | Source: State of New Mexico)

The programs being cut from the budget this year in Socorro include an alternative learning program for students with behavioral health issues—first put into place in the 2022-2023 school year—and at least one elementary level arts program, though the district hasn’t decided whether to drop art or music yet.

“It’d be great if there was somebody who could do both, but [the position] is spread among three elementary schools, so it’d be tough to do that too,” Hendrix says. “Not having that just delays the time [students] get involved in it, because they’ll be able to in middle school, but that’s not kosher to me, to have some of the fun things kids really like about school become something they’re not able to do because of the funding.”

Socorro is one of the districts with four-day weeks, which it implemented three years ago. Sarracino Middle School sixth-grade math teacher Gwen Luna says doing so allowed the district to fill all the vacancies the district had at the time and previously struggled to fill—an issue with which many schools across the state still grapple.

“I did a survey as the president of the NEA, asking our teachers, ‘If we went from a four-day week to a five-day week, would they continue working here?’ Over 50% said they would not,” Luna, formerly the president of Socorro’s chapter of the NEA, tells SFR. “That’s a lot of teachers we would lose, and that means our students would lose out a lot. We have a very difficult time hiring teachers, and the four-day work week is a big attraction for us to bring teachers in from Albuquerque and Los Lunas.”

Sarracino agriculture teacher Peggy Mitchusson, who has taken Luna’s place as the local NEA president, noted several benefits she sees to rural districts’ four-day weeks, including letting teachers and families schedule doctors’ appointments and school sports events on the Fridays they have off from school.

Bottom line?

“Actually talk to the teachers, actually talk to the people who are in the schools, and find out what is really the problem,” Luna says.

Rounds, a former superintendent of four different New Mexico school districts with more than 51 years of experience in education, says he believes the state’s most pressing issue comes down to the low student attendance rates, which the new rule may compound.

“The real way you get kids in is by making something of interest, something of value and engagement for the kids, and they will come,” Rounds says. “In my experience…when you have students who are chronically absent, and you add days, you’re set to drive up your absence rate; you don’t bring kids into school, and the problem we have is bringing kids into school. We need to get them in.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the SFPS May 21 approval of its budget.

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