February 20, 2023

New Mexico teachers say schools need more staff, not hours, to boost student outcomes

Wood Gormley music teacher Kevin Darrow, photographed at the school on Feb. 15, 2023, is not a fan of legislation adding learning time. Some Santa Fe teachers would rather see state funds put to use addressing poor attendance issues, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, teacher burnout or high child poverty rates.

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Most days, Kevin Darrow’s classroom is a whirlwind of students, music stands and musical instruments in motion. 

He and other “specials” teachers at Wood Gormley Elementary School — those who offer lessons in music, art, physical education and library skills — work with four or five classes each day across seven grade levels. Darrow said he typically has more than 100 students a day.

That’s a lot of moving parts — from chairs to instruments, marimba mallets to musical manipulatives — with very little time to prepare. Darrow said he usually has zero to 15 minutes to ready his classroom between the time one group of students leaves and another walks in the door. 

“Sometimes, just the management of moving all the stuff and then making sure that I have teaching resources in place and my plan is ready — it just feels like a race,” Darrow said. 

Still, he and many other Santa Fe teachers don’t believe more school time for students, as proposed by the governor and lawmakers, is the best solution to the ease the frenzy. Two measures introduced in the Legislature, House Bills 130 and 194, would require all public schools in the state to reach 1,140 instructional hours per year, up from current mandates of 990 hours for primary schools and 1,080 hours for secondary schools.

One major difference between the two proposals: While HB 130 would allow schools to carve out up to 60 of those 1,140 hours for teacher professional development and other work time, HB 194 mandates a minimum of 80 hours of teacher work time in addition to the learning time.

Fiscal impact reports for the bills estimate the extended learning hours would cost more than $230 million over the next three years. 

Some local teachers said they would rather see that money invested elsewhere — such as more school staffing.

Grace Mayer, an art teacher at Milagro Middle School and president of the National Education Association of Santa Fe, said the money could be used for a range of initiatives to support teachers and students and address problems such as poor student attendance, teacher burnout and high child poverty rates.

“Basically, our position is that mandating longer hours doesn’t acknowledge the dire circumstances that our kids are in right now,” Mayer said. “… Using the money to extend learning — when we don’t have the appropriate people in place and we don’t have the staff that’s needed to serve our kids at this point — seems like a misdirection of the monies.”

In Santa Fe Public Schools, where students already spend more than the state-required number of hours in classrooms, the proposed change would lead to additional hours in middle schools and high schools, which already meet the 1,140-hour threshold, but would add more more than 50 hours to elementary school schedules, Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said at a recent school board meeting.

The district is taking a wait-and-see approach to planning next year’s learning time, but Chavez confirmed the 2023-24 school year will begin in August — rather than June or July — regardless of the bills’ outcomes. 

HB 194 has yet to receive a hearing, but HB 130 has sailed through two committees with unanimous endorsements. Its next stop is the House floor. 

Mandi Torrez, the education reform director for the policy and advocacy organization Think New Mexico, which is pushing for the additional educational hours, said both bills are now on hold as lawmakers try to find a compromise.

Instead of more hours in the classroom, Darrow said he would prefer to see smaller class sizes and more math and reading tutors, which would decrease adult-to-student ratios in schools overall. This, he said, would allow students to receive the one-on-one or small group support they need. 

“Rather than spend those hundreds of millions of dollars on more of the same thing that we’re already doing, I want more people in the building. … That will help students. That will help my poor students that are struggling to read,” Darrow said.

Hiring more school social workers, attendance coaches, nurses and counselors would address some of the larger issues — such as poverty, addiction and homelessness — that make it hard for students to learn or attend school, improving student outcomes, Mayer added.

While teachers can try to tackle the bigger challenges students face and the increasingly popular “community school” framework in public school districts often helps connect families to needed services, Mayer said teachers lack the time and training to provide both instruction and counseling.  

“There’s all kinds of things that, as a state, we just seem to push on public school educators, as if we have some way to resolve them. And we don’t,” she said.

Educators are still hurting from understaffing, Mayer and Darrow said.

While recent raises and other incentives to recruit and retain teachers have helped fill many vacant positions, some schools still face shortages, they said.

The result is exhausted teachers who have to dedicate their prep periods to monitoring other classes rather than preparing their own lessons, Mayer said.

Wood Gormley is better-staffed than other schools, Darrow said, but remaining vacancies and a lack of reliable substitute teachers require other adults in the building — from music and art teachers to instructional aides — to mind a classroom. 

More professional development time, included in HB 130 and mandated in HB 194, won’t help the lack of staffing, he added.

“Even if you do train us more, we are still trying to do the impossible by helping students without enough time to help them because we’re spread so thin,” he said. 

Torrez, meanwhile, is pushing for the bills’ success. A former teacher at Bernalillo Public Schools, Torrez she would have used the additional small group instruction for her third and fourth graders. 

Her response to the HB 130 and HB 194 naysayers: Why not extend learning time and ensure schools have the staff and resources necessary to ensure the extended time is well-spent? 

New Mexico needs a “complete package” of educational reforms to improve student outcomes, Torrez said, and extending learning time is just one part of that.

She said she thinks a combination of legislative changes, including those decreasing class sizes and adding more adults to classrooms, will make the difference.   

“Not only do we need the extended time but we have to have the support for teachers,” Torrez said. “We have to have that staff to be in those classrooms during that extra time to help students, whether it’s counselors, whether it’s social workers, whether it’s math interventionists [and] reading interventionists.”