For a student living in Nageezi, it’s about a 45-minute ride to get to either Farmington or Cuba to attend a larger school in the city.
A new law lengthening the school year in New Mexico means that students will have more days of getting up before sunrise to make it to the bus stop and coming back home shortly before the evening rolls around.
That’s something on the mind of Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo), who spoke up during the Legislative Finance Committee’s Public Education Subcommittee discussion on Wednesday.
Lawmakers gathered in Farmington, N.M. to listen to staff from the Public Education Department and a legislative analyst talk about how schools in the state are rolling out extended learning hours.
Legislators passed House Bill 130 in the 2023 legislative session and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it in March, increasing the instructional time in public schools from at least 990 hours to 1,140 hours.
The legislation came about after the 2019 Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit found that New Mexico has failed to provide quality education to students. Part of the judgment from this landmark decision recommended that an extended school year could help students get a better education.
On Wednesday, in a small room in northwestern New Mexico, Lente asked the presenters if they thought it was fair for a Native American student who lives in a small town to have to take even more hour-long bus rides to school and back.
This is criticism similar to what other lawmakers representing rural areas voiced during the 2023 legislative session with House Bill 130. Lente was excused during the House floor vote.
Since the 2019 Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, New Mexico has added about 7 days to the school year, according to a hearing brief released Wednesday from the Legislative Finance Committee.
And House Bill 130 has pushed about 250 schools to increase days in their 2023-24 school year calendars, said Amanda DeBell, a deputy secretary at New Mexico’s Public Education Department.
Lente asked her if quantity is better than quality for New Mexico’s students.
DeBell responded quality of course comes before quantity, but increasing the length of learning time will help.
“Students need to be able to access learning at their own learning style, pace, speed, et cetera,” she said. “So I think it’s a little of both.”
Lente said an extended school year is great for students who live minutes away from their school. That usually isn’t the case for students living in rural areas of New Mexico.
“If I lived in downtown Albuquerque or in the Albuquerque metropolitan area, and this was an extended opportunity for my student to go to school, that’s a great thing,” he said.
Rep. Harry Garcia (D-Grants), who also represents parts of northwestern New Mexico, said students in Lake Valley are leaving for school at 5 a.m. and not getting home until 5 p.m.
“That is not fair to our kids,” said Garcia, who voted for the bill’s passage during the session.
DeBell said New Mexico presents unique situations with the rural communities scattered across the state, and officials need to be “thoughtful about the diversity and the landscape” of the state.
“I don’t know if we can talk about fairness or not between a four- or a five-day week,” she said. “I think we just need to be cognizant of it as we are pushing forward.”
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Lente asked why tribes can’t create their own schools or school districts for limited periods of time, so when students are sometimes working on ranches or farms and can’t make the hour-long ride to get to school in the city, they still get educational credit for that work.
“Why are we not compensating these types of initiatives as well, instead of forcing them to sit on a school bus to go another day to school?” he asked.
Sunny Lui is a legislative senior fiscal analyst who prepared Wednesday’s hearing brief. He said studies of New Mexico’s elementary school programs showed that Native American students who participated in extended learning had the largest gains compared to their peers.
Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill (D-Silver City) voted for the bill’s passage but said on Wednesday there’s pushback from rural communities on this extended learning period because of the unique challenges they face.
She said Cobra High School in her district in southern New Mexico is “falling into disrepair” and doesn’t have the same resources to pull from that schools in more urban areas might.
She said the condition of a school can affect students’ commitment to school. When a new high school was built in Deming, she said, students were excited to go to school.
Correa Hemphill said the state needs to send a message to its students that officials care enough to at least provide functional desks. The desks at Cobra High School are broken, she said.
“What kind of message does that send to students when the desks that they’re sitting in pinch their skin or grab their hair?” she said.
Lui said there are funds from the 2023 budget that schools will get for general maintenance, and smaller schools could actually get a larger share because of the way the appropriation works.
Will a longer school year cause teacher burnout?
New Mexico severely lacks teachers, along with workers in other key industries.
Hemphill asked if the extended school year bill has caused any teachers to leave. Not all educators agreed that extending school time would improve academic performance.
DeBell said the teacher vacancy rate is, anecdotally, about where it’s been for the last couple of years. There were nearly 700 teacher vacancies across the state in 2022, according to a report by New Mexico State University.
Gregory Frostad is an assistant secretary with the state’s Public Education Department. He said his agency doesn’t have more specific, up-to-date data on vacancies yet. He said officials will start looking into it in the fall, especially when the next NMSU vacancy report comes out.
“It is just too early for us to know how that change will have affected teacher vacancies,” he said.
Rep. Joy Garrett (D-Albuquerque) said educators and families are exhausted after the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we extend the school year … our teachers are undergoing tremendous burdens,” she said.
She said she doesn’t want to see the Legislature add more time to the school year in the 2024 legislative session before knowing if this extended school year really works. That would just hurt the system even further, she said.
Other legislators also said the state needs to stay on top of the academic results of the extended school year to see if this change actually works.