Various meetings with parents and community members were held at schools across the Española School District, where District officials explained a proposed extension to the school year.
The response was almost completely one-sided—nearly all the parents who spoke up said they did not want their childrens’ summer vacation shortened on such short notice.
The program, K-6 Plus, would require students at five schools in the District to start their school year on July 6, rather than late August. The five schools are Fairview Elementary, Española Elementary, San Juan Elementary, Sombrillo Elementary and Los Niños Kindergarten Center.
K-6 Plus has come as a result of the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, which determined that children from various disadvantaged backgrounds were not receiving an adequate education, as required by the state constitution.
The ruling did not call for longer school years, but the State Legislature passed Senate Bill 1 during the 2019 legislative session as a way of addressing a lack of equity in New Mexico’s more rural and economically disadvantaged districts.
The program is titled K-5 Plus, but Española added sixth grade since all elementary schools in the District go up through sixth grade.
The state Public Education Department is requiring all districts in the state to implement the program within the next couple of years. Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez said District officials plan to implement the program early since it was one of the original plaintiffs in the Yazzie case.
Gutierrez said that, while they are considering starting K-6 Plus for the 2020-2021 school year, nothing is set in stone.
“We’re still a ways out from making a decision,” she said during a Feb. 10 presentation at Fairview.
The final decision would have to be made by the Española School Board and would have to be put on its agenda sometime in March.
During these community meetings, many parents spoke out against the program, because the District did not have the resources to properly implement it.
“Española School District is already so short on having teachers,” said Rosa Garcia, a parent of a student at Fairview.
Garcia also works as a substitute teacher for the District and said she has seen classrooms without a full-time teacher for almost the entire year so far.
“They pull me everywhere because they’re so short on teachers all the time,” she said.
For Nicolas Madrid, another parent at Fairview, the lack of resources for his daughter have required him and his wife to step in and teach her.
“She comes home with packets of homework and she doesn’t know what to do with it,” he said.
He said he is not sure how the school can provide an adequate number of staff for a longer year and that the idea of K-6 Plus program has him and his wife looking elsewhere.
“If they end up implementing this, I will most likely transfer her next year,” he said.
He acknowledged, though, that soon every district will have the program.
“We’re teaching her already. Should we homeschool her?”
Parents of students with special needs said their children often lack special education assistants, even if their child is supposed to have a one-on-one aide.
Heather ValdezHern, whose son is diagnosed with autism and attends Fairview, said her son has not had a one-on-one aide for the entire school year.
Her son will be attending Española Middle School next year with her other children still at Fairview. She said she is not sure how she and her husband will transport their kids when they’re on such different schedules.
“We’re going to have to be bringing our kids in the summer and still have three kids at home,” she said.
‘The last minute’
School districts, though, have been slow to implement the new program. During a November meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee, those working for the Committee told lawmakers that 55 percent of districts did not apply for the K-5 Plus program for the 2019-2020 school year.
In the same meeting, Gutierrez told lawmakers her smaller schools could not participate in the program because of their size.
“Where’s the equity in that?” she asked at the time.
The District’s smaller schools have combined grade levels, making the program more difficult to implement, Gutierrez said.
Española was one of the districts that did not apply for K-5 Plus last school year, because they did not have time to adequately prepare, Gutierrez said.
And with less than a month before the Board would need to vote on the program, some parents said they feel the District still does not have enough time.
“After listening to everything, all the questions, it seems that you guys are not quite ready,” Garcia said. “I think you would have a lot less parents oppose this if we maybe wait a year.”
That perspective was also shared by some teachers.
“Now, I’m kind of like maybe it would be good to wait a year, work out all the kinks that way,” San Juan Elementary Kindergarten Teacher Carlos Villareal said.
Villareal, along with nearly half of the teachers in the District, participated in a smaller voluntary version of the program that only went up to the third grade. He said that while he had become used to the schedule, a summer vacation of five weeks did not give teachers much time to prepare.
“In general, I don’t think there’s enough time for teachers to prepare and get ready,” he said.
Teachers at the five schools would be required to participate in the K-6 Plus program or be transferred to another school.
A survey of teachers in the District showed that 12 teachers at these schools said they would like to transfer if the program begins next year. 80 percent of teachers at schools without the program responded they would not want to be transferred to a school with K-6 Plus.
Despite the divided opinions over the program, Villareal said he has seen real improvement for children who have participated in an extended school year.
“You can definitely tell the difference between the kids who do it and the kids who don’t,” he said.