When Maggy Parra graduates, she plans on studying nursing at either Arizona State University or Colorado State University, with the hope of one day working as a fully-licensed registered nurse.
However, the junior at Española Valley High School—like so many other High School students—struggles to succeed in a school with many teacher vacancies.
Five times this school year, Parra has come to class to find no teacher and no substitute. When this happens, she and the rest of her classmates have to spend the entire class period waiting in the school’s cafeteria, talking among themselves.
A video recorded Nov. 1 of the cafeteria showed it packed with students during class time.
She said teachers and school administrators often wonder why truancy and dropout rates are so high at the High School.
“This is why, cause you have us in here and we’re not doing anything,” she said.
It is not just the High School facing teacher shortages. Schools across the Española School District and New Mexico face major teacher shortages, for full-time and substitute positions.
New Mexico State University researchers reported in October that, despite a decline in teacher vacancies, there are still over 1,000 educator positions open across the state, including Española.
Even when Parra does get to attend the class, there is no guarantee an actual instructor will teach it.
Her Algebra 2 class, for example, is completely computer-based. She walks into class, logs on and takes her notes for the class period. A substitute watches over the class, but does not provide any instructional assistance, she said.
Parra said she has been taking online classes since her freshman year, in subjects ranging from history to English.
Her mother, Yolanda Gallegos, said she feels frustrated with the High School, because she feels like nothing is changing.
“I told her if she doesn’t want to go to school, I’ll take her out and she can do online classes,” she said.
“That’s basically what we’re doing right now,” Parra responded.
She said the confusing process for her online English course resulted in her being behind half a credit, which she needs to graduate. She said the school is charging her $100 to make up the half credit, but that the course will not be offered until enough students sign up and pay the fee.
“I’m going to get stuck, because these kids won’t pay the $100 or they can’t afford to pay,” she said.
Parra credits her dual-credit courses at Northern New Mexico College for keeping her on track.
“If it wasn’t for Northern New Mexico College, I’d be lost,” she said.
High School Principal Victoria Gonzales said the online courses are fully accredited and students are responsible for their performance on the program.
“It comes down to whether or not the kid wants to learn,” she said.
She also said parents and community members must take some of the blame for the lack of substitutes at the District.
“They will scrutinize what’s happening here, but at no point do they say, ‘How can I be of service to our students and our community?” Gonzales said.
Gallegos, a single mom working two jobs, said the various fees for summer courses and registration have put stresses on her budget, adding that she has brought her concerns to school officials.
“It gets very stressful,” she said.
Española Middle School Principal Cliff Tompson is also feeling the effects of the teacher shortage, particularly with substitutes.
He said when they cannot find subs classes are combined or students are placed in classrooms during a teacher’s preparation period.
At least twice this year, a greater amount of teachers have been absent, meaning students from a handful of different classes are placed in the school auditorium, Tompson said. He said this environment is not effective for instruction, since students from multiple subjects are there at the same time.
“Our results have been sketchy at best so far,” he said. “There’s no good solutions we’ve found so far.”
In some cases, teacher vacancies have resulted in canceling certain subjects.
The Middle School health teacher resigned in late August, and when a job listing was posted, no one applied. Tompson said the solution was to change it to an art class and hire a teacher for the new course.
There is now no health course offered to Middle School students.
Tompson, an educator in New Mexico for over 20 years, said it has been difficult to cope with the lack of substitutes.
“I didn’t think it would be this big of a problem,” he said. “I’ve never seen this before.”
He said the instability of instructors is creating a tangible effects on the students. Parra said she sees this too.
“I see kids that are super smart that want to go to college,” she said. “Somehow, they lost hope. I don’t see them anymore.”
The District has struggled with teacher vacancies for the past few years. Gutierrez said science and math teachers are particularly difficult to hire and that the District is currently advertising to fill all vacancies.
Brandon Bustos, who graduated from the High School in 2018 and was also a candidate for the School Board, said he would often have to wait in the cafeteria before going to his next class.
“And sometimes that teacher wasn’t there,” he said. “So then we’d stay in the cafeteria for another period.”
Bustos, who is now an apprentice lineman for the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, said the lack of teachers affected student test scores and morale.
He also said it had a direct impact on his own future.
“I feel like I could’ve maybe went to college or been more interested in college,” he said.