EDITORIAL: APS principals, teachers, parents should put students first, extend school year by 10 days

Apr. 10—Everyone knew entering this school year that making up for pandemic-related learning losses was going to be a struggle — a struggle for parents, teachers and students already tethered to one of the worst-performing public educational systems in the nation.

A legislative report to state lawmakers in September said New Mexico public school students had lost the equivalent of 10 to 60 days of instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report said it could take years for many of them to get caught up, even with summer school and more school days. (And that didn't factor in how far behind many already were; pre-pandemic less than half were proficient in reading or math.)

A survey of teachers found 72% believed their students learned less during the 2020-21 academic year than in a typical year. No doubt — there were myriad reports of students struggling with internet access and distractions, teachers struggling with online modules and student attendance, and parents struggling to get multiple kids in different grades logged in and engaged as public schools were closed for a year.

State lawmakers recognized the educational crisis and wisely approved funding in early 2021 expanding extended learning programs. Legislative analysts touted the state's K-5 Plus program, which extends the school year by 25 days for elementary students in low-income districts, as effective, especially when students stay with their same teacher.

It is unfortunate more than half — 43 of the state's 89 school districts — rejected adding extra days last year.

The legislative report in September wisely recommended lawmakers consider requiring extended learning time for all districts and charter schools.

Again, it's unfortunate lawmakers stopped short of a mandate; just 7% of the K-5 Plus student slots were filled in September. Only 10 elementaries in Albuquerque Public Schools opted in for the '20-'21 school year. There are 11 APS schools now participating in extended learning programs, and few to no APS middle or high schools have implemented any form of extended learning time.

The APS board last week considered making extra school days mandatory for all district schools but voted down a proposal to adopt two districtwide extended learning programs by a 4-3 vote. After a five-minute break, the board returned and passed a motion offered by member Barbara Petersen to allow schools who "see the benefit" to participate in the programs.

For our students, let's hope more than 11 schools do.

Two-plus years into a pandemic that damaged learning along with lives, it's time for school leaders, teachers, parents and students to step up and opt in. The more instructional time students have, the better their chances of success.

APS' Transformational Opportunity Pilot Schools, or TOPS, program applies to kindergarten and elementary schools. It extends the school year by 10 days and also adds an hour and a half to school days. An extended learning time program for middle and high schools would also add 10 instructional days.

Education professionals recognize there are immeasurable benefits for spending more time in school.

"We have believed from the beginning that extending the day so that we can provide high-dosage tutoring and skill development based on students' strengths ... and time for our professionals to collaborate and plan — we believe in that," APS Chief of Schools Yvonne Garcia said at Wednesday's APS board meeting. "We believe that is essential and what will change instruction."

Our schools and educators, students and parents have shown great resilience throughout the pandemic. Now, students really need some extra support. Extending instructional time can help. While family time is important, extra classroom time means more time for personalized instruction and professional development.

Our schools are quite literally in crisis mode, and it is essential we capitalize on proven programs to help students read and do math at grade level.

And don't forget the landmark Yazzie-Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. The late Judge Sarah Singleton in July 2018 ruled the state was failing to sufficiently fund programs and services for students — especially low-income, Native American, English language learner and students with disabilities. The judge correctly said all N.M. students have the right to an education that makes them college and career ready and outlined remedies including extended learning.

"Extended learning time, like summer school, is valuable to all students, but especially to low-income students," Singleton wrote.

Moving the start date up to Aug. 4, tightening winter break and vernal holiday by a day or two, pushing the last day of school from late May to early June, adding an hour or an hour and a half to school days are small steps in the right direction for a state public education system consistently ranked at or near the bottom.

And those steps are within the grasp of each and every Albuquerque public school.

Our students deserve at minimum to be on grade level. The question is, will our schools have the courage to make changes in ways that are most effective and efficient for our students?

We certainly hope they do.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.