This story appears in both The Paper and the Santa Fe New Mexican through a partnership to bring our readers the best in reporting from the legislature.
The way César Hernández sees it, House Bill 184 would let every school have a “genius hour.”
That’s what the principal of Albuquerque’s Los Padillas Elementary School calls the extra hour of learning his school offers every day. That hour allows students to apply core curriculum lessons to creative projects like robotics, engineering, poetry and clowning.
The students give a presentation on what they’ve learned for parents, grandparents and other students, drawing loved ones into the learning process. They also strengthen their understanding of key concepts as they complete their projects. “That’s the best way to raise the bar in the classroom,” Hernández said.
He supports HB 184, which would allow public school districts to take part in an extended learning program that adds an hour of after-school time at elementary schools rather than adding summer days to the calendar, as the state’s K-5 Plus program does.
Districts with K-Plus also could opt to take part in the extended-day program.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Andrés G. Romero, D-Albuquerque, who works as a history teacher, said he does not see the legislation as a compromise between the two programs but as “another option for school districts who may need it to address the needs of their students.”
“This offers schools that choose to opt into the program numerous ways to help with student improvement, Romero said, such as “enrichment opportunities,” which he said can help “reinforce lessons learned in the classrooms.”
Romero presented the proposal Wednesday to the House Education Committee, which unanimously approved the bill and sent it on to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee for consideration.
A number of teachers, principals and teachers union leaders spoke in favor of the bill. No one spoke against it.
Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of National Education Association-New Mexico, said she sees the bill as a compromise approach that would be preferable for some teachers than working extra days in the summer. She said the measure could help boost students who have fallen behind during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Legislative Finance Committee report said many New Mexico students may have lost up to a year of learning after the pandemic forced campus closures and a switch to a mostly remote model of conducting lessons.
Parr-Sanchez said an extra hour each day can “help make up that gap [in learning]. I can see many districts applying for the program because of that.”
Melissa Candelaria, a lawyer for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents some of the plaintiffs in the state’s Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit, told the committee the bill would “benefit our most vulnerable students,” including those addressed in the complaint.
A judge’s 2018 decision in the case required New Mexico to provide more resources and services for certain groups of at-risk students in public schools: special-education students, Native American children, English-language learners and kids from low-income households.
Lawmakers are still struggling to find ways to satisfy the court ruling in a state that generally ranks at the bottom in education measures and child well-being.
An extra hour a day could help the state comply with the ruling, the bill’s supporters say.
“You check off all the boxes on the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit,” Hernández said.
Romero said the bill would prioritize schools serving students highlighted in the complaint.
Schools can apply for state funds to support the optional K-5 Plus program, which adds 25 summer days of learning time for participating elementary students before the new school year. A fiscal impact report on HB 184 found the demand for those funds could increase if the measure is approved because it would allow districts to use the money for the new program.
“Rather than requiring a school with a typical 180 instructional day calendar to add 25 additional instructional days for K-5 Plus, the school could simply add 45 minutes to each instructional day to meet the equivalent time requirement,” which is about 137 hours, the report said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said, the state Public Education Department was expecting 50,000 students to enroll in K-5 Plus. But the number dropped to 16,000.
A Legislative Education Study Committee report on HB 184 said studies show summer learning programs have a “positive impact on student learning.” Such programs better prepare students for the coming school year and lead to higher academic achievement rates down the line, the report said.
A proposal in the Senate would require all elementary schools to offer K-5 Plus, but it has faced pushback from teachers unions, including branches of the state NEA.
Parr-Sanchez said her union is still reviewing Senate Bill 40 to see what impact it would have.