SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico education officials are on track to renew a $2 million contract for a Utah-based education company to call and text struggling students, usually when they've been chronically absent from school.
State and school district officials welcome the help but haven't evaluated the program to see if it actually decreased absenteeism last year, citing the pressures of the pandemic. State officials also have allowed the company to avoid a competitive bidding process.
Last year, the New Mexico Public Education Department awarded Graduation Alliance a $4.6 million contract on an emergency basis to quickly provide what it calls "academic coaching." Branded as the ENGAGE New Mexico program, it aims at increasing student participation in school.
Graduation Alliance said it operates similar engagement programs in Michigan, Arizona, and South Carolina.
In New Mexico, the company received around 39,000 referrals from students, parents or schools last year. Around 16,000 of those students opted in for academic coaches. All told, the state spent $290 for each student that agreed to have an academic coach.
The company employs Spanish-speaking coaches and at least one Navajo-speaking coach, as well as translation services to communicate with New Mexico's diverse population. The coaches work to earn students' trust, encourage them to attend school and advocate on their behalf if they face barriers to participating in class — something the company says will be important in an in-person learning environment.
"Some people are intimidated to ask for help from a teacher," said Graduation Alliance spokesman Greg Harp, adding that students often wonder "How do I ask for help, without feeling stupid?"
But it's unclear if the program increased engagement or academic achievement last year because grades and attendance for students weren't recorded.
A July 1 report by the Public Education Department hailed the program as a success, drawing on a survey the company conducted of participating students and partial graduation data drawn from a sample of high school seniors. The names of the districts providing the data were not listed in the report, which said that 70% of the seniors who were helped graduated.
"Is it making a difference? That's something we're going to be looking at," Harp said, adding that the company will be working with districts to gather data.
A notification period for the sole-source contract ends Friday. Unless a rival company challenges the designation, the contract will be awarded to Graduation Alliance, Harp said.
Students could be referred to the program starting as early as next week. Students referred in the past will have to sign up again.
While absenteeism rates are not yet documented, districts say that anecdotally they could be higher than before the pandemic because fewer feel confident in school and more are under pressure to work jobs to help their families pay rent and bills.
State law requires schools to check on families where a student is chronically absent, including excused absences like coronavirus quarantines. That means a lot of paperwork for districts like Santa Fe Public Schools, which has a three-person team reaching out to absentee students.
In the coming weeks, they expect to refer chronically absent students to support programs including the one operated by Graduation Alliance.
"It's an extra pair of boots on the ground for doing outreach," said Crystal Ybarra, a social worker who manages community outreach for the Santa Fe district.
Texts and phone calls from ENGAGE New Mexico won't directly save the team the work of fulfilling state requirements. But if the contractor can get students engaged, it could reduce the district's workload later in the year.
Ybarra said that the district gets reports from Graduation Alliance but couldn't immediately evaluate its effect on grades and attendance.
To help students catch up, the district has set up a four-day-a-week homework hotline staffed by mostly by volunteer academic tutors.
According to the National Association of State Procurement Officials, non-competitive contracts are acceptable when a company offers a unique service that no bidder can provide. But the group recommends that states require agencies to actually check if competitors exist. The Public Education Department left blank a question on an application asking what efforts were made to ensure there were no capable competitors.
Of the four states where ENGAGE programs currently operate, only Michigan contracted the company through a traditional bid process, Harp said.
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