Cultures are coming into New Mexico's classrooms

New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart (Photo via official Twitter account)

The Associated Press

New Mexico wants language, cultural training for teachers

Morgan Lee

Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico wants its public schools to become more attuned to the culture and languages of a heavily Hispanic and Native American population as it presses forward with fundamental reforms that range from student testing to extending the school year, the state's top education official said Tuesday.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart on Tuesday told a panel of state lawmakers that his agency hopes to better equip teachers to inspire children from households where Indigenous or non-English languages are spoken.

About one in 10 residents of New Mexico is Native American, while Hispanics account for more than 40 percent of the population in a region that was ruled by Spain and governed by Mexico until it became part of the U.S. after the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848.

"If they understand the cultures that are coming into the classroom, they can understand how to connect," Stewart said.

He said that teaching tribal languages in the classroom can help Navajo children communicate with elders. He also described obstacles: Text books will have to be created from scratch to teach some Indigenous languages that are not widely spoken.

Stewart outlined future education priorities to the Legislature's lead budget-writing committee, as lawmakers wrestle with how to track the success over time of major new spending initiatives that lengthen academic calendars and provide funding for services such as counselors, teaching assistants and after-school programs.

The Democrat-led Legislature and allied first-year Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have authorized as much as $490 million in new annual public education spending for the current academic year.

Together, they are confronting a court ruling says the state has failed to provide adequate school resources and programs, especially for at-risk children from poor and ethnic-minority households.

Teacher salaries are a major focus of increased state spending this year, with an average salary increase of 10% for returning teachers statewide at charter and district-governed schools, according to Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislature's budget and program analysis office. Those raises averaged 11% at the state's largest district in Albuquerque, and 8% at Rio Rancho's growing school district.

Public schools in New Mexico rely primarily on state funding, with nearly half of the state's $7 billion annual general fund spending designated for k-12 public education.

It's still unclear exactly how school districts across the state plan to spend $253 million that lawmakers dedicated to at-risk students, Sallee said.

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-Albuquerque, worried that evidence of student improvement from the new state spending initiatives may take many years to materialize — and that legislators might grow impatient and shift direction before then.

Sallee said lot of attention by researchers will be focused on academic outcomes for young students at schools that volunteered to extend the elementary school by five weeks. Students often show up to kindergarten with a two-year academic disadvantage to overcome, he said.

"Some of these interventions will take years, even a generation, to roll out," he said.

Gradually declining student enrollment across much of the state is providing an outsized boost when it comes to per-pupil funding, Sallee noted.