Cedar Attanasio
Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. — Employees at the New Mexico Public Education Department are completing a three-hour diversity course as part of a plan to address a court order to improve services for students of different cultural, linguistic, and income backgrounds.

The virtual training was mandated for all 234 agency employees including Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, a spokeswoman said. Repeat sessions were open to hundreds of teachers and school leaders outside the agency who signed up voluntarily.

“In my 21 years of doing this work, it is the first time for me that state employees in the education department have been required to attend,” said training leader Sharroky Hollie, a former school teacher.

Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the diversity training challenged stereotypes and helped participants identify biases.

“I loved this advice: ‘Your first thought doesn’t have to be your last thought,’” said Robinson, who attended the three-hour training.

New Mexico is trying to improve the way the education system serves Indigenous, low-income, and English language-learning students in part because of an ongoing court order to provide them with an adequate education.

“As a state agency, we have the responsibility of ensuring that all children in New Mexico receive an equitable education while we reaffirm their individual home culture and language,” said Lashawna Tso, assistant secretary for Indian education.

Diversity training is one component of the department's efforts to tackle the expanding reach of the court's orders.

The department is also implementing a plan to measure the speed of at-home internet by collecting connectivity data as part of the school registration process, Robinson said.

“There is no higher priority than getting every student what they need to succeed,” said education secretary Stewart in a statement Monday. “The Public Education Department has been working at full tilt since March 2020 to expand student access to digital devices and high-speed internet services, and we continue to push aggressively to expand that work.”

The court ruled last month that fast internet was part of an adequate education for plaintiffs in the lawsuit barred from attending in-person classes.

A handful of schools have remained in remote learning due to COVID-19 concerns including health orders by tribal governments.

Separate from this week's diversity course, all school staff will eventually be required to take annual training as part of the Black Education Act passed by state legislators this Spring.

The Black Education Act Council established by the law “will develop or recommend training that addresses race, racism, racialized aggression and builds skills in creating an equitable culturally responsive learning environment,” says Office of African American Affairs director Amy Whitfield.

The training could differ from the one offered by the Public Education Department, whose staff are not required by the law to take a course.

“My hope is that through the Black Education Act, multiple trainings are provided for school personnel that comes from the expertise within New Mexico with a specific understanding of the unique and complex history and connections of marginalized groups in New Mexico,” Whitfield said.

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