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State’s plan to boost struggling schools earns praise

December 3, 2018

A nonprofit education advocacy group has given New Mexico high marks for how it plans to help struggling schools turn themselves around.

An Alexandria, Va.-based education nonprofit, the Collaborative for Student Success, says in a recent report that the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act includes several strong measures regarding school improvement — such as funneling extra funding into low-performing public schools, closely monitoring them and evaluating improvement strategies proposed by school districts.

This is the collaborative’s second look at the New Mexico Public Education Department’s plan to meet requirements under the 2015 federal law. It also took part in a review of the state’s ESSA plan in the summer of 2017.

Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, which worked with Washington, D.C.-based HCM Strategists to compile the new report, said the group so far has reviewed plans by 17 states. Peer groups composed of educators, administrators, policymakers and others from both major political parties took part in both the initial reviews in 2017 and the new report, he said.

Those analysts liked New Mexico’s web-based NM DASH (which stands for data, accountability, sustainability and high achievement), a program that offers a way for district officials to keep track of the progress of schools in need of extra support.

They also approve of the state’s plan for district leaders to come up with their own initiatives to ensure all students are progressing and becoming prepared for college or a career following graduation, Cowen said. Districts can apply for grants to finance turnaround programs. The state will set aside 7 percent of its Title 1 funding — federal dollars for schools serving low-income students — to pay for the grant program.

New Mexico’s ESSA plan identifies schools that need additional support as those that serve a high number of low-income students and fall into the bottom 5 percent in the state when it comes to achievement levels. High schools with a graduation rate of 67 percent or less also are on the list of those targeted to receive extra help.

Districts have three years to improve struggling schools. If they fail, the state can close a school, repurpose it as a charter school or turn its management over to an outside entity.

According to the collaborative’s report, at least 18 schools in the state are in danger of falling into this category.

The report says New Mexico has room for improvement when it comes to ensuring school districts engage parents and other community members in any school turnaround plan.

Former President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law late in 2015. The U.S. Department of Education has approved ESSA plans for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, but new governors taking office in January have the right to request changes.

It is unclear if New Mexico Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham plans any changes. Her transition director, Dominic Gabello, said in an email that “the Governor-elect and her transition team are in the process of reviewing the report, recommendations, and plan as a part of the ongoing transition.”

Under New Mexico’s ESSA plan, its ambitious goals for improving public education include increasing the state’s graduation rate by 14 percentage points by 2022, raising student proficiency rates and ensuring that 66 percent of working-age New Mexicans earn a degree or post-high school credential of some kind by 2030.

New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said in an email that the new report “highlights the Land of Enchantment as having one of the stronger approaches to school turnaround amongst those reviewed. …

“New Mexico should continue to build upon its strong foundation,” he added, “while embodying a mindset of continuous improvement and refinement — that’s the approach and the continuity that our educators, students, and families want.”

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