SANTA FE – New Mexico’s top education official during the pandemic headed into his final hours in Santa Fe, saying the open-air classrooms could have allowed for more in-person teaching when the schools were closed last year and could be essential in addressing parental hiding issues.
Education Secretary Ryan Stewart’s last day was Friday, two years into his tenure, following his resignation, citing the need to be close to his family as his father faces serious illness.
Earlier this month, Stewart spoke with The Associated Press about the Department of Public Education’s accomplishments under his tenure and what he would have done differently during the pandemic.
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As a former director of educational innovation, first in a Philadelphia school district and then in a nonprofit organization based in the same city, Stewart was brought to New Mexico to bring about sweeping institutional change. .
Prior to the pandemic, he oversaw the elimination of teacher appraisal systems long criticized by Democrats for being punitive in a state struggling with teacher recruitment and retention. His department has also digitized more aspects of the education bureaucracy and launched a new funding system to target poverty at the individual school level.
Most reforms have been blunted, slowed or overshadowed by the urgency and scale of the pandemic, which has left thousands of students isolated, their only education facilitated by paper packages. The true extent of technological deprivation during the pandemic, as well as unfinished or lost learning, has not yet been fully documented.
Stewart said he was pushing for outdoor learning, telling education officials he could fund shade structures, furniture and staff training.
âI insisted on all these calls. I’m like, ‘Hey guys, masks are a big deal in your community. Don’t want to wear them? We will help you. And tell us what you need. Let’s set up an outdoor learning program. Then your children don’t have to wear masks. And they love to be outside, âsaid Stewart.
He said there were no takers among the state superintendents.
School districts with 100 or fewer students have been allowed to remain open, with regular COVID-19 testing.
Some private schools also offered in-person lessons. United World College, a residential high school with around 200 students, has kept the virus under control by isolating itself from the surrounding community. The Santa Fe tutoring school has organized outdoor classes.
Officials at Santa Fe public schools said last year they were ordering shade structures with their own funds as part of an existing outdoor learning plan. But outdoor classes never took place on a large scale.
Stewart urged superintendents to consider the outdoor school again, as parents are blocking children from going to school amid concerns over increased infections and, conversely, protests over masking requirements .
While the pandemic has halted some attempts at innovation, it has spurred others by forcing teachers to catch up with the 20th century.
From Las Cruces to Santa Fe and Farmington, the fall 2020 semester has started with some teachers not having internet at home or their own computers. Some haven’t really used email, let alone video conferencing.
âWe’ve taken everyone to a benchmark levelâ of understanding of messaging, video conferencing and learning management systems, said Stewart.
Many students did not have computers until December or later, lacking direct engagement with teachers throughout the fall semester. Supply chains were strained around the world, with every school ordering laptops around the same time.
In Lovington, a small district in eastern New Mexico, Stewart will be remembered for his role in securing student laptops after a vendor broke promises to deliver them by September .
Yet he recognizes that there were areas where the state could have acted more quickly.
Stewart leaves New Mexico with unfinished business ranging from the country’s lowest educational achievement to a long-standing unresolved lawsuit over the lack of adequate educational opportunities for Indigenous and Hispanic children.
The Department of Public Education continues to challenge a 2018 court ruling that found education in the state did not meet constitutional requirements for up to 80% of children – Native Americans, English learners and those of low-income households.
Stewart says he has developed a plan to deal with the lawsuit, but it will not be released until after he leaves. PED consulted dozens of education and other advocacy groups for the project, but did not include plaintiffs who may ultimately agree to close the case.
Since the case is still pending, Stewart said it complicates efforts to work directly with plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Stewart cited advancements in Native American education, from a radical change in funding for schools in Native communities to increased funding for the teaching of Native languages.
It is possible that Stewart’s greatest contribution to the New Mexico school system is one of the lesser known.
Working with the state’s tax department, education officials have created a new way to target poverty stricken schools by creating a detailed index of family income. Stewart’s innovation was to tap into data his department is not allowed to see – tax returns – and aggregate it by school zone.
With some $ 30 million set aside for 100 schools serving the poorest communities, the pilot project will generate data that the legislature could use to consider expanding the funding formula.
âI am very proud of the Family Income Index. I think this is a really good (example) of state agencies coming together to try to work and solve a problem, âsaid Stewart. “I think we’re going to look back in five years and say (we’re) really happy that we did this and that other states are copying us.”