District officials ponder master’s program

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By Tris DeRoma

In an effort to increase the number of teachers with master’s degrees in the school system, the Los Alamos Board of Education is thinking about starting an exclusive partnership with either Highlands University or the University of New Mexico.

The subject came up during a planning session the board conducted Thursday.

“We had two very nice conversations, one with Highlands, and the other with the University of New Mexico, on what they could provide if we were to contract a master’s degree cohort, Superintendent Gene Schmidt said.

Schmidt also noted that both programs would allow the teachers to take up to six credits before being officially accepted in to the master’s degree program.

According to Schmidt, there is a significant cost difference between the two programs.

“That different cost is potentially important, because the conversation we would like to have is, ‘how could the district fully fund a master’s degree program for our staff,” he said, noting that the Highland program would cost around $234 a credit while UNM’s program would cost approximately $420. Both programs would contain 37 credits.

“Over the next three to five years, we’re thinking about having more than a hundred teachers go through the program,” Schmidt told the board.

Schmidt said that the Los Alamos National Laboratory would be interested in helping with the funding, in the form of a $10,000 startup grant from its Community Programs Office Math and Science Program. He also mentioned other state and local funds in the range of $10,000 to $40,000 the district can utilize immediately as well, as nine teachers that have already indicated they wanted to get into the program.

“We could put those first nine people into the program this fall, we do have the startup money to do that. It’s just a matter of which program we want to try,” he said.

Differences include Highland’s program consisting of a complete “face-to-face” classroom experience where UNM would at first start off with an online experience with the option of a hybrid online, face-to-face experience later.

Specialized master’s degree programs would run the gamut from math to administration Schmidt said, as both programs would start off with a main group. As the core curriculum came to a close, teachers interested in certain specialties would then be able to pursue them.

While the board as a whole thought it was a good idea, some members expressed concerns that teachers could then use the program as a stepping stone to take their skills somewhere else.

“I think we should definitely pursue helping people get their master’s degrees,” said Vice Chair Judy Bjarke-McKenzie. “I know there is some concern that if we help them get their degrees then they would leave the district on our dime, but I think we could put in the provision that they stay in the district two or three years.”

Board member David Foster also liked the idea but also said the district should make it a requirement that whichever university decide to partner with should be willing to provide an on-site classroom.“The logistics are extremely important,” he said. “The typical teacher is very busy, and particularly if you’re living a long way from Las Cruces, Albuquerque even Las Vegas, it’s a real inhibitor to getting into the program and then sticking to it if you have to be driving back and forth. It seems to me that regardless of which university it is, they agree to send staff out here.”

According to Schmidt, UNM has its graduate program at the UNM-LA campus (the program is not a part of UNM-LA) and Highlands indicated they would be willing to have a classroom on-site.

Board member Dr. Kevin Honnell also had some questions, too. Though he knew the master’s program was not a part of UNM-LA, he wanted to know if UNM-LA, who the town and school district has many educational partnerships with, would benefit in any way if LAPS decided to go with UNM.

Schmidt said yes, in that it would show that UNM-LA, which is asking Los Alamos residents to vote for a 2-mil levy increase in September to help support and expand the school, is helping residents achieve their educational goals.

Honnell also suggested that perhaps the district should pay two thirds of the program and have participants pick up a third, and at the end, the district pays that third as an incentive for completing the program.

“That way, if you complete the program, it’s free. If you want to just try it out, it comes at a deeply discounted price. It might discourage people who aren’t really serious or really thought it out if they could stick with the program for this many years,” he said. “After all, part of the benefit of this is trying to increase our training and experience and our funding levels. We are only going to achieve that if we pile up credits or get a degree out of it.”

Schmidt remarked that they lost about $600,000 in training and experience from the state with the recent retirement of 51 teachers and staff, and said if they went through with the program, they’d be able to gain most of that back.

“You’re talking about a program that’s going to cost about $300,000, and at the end we are going to get back about $600,000 from the state if the teachers stay within the district.”

Board president Jim Hall then urged the administration to come back to the board with definitive data and answers to their questions.

“I would urge the administration to bring something to us as soon as possible; let’s get this thing going,” he said.