District picks school for master's program

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Schools> Trustees invest in furthering teacher education

By Tris DeRoma

The Los Alamos Board of Education has decided overwhelmingly in favor of Highlands University for a program designed to increase the number of teachers in the district with a master’s degree.

In funding a master’s program for its teachers, the district is hoping to retain more teachers as well as beef up the “training and experience” factor for the district, which the NM Public Education Department rewards with more funding for the district.

Recently, the district suffered a setback in that funding when seven well-experienced teachers, most with master’s degrees, retired last year, an event that cost the district in not only training, education and experience, but in funding as well.

Instead of replacing the teachers, the board thought it would make greater economic sense to fund a program that would enhance the education and qualifications of teachers within the district and use the later gain in funding to in turn hire more teachers.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Schmidt and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Gerry Washburn presented their plan to the board.

Schmidt said their plan had three goals, increasing teacher effectiveness, retaining and attracting quality teachers and addressing the PED funding issue.

“Gerry has numbers that will show you how many people have master’s degrees, who is eligible to retire and how many are coming up in the system without those things,” Schmidt said. “We need to move quickly, we need to move fast with a recommendation to the board tonight.”

Washburn then presented a detailed comparison of the two master’s programs to the board. Highlights that seemed to persuade the board were the number of partnerships Highlands had with other school districts in the area, whereas UNM’s main partnership was with the Albuquerque Public Schools. Washburn’s presentation also pointed out that Highlands was more willing to include the district’s own staff in teaching the program, as well as provide a real classroom experience rather than through an online connection.

“This is very important, because we feel like there are people in this school district and this community that could become adjunct professors and earn a little extra money,” Schmidt said, adding that there also seems to be a greater interest in the program since it will include a “face-to-face” classroom experience.

Highlands will be more willing to put classroom teachers into those programs as well as using some of our adjunct faculty,” Washburn said.

After the board heard the presentation, board President Jim Hall weighed in.

“First of all, I’m really for this,” Hall said. “I think this is good for the district, I think it’s good for the kids and it is good for the staff. It may cost us some money, but this is the right thing to do.”

He also liked the live instructional part of the program, and the fact that the program is exclusively for LAPS teachers, a factor that he said will probably lead to a greater completion rates. “Being part of a cohort (group) the peer pressure really helps,” he told the board.

Though the board agreed with Hall in a 4-0 vote, the decision wasn’t an easy one as Washburn also pointed out that UNM had a larger selection of master’s degree programs, including ones in the arts.

Board member Dr. Kevin Honnell told the board he considered this, but when he weighed his options carefully, Highlands won out.

“When I was weighing the bricks on the scales to see which way they tipped in my own mind, it wasn’t obvious without a lot of thought,” he said. “When I look at the UNM program I saw that they offered a lot more courses over a broader spectrum… fine arts...I could see how that would appeal to a larger percentage of our teachers, it certainly would offer more opportunity for diversification. Also, if they (teachers) were to go outside of the state, arguably UNM might be better known. When I look at the other side of the scales I looked at the track record. How well and how broadly have these two institutions been successful in other districts.”

Honnell noted that UNM has done considerable work with the Albuquerque Public Schools, while Highlands has partnered with many districts, including Santa Fe, Farmington, Las Vegas, Santa Rosa and several others.

“It’s a pretty good track record,” he said, adding that Highlands also provided live classroom instruction in the districts it partnered with, as well as the school’s willingness in incorporating the school system’s own faculty into the process, combined with other factors such as the cost of the program.

Later, Schmidt congratulated the board for moving quickly on the issue.

“I think the board made a very wise and thoughtful choice,” he said. “I think with the discussions we had with the two universities, Highlands has given us greater flexibility in meeting our local needs. One the biggest local needs was asking whether or not we can set up the cohorts here in town, and who will be teaching them.”