Public forum illuminates education issues

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Schools> Teachers urged to find their voice

By Tris DeRoma

SANTA FE ­— “Keep the Promise for New Mexico’s Future” hosted its latest public forum in Santa Fe Wednesday at Capital High School, getting those who attended to give their opinions on any issue related to the state’s public schools.

According to the organization’s website at promisefornewmexico.org, Keep the Promise is a loose coalition of organizations and businesses, including the American Federation of Teachers, Families United for Education, Working Parents Association, National Education Association, the New Mexico Alliance for Retired Americans and others.

Pat Davis, the moderator of Wednesday’s event, said the data and opinions collected eventually will find their way into a report that will be presented to the state legislature and the New Mexico Department of Education. Davis also said that Los Alamos residents who couldn’t attend Wednesday’s meeting could still have their opinions count by contacting the organization through its Facebook page at facebook.com/promisefornm.

Keep the Promise’s forum tour across the state will wrap up with a televised event Dec. 1.

“We invite you all to join us on the first of December, live on PBS, KNME out of Albuquerque for a statewide, televised town hall providing our perspective, your perspective and others on what we can do to create a positive community-driven vision for education in New Mexico,” Davis said at the meeting.

At Wednesday’s event, audience members could text in their questions and opinions through cell phones or through devices provided by Keep the Promise. They could also write down their questions and opinions on index cards provided before the event.

Wednesday’s discussion panel included Kersti Tyson, a University of New Mexico assistant professor who specializes in teaching teachers; Bernice Garcia Baca, a school counselor; Stephani Grant, a parent; Randy Mondragon, a school bus driver for Santa Fe schools and Ryan Ross, a teacher from the Los Alamos Public School System who teaches fifth and sixth grade science and math.

Topics covered at the meeting included everything from the new teacher evaluation system to how poverty affects education. Davis also gave his perspective on what other people have been talking about at the other forum events. Those issues included restrictions on curriculum, poverty, food, attendance levels, and teacher salaries.

Keep the Promise has also been taking polls on other key issues.

“Sixty eight percent of people who participated indicated what we need is greater support for student services in our schools… Sixty five percent of participants said our students are undergoing too much standardized testing and 94 percent of our participants thought the schools should devote more attention to problem solving.”

Grant said one of the challenges she thinks schools are facing is keeping the public education experience enjoyable for kids.

“As a parent, as the years were going by, I noted that the simple joy of going to school and the experience of learning was dropping dramatically,” she said. “I felt like that was because we were trying to put students in a box and trying to teach them all the same thing, so they became like little robots walking down the hallway. There’s no organic joy in learning.”

One of the first questions asked involved the panel’s vision for a “perfect” public school.

“I think one of the things I see as I’m taking them into to school is that they start to communicate with each other,” Mondragon said. “They start to see how life is... Consult friends and teachers as they prepare themselves for life.”

Another issue was teacher morale, a question Davis specifically asked Ross about.

“The big thing is morale,” Ross said. “Morale is diminishing by the day because of all the onerous regulations that are placed on teachers. They want to do what’s best for the students. They want to provide a creative learning environment where the kids feel inspired. If the teacher doesn’t feel inspired, then it’s going to be hard to inspire the kids.”

Ross also spoke in detail about what goes on when the kids go home. “The paperwork and the load that is being put on teachers is breaking them down,” he said. “We’re having a hard time just keeping up with all the rules and regulations, and trying to do what is our main directive, which is to teach and inspire the children.”

Another question was how class size affects a student’s ability to learn, a question that was put to Tyson.
“One of the things that I study is how children and teachers listen to each other, and how that matters when it comes to learning,” she said. “Teachers need to be able to listen to children, as much as children need to be able to listen to teachers. That’s where you get the information on how the child is doing. That’s where you get the information on say, how a child learns math. What does this child understand about this kind of math problem?

That’s where you get the ideas on where to move your curriculum. And so, the larger the class size, the harder it is to be able to listen to each child as an individual.”

In the audience was Ellen Mills, the president of the Los Alamos Federation of School Employees. She said she thought the event was very well organized and focused on obtaining information.

“I think they’re using the right approach because they are reaching out to the various parts of New Mexico in their effort to get public input on where to go,” she said.

Ross said he was glad to participate in the panel discussion. He also said that other members of the community, not just teachers, should get involved in the discussion about what direction public education should go.

“We need to get our community involved, because everybody is affected by education, so everybody needs to take the time to get involved and figure out what direction they want our system to go,” he said.