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Science standards meeting fills state hearing room

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By Wren Propp

Hundreds appeared Monday in Santa Fe for the single public hearing scheduled to comment on controversial science standards proposed by the state’s Public Education Department.

Throughout the morning, no one spoke in favor of PED’s proposal, many saying the department’s rewritten version of the national Next Generation Science Standards, known as Next Gen, were politically motivated.

The hearing was overseen by Kimberly Ulibarri, a PED hearing officer. Monday was the last day to submit comments.

Two Los Alamos schools officials, Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus and board member Andrea Cunningham, had signed up to speak, but due to a lengthy interruption from a false fire alarm and problems managing the hearing’s sign-in sheets, the two didn’t speak. A second board member was called on to speak.

Next Gen science standards were developed in 2013 by a consortium of 26 states, including people in New Mexico, and other organizations, such as National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Research Council.

Changes made at PED include replacing references to climate change with “temperature fluctuations,” removes mention of the earth’s age as 4.8 billion years, and tweaks instruction on evolution.

If adopted by the PED, the new science standards would go into effect July 2018. Acquiring instructional materials and developing lesson plans – implementing the science standards – would need to take place in the coming months.

Attendees and commenters included scientists, educators and school officials, young students, academics, a rabbi, a Franciscan nun, and a politician or two.

Audience members clapped and cheered after every statement.

The Los Alamos school board had passed a resolution a few weeks ago, urging adoption of Next Gen without the PED revisions.

Comments throughout the morning emphasized that adopting PED’s version – instead of an unchanged Next Gen – would leave New Mexico’s children ignorant and its educational system a laughing stock.

“I ask it for the students who may not be heard today. Please adopt the national standards, not the one that has been remediated, not the one that codifies a belief system,” said Gwen Perea Warniment, director of kindergarten through 12th-grade programs at the LANL Foundation.

Calling one of the standards “propaganda for the oil and gas industry,” Los Alamos school board member Ellen Ben-Naim testified that renewable energy sources in New Mexico were ignored by the PED’s proposal.

She noted that PED and its secretary designate Christopher Ruszkowski, who wasn’t at the hearing, appeared to have ignored vetting requirements of instructional materials.

Barranca Elementary science and social studies teacher Samantha Waidler waited throughout the morning, and following a hall-clearing fire alarm that delayed the hearing about 40 minutes, she had been “waiting and watching” for new science standards for her students. Science standards were updated in New Mexico, in 2003, with some additions made in 2009.

“We need to move from the past into the future,” she said.

Will Fischer, who identified himself as a scientist as Los Alamos National Laboratory, said students deserve explanations.

“Kids need to know how we know these things…The point of the scientific method is that you don’t fool yourself,” Fischer said.

Carlos Santistevan, chairman of the science department at the Santa Fe Indian School, said that none of the 19 pueblos were consulted, despite the secretary-designate’s claim that he had spoken to constituents throughout New Mexico.

Noting that members of northern pueblos have suffered through wildfires and mountain flooding due to burn scars – symptoms of climate change.

“They were not at any time asked for input,” he said.

The hearing was interrupted by the fire alarm, after which attendees were ordered to leave the building. After the alarms were shut off, some of the attendees were allowed back inside, but the doors were closed again after Mabry Hall filled up. Several were left to wait outside.

Inside, the hearing officer called out names from several sign-in sheets, but many of the names she called out didn’t respond. Some audience members said the people whose names were called were outside. PED officials said they were also calling out the names outside.

Cunningham said after the hearing that she had signed up to speak before her fellow board member, Ben-Naim, arrived, but Ben-Naim was called before her. She had to leave to attend a Los Alamos school board meeting at 1 p.m., before her name was called. While she was relieved that her fellow board member had a chance to speak, she called the Santa Fe hearing “a travesty.”

What would she have said?

“I’m concerned that the extensive public comments, especially for our students, will not be taken into consideration by PED,” Cunningham said.