Education secretary greets 'immense challenge' with optimism

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A new Cabinet secretary and the public face of efforts to overhaul New Mexico's troubled public education system said Monday that he sees unprecedented opportunity to improve schools and end a teacher shortage across the state, amid an overhaul of student testing, teacher evaluations and school ratings.

In his fifth active day on the job, Secretary Ryan Stewart said he already has traveled to an ethnically diverse school district on the U.S.-Mexico border as he takes the reins of a public education system that is under court order to show improvement, especially when it comes to opportunities for poor and minority students.

"The moment is really unprecedented in a really positive way in that you get to match these immense needs with immense resources," said Stewart, referring to a surge in state funding tied to record-setting oil and natural gas production. "You see a lot of people who are very optimistic about the direction the state's going. I really look forward to being able to harness that. I don't think you get that opportunity very much."

First-year Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham selected Stewart last month after dismissing the administration's first education secretary, Karen Trujillo, and seeking a "vibrant and ambitious new leader."

Stewart, a former middle-school math teacher who once directed innovation efforts at Philadelphia's main public school district, said he took the secretary job based on "the notion that the education system needs to serve all of the kids that are furthest from success."

A major decision already looms as the Public Education Department chooses from contract proposals on a new testing system to gauge student academic achievement.

Stewart said the next student tests should help teachers respond to each pupil's needs.

"If I'm in the classroom, I want to know where are each of my students, what are their successes, what are their challenges and then what's the next step," he said. "I want the assessment system to be responsive to that."

That's just one part of what Stewart envisions as a new, robust "educator ecosystem."

State lawmakers this year responded to a court order for greater educational resources by increasing annual spending on K-12 public education by roughly 16% to $3.2 billion this fiscal year — or nearly half of general fund spending. Attorneys for dissatisfied parents and school districts that previously sued the state say much of the new money is going to overdue raises, leaving little specifically to help at-risk students.

The state also increased funding for starting teacher salaries by as much as 12% on July 1. But teacher shortages persist.

Ron Hendrix, the superintendent of Socorro Consolidated Schools, says his district has hired 11 teachers from the Philippines on temporary work visas to fill fall vacancies. And he describes the waiting period for the state's new teacher evaluation system as "a little scary."

"They've scrapped the accountability piece for the evaluation of teachers, and they don't hold them responsible for attendance right now or for student achievement," Hendrix said.

Stewart says he'll be responsible for getting resources to where they're needed to help students. That includes two newly financed initiatives to extend the school calendars and annual teaching time — voluntary programs that some schools have passed up.

"I'm already hearing anecdotally that there is going to be a lot more people who are going to participate" in the coming year, Stewart said. "We've gotten a lot of really strong feedback."


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