Several presentations were heard on Thursday morning

By Mary Alice Murphy

The New Mexico Legislative Education Study Committee met in Silver City this morning, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, at the Western New Mexico University J. Cloyd Miller Library. The sessions continued in the afternoon and will resume Friday morning.

Bruce Ashburn, Grant County Prospectors' president, welcomed back those legislators who have attended prior committee meetings in Silver City and welcomed those for whom it was a first visit. "This is the third time we have hosted a legislative interim committee meeting this year. We hope you will take time to visit our downtown." He explained the mission of the Prospectors.

"We thank you for choosing Silver City for your meeting," Ashburn concluded.

Frances Vasquez, Silver Consolidated Schools Board president, said she was pleased to have the legislators in Silver City. "We are passionate about education and about free education for all. The Silver Consolidated School District was the first district formed in the state. Silver City was looking to secede to Arizona because the town supported free education, but some of those in state control did not."

"We also have the oldest school in New Mexico," Vasquez continued. "What is Sixth Street Elementary is 133 years old. The buildings have come and gone, but a school has remained at the same site. It started as a Catholic convent and then a Catholic school. Silver City was incorporated in 1882 with a charter.

"We are depending on you to lead the fight to support education in the great state of New Mexico with our taxpayer dollars," she said. "We know all decisions will be decided at the ballot box, for those we choose for local, state and federal offices."

Ralph Sepulveda, Cobre Schools Board president, also welcomed the legislators. "We have a lot of history here in the county. We hope you have time to visit our historical sites."

He laughed and said everyone calls him "'Toy.' If you talked about Ralph they wouldn't know whom you were taking about. Thank you for choosing to come here. We appreciate everything you do for us."

Committee Chairman Dennis J. Roch invited the legislators to introduce themselves. He also recognized the WNMU student government representatives in the audience, who had told him they were attending to learn how public meetings, such as this one, work.

Frances Gonzales of Bayard spoke briefly to promote the Walk for the Heroes on Saturday, Sept. 26, to raise money for local veterans.

The first presentation of the day was WNMU: Strategic Initiatives for Remediation, presented by WNMU President Joseph Shepard.

"It's so nice to have you come down," Shepard began. "I want to talk about remediation. Even though I am the university president, I continue to teach. Each fall, I teach remedial math to incoming freshmen.

"Here are some facts about what's happening when students reach our level," Shepard continued. "We are an open access university, which means students are not required to take the ACT or SAT for admission. They need only to have graduated from high school or have what used to be called a GED. We have community college characteristics, with many first generation college students. Imagine if you want to go to college, but you lack family support. Also we have non-traditional students. One out of two of our students is older than 24. The average age for Western is 28. So we have a bi-modal population, with traditional students coming out of high school and non-traditional students coming back to school closer to the age of 35 or 36.

"Seventy-one percent of our entering freshmen in 2014 had to take remedial math," he said. "Three out of five students have to take some level of remediation, with 17 percent needing remediation in reading and 37 percent needing remediation in writing. With math, it means three out of five students are not completing fifth grade math, not knowing fractions. That means for the next seven years of their education, they were forgotten."

He noted that students from places other than New Mexico tend to get through remediation faster. He said remediation could add a maximum extra 15 credit hours to the 120 credit-hour degree.

"These students have the highest likelihood of dropping out or not graduating," Shepard said. "In this year's graduating class, 30 percent of them had moved through remediation.

"I offer a solution," he continued. "I encourage you to look at birth through 20, also called P to 20. We have to create a unified system from birth. It's about economic development, about that sense of being educated.

"We are trying Learning Education Expectation, where students get to take the classes they want to," Shepard said. "If they happen to test into the three remediation classes, we put them into a block of time. Math, reading and writing professors are working together and with a computer scientist to get the students through remediation. Seventy-one percent continue going through the remediation. Our university has an overall 52 percent retention rate. We have put tutors in the class, and the students and tutors can get together afterward and work to tie the class into other courses. We provide the opportunity to co-take courses to complete a degree. In college, you want to get to the core curriculum. We need to work together to hold each other accountable."

Sen. Mimi Stewart said the topic was something she had been interested in for several years. "Have you heard of Complete College America?"

Shepard said he had. Stewart continued saying she has been interested in using the model, because remediation is a nationwide issue. She said in Massachusetts, even though it has the highest test scores, about 40 percent of students need remediation.

"Complete College America has after-class tutoring, has support for the students, a lot of what you're doing," Stewart said. "I think there is a disconnect between high school and college all over the country.

"But teachers came from those universities," Stewart pointed out, "so we can blame them. We have to teach them how to teach after they graduate. We need to look at the entire circle of issues and move away from the blame game. I know that Highlands is doing Complete College America."

"We need to continue to enhance the colleges of education," Shepard said. "I taught fifth-grade math in Mexico. We need to hold our schools of education accountable. The test to become certified to teach is at the eighth-grade level."

Vice chairman John M. Sapien said he went to several Complete College America conferences. "You explained the direction you are taking. You know the challenges. Students get frustrated, take out student loans, and in two years, they are still not in their core curriculum. Talk to me about the differences versus the co-requisite direction you are taking."

"We create a block of time, where the student is not just taking remedial courses, but say at 8 a.m., they are taking the remedial course in math skills, which ties into their 10:30 computer class. We combine in the remedial with the regular classes, so they are taking college level algebra, and getting the enhanced version so they can succeed. Indeed, Complete College America has good data on co-requisite. We're trying to go further. If a student needs remediation in math, reading and writing, we are tying them together."

"Compliments to Western, if you have the same data as Complete College America," Sapien said. "Explain to me your vision for 50 percent retention, because that means that 50 percent are leaving. Where do you find the low-hanging fruit to lower the drop out numbers?"

"Sometimes students transfer to another college," Shepard said. "We don't track that. You will see a lower retention rate for open access universities, because sometimes, they leave after a year or two to go to other schools. What I call the stop outs start here and choose not to continue anywhere else.

"Think of a first-generation college student," he said. "My wife and I are both educated, our daughter is highly educated, but I, with the Ph.D., had problems with all the paperwork that was required to get her into the graduate program at Stanford. We have to reach out to the first generation student. One of my remediation students had trouble with financial aid. I have contacts and I helped her."

"You had me at hello for the birth to 20 idea," Sapien said. "We have to concentrate on the 0-3 years of age. They have the P-20 concept at Complete College America. The states that implement P-20 have the best success. In New Mexico, we allow institutions to run their own shows.

"I have an issue with the lottery scholarship," Sapien said. "Only 30 percent of students stay into their sophomore year. We've screwed the juniors and seniors, because we've cut funding to them to allow the scholarships for incoming freshmen."

Sen. Howie Morales said he wanted to touch on a couple of things. "Has the university moved away from the ACT for acceptance?"

Shepard said the university uses ACT Compass, as it is more accurate.

According to its website, ACT Compass is an untimed, computerized test that helps a college evaluate incoming students' skills to place them in appropriate courses. It identifies strong areas and areas in which the student may need help. Most universities give it during orientation to incoming freshmen.

"We have discussions on excessive testing," Morales said. "To me, the major problem is teacher shortage. What is Western doing to address the biggest threat to education, which is not having enough teachers?"

"We continue to raise our standards," Shepard said. "The danger of teacher shortage is a matter of quality, not quantity. You can produce teachers with an eighth-grade knowledge, but how about a higher level? We work to get the teachers into the classroom early, which provides us the opportunity to see their skill sets and for them to decide if it's what they want to do. We analyze each individual. We help them work on their skill sets. On one hand, we want P-20, but what if we over-regulate? My wife, who teaches Spanish at Cobre, laments that over-regulation limits her being an effective teacher. We have to develop school leadership."

"I am biased, I admit," Morales said. "But my concern, when you talk about raising standards, is how to attract the best and brightest teachers at $34,000 for a starting teacher. That is a concern. We talk about law enforcement, but we don't talk about regulating the academies. We talk about doctors, but we don't talk about regulating the medical schools. I hear we are behind other states and the rest of the world. Where have we gone wrong?"

"Quality is not about raising standards," Shepard said. "My wife, who is from Mexico, brings the element of culture to her teaching of Spanish. We're taking some teachers from remediation, because some of them make the best teachers because of their experiences.

"I'm an advocate of what gets produced out," he continued. "They say China is better, but if you take 1 percent of 1 percent of the country's 1.3 billion Chinese, that's 130,000. By sheer numbers, they are better. Why is China sending them to the U.S.? Because we have creativity and the right to think. Is our system broken? I don't think so. Can we improve? Absolutely. We need to work together."

Rep. Tomás Salazar said he believes "we need to work together, but not necessarily with more bureaucracy. I think the universities need autonomy. Every state has different things. I came to New Mexico because I like the autonomy of government. We need to understand the richness of each university. We need to provide community colleges plus full universities. I am not a proponent of single governance (with one board of regents over all the universities). But we need to do a better job of interacting. Our universities are doing well, but we are not doing as good with the Higher Education Department."

He said he thinks what will serve the nation well is the need to have a workforce that can handle math and technology. "Highlands once had a master's degree in math, but no longer, and it has fewer graduates in math. That is an issue we all need to talk about. Sometimes we set policy without determining the unintended consequences."

Rep. John Zimmerman said he dropped out of high school. "But I had a mentor and went on to become an engineer. I think what you are doing with coaching individual students is tremendous. I think a lot of students can be left by the wayside. If they are coached up, they can succeed."

Roch said he was surprised at Shepard's comment about the teacher assessment being at the eighth-grade level, "I think for high school the assessment is higher."

Shepard said Roch was correct, and that he had been talking about elementary teachers. "For high school, the teacher has to have specialized testing."

Roch said he had a concern about students graduating from high school with a fifth-grade level of math. "What about the assessment requirement to graduate? How are they earning their diplomas?"

"It doesn't reconcile for me, either," Shepard said, "but I can tell you I have a class with only knowledge of fractions and division. There is a disconnect."

"There is a temptation to point fingers," Roch said. "To what extent are higher education institutions tracking back to the high schools where the students come from to enhance their programs?"

"That level of tracking is not as robust," Shepard said. "That is a low-hanging fruit."

"It is a required mirror, and without it, it does a disservice to students," Roch said.

"We are willing to be a partner in doing the tracking," Shepard said.

Stewart asked: "Didn't you say the average age is 28? Maybe they have forgotten their math skills?"

"That could be, but out of my 20 students, only four are non-traditional," Shepard said. "We can do better with traditional students if we go back to the high schools and work with them."

The next article will cover what the new dean of the New Mexico State University College of Education had to say. He has some major goals in mind.

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