Teachers, staff protest against policy changes

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Valencia County teachers and their supporters took their opposition curbside last week against state-mandated education policy changes as part of “Take It Back” rallies across New Mexico.

The National Educators Association and several other education unions organized the one-day event in opposition to policy changes mandated by New Mexico Public Education Department.

Barron Jones-News-Bulletin photo: Parent Robyn Robinson, school counselor Jessica Castillo, teacher Carolyn Serafin Abeyta and student Josh Bussell rally outside of Belen Consolidated Schools Central office last week in a rally against over-testing that disrupts the educational process.

Teachers, students, parents and support staff gathered outside of the Belen Consolidated School District administration office and Peralta Elementary School on Nov. 20, holding signs and chanting slogans that belied their frustration with a new teacher evaluation system they say cheat students and punish educators.

The teachers say too many standardized tests are interfering with their creativity and students’ ability to make classroom progress. They say the test-heavy curriculum forces educators to adopt a teaching style that favors good test scores over engaged learning.

“My son is in elementary school, and he doesn’t get science or social studies hands-on education anymore. Their focus is math, reading and writing,” said Belen High School science teacher Chelsey Servantes.

“To get them when they are young is such an amazing thing because they have such imagination, and to teach them science while they have so much imagination is amazing,” Servantes said.

Much of the conflict stems from education department policy changes that base 50 percent of teacher performance evaluation on students’ test scores — a measure Belen High School secretary Kathryn Jourdan calls short-sighted and unrealistic because it fails to consider a student’s home life.

“We need an evaluation system to get rid of bad teachers, but this evaluation can get rid of good teachers, too,” she said.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Peralta Elementary School nurse Roberta Newton, left, and Ronita Wood, right, a physical education teacher, demonstrated in front of the school last week in support of teachers all over the state rallying against new school reforms.

“Just because kids can’t test — are they hungry? Just because our socioeconomic system here in the country isn’t the greatest in the world doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to teach our kids,” Jourdan added.

She decided to speak up because she wants her four grandchildren, daughter and son-in-law, all teachers, to be the best teachers they can be and give the best education possible.

During the 2013 legislative session, both houses passed a teacher evaluation measure, but Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed the legislation. The measure would limit the amount of a teacher evaluation based on student test scores to 20 percent.

Teachers aren’t the only ones concerned about evaluations.

Belen Federation of School Employee Union President Rhonda Law said her group of non-certified education professionals are protesting alongside the teachers not only to show support, but to ward off future talk of evaluating school employees, such as secretaries and teachers assistants.

“The education assistant is the next to be evaluated. The evaluations will affect all of our employees — lowest to the highest,” Law said.

“Our superintendant is going to be affected if our classes don’t get good grades,” she concluded.

Sen. Michael Sanchez (D-Valencia) and his wife, Lynn, a retired Dennis Chavez Elementary School teacher and the district’s Teacher of the Year last year, hoisted signs and joined the protesters to speak out against a system they say gives very little consideration to the ones that matter most — the students.

“We have such a special group of teachers in Valencia County, not only in the Belen School system but also in the Los Lunas school district, and I support them 199 percent,” Michael Sanchez said.

“We are going to be working on their behalf because if we work on their behalf — then they are taking care of the students and that’s what’s most important,” he said of the upcoming legislative session.

Educators in Los Lunas also joined the statewide protest.

Los Lunas teachers and students demonstrated in front of Peralta Elementary School, rallying against policy changes they feel are destructive to the education process.

Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera implemented the new teacher evaluation system based on input from an advisory council.

The evaluation system came at the same time school officials and teachers are implementing new high school graduation requirements and Common Core State Standards to standardize educational content nationwide.

These reform measures stem from the No Child Left Behind waiver the state received almost two years ago.

Graduation requirements include new end-of-course exams. Some of the protesters were students holding signs that read, “I am not a test score.”

“We spend a tremendous amount of time just testing. It’s crazy,” said Laurie Gutierrez, a Peralta Elementary School teacher. “They don’t realize how much time it’s taking away from teaching.”

Teachers and students are frustrated and stressed out, says Anna Miller, a Bosque Farms Elementary School teacher.

“It takes the joy out of teaching,” Miller said. “Teachers are working, sometimes 80 hours a week to keep up.”

A complaint from teachers is that education department officials are asking more and more and giving them less and less time to do it in.

“We love teaching, but they’re driving us away,” said Gutierrez.

A couple of the educators said their college-age children who were following in their footsteps are bailing out on education degrees, or taking jobs in other fields.

Fifty percent of the teacher evaluation system is based on student progress measured by their test scores. Another 25 percent is based on classroom observation of teacher effectiveness by school principals, and another 25 percent of the evaluation is based on multiple measures.

These can be professionalism, team cooperation, and include analysis of lesson planning. Teachers must take time out of their day to download their lesson plans for the evaluations.

“They’re evaluating on things that often have nothing to do with teaching,” said Valencia High School teacher Sandy Johnson. “It’s something that no teacher has had a hand in; they haven’t asked us a thing about how we can improve — nothing like that.”

Teachers said they don’t have a problem with being evaluated: they have always been evaluated by their principals, but the new system is disconnected from the realities in the classroom.

“We’re hard-working people for what we get, and it’s littler and littler every year,” said Miller. “But we work hard and we need support from parents and people that know what’s going on — not Hanna Skandera.

“She has never been an educator. She doesn’t know,” Miller continued. “She’s demanding things that don’t belong in education at all.”

Time for teaching and preparing lessons is shrinking, or has been cut altogether, they say.

“I take home baskets of work every day,” said Gutierrez. “I have no life at home because my job is so important to me that I keep doing what they keep asking me to do in spite of it.”