Scores will be the educators of tomorrow in Santa Fe public schools

July 22 — A retired justice of the peace, accountant and former firefighter could all hit classrooms this fall following a career fair for future educators hosted by Santa Public Schools Fe Wednesday.

Joshua Winkel, who served in the Air Force, worked as a firefighter and taught at community college, was among at least 10 people who left Santa Fe high school with a job offer.

Winkel, who grew up in the area and returned in June, hopes to teach high school students. He holds a master’s degree in business administration and emergency management. But now he’s setting his sights on an alternative license to teach math or science.

He first turned to teaching after health issues forced him to move away from firefighting in Kirtland. He taught fire science at a junior college.

“I think I would start by replacing just to make sure the kids benefit from it, and I appreciate that,” Winkel said. “And then go through the program and see how it goes. I think the replacement is a good place to start.”

Sharon Eklund, who volunteered at Wednesday’s event and is part of the circle of leaders of the Interfaith Coalition for Public Education, knows schools have always struggled to find teachers. But the fight is bigger this year.

“It seems to me that there are very professional candidates who are lining up, especially for [get] alternative license, ”she said.

Eklund and his colleagues support teachers and school volunteers. She said retaining teachers means having fewer children per class. Having a large number of substitutes is also helpful as it allows teachers to pursue professional development opportunities.

“Schools really need substitutes who can free up time for teachers,” she said.

Winkel and others who received offers were interviewed by directors and district administrators at the Toby Roybal Memorial Gymnasium.

Organizers said there was a line at the gate 15 minutes before the event started. Howard Oechsner, District Human Resources Director, said he was pleased with the turnout. He hopes to hire 60 more teachers before the start of the school year on August 6.

“We are going to put a healthy dent in that number,” he said.

The district has already filled 50 teaching positions and has more openings for counselors, assistants, orderlies, maintenance workers, administrative assistants and more. But the goal is to find substitutes with a bachelor’s degree and people interested in obtaining an alternative license to teach in the classroom.

Oechsner said he likely signed more letters of offer for potential substitute teachers than he signed for those who wanted another permit on Wednesday. Those who have received an offer will have 48 hours to accept it and will need to undergo a background check, Oechsner said.

He noted that the contract end date was a week later than last year, and because school starts several days earlier this year, teachers must be back in class a week earlier.

During a recent district town hall on pandemic relief funding, at least one district educator raised concerns that private schools in the area began their hiring process earlier in the year, and that may partly explain why the district has to fill so many positions, near the first day of school.

Oechsner said the higher number of openings this year was likely related to the uncertainty of the pandemic.

According to the state’s Department of Public Education, 9% of teachers in New Mexico were teaching with an alternate license in the 2018-19 school year.

During the 2019-2020 school year, 791 students were admitted to alternative bachelor’s degree programs. These numbers represent an increase, according to the Legislative Education Study Committee, as the traditional teaching workforce continues to decline statewide.

In the traditional course, future teachers obtain a bachelor’s degree in education while studying classroom management and pedagogy. Alternative licenses allow prospective teachers with a bachelor’s degree to be paid to teach while they work to fulfill licensing requirements.

Nationally, the alternative path to licensure tends to lead to a greater diversity of the workforce.

According to a report last year from the Learning Policy Institute titled “Improving Education the New Mexico Way,” 62 percent of students in the state identified as Hispanic, compared to 34 percent of teachers. And while 10 percent of the students identified as Native American, only 3 percent of the teachers were Native.

This report also found that beginning teachers in northern New Mexico who applied for alternate licensure often felt “woefully under-prepared” for the job. The institute previously reported that alternative routes were associated with higher turnover rates.

But Oechsner is not too concerned about the potential for turnover, following pressure from the district for alternatively licensed teachers and substitutes. He hopes pandemic relief funds can help pay for licensing programs in the coming school years.

“We have strong support and mentoring programs that they will all participate in,” he said. “There are all kinds of opportunities for them to get support.”

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