Public Education Department still looking for 12,000 ‘disengaged’ students

Public Education Department still looking for 12,000 ‘disengaged’ students

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been three weeks since education officials announced plans to find more than 12,000 students but the number of so-called missing kids remains high.

Last month, the state’s Public Education Department (PED) said they would be mailing letters to families to see what’s going on with their students, but those mailers didn’t go out until early December.

As of Tuesday, the state has only received 25 responses.   

Still, officials are optimistic this is the right approach to get kids back into school.

“We know some families have moved out of state, and they’re updating us on that right now,” said Rebekah Richards, chief academic officer with Graduation Alliance, a group the state is working with to kids back into school.

“We also know some families are choosing different modes of learning – whether that’s home school or private school, and we just need to update their records,” she added.

Officials also believe some kids may have been pulled out of school by their families for other reasons.

“For other families, they may have made some very difficult decisions about their children’s education as they’re trying to balance complex issues in their lives and what we want to communicate with those families is that we’re here to help them,” said Richards.

The state said they hope to get additional responses in the coming weeks and will follow up with a targeted approach using other state agencies like CYFD.

State Rep. Rebecca Dow, a Republican, told KOB 4 she’s worried that the 12,000 kids aren’t just missing school.

“At the very least, they’re getting no education,” she said.

“In the worst case scenario, their lives can be at risk or forever harmed by abuse and neglect,” Dow added.

Dow also criticized the state for taking months to send the letters out when each district’s attendance gets reported to the state in October, on the 40th day of the school year.

A spokesperson for PED said the department has to validate the data for almost 900 schools from across the state.

“Once confirmed, our outreach and intervention efforts will be robust and swiftly implemented, beginning with the letters, followed up by individual phone calls, district and tribal collaboration, and additional communication from our partners at ECECD, HSD, and CYFD, with the aim of locating each student, ensuring their well-being, clarifying their intent to remain enrolled, and offering differentiated support to re-engage them with their local school,” said the spokesperson.

Meantime, Democratic state Rep. Andrés Romero said he thinks the letters are a good way to get control of the situation.

He told KOB 4 he hopes to have the state and districts work together in finding the kids.

“Truly, the role of the state is to make sure the infrastructure is there in order to have these conversations, understand what the situation of these families are and be able to help and remedy to really get our students back into our virtual classrooms,” he said.

One child advocacy group, NewMexicoKidsCAN, said the districts and the state should have acted faster.

“Sure. PED didn’t know how many kids were unaccounted for until the 40th day, technically, but every school and every school district should have known since that first week of school, second week of school, a month into school – these kids aren’t showing up,” said Amanda Aragon, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“We can’t contact them so there was no need to wait until mid-December to say ‘oh my gosh’ we got a problem here,” she added.

Aragon said it’s unclear what’s going on with the missing students.

“Some of these kids are probably not logging in, not reaching out to the district because their parents are homeschooling them," she said.

However, she is also concerned that the kids could be in some kind of danger.

“But what keeps me up at night is which of these kids is actually in harm’s way because we lost daily contact with them,” she said.

“Usually, in-person, when school is normal, we know when there’s a problem, we can alert authorities, we can call CYFD. In this scenario we have 12,000 kids that have not had any contact with their school in at least this academic year,” Aragon added.

When asked about the state’s plan to find the missing students, a spokesperson for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham referred the questions to PED.

A spokesperson for PED sent a statement from Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart:

"PED and our partners are working quickly and diligently to check on the status of 12,000-plus New Mexico students who were enrolled last spring but are not this fall.

PED partnered last spring with the Graduation Alliance to provide coaching and guidance to individual students, and they’ve done that work ably. When we got 40-day attendance numbers this fall, it was clear we needed additional help, so we quickly assembled a cross-agency team to tackle the problem.

We are grateful for the assistance of the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department and the Indian Affairs Department in this important work.

Our coalition faced numerous obstacles, the first being how to find the unenrolled students. At PED, we had only student addresses. But our sister agencies cross-checked their databases with ours – a process that is still under way and producing fuller and updated contact information."

The planning phase moved into the action phase last week when the Graduation Alliance mailed a letter to every one of the 12,000-plus disengaged students. Those letters were only received late last week, so we were delighted to begin receiving our first responses Monday, with more coming in today; we expect many more over the next couple of weeks.

This work will continue to evolve until we are sure that every New Mexico child is safe and receiving the education our state promises.

Parents interested in re-enrolling their students using a free program through the state to get their kids back on track can call 505-219-2661. They can also sign up for the program at the website ParentsNM.GraduationAlliance.com.

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