ANDY BROSIG NEWS-SUN
After more than a year of fluctuating numbers, enrollment in the Hobbs Municipal Schools is inching its way back toward pre-pandemic levels.
They’re not there yet, LaShawn Byrd, deputy director for data analysis for the district told the Hobbs Board of Education last week. But the outlook is “definitely positive,” she said.
School districts across the state report “official” enrollment numbers to the New Mexico Public Education Department at 40-, 80-, and 120-days of each school year, as well as a final report at the end of the year. One thing those numbers are used for is to determine state funding for individual districts.
While the 40-day report for HMS showed a decrease of 10 students, the numbers rebounded over the course of the 120-day time period, which ended March 1, Byrd said.
“This year’s average was 9,851” students enrolled in HMS, she said. “That’s an increase of almost 200 in enrollment. That is definitely positive.”
Districts differentiate classifications between enrollment — the actual number of students — and membership, describing in part how districts are funded by the state for individual students based on the amount of services they receive. A pre-kindergarten student, for example, may only count as 0.5 in terms of membership because they’re in class only half a day. A special needs student, by contrast, may count as more than one “member” because, in addition to the typical education services, they receive speech therapy or any of the other services offered by the district, Byrd said.
The average, then, of the 80-day and 120-counts for the 2020-21 school year was 9,683 students enrolled with an equivalence in membership of 9,553.5. Those numbers increased for the 2021-22 school year to 9,851 students enrolled with membership of 9,638.5, a difference of 168 students and 86 students, respectively. Comparing 120-day counts both school years resulted in 268 more students enrolled in Hobbs Municipal Schools.
“We have had an influx this reporting period,” Byrd said. “I’ve heard a lot in my office from (campus) secretaries — they’re coming from everywhere; here, there, everywhere. It’s very encouraging that we’re getting kind of over the hump, I think.
Superintendent of Schools Gene Strickland agreed, calling the influx of students returning to Hobbs School “encouraging.
“Yes, we are encouraged to see the students continuing to return,” Strickland said. “In terms of staffing levels, in preparation for that, we did not reduce staff moving into this school year.
“We kept our same staffing that we had, quite honestly, in the 2020 school year,” he said. “We believe we have the capacity to continue to handle these students.”
“They’re still trickling back in, I guess,” Board President Gary Eidson added.
Attendance rates improve
On another positive note, Byrd told the board her department was reporting a decline in chronic absenteeism among students on almost every campus in the district since the start of the current school year.
At the start of the year, the district had an overall 45 percent chronic absentee rate, based on the 40-day attendance numbers, Byrd said. That number had declined 1 percent to 44 percent by the 80-day summary, she told the board.
The number of absences reported decreased again by the 120-day report to 42 percent district-wide, a difference of -1.7 percent from the 80-day numbers.
“In this particular instance, you want negative numbers,” Byrd told the board. “That means the chronic absenteeism rate has gone down — in nearly every case, in nearly every school. That’s actually pretty significant.”
Typically, the absentee rate reported at the 40-day mark changes minimally over the course of a school year, she added. The numbers accumulate in terms of tabulating and reporting absences throughout the course of the year.
“It’ takes a lot of movement to be able to affect that in any significant way,” Byrd said. “I am extremely encouraged that — even though they look like low numbers — those are still a testament to our principals, our teachers, our parents, our attendance liaisons. They’ve all worked very hard to get students to come to school every day.”
Strickland agreed, saying he believes the numbers indicate the district is “headed in the right direction.
“The longer we’re here, the more consistently students feel (comfortable) coming to school, the more parents are comfortable sending them to school,” he said.
Strickland noted reducing absenteeism within a district was made more difficult by the state Legislature adopting the so-called Attendance for Success Act two years ago. Designed to do just that, the law actually put new challenges for districts in place by removing most of the stipulations allowing for excused absences, Strickland said. That law, he said, “changed the ballgame.
“Before, when you took your kid out of school and took them to the doctor’s office, for example, that was an excused absence,” Strickland said. “There are no longer excused absences — if you’re out of school, you’re out of school.”
Board member Patricia Jones responded, asking Strickland what the “common-sense reasoning” behind that provision of the act was. Strickland replied he could offer no clear reason behind the Legislature’s and NMPED’s actions on the bill.
“I think it sends the message the onus is 100 percent on the school district and it’s 100 percent about a number,” Strickland said. “It’s not about taking the child as a child, not about taking the family as a family, and recognizing and respecting there are dynamics at play that, quite honestly, they’re just not going to be at school.”
He illustrated his point, talking about visiting the New Mexico Junior College campus recently, seeing families he knew are part of the Hobbs district going to the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum during a school day. The Attendance for Success Act doesn’t take into account the educational value available at the museum, Strickland said.
“While they’re counted as absent that day, they got an opportunity to enrich their life and provide themselves and education in that museum setting,” he said. “Even though it’s counted as an unexcused absence. Or an absence.
“I think the intent (of the act) was to place the importance on instruction and being in front of the teacher during that period of time,” Strickland said. “I think what it did was it lost the human factor of really providing the opportunity and support for that whole child.”
Andy Brosig may be reached at email@example.com .