SANTA FE, New Mexico
New Mexico education officials are set to renew a $ 2 million contract for a Utah-based education company to call and text struggling students, usually when are chronically absent from school.
State and school district officials welcome the aid, but have not evaluated the program to see if it has actually reduced absenteeism last year, citing pressures from the pandemic. State officials also allowed the company to avoid a competitive bidding process.
Last year, the New Mexico Department of Public Education urgently awarded the Graduation Alliance a $ 4.6 million contract to quickly deliver what it calls “academic coaching.” Known as the ENGAGE New Mexico program, it aims to increase student participation in school.
Graduation Alliance said it operates similar engagement programs in Michigan, Arizona and South Carolina.
In New Mexico, the company received approximately 39,000 referrals from students, parents or schools last year. About 16,000 of these students have opted for academic coaches. In total, the state spent $ 290 for each student who agreed to have an academic coach.
The company employs Spanish-speaking coaches and at least one Navajo coach, as well as translation services to communicate with New Mexico’s diverse population. Coaches strive to gain students’ trust, encourage them to attend school, and advocate for their interests if they encounter barriers to participating in the classroom, which the company says will be important in an environment in-person learning.
â€œSome people are intimidated asking for help from a teacher,â€ Graduation Alliance spokesperson Greg Harp said, adding that students often wonder, â€œHow can I ask for help without feeling stupid?”
But it’s not clear whether the program increased engagement or academic achievement over the past year, as student grades and attendance were not recorded.
A July 1 report from the Department of Public Education hailed the program as a success, drawing on a company-led survey of participating students and partial graduation data from a sample of high school students. The names of the districts providing the data were not included in the report, which indicated that 70% of the elderly who were assisted graduated.
â€œDoes it make a difference? This is something that we will be looking at, â€said Harp, adding that the company would work with districts to collect data.
A notification period for the sole source contract ends on Friday. Unless a rival company challenges the designation, the contract will go to Graduation Alliance, Harp said.
Students could be referred to the program as early as next week. Students referred in the past will have to register again.
Although absenteeism rates are yet to be documented, districts say they could be higher than before the pandemic, as less feel confident in school and more are under pressure to work to help their families survive. pay rent and bills.
State law requires schools to check families where a student is chronically absent, including excused absences like coronavirus quarantines. That means a lot of paperwork for districts like Santa Fe Public Schools, which have a three-person team that caters to absent students.
In the coming weeks, they expect to refer chronically absent students to support programs, including one run by the Graduation Alliance.
â€œIt’s an extra pair of boots on the ground to do outreach,â€ said Crystal Ybarra, a social worker who manages community outreach for the Santa Fe District.
Text messages and phone calls from ENGAGE New Mexico will not directly spare the team the work of fulfilling state requirements. But if the contractor can hire the students, it could reduce the district’s workload later in the year.
Ybarra said the district was receiving reports from the Graduation Alliance but could not immediately assess its effect on grades and attendance.
To help students catch up, the district has set up a homework hotline four days a week, made up mostly of volunteer academic tutors.
According to the National Association of Public Procurement Officials, non-competitive contracts are acceptable when a company offers a unique service that no bidder can provide. But the group recommends that states require agencies to actually check whether competitors exist. The Department of Public Education left a question blank on a request asking what efforts were made to ensure that there were no capable competitors.
Of the four states where ENGAGE programs are currently operating, only Michigan has contracted the company through a traditional tendering process, Harp said.