Nickole Aguilar Garcia addresses the audience Friday morning at the Republican Party of Los Alamos candidates’ forum. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Nickole Aguilar Garcia, candidate for Los Alamos Public Schools Board, District 5 – Mountain Elementary said at Friday morning’s candidates’ forum hosted by the Republican Party of Los Alamos that she is concerned about the quality of education children are receiving in Los Alamos County.
“I’ve done some research on the internet based on some numbers that I can find on LAPS and in the early 2004-2006 range, our reading and math proficiency rates were in the mid-70s. The latest data that I could find, in 2018, is showing proficiency rates were down to 58 percent for reading and 48 percent for math. That is extremely concerning to me, Aguilar Garcia said. “It’s concerning because it shows that there’s a decrease in the quality of education that our children are receiving and our children are not being prepared as they should be to go out into the world and to compound that, the most recent information that I can find on learning loss from the COVID disruption is from six months to two years.”
She said this is a significant learning loss and that she is concerned especially about academically vulnerable children.
“How are we going to make that up? What are we going to do to ensure that we can get them where they need to be so that they can be successful going through the school programs through each grade starting with the youngest? Also for our older students to be successful getting into college, those are significant learning losses that are concerning to me,” Aguilar Garcia said.
Aguilar Garcia is a Los Alamos native and “a product of Los Alamos Public Schools”. She graduated from Los Alamos High School in 1997 and is very proud of that. She said she also is very proud to have her children in schools where she was raised. She has three children who attend Mountain Elementary School and one who is a senior at LAHs.
“So I have a very deep investment in what’s going on in our schools and our children being products of the school system,” she said.
Aguilar Garcia noted that she has undergraduate degrees from the University of New Mexico in psychology, human resources and organizational leadership and development as well as a master’s of business administration from New Mexico State University.
“I am New Mexico born and bred. I also work for (Los Alamos National Laboratory). I am a staff operations manager/chief of staff for the Software Applications Engineering Division and I love my job. I wanted to run for School Board District 5 – for Mountain Elementary and partially representing the high school – to get more involved in what’s going on in our schools and to give back to the community that has given me so much,” she said.
Aguilar Garcia said her support goes beyond putting students first which is number one, but also supporting staff, administration and teachers “and being a responsible representative if I’m elected”.
“My number one goal, having lived here through what I call the COVID disruption because our lives were completely disrupted…. In my home the number one disruption was education. My husband and I were sent home to work from home which we were able to do seamlessly. My children were sent home to do remote learning which was a disaster in my house, unfortunately, to be honest,” she said. “Some students have fared very well but having four children and two parents online all day was a bit of a challenge. So my number one goal is to make sure that whatever comes our way, that we’re able to keep our students in school safely, to keep our teachers in school safely, to make sure that they do not have any further disruption”.
Aguilar Garcia also addressed the issue of educational diversity. She said she was really excited to see that the school district was keeping the Los Alamos Online Learning Academy.
“Los Alamos is very fortunate to have a lot of resources that not a lot of school districts in the state of New Mexico have and we should be putting resources into diverse educational delivery models because we know that our children learn differently. So I would like to see some efforts put into that and I think having the online learning academy is a good initiative for that because while I would love to see my children in school, in face-to-face, there are some children who are learning differently, who did thrive in a remote learning model, and I don’t feel that they should be forced to come back to the classroom if that’s not how they are going to learn best,” she said.
Another thing Aguilar Garcia said she would like to see is an expansion of work study programs especially in high school.
“I was a huge beneficiary of that when I graduated. It doesn’t seem to be something that is advocated and as available as it was and I think it is a disservice to students who are not eligible or who do not want to work at the Laboratory due to what their interests are or GPA requirements, and I don’t think that our community is able to supplement work experiences for students who are not eligible to work at the Laboratory,” she said. “I would like to see some life skills that are not just electives because we are sending children out into the world but they do not have the basic life skills that they need as far as financial literacy and other things like that to be able to make them successful.”
Aguilar Garcia said a special interest for her is special education.
“I have two children who receive special education services and their special education teachers are incredible, however, they are majorly overloaded and they do not get the support that they need. So it is really important to me that our schools take a look at trying to retain all the special education teachers to get them into the classroom, to get our academically vulnerable students the services that they need,” she said. “That also plays into the COVID disruption because we are going to see a lot more students who are going to become more academically vulnerable due to their learning gaps.”
She noted that she is a big supporter of extracurricular activities and athletics because they supplement children’s education.
“It gives them an investment in initiative not only in something that they take pride in themselves but also in their investment in the education they are receiving. There are standards required for children to participate in extracurricular activities and athletics and I feel that gives students something to work for especially if they’re struggling in other areas,” she said.
Aguilar Garcia said what she would like to see in a new LAPS superintendent is someone who has strong leadership abilities, “particularly demonstrated experience in working as a senior executive in a medium to large school district so that they can show the kind of leadership that they have”.
“Engagement is really important, not just at an administrative level, but all the way down to the staff at the schools, the students, the parents and the community. Because we are a one-district community, the leader of our schools must be very engaged in the community. Fiscal responsibility is also very important to me for someone coming into our schools,” she said. “We have a lot of initiatives that are going on right now, running different programs and we have infrastructure projects that are in the works so it’s really important to make sure that the person that we get as a new superintendent has a really strong background of fiscal responsibility to make sure those projects are funded and administered properly.”
She said recruitment and retention is something else she would like to see the superintendent engage in to make sure the district can recruit and retain all the quality educators.
“I would like to see what kind of goals they have that align with educational improvements particularly those that align with improving the learning gaps that were caused by the COVID disruption,” she said.
Asked if students should be vaccinated, Aguilar Garcia said she does not support it and believes that a child’s medical health is between the parent and their medical provider.
“There should be absolutely 100 percent no tolerance policy for bullying, discrimination, or any sort of pressure coming from students, teachers, or administration in our schools for children who are not vaccinated or have a medical condition of any sort. It is absolutely not appropriate for the school system,” Aguilar Garcia said. “I don’t support any type of vaccine mandates for teachers, administration, students. It is a medical issue; it should not be a political issue that’s forced on our students, our staff or anyone else.”
She clarified that she does support the already in place religious or medical exemptions for standard childhood vaccinations and doesn’t believe that should be removed at all. She said that regardless any sort of medical treatment needs to be the parents’ freedom of choice for their children and their medical provider.
Asked about the proposed North Mesa Housing project, Aguilar Garcia said she would support an initiative that supports affordable housing, especially because one of the things she would like to see is the retention of quality educators. She said the pay grades for a lot of LAPS teachers are not sufficient for the type of housing that exists in Los Alamos.
“I am concerned because construction rates have skyrocketed over the last year as a result of the COVID. I would like to see a really well-thought out building plan, a breakdown of cost analysis for these homes, what they’re going to look like, and that we can provide housing to a demographic that desperately needs it,” she said.