LAHS Teacher Christine Engelbrecht Participates In White House Education Roundtable

LAHS AP English teacher and co-president of Los Alamos Federation of School Employees Christine Englebrecht. left, chats with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. Courtesy photo

LAHS teacher and AFT representative Christine Engelbrecht at the White House roundtable, seated to the right of Dr. Jill Biden. Courtesy photo

Picture 1: From the left: NAESP Principal of the Year Edward Cosentino, Presidential Advisor Gene Sperling, NASSP Digital Principal of the Year Marcus Belin, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Dr. Biden, NEA Representative Theresann Pyrett, National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell, AFT Representative Christine Engelbrecht, and NASSP’s Principal of the Year Beth Houf.

Picture 4: LAFSE Co-President Engelbrecht and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona

Last month, the Biden Administration is convened a roundtable with educators to discuss good uses of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, which included $337,000 to Los Alamos Public Schools.

Los Alamos High School National Board-Certified AP English teacher Christine Engelbrecht was one of three teachers who participated in the roundtable. She is president of the Los Alamos Federation of School Employees, American Federation of Teachers New Mexico Local #3902. Among those participating in the roundtable were Education Sec. Miguel Cardona, Presidential Advisor Gene Sperling and Carmel Martin, Deputy Asst. to the President for Economic Mobility.

The Los Alamos Reporter chatted at length with Engelbrecht about her participation in the roundtable. Her passion for education and her excitement about being in the middle of the national discussion along with the 50 Teachers of the Year, three Principals of the Year, and a representative of the NEA and herself representing AFT.

“This roundtable was all about how districts were using the ARP funds. They wanted to know what we think should be next – what does the future hold, what do teachers and administrators need in order to continue their work. They wanted to get some ideas moving forward from the people who are implementing their policies,” Engelbrecht said.

She said Secretary Cardona asked them what change they were seeing and what gives them hope.

“I was able to talk about students that I personally witnessed having rough times during the pandemic when we were learning online and who have come back to see me frequently since we have returned in person. A lot of my students are a year older but you can see them just sinking into who they want to be. They’re so much more at ease and they enjoy spending time with their teachers and their peers. So that really gives me hope – knowing exactly how difficult it had had been and to see them just thriving now,” Engelbrecht said.

She said she was able to talk about how Los Alamos Public Schools has used the ARP funding, which for the most part has been cleaning supplies, face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer and fogger machines early on in the pandemic.

“We also launched both before and after school tutoring at the elementary schools and the middle school so ARP funds actually helped for the hourly staff that performs that tutoring. Summer school for 2021 for K-7 was also paid for. Before 2021, summer school was always by teacher recommendation and it seems like we had about 130 students that participated, but because we had the ARP funding in the summer of 2021 we were able to allow any student who wanted to to participate and we had 742 students participate, which was a huge difference,” Engelbrecht said

This summer she said Los Alamos High School is re-launching its credit recovery program and ARP funding will go towards paying staff for that.

“Some of the ARP money was also spent on the staff, the principal and the curriculum for the Los Alamos On-Line Academy and we had to pick up some from our operational budget. We also did a connectivity update and we used some of it to pay for some student Chromebooks,” she said.

Most sites said they were using the funding to hire extra lunch monitors and more people to spread out and cover duties.

“The NEA representative said they were using it to decrease class sizes. One school was using it for social-emotional learning curriculum. One overall comment that was made by most people there is that they’re trying to use it definitely to increase staffing but with the labor shortage, even if you can allocate the funding for the salaries, hiring for those positions has been difficult.” Engelbrecht said. “We’re seeing that in our district too; we have many openings for instructional assistants and maintenance personnel where we essentially have the funding to pay for it. It’s just hiring that’s difficult.”

She said roundtable participants also talked about different things that districts are doing to address the needs of the students. Multiple districts mentioned that they have a social-emotional learning period in the day that’s just focuses on socialization and community building and how important that’s been. She said she will be meeting with LAPS administration to relay some of the ideas she has collected from the other educators.

“One piece that came up from most of the people at the table, especially the three principals, is that they need to see funding specifically for different ways to recognize educators as professionals and value them. I was pleased to take that opportunity to really brag on New Mexico and on our school district and talk about how New Mexico has passed legislation that is instituting a 7 percent raise, that is raising the minimum pay for each of the Level 1, 2 and 3 licenses and that my district has worked with the local union to put in increase funding for health insurance,” Engelbrecht said.

Previously, everybody in the district would pay 40 percent of their health insurance costs and the district would pay 60 percent.

“Now if you make less than $49,999 you pay only 20 percent and the district will pay 80 percent. Trey Pereyra, co-chair of the local union and lead negotiator for the classified staff contract, hammered out that directive with LAPS Human Resources Director Joe Palmer. It’s an excellent example of the local union working hand in hand with the district to address the very concerns that were being addressed in that room with Secretary Cardona, Gene Sperling and Carmel Martin,” Engelbrecht said.

She noted that while districts were saying they were asking for federal funding to make the same changes, New Mexico has really paved the way.

“Our district has really taken up the torch and made sure everybody got not the 7 percent average, but at least 7 percent and then they went ahead and agreed with us on this insurance. I was able to really talk about how federal funding is important, state funding is important, but it’s really a collaboration of federal, state and local entities to address these concerns. I was able to talk about all the great things we’re doing to address those concerns and to try and help our educators to feel valued, recognize them as professionals,’ Engelbrecht said.

She noted that during local negotiations she worked to make sure teachers who cover for other teachers whenever somebody has to be absent receive their hourly pay instead of the certified substitute rate which is what had been happening.

“It’s always in the best interest of the students to have a certified teacher in the classroom if you can. This is going to make the teachers that definitely give up their prep time to help the district and help other teachers feel that’s really being rewarded. The other piece of that is the extra pay for covering is paid out every June in our last paycheck, now it’s going to be paid at the end of each quarter. You actually see that money in your paycheck sooner,” Engelbrecht said.

She noted that the number of substitutes at LAPS has grown due to the efforts of Pereyra and Palmer, but that the hourly pay change will also help make sure the classes are always covered with qualified people.

“Of the people in that room at the White House, there were two of us union representatives; one from NEA and me from AFT, so we were really pleased that we were not only hearing the classroom teacher perspective but we were able to talk about how unions are playing a role here. It really made me proud to represent not only New Mexico but also my local and talk about all the great things that can be accomplished when there’s collaboration,” Engelbrecht said.

In terms of what is important for the future, there was unanimous agreement at the roundtable that continuing the ARP funding is really important.

“Lowering the class size is excellent, adding more mental health services is excellent but we need years of sustained funding in order to see that long-lasting impact for our students. Class size I think is incredibly important because it really combines all of the other pieces. If you have a smaller class size, you can spend more time one on one with each student, more time in giving that feedback,” Engelbrecht said. “In my opinion as an English teacher, feedback is incredibly important in making kids feel that the work is worthwhile which makes them want to try, makes them value their time in the classroom and they feel like they’re getting something out of it.”

She believes that when class sizes are smaller teachers have the opportunity to build relationships with students and a teacher having a relationship with a student can mean the world to that student – that they have somebody in the building that they know that they can go to.

“When your classes are 30 students, sometimes it takes a long time to really connect with each student so really I think class size is the key to making all these other pieces work,” Engelbrecht said.

Participants talked about unintended consequences of decisions that are made and the importance of getting the viewpoints of educators to see what those unintended consequences may be so that they can plan ahead to combat them, she said.

“I really appreciated that they included educators at the table, and honestly I’d like to see something consistent, where they have maybe a principal from each region or maybe a teacher from each region that’s somewhat of a standing committee that they run things by. It has to be people that are still in the profession rather than former educators – people who can give the opinion of what they’re doing in their district and how it might be aided or hindered by the way the policy is written,” Engelbrecht said.

At the very end of the event, Engelbrecht was delighted by a visit from First Lady Dr. Jill Biden came.

“We knew we were going to talk to Gene Sperling, Carmela Martin and Secretary Cardona but the whole week was a celebration of education. Then Dr. Biden dropped in and she talked about what she is seeing in her own classroom. She teaches 14 credit hours at a community college and asked towards the end of the conversation what insights we had. I was really glad that she took her time to meet with us. It really showed that she valued that we were there and all the work that we do. It was amazing,” she said.

Engelbrecht thanked our AFTNM president Whitney Holland who was the former LAPSE president and vice president Cathy Chavez for all their hard work.

“It’s their hard work that’s putting  Los Alamos and LAPSE in such a good place at the moment – to be able to say that we are doing our best for educators to keep them in the field so that they can continue to serve the students,” she said.

Engelbrecht discussed the collaboration between LAPS and the local union.

“We’re really fortunate that we work in a school district where they make sure that the union has a seat at the table. The union is represented on committees such as calendar and budget, the COVID committee and more. It’s great that they always invite us so that we can be there and can ask about possible unintended consequences for staff. This helps us prepare and plan ahead so that we can lessen the strain for teachers so that they can concentrate on teaching and working for the students which at the end of the day is why we’re really there,” she said.

At the White House Roundtable are, from left, NAESP Principal of the Year Edward Cosentino, Presidential Advisor Gene Sperling, NASSP Digital Principal of the Year Marcus Belin, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, NEA Representative Theresann Pyrett, National Teacher of the Year Kurt Russell, AFT Representative/LAHS teacher Christine Engelbrecht, and NASSP’s Principal of the Year Beth Houf. Courtesy photo

LAFSE Co-President Christine Engelbrecht and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardone. Courtesy photo