BELEN — A local school district has taken the next step on the path to new social studies standards, authorizing more than $500,000 for textbooks and other resources for grades kindergarten through 12th, which align with new state standards.

At its Feb. 14 meeting, the Belen Board of Education unanimously approved the expenditure of $564,463.01 to purchase the resource materials from McGraw Hill.

Before the board approved the resource purchase at its Feb. 28 meeting, board vice president Aubrey Tucker said some parents might be under the impression they could opt their students out of an entire curriculum or subject, but that isn’t the case.

“The only opt out by statute in New Mexico is per school and per district,” Tucker said. “If a district has allowed parents to opt (their student) out of a class, of a less or change schools, that’s on the district. This is important because of what a lot of people have produced is a lot of propaganda.

“When it comes to the new social studies curriculum, there’s some sort of thinking parents can go to a school and say, ‘No, you’re not going to teach this, this and this.’ There can be an accommodation made (for their student).”

When the New Mexico Public Education Department announced it was updating its primary and secondary social studies standards for pubic schools for the first time in more than a decade in the fall of 2021, Belen Board of Education members encouraged members of the community to weigh in on the new standards.

While local boards of education approve new curriculums when standards change, they cannot refuse to have those new standards taught in a school district. The new social study standards are set to begin in the 2023-24 school year.

Belen Board of Education  president Jim Danner asked whether Belen Consolidated Schools had a mechanism for parents to opt their children out of a particular lesson. BCS Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said the district does have a policy, which will need to be reviewed to ensure it addresses the new social study standards.

Danner said it was important the board let its constituents know how the district was going to do that.

In an interview after the meeting, the superintendent said parents can opt their students out of a lesson but there is not state law that allows parents to opt their students out of a required course.

“You can’t say, ‘I don’t want my student to take this required course,’ such as U.S. history,” Sanchez said. “You can’t opt out of a teacher but a parent can make a request for a different teacher.”

The district’s policy committee, of which Tucker and Danner are members, will review the existing policy and determine if changes need to be made, Sanchez said.

“We need to establish a process. As an extension of that, we will develop a pacing guide with teachers at all grade levels, which will be a sequence of (the social study) standards and from that, they should be able to develop a basic syllabus,” the superintendent said.

“So parents can know what is being covered and, if they have a question or problem, they can reach out to the teacher and ask how they are planning to teach that standard.”

If they chose to, parents can opt their student out of that particular lesson and the student can complete an alternate assignment that still teaches the standard.

“We already have an opt-out policy in place for other topics,” he said. “We want to have the procedures set and clearly communicate that to parents.”

During the February board meeting, board member Larry Garley asked why McGraw Hill was the publisher chosen.

Assistant Superintendent of Academics E. Renee Sanchez said the focus group put together of the evaluation and selection of the materials made a unanimous recommendation to go with that company.

“It was a group of about 20 to 25 people — community members, teachers, administration, parents — a well-rounded group,” Renee Sanchez said. “They heard presentations from the top two publishers who offered (kindergarten through 12th grade) materials, and after the final focus group meeting, the recommendation was McGraw Hill.”

She added the books and other materials were put out at the BCS main office, the Belen Public Library and all school sites for the public to look at for about a month.

Danner asked if the curriculum materials covered world history, specifically the Holocaust. Renee Sanchez said she would have to review the materials for every grade level to see if the Holocaust was covered through all grades.

“(Other boards) are talking about things they are taking out,” Danner said. “From my view, a critical aspect, is we are forgetting things in the past.”

Superintendent Sanchez said the district emphasized to all interested publishers that it wanted facts.

“We wanted history taught on facts, no opinions. Not what this or that historian’s take is,” the superintendent said. “If we are going to use first-hand accounts, that is a fact. That is the way the person there experienced events.

“In vetting (the materials) with the committee, we felt this publisher for K through 12 did a better job. We wanted to have uniform resources across the district.”

Tucker wrapped up the discussion by reminding the board and anyone watching the meeting via YouTube that “books don’t teach kids. As a band director, I know there are 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of music up at (Belen High School). It can’t teach itself.

“The magic is in the instructor, and that’s what we need to remind those who are having a conniption over the printed books.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.