Schools at a Risky Crossroad Part 4

UPDATE: Community-Wide Public Brainstorm Meeting Set for THURSDAY, MAY 3 at Cuddy Hall at 7 p.m. Mark Your Calendar
By Patric Hedlund

As if awakening from a long, Sleeping Beauty slumber, the board of the El Tejon Unified School District (ETUSD) last week began to yawn, stretch, and open up to reveal some of the tough choices before this community.

Perhaps not by coincidence, this November four of the five trustee seats will be up for election. Two of the trustees appear to be already campaigning, although both John Fleming and Steve Kiouses have told parents they do not intend to run.

Lets look at the bleak facts, then consider the good news, and consider how to move forward as a community determined to save quality education.

Bleak Facts

The challenges ahead are tricky for administrators, teachers and families. State funding for public schools has dropped to the 47th lowest among the 50 states. Economic recession has caused a decline in enrollment as families in upside down-mortgages are buffeted by unemployment, foreclosures and soaring gasoline prices.

Revenue for school ADA (average daily attendance) is dropping by nearly 30 percent from three years ago and enrollment is heading toward a 25 percent decline in two years.

Meanwhile, a series of disconnects in the state’s education code burden school districts with a mandate to alert teachers to possible budget-driven layoffs by March 15. Superintendents must submit their annual district budgets to the state and county in July before they know how much they will be receiving in revenues.

But California’s perpetual fiscal crisis prevents the state from releasing credible data to the schools until August—or even November—to tell them how much they will receive to fund their district budgets.

An unavoidable doomsday mood prevails among good teachers who receive pink slips. Some layoff notices will be rescinded, but teachers are left unsure whether they will have a job.

Some parents who fear loss of opportunities for their children have withdrawn from the district. Others decide to stay and fight.

Good News

Quality education is available in ETUSD schools when involved parents play a strong part. The district’s charter school, Pine Mountain Learning Center (PMLC), is a state success story.

The Academic Performance Index target for state schools is 800. PMLC students have broken the 900 mark without looking back, putting the charter among the top 10 percent in academic performance among all schools in the state. It is a leader among academic performers in Kern County.

PMLC is run by a council of parents and a part-time administrator. Each family must pledge 30 hours of volunteer time per school year. Many donate more.

The school culture is centered around “Highly Effective Teaching” (HET) principals. Those include creating a safe place to nurture reflective thinking; providing meaningful content and an enriched learning environment. Teachers incorporate movement activities to enhance learning, in accord with recent neuroscience findings about learning and memory. Students are given choices to demonstrate understanding in a variety of ways and collaboration is valued. They are given adequate time and immediate feedback to encourage mastery.

Mary Griffin, the school’s assistant administrator, said in an interview that PMLC must accept all children who apply. About 10 student spots are currently available for new applicants.

“We do not have a separate special education classroom, but we’ve found that our customized learning plans and HET teaching methods fit well for children with all kinds of special learning needs,” said Griffin, who has a credential in Special Education. Special Education needs must be addressed in the charter as in other schools.

Since PMLC does not offer cafeteria lunches, it has been difficult to collect data on students who would qualify for “free and reduced price lunches” to compare economic demographics between the charter and other ETUSD schools, but Griffin said she believes that the racial and economic profile of PMLC is similar to the mountain as a whole.

The El Tejon Unified School District overall has a much smaller percentage of English Language Learner students than most urban and rural school districts in California.

Despite its successes, parents at PMLC can sometimes feel they are pulling a heavy barge upstream. With budget cuts, the school (located in the Los Padres National Forest), must raise funds by collecting recyclables to pay for basics such as extermination services.

Many of the children of the generation of parents who founded the kindergarten through 6th grade charter have graduated out now, and new parents coming in say there is much to learn. Such involved parents, however, constitute a deep resource of knowledge and skills that can be a valuable asset to the broader district in its time of need.

Kelly Franti and Michi Knight are two PMLC parents from Piñon Pines who stepped forward to make helpful suggestions to district trustees at special meetings at the end of March.

Meanwhile, parents such as Lisa Arreola demonstrated at El Tejon School and Frazier Mountain High School what a single engaged family can do toward creating a culture of excellence that grows into a movement. ETUSD students are now a recognized force at the Kern County Science Fair, showing up at Rabobank Center with compelling prize-winning science projects with numbers of eager students disproportionate to the small size of our schools.

For several years a cadre of parents, teachers and community volunteers have worked together to mentor students and to help them refine their experiments and their presentation skills. In a similar manner, the Frazier Mountain High School (FMHS) Future Farmers of America have had a history of being highly competitive in state contests.

At the start of this series we ran a report by Esther Pereira, “Bring Excitement Back Into Our Schools,” in which the former superintendent tells how welcoming community talent into tiny Gorman Elementary School District transformed it from a failing district with only 30 students into being named a “California Distinguished School,” recognized by the governor and the legislature for excellence.

Pereira, who had experience running a very large adult education school in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, was not timid about welcoming talented community members into her school, budgeting “aide” stipends to pay for local experts in a variety of fields, from the sciences to art and music, to provide enrichment courses—all accomplished with our Mountain Community mentors, parents and children.

Moving Forward

With these successes in mind, it is hard to understand why many who have been willing to assist the ETUSD schools in the past have not had their offers accepted. UCLA Classics Professor Katherine King, for instance, put together a team of over 10 local college professors in 2006 and 2007, all willing to provide FMHS students with collegereadiness training in a variety of fields. Then-FMHS Principal Dan Penner didn’t find time to accept the offer, but enrichment classes began to be cut shortly after at the high school.

This month, despite the notable success of 16 ETUSD students going to the Kern County Science Fair, with 11 winning prizes and 4 going on to state competition, parent volunteer Lisa Arreola said she is concerned that the science project movement will be cut when her son Josh graduates this year.

Arreola said in an interview on Wednesday, April 11, “There has been such a lot of additional workload put on fewer and fewer teachers. They are stressed right now, not knowing what is going to happen. That gives them an attitude of ‘we can’t think about all these extra things right now.’ This scares me.”

Arreola said that ETUSD Science Fair Coordinator Lee Bizzini “is all for it and wants to continue it with all the mentors in the community. The community has given enormous support.”

Community Rally

On Thursday, May 3 at 7 p.m. at Cuddy Hall, a community brainstorm meeting is going to be called to consider how to rally community resources, talent and leadership. The goal is to find ways to help El Tejon Unified School District make it across this tough patch. The public is invited.

“I want to be part of that,” Lisa Arreola said. “I plan to be there.”

[This report was corrected on Monday, April 16. The date of the commuinty meeting was updated to May 3 . The change was made because of conflicts with other meetings in town on April 26.]

This is part of the April 13, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

Have an opinion on this matter? We'd like to hear from you.