Nan Austin

What’s next in education news? Repairs, push for civil rights and bus drivers

Second-grader Jolissa Guillory plays a tune Feb. 19, 2016, during an after-school music class at Lucas Elementary in Ceres, one of three dual language schools in Stanislaus County, a teaching system proven effective and made easier to implement by passage of Proposition 58.
Second-grader Jolissa Guillory plays a tune Feb. 19, 2016, during an after-school music class at Lucas Elementary in Ceres, one of three dual language schools in Stanislaus County, a teaching system proven effective and made easier to implement by passage of Proposition 58. naustin@modbee.com

Polishing up my crystal ball, some things are crystal clear for 2017: budgets, graduations, state test scores that come unpardonably late. But other things are hazy, even with my reading glasses on, and these take some educated guessing. Here are my predictions for the next year:

1. Building: All the school bonds in this region passed in November, as did the state school bonds Proposition 51 to multiply local spending power for those districts lucky enough to make the funding list.

Here is the rundown for local bonds: Delhi Unified, $12 million; Waterford Unified, $10.7 million; Turlock Unified, $40.8 million for elementary schools and $48 million for high schools; Newman-Crows Landing Unified, $11.1 million; Hughson Unified, $3.2 million for elementary schools and $2.2 million for Hughson High.

Coming soon, I predict, is a bond effort by Modesto City Schools, which last year identified $1 billion in building needs. Most pressing are extensive repairs required at its aging elementary schools, where property values would not support a tax anything close to what is needed. The high school territory, which includes wealthier areas to the north, could raise far more construction cash.

Valley sprawl, with all its shiny new subdivisions, ends up creating economic segregation in schools as well. The oldest campuses, needing the most upkeep, have the fewest resources and must rely on state aid. Prop. 51 will add $3 billion for renovations in neighborhood schools and $3 billion for new ones, even though the state’s enrollment peaked in 2004-05. It also has $2 billion for community colleges and splits another billion between upgrades for charter schools and expansion of career courses.

2. Bilingual education: Choices opened in how best to teach English learners with the 3 to 1 vote for Proposition 58, repealing the English-only rule in schools in favor of local control. This matters particularly in Stanislaus and Merced counties, where high numbers of students are still learning the language, 25 percent and 28 percent, respectively. The state average is 22 percent, the highest in the nation.

Turlock Unified’s bilingual immersion program has been bursting at the seams for several years now, enrollment buoyed by English-speaking kids whose parents want them to grow up fluent in Spanish. Ceres Unified opened Lucas Elementary Dual Language Academy in 2013. Other bilingual programs have long existed in Riverbank Unified and Modesto City Schools.

This year expect to see ideas proposed, possibly some new programs next fall, designed to better serve kids who master basic English but then plateau. These long-term English learners have had six years or more of U.S. schooling under their belt without becoming fluent enough to succeed in school.

3. Teacher shortage: There is statewide buzz about having too few teachers, with retirement coming up for large numbers. New efforts are underway to kick-start the teacher pipeline, especially in special education, and science and math specialties.

But while the shortage is acute in those areas, the overall number of teachers gaining credentials or joining internship programs in 2015-16 rose to 19,244 – up from the recession low of 17,487, according to California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. District projections made in 2015 of hires needed for 2016-17 predicted a manageable need for 291 teachers in Stanislaus County and 135 in Merced County this school year.

Merced Union High, with 10,200 students, expected to hire 42 teachers, compared to Modesto City high schools, with 15,000 students, which forecast a need for 23.

What is not clear, however, from any of these numbers is how many long-term subs are filling in for a credentialed teacher, or how many kids are stuck in make-do arrangements for weeks when more kids than expected show up as school starts. Those teacher shortages also happen, but tend to slip between the reporting cracks.

4. School bus driver shortages: Something no one is arguing about is a longstanding shortage of school bus drivers, a job with big challenges but lousy hours. Quietly, administrators say they are very concerned about losing drivers after the change in marijuana laws.

Federal law requires employers to drug test school bus drivers before hiring and after an accident, as well as randomly test at least half their drivers for drugs each year. This applies to even legal substances, such as alcohol, which remains in the blood for about half a day and in the urine three to five days.

Weed sticks around far longer. General guidelines say cannabis will be detectable in blood for two weeks and in urine for around a month. But Green Rush Daily notes first-timers are usually clear after eight days, while heavy smokers can test positive for 63 days.

5. Civil rights campaigns: In 2016 Modesto community activists stepped forward to challenge the status quo on behalf of African American students and immigrants, both moving forward with federal civil rights complaints. While confrontations at school board meetings riled some district leaders, their questions raised awareness and spurred some initial efforts for change.

Expect to see more on those fronts and from parents of bullied children, a growing concern, but also more visible resistance from institutions and employee groups called upon to implement changes.

6. Special education and alternative education: These two groups have watched mainstream reforms without benefiting by and large from them, and it is only determined optimism that puts them on my list this year.

State efforts to bolster regular education by including special education funding and training face high hurdles – cultural as well as legislative. And kids who fell too far behind or made big mistakes in regular schools, ending up in continuation or other second-chance campuses, do not seem to be on the radar for systemic improvement.

For better or worse, those are what I see on the horizon for 2017.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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