Nan Austin

School news 2015: Reflections from the rear-view mirror

Raul Zavala and Samantha Kelly study in April by the Center for Advanced Technologies, the remade east campus science building that opened in August at Modesto Junior College.
Raul Zavala and Samantha Kelly study in April by the Center for Advanced Technologies, the remade east campus science building that opened in August at Modesto Junior College.

As schools end the year with workers of all ages enjoying a long winter’s nap, I put on my thinking cap and twice checked a list of the year’s top 10 education issues, ranked by potential impact in the fuzzy crystal ball looking forward.

10. Boundaries: Denair Unified emerged from near bankruptcy early in 2015, but remains financially fragile because of falling enrollment. A challenge from developers in neighboring Turlock to switch Denair Unified territory within the city of Turlock to Turlock Unified could mean more misery in its future. The dilemma has the unfortunate effect of putting the needs of the districts front and center in the debate, sidelining the pros and cons for affected families.

Stanislaus County is a patchwork of 25 districts serving 105,000 children. Merced has 20 districts for 57,000 kids. Tuolumne County, with 6,100 students and dropping, has 11 districts and a county office.

A two-year citizens effort to force consolidation of Tuolumne’s 12 administrations appears to have thrown in the towel this year. The group argued consolidation would free administrative dollars for instruction. Tuolumne districts spent 8 percent to 11 percent of general fund revenue on administration in 2013-14, roughly twice the typical percentage for larger districts.

9. Elections: The slate of November 2015 brought the difficulties of district elections into focus. The push to make school boards more representative stumbled with too few applicants and too little voting. In district after district, school boards appointed trustees when no one filed to represent a slice of their territory, or single applicants simply slid uncontested into their seats.

Patterson Joint Unified School District races had candidates, but low turnout. Just 9 percent of Area 4’s 1,201 voters cast ballots in November, giving a 55 to 54 one-vote victory to Alyssa Homen.

A historic lack of union input in the Modesto City Schools race might be credited with veteran incumbent Steve Grenbeaux’s return “without spending a penny,” as he put it. The same race, with a 23 percent turnout, seated political novice John Walker.

8. Discipline: Modesto City Schools made major steps forward in lowering expulsions and suspensions after being sanctioned by the state for high numbers of special education students being sent home.

The districtwide shift to proactive interventions and in-school consequences gained the notice of equity advocates at the Ed-Trust West, who asked administrators to share their practices. Changing the rules, however, is easier than changing the culture, advised district speakers at the workshop.

Modesto City Schools also rolled out its own security team this year after the Modesto police school resource officers it contracted for were pulled back to patrol duties. Ceres police went the other route, working with Ceres Unified to get additional funding for its school resource officers to stay in place this school year.

In 2015, there were a growing number of schools laying out behavior expectations for younger kids and trying ways to make tweens and teens part of an in-school solution, strategies that typically have a slow start but long-term payoff.

7. Construction: An architectural report showed Modesto City Schools buildings need $1 billion in fixes and code compliance upgrades. The district put millions aside for critical needs and about $12 million aside to replace cafeterias at two of its oldest elementary schools, but the billion-dollar question will be what to change and how to pay for it.

The report was a baseline, not necessarily a plan for what the district will do. In some cases, a complete remake of the campus would cost less than the repairs and retrofits needed. Other schools in California are pioneering flexible layouts, integral gardens and grouping grades for a more community feel. With $1 billion on the line, some creativity seems called for.

Speaking of creativity, the last academic showpiece of Modesto Junior College’s Measure E bond building campaign opened this fall, the Center for Advanced Technologies, a makeover of the old, east campus science building. The Great Valley Museum opened in April, housed in the Measure E showstopper, the Science Community Center on the west campus. ​

6. Testing: Scores took a nasty tumble as the state released the first publicly available school results from its computer-adaptive, Common Core-aligned math and English tests. Lower scores were widely predicted, but few anticipated the heady plunge. Was it the math or the mouse that flummoxed kids? Either way, experts say it will take about five years to see how kids fare with the new curriculum.

Also in testing news, the state high school exit exam that kept especially English-language learners and special education students from getting a full diploma is history. Being out of sync with Common Core was what finished it, but experts show little zeal to replace it.

5. Special ed: A blue-ribbon panel review of special education concluded earlier this year that California’s system creates a parallel educational system that poorly serves the state’s very diverse student population. A massive bureaucracy oversees the state’s compliance-driven structure, isolating students from the social interactions that could help them succeed in life and generating one of the poorest records among all states in outcomes for students.

Even knowing all that, the sheer size and complexity of the system and its multitude of legal layers mean meaningful reform has a tough row to hoe.

4. Stan State: California State University, Stanislaus, students gave an advisory thumbs up to a $52 million makeover for the student union building in December, adding $209 per semester to student fees starting in 2019. The final student ballot count was 73 percent for the remake, 27 percent against. Only 575, about 6 percent, of the 9,000 students at both Stan State campuses voted. Plans for a more student-centered student center now move to administrative review.

The Turlock campus gained notice this year for the strong performance of its students and campus supports for low-income and minority college-goers. It ranked with Ivy League campuses for upward mobility in a study by National Public Radio; got good marks from the Princeton Review; and was the top public school in the nation in bang for the buck, according to Money magazine.

3. Collaborations: This year, several promising collaborations worked to raise Stanislaus County educational levels and thereby bring up its economy overall.

The Stanislaus Education Partnership linked California State University, Stanislaus; Modesto Junior College; and elementary through high schools, represented by the Stanislaus County Office of Education. The announced goal is to pave the path through high school to college or university, making courses line up and simplifying administrative practices that trip up new students.

In a separate effort, elementary educators continued their push to raise the numbers of kids reading well in third grade, a predictor of future graduation rates and earning power. The Stanislaus Reads consortium teamed with five schools in five districts to measure skills of incoming kindergarteners, improve early-grade attendance and keep kids from sliding back during the summer.

2. Funding: For most school districts in the Valley, there was more money this year for education. That sounds like a good thing, but a lot of under the table arm wrestling goes into deciding how to spend it.

Money that had been sent with strings on it, for use only to fix roofs or fund arts programs, now goes into the general fund. There is more money overall, thanks to an improving state economy, and additional funds have arrived for high numbers of poor kids and English learners. That swelling general fund balance raises hopes for change, but is also a tempting total at the bargaining table.

And while extra duties, additional training or smaller class sizes would add pay or improve working conditions, the overarching issue for most districts this year has been raises. Straight salary hikes are particularly attractive for those eying retirement, since teacher pensions are calculated from the last or highest year.

Negotiations with teachers in Modesto City Schools, Riverbank Unified and Turlock Unified stalled this fall, calling in state mediators to help iron out contracts for the school year now half over. Administrative pay hikes, slipped in as titular changes or competitive adjustments, figured in the disputes at all three districts.

1. Technology: Sweeping the region were robotics classes and lessons in coding. The South Modesto Partnership organized a coding program with mentoring built in for 24 Hanshaw Middle School students. The program hopes to add 24 students each year, giving them a leg up on a college education and high-paying tech jobs. Harvard student Emanuel Escamilla, a former Davis High Spartan, led the initial seven-week summer session.

Perfect scores on pre-college exams were registered by Enochs High student Kane Wu on the ACT and Modesto High student Waleed Kahn on the SAT. Kudos to the agile minds that made the marks, but the significance for all of us is that they used quick and easy access to online practice tests and study options to do it.

Many of the stories about technology focused on how much the switch to laptops costs, or frustrating glitches of new devices. But the bigger picture for 2015 is of schools turning away from the single-source learning of paper textbooks, especially in upper grades, searching for better alternatives and collaborative platforms online.