Schools: Five Excellent Programs
Subject of Investigation
There are sixteen school districts in Sacramento County, five of which include contiguous areas of adjoining counties. Each district is an independent government agency with a governing board chosen by voters in a prescribed geographical area. That board is responsible to the voters, to the students and parents of the district, and to the district employees to provide a significant education efficiently organized and fiscally responsible.
The school districts are amazingly diverse. Some school districts are truly rural and others are central city or suburban. One enrolls 400 students and another enrolls 48,000 students. Some are purely primary districts without middle or high schools. Some are only high school districts without primary schools. Nearly half instruct students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
The districts are different in profound and telling ways, even in their management. One district's history emphasizes contentious boards while other boards are stable and cooperative. Some boards micromanage their superintendent's professional decisions and others do not. There is a superintendent who taught and administered in his current district thirty-five years. One superintendent started "last Thursday." In other ways, the districts are more alike. Superintendents oversee budgets 90 percent of which is funded by federal and state government.
Reason for Investigation
The Grand Jury, as part of its oversight role, decided to limit itself to several basic issues that are of public concern. These included questions of academic progress, medical issues, drop out prevention, vocational education and the open meeting requirements of the Brown Act.
The Jury mailed a list of predetermined questions to the superintendents. These questions provoked other questions. The questions centered on how the districts assess their teaching and what medical services exist.
· What percentage of students enroll in vocational education classes?
· What is the district doing to reduce the dropout rate?
· What Brown Act problems exist?
· What is in the future for this district?
The Jury found much to admire in the many well-intentioned, dedicated people in our schools. The Jury selected five unique programs to headline.
The Galt High School District covers 400 square miles in rural southern Sacramento and northern San Joaquin counties. Seven teachers staff a Vocational Agriculture Program for 400 of the 1,500 student body. They advise the award-winning Future Farmers of America extra- curricular activities. Although eighty-five percent of the students are live in urban portions of this rapidly expanding community, they and their parents support and praise this program.
In one building, which stood empty on the campus for eight years, there is now a Vocational Agriculture shop. Computer classes allow access to the Internet for information and research. Recently, the Department expanded into classes teaching Floriculture. Teachers emphasize a science curriculum. The Department teaches repair and fabrication of farm equipment-more programs are planned.
Last year, the Galt High School Agriculture Department won first place in California as an agriculture teaching program. It won second place nationally in 1995. This program is a consistent gold medal winner. For many years, it ranked in the top five percent of agriculture programs across the United States. A national organization recognized one agricultural teacher as 1991 teacher of the year. Galt High students won prizes in recent competitions and exhibits. Last year, students won first or second place awards in every "field day" event they entered. As a result of its nationwide fame, Galt High School has little trouble recruiting teachers. Graduating students are actively recruited by several agricultural colleges, including the University of California at Davis. Scholarships are readily available. One worth $23,000 went to a Galt High graduate last year. Former students report ready access to jobs after college.
The Natomas Unified School District is a rapidly expanding district near Arco Arena. The student population has grown from 300 to 3,000 in a decade. A high school will open in 1997 to join three grade schools and one middle school. While awaiting the new campus, some high school classes meet in temporary surroundings. There are five computers in every classroom for ninth and tenth grades. There are special technology laboratories using CD-ROM simulations. As an example, there is a 16 module education center in which all ways of building a bridge are in one module.
The District hired a new principal to create the high school's innovative curriculum. The result is a vocational career education high school built from the ground up. After 1997, an integrated and vigorous core program will benefit freshmen and sophomore classes. Junior and senior classes will soon have a variety of career oriented academies. The district will hire teachers with technological and regular class certification. Each student will establish, with school advice and counseling, a relevant and broad career plan. Upon graduation, students will be prepared to enter the work force, enroll in college, or both.
The new high school will contain an industrial technology building in which students will learn using computer-assisted programs, Home Economics, Drafting and Design, Auto Mechanics. In this new world, a student will not only learn auto mechanics by turning a wrench and spilling oil but also by discovering how a machine diagnoses problems from a vehicle's exhaust.
Integration is key. If the science class demonstrates the way an internal combustion engine works, the social studies class on the same day may demonstrate how motor vehicles will affect city planning in the twenty-first century. Eventually, partnerships with local business and community colleges will build a vocationally sound learning path for Natomas students.
Del Paso Heights School District in northern Sacramento County is comprised of five grade schools. There are 127 teachers in the District. In 1993, the District chose three teachers to act as mentors to their less experienced colleagues at the North Avenue School. Fundamental strategies of useful and proven responses to student behaviors were the models used. The goal is to assist both the new and the experienced teachers to respond appropriately and directly to students' questions and conduct. The mentors, one of whom is now a full time coordinator of the program, go from classroom to classroom, acting as academic coaches. Teachers find communication, more effectively, network, and cooperate have improved. There is less burnout and turn over. The mentors hypothesize that improved teaching will reduce dropouts. The program is so effective that the four other schools in the district are in the process of replicating it.
Ten years ago, a counselor at Howe Avenue School created a project for training school counselors with the Education Department of California State University, Sacramento. The Howe Avenue School formed partnerships with other grade schools, a middle school and a high school. They enlisted a host of other agencies in multiple projects to help students, families and the community beyond the classroom. The entire effort is called the Alliance for Progress. When newly granted funds from state resources are added, another modified and more focused effort will be titled Families and Schools Together (FAST). To assist the schools, Sacramento County Welfare Department, Child and Adult Protective Services, Alcohol and Drug, Mental Health, Public Health and Physical Health Care Services will be called upon to help. Sacramento County Welfare department eligibility workers have offices on site. Evening parenting classes, nursing advice and visits, and family support groups are planned or in place now. The program emphasizes that when school, family and community agencies work together, the child's education is enhanced.
The rapidly expanding Elk Grove Unified School District is located in southern Sacramento County and teaches 36,000 students in thirty-eight schools.
Should a school district worry about student drop-outs? This district does. It believes in "early prevention."
A series of safety nets are in place. A system to identify early "at risk" students guides the district's efforts. The district has two comprehensive high schools for freshmen and sophomores with poor attendance records. Three alternative schools exist for students with special needs. One pre-apprentice program-Meat Cutters-results in 90 percent of its enrollees graduating from high school. Other specialties include Business and Education Technology, Agriscience, and Health Technology. Students in these programs participate in a cooperative venture with local businesses.
"Neverstreaming" emphasizes for educators the need to keep the advantages of mainstreaming without labeling. It was designed and created by the teachers, administrators and counselors. The State Department of Education authorized the experiment in 1994. Neverstreaming provides special services from the first signs of academic trouble. Neverstreaming could mean one teacher teaching reading to one student. Other innovations are: an accelerated learning program called "Jetstreaming," to address each student's learning style; "Regionalization" to address the multiple-problem family; and dynamic interaction with county social agencies.
Academic test scores have improved throughout the District, classification of students as "special education problems" is less frequent, and teachers possess more flexibility. Most importantly, students show more interest in their studies, teachers' esprit d'corps improves, and parents are more involved.