1/9/08 School Board Meeting

Here are a few highlights from tonight's school board meeting (agenda and background packet).

Employee Contracts
The board ratified the agreement between Local 1021 SEIU and Fremont Unified School District for 2007-2010. Additionally, a tentative agreement is now in place with the teacher union (FUDTA). Both of these contracts only set salaries for one year, which means next year the district and employee groups will have to negotiate salary again, but given the ominous state budget deficit it may be for the best.

Community Day School
Val Williams (Directory of Pupil Services) presented her teams report on finding a location in Fremont to set up a community day school. She is exploring the Fremont Teen Center.

I am very supportive of this initiative. The challenges are many but I can think of no more important group of kids to invest in. It makes me think back to what former school board member Guy Emanuelle has said, "“Never give up on a student even when a student may have given up on themselves."

Having served on the board, I can say one of the most difficult jobs a school board has is being the final review for all student expulsions. I am thankful that we had the option to send our students to Hayward Community Day School, but that is not a great solution because many of the students never make it there. It's just too far. When you look at Robertson Continuation School that serves another group of at risk students, routinely 30% of their students miss school. And to those who say these kids don't try hard enough, you try being a 14 or 15 year old and take public transportation for as much as 3 hours a day to school from north Fremont.

You have to remember that these are kids that have "given up on themselves." We need to show them we value them, they are part of our community, and that there are other ways to behave and succeed. They benefit and we, society, benefits. And frankly, $155,000 in additional money it would cost is a cheap way to provide hope and help to this group of kids.

Two-Story Modular Construction and Approve Classrooms for Warm Springs Elementary School.
The board approved adding 7 classrooms to Warm Sprints Elementary School. These are the first two story modulars in the district. They are much more expensive than single story classrooms, but given the size of our sites in the north and south of Fremont and the growth at each end of the city I think we'll be seeing more pressure for two story construction. The big question will be how to fund these.

Safe Schools
When I was on the board in 2006, we established district-wide goals including one focused specifically on safe schools.

2007-2008 Safe Schools Strategic Goal:

To ensure that our schools provide a safe environment, conducive to learning, for all students and staff, and that our schools encourage positive behaviors and choices, teach students to respect themselves and others, and provide appropriate discipline and counseling for negative and self- destructive behaviors.

This update presented the many types of programs that the district and community have organized to make schools safer and give students the skills to resolve conflicts. Students need to feel safe at school, because only students who are safe will be able to focus on learning.

I had the great fortune to talk a bit with Jan Steed the assistant Director of Pupil Services. She really helped me understand that safe schools programs are about helping student make better choices. We want to arm our students with the skills to choose words over fists, compassion over ignorance, understanding over name calling.

But how do you measure safe schools? For example, the number of suspensions and expulsions are a bad measure. Suspensions and expulsions are tools to improve school safety, like any other program. The measures need to be the behaviors we're seeing in our students. Maybe we measure the number of fights in schools or continue surveying our students. I don't know what the right measures are, but we need to find the best ones to evaluate our programs and the choices our students our making.

The next board meeting is on January 14, 2008 (next Monday) for a Patterson Ranch study session and to ratify the teachers contract. It's at 6:15 pm at City Council chambers.

Two other important unscheduled but upcoming items:
  1. The updated SchoolWorks demographic study and report is almost ready and will be is coming soon to the board.
  2. Length of residency as an overload requirement is being evaluated by legal council now.

1/14/08 School Board Meeting

Here are a few highlights from tonight's school board meeting (agenda and background packet).

Board Discussion on the Proposed Patterson Ranch Development
The school board discussed a number of aspects of the development including the following aspects.

Size: How many students? From the board packet:

The projected number of elementary students generated from the 800 unit Patterson Ranch development is estimated at 171. The projected number of elementary students generated from the 276 unit Villa d’Este development is estimated to be 94. Elementary K-6: District-wide average from all homes is .339 per home X 1,076 homes = 365 [elementary] students American High School total enrollment is 2,060 with an anticipated increase in student enrollment ranging between 89 students and 102 students... Based upon these calculations, the new development will generate between 48 and 54 students [at Thornton Junior High School].

That's 365 elementary students and around 150 secondary students.

Staff has recommended an elementary school with enough core facilities (bathroom, multi-purpose room, etc.) for 840 students to accommodate growth and enough classrooms for 600 students as follows:

School Cost for 600 Students: Adding underground infrastructure for future expansion of 11 more classrooms for a potential build out to 840 students would add $3.85 million dollars to the project. For planning purposes $26.85 million would be a 2007 cost estimate.

Another benefit is that it provides potential space for Forest Park and other overcrowded American attendance area elementary schools. An interesting and related comment from trustee Lara York was that the previous developments in that area were Patterson family land and have generated many more students than planned for. It can be said this is just the next phase in the development of that whole area. Staff is going to research this.

Location: All elementary kids would have to cross Ardenwood Blvd. This is a non-starter for safety and traffic reasons. In the current proposal they have placed the church closer to the homes than the school! That makes no sense to me.

Costs: In summary, the board wants the developer to cover all the costs. "It's important that all the costs and fees ... are born by the developer," said trustee Larry Sweeny. Cost considerations include:
  • The board was very strong in saying the school must be ready before they sell the homes, and that this be committed to in the development application. If not, then the houses will be assigned to another elementary school with capacity which could be quite a distance from the homes.
  • Inflation factors need to be built into the building costs.
  • The developer needs cover any additional costs that accrue due to any delays.
  • The district would very much like to own the land.
  • The developer should also provide funding to mitigate the impacts on secondary schools impacts.

Process: Need the school and housing application to go forward at the same time and that they be linked. The housing application can not go forward without having agreement on the school development. Superintendent Doug Gephart summarized it well. "We need to be a prime player. Our interests need to be considered at the same time as the others. This should be done simultaneously." I agree. Schools are not a secondary concern. They are the primary concern of many if not most of those home buyers.

Unfortunately, there has been little dialog between the developer and district at this point. The developer wanted to do their own independent assessment of the costs of the school. After that they do want to work with the School Board.

This is the second of two major proposed developments (the other being the A's ballpark village) in Fremont that the board has discussed in the last 6 months. This is a great proactive step to put the district's needs in front of the developers. Unfortunately, the district has little leverage in negotiations with developers.

Fortunately these two development are big enough to really call for a new elementary school to be built, and it is in the developers best interest to make sure a school is built. However, I am not sure developers may truly appreciate the needs. The pessimist will say they are looking to minimize costs, which I am sure is a consideration. But it's really impossible for them to truly understand the schools' needs. That's the job of the school district. But it's critical that the city and developers seek to understand this need.

Teachers and other contracts
FUDTA (the teacher's union) and the school board have ratified a one year teachers contract agreement. The contract includes a 4.55% cost of living adjustment (COLA) for this year (2007-08) only. This contract only set salaries for one year, which means next year the district and employee groups will have to negotiate salary again, but given the ominous state budget deficit it may be for the best.

Additionally, the assistant superintendents and superintendent have been given a 4% cost of living adjustment. The district has also extended the 3 assistant superintendent contracts to all be July 1 2008 to June 2011.

All COLAs are retroactive to July 2007.

1/23/08 School Board Meeting

Here are a few highlights from tonight's school board meeting (agenda and background packet).
  • Progress Report on Preparation for Closed Campus - I support the goal of closing our high school closed campuses, but it's clear from this report that it's more expensive than the district can afford at this point.
  • Secondary Passing Times - This was in response to a request from a parent who was concerned there was not enough time for restroom use and breaks during the day for our secondary students. While I don't disagree it is an important issue, I believe this is not a great use of board time. This is better left to the sites and staff to solve with students and parents. The board should focus on higher level policy issues with its precious time.
And just such an important issue was on the agenda.

Science Course Sequence Options
The science curriculum in our 5 high schools are similar, but not the same. One of the key differences is that American high school has in recent years has made Biology a 9th grade class, while in other high schools Biology is normally a 10th grade course and integrated or earth science is a 9th grade course. (I am oversimplifying this a little, so please review to the board item for more details.)

This is an important item from both a philosophical and policy level. The board and district have to balance several difficult concerns.
  • Equity - Is it equitable that one high school offers a 9th grade Biology and others do not? Yes and no. We need to provide the best mix of classes we can for each high school student population, but we also need to not leave any students out.
  • Student choice - This is closely related to equity. We want to provide students with as many choices as they can and as many ways as possible to meet the standards we've set for them.
  • Teacher freedom - Teachers should have the freedom to teach the best way they can - to apply their expertise. We should set clear goals and desired outcomes and let teachers figure out the best way to get there with their students.
  • Staffing - Credentialed science teachers are difficult to find. Additionally starting in 2006 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires all teachers to be Highly Qualified (credentialed) in the subject they teach.

The district science curriculum committee recommended standardizing on Integrated science courses as the 9th grade class. I understand why they came to this pragmatic solution. However the board did not go with that exact recommendation. They voted to:
  • Offer at 9th grade 3 options: Integrated science, Biology, and Honors Biology,
  • Change the 8th grade honors science class to Integrated science, and
  • Ensure that 9th graders in Integrated science can have the option to apply for Honors Biology in 10th grade.

I agree with the thinking that the board went through to come to this decision. I think Peggy Herndon summed it up best in saying, "I think we need to offer our students more not less." Student choice and the equity of that choice are the prime concerns. Only slightly behind that in my mind is academic freedom. We must provide as much freedom as possible to allow our teachers to reach our goals using a variety of methods, and we must measure the results of these offerings. Are they effective? Would there be better options? Setting and measuring goals is crucial here. Freedom to do your job how you see fit only works when there is accountability.

So as a policy decision, the board, in my opinion, made the right call. Restricting equity, choice, or freedom because you can not find the teachers would be the "easy" way out. There were also concerns about the rigor of the curriculum, having enough lab facilities, and impact to test scores as a result of offering more choice. I believe there are solutions to each of these like the ones we will have to find for staffing. If these challenges prove too difficult we may end up having to go with the science committee's recommendation, but we have to at least try.

I am glad the board set the bar higher, and asked our district, "What more can we do for our students?"
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