School Board Letters, Part 2

In fact, I sent another series of three letters, almost four, that is perhaps equally significant before these. That’ll be Part 1. This batch is all about retaining and recruiting students in LHPUSD, more specifically PM/HS. And yes, we were defectors too, sending our kids elsewhere, but I reckon that makes me more qualified to comment on the topic. As a faculty member and taxpayer, I want our little school to thrive, to attract students (and families), but lately we are losing more than usual. Thus, I wrote these…

Save LHPUSD? Part 1

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

Often, driving to Pescadero, I see friends and neighbors taking their children to school in Half Moon Bay. I am reminded of doing that myself – for years. In fact, dozens of other families have been doing it for many years (some go over the hill), all to the extreme detriment of LHPUSD. Why not make our school district so desirable that not only might we retain students and families, but we could actually recruit new ones?

By losing those families, LHPUSD loses valuable resources in the form of the parents. Parents who could participate in events, sponsor activities, coach teams, and support more than just their own children. Worse however, is the loss of their kids, those students as friends to and colleagues of the students who stay in the district. “The more the merrier” resonates at a small school, on sports teams and clubs, and especially in the classroom. Might we agree that the students and families who leave, just based on their drive and determination to find something better, have value?

We could be better! A previous board recognized that when they approved this first vision statement: “Students, parents and the local community will recognize our excellence and see our schools as desirable places to attend.  The unique opportunities available, which include a strong emphasis on local resources, will draw students here from outside the district.” That real vision statement was replaced by a slogan: “inspire, respond, engage,” something the district still seems to have a hard time doing. 

I will address the issue of “excellence” in a subsequent letter, but what about those “local resources”? Having discovered that this was not a new problem, back in late 2012, I did a survey of families (mostly from La Honda) about the desirability of LHPUSD. My takeaway was that if we used the beautiful natural resources around us to more effect, some families might stay in the district. Those results, that data, still resonate, and I’m happy to share them. In fact, such a study should be done again, in addition to conducting exit interviews and analyzing the contents of all those interdistrict transfer requests. 

Our family’s, like many others, was based on a lack of programs such as music or sports, but I’m aware of other interdistrict transfers based on more troubling reasons. Touchy subjects no doubt, but those issues need to be addressed. Whatever their reasons, are there not also complaints about the fact that we have had to spend time and money transporting our children elsewhere? What about the property taxes we paid to educate our children? How does that work?

It has not just been burdensome, it has been awkward, but we’re not alone. Other teachers, as well as current and former school board members have sent their children elsewhere. I’ll refrain from mentioning names, but you have a list of the prominent families, professionals and professors, and regular working folks who defect from LHPUSD (especially recently). In fact, it is an embarrassing, aggravating, solvable problem, and it should be your number one goal to remedy. It should be the district’s primary priority to retain and recruit more students and their families.

Yours Truly, Randall Vail

Save LHPUSD? Part 2

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

This topic, the retention and recruitment of students, is perennially difficult. It has been going on for generations, and any administration must battle that legacy. But why? Why leave LHPUSD? Some say history, patterns, or persistent rumors. Some say white flight (I don’t agree). Many cite the lack of programs, sports, desirable or elective classes, etc. Why this tradition of failure to retain and recruit students, especially after 5th grade, especially from LHE?

As previously mentioned, that should be researched by the district and perhaps it has been? But that effort to collect such data should be publicized, the results should be transparent, and the efforts to remedy them should be district-wide priorities, especially with regard to the Middle & High Schools. However, there may be some other possible contributing factors…

Using Bond Measure “I” to do new construction at La Honda Elementary took those valuable public resources ($3+ million?) away from PM/HS, especially the Middle School which has languished in portable classrooms for over a decade! Enhancing LHE while ignoring PMS did not seem to be the purpose and spirit of Bond Measure I. Read the law, look at the record. OK for LHE! What about PES? What about PM/HS? (The current PES-for-housing debate underlines this point.)

As a teacher (of 20 years before showing up in 2007), I’m bothered by what purports to be “professional development” (grievable still). For the last several years, it seems that there’s been a focus on resolving inherent problems with the faculty – although for the most part, I have been proud to work with a staff of accomplished professionals. However, rather than showcasing, enhancing, or even exploiting our strengths, there has been an emphasis on finding our weaknesses, our implicit biases, or equity challenges. In fact, is not the recent “equity audit” rife with insinuations of racism, favoritism, or elitism?

Look around, you won’t find more kind, compassionate, service-oriented, and non-racist liberals than in public school classrooms. We are not perfect, we are humans, but for the most part we are motivated by love, respect, and an ethos to serve, guided by a profound sense of history, equality, and empathy. Questioning that is insulting, and doubtless discouraging to community members who come to board meetings. How about board members coming to classrooms?! Why continue to “divide and conquer”?

Fortunately or not, we live in a time of reckoning, a time of shifting paradigms. However well-intentioned the current political zeitgeist of our district is (promotion of “critical race theory”?), if it alienates some families (families who could most benefit from some cultural reevaluation), and those children leave, we lose our most valuable opportunity to educate for change, and lose our most valuable of all resources: people – those diverse peoples.

Here’s a guess at causality: low academic and behavioral expectations. There is not a culture of achievement, nor a culture of respect. I am aware of one interdistrict transfer that was the result of bullying and the lack of an appropriate administrative response. As we have returned to in-person learning, that situation may be worse (incubated at home, marinated in media)? I disdain quoting W., however “the soft bigotry of low expectations” is disdainful (even to bigots), especially to those of us who advocate for academic rigor. Many parents appreciate high standards.

When this district is losing prominent Pescadero families, including that of the Director of Puente, in addition to all those La Honda defectors, what is the problem? This issue should be the biggest elephant in the boardroom, the superintendent’s office, and of course every staff meeting which we haven’t had for awhile. That was a conclusion, but here’s a coda (meaning 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)…

Check out the Great Schools webpages for Pescadero High and HMB High. We have a 7/10, HMB only 6/10. Why switch? More significantly, look at our Test Scores: 10/10. Our teachers – as a team effort – must rock! However, College Readiness (compared to HMB) could be improved. We need a counselor with a Pupil Services Credential who can both guide students to college and serve the significant mental health and wellness needs we have. We, as the public school system, should not be farming out psychological services to a non-profit. If we care about our students, let’s take better care of them ourselves. 

While our Equity score is higher than HMB, we must stop letting Math compromise our scheduling. Don’t just consider the new CA Math Framework, consider the fact that a third of the current seniors did not have US History in the 8th grade. Why? Look at the myriad scheduling debacles for every other subject department caused by math. Don’t let it happen. At the same time, every department should have an honors or AP option for almost every subject. Enough for now, I’ll save other possible solutions for Part 3… 

Sincerely, Randall Vail

Save LHPUSD, Part 3

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

Retaining and recruiting students can be an inspiring challenge! Having spent years marketing Magnet programs and small learning communities, here are some elevator pitches. In Part 2, I left off on scheduling and Honors & AP classes. Some parents love ‘em, and offering harder classes is easy.

To start with schedules, offer a fixed menu. On our four-block schedule, we should offer eight classes per year. (Each semester is worth 10 credits [units?] per block*, including all English & Math courses. (Guiding principle: as long as a grade-level cohort is below 35, there should be only one section of every subject every year. [Wiser allocation of taxpayer dollars and teacher time.]) *Thus, a student can achieve required credits for high school graduation by the end of the 11th grade, thus eligible for Concurrent Enrollment, which, offered to all 12th graders = equity and a great selling feature for PHS. 

Public school teachers expect to differentiate, modifying instruction for a wide range of abilities. In addition to accommodating various learning modalities, teachers should also have an honors extension of their curriculum. If a student completes the extra work, which should indicate a higher level of academic rigor, the student earns honors credit (5.0?). Of course it is necessary to monitor syllabi and course work to ensure integrity.

While the value of Advanced Placement (AP) is questionable, it is still a popular (and measured) feature of high schools. If a teacher is not willing to provide AP differentiation, most are available on UC Scout. Another option for students who do not choose Concurrent is to take AP exams as seniors. 

Creating options enhances choice architecture. How about creating our own Alternative School? How about our own Charter School? How about a “Small Learning Community” or Magnet program to attract students & families? Here’s one: The Open Space Academy. All pix are of PHS students in Environmental Field Studies. Now with our new science teacher, such a “Green STEM” program is more viable.

Another theme could be about The Arts. Repurposing PHS facilities could make this a particularly robust program. The Pescadero Arts & Fun Festival and the South Coast Artists Alliance are just two possible partners.

A bolder, more complicated project would be to create a whole new school within our district: Cage to Sage. Now, with the closing of Log Cabin Ranch and Camp Glenwood, there are more possible resources. 

Too much to handle? Why not bring in some proven experts to help? The Summit Learning Platform is available for free! Check out our past research, their own slidedeck pitch, Their Model, and my pitch to our district to give it a try. (At least we should appropriate their “Expeditions” program. Here are two of many possible themes: Bikes, Business (or use them another way).)

In addition to improving college readiness, offering electives, and creating unique & innovative programs, there are many things that we could do to improve our current operations. But I’ll save those for Part 4…

Best wishes, rv

Save LHPUSD, Part 4

Dear LHPUSD School Board,

In my previous letter, I encouraged innovation. This next batch of ideas is about reinvention or repurposing, building our institution, expanding our capacity. Let me start with the school board itself (yourselves?!)…

Why not increase the school board to seven members? In this way, we could increase community participation, generate more interest, and add more voices (diversity?) to your deliberations. The Pescadero Municipal Advisory Council has 13 seats (albeit not always filled). The Cuesta La Honda Guild has 9 seats. Many other school boards have 7, why not LHPUSD?

While the Covid pandemic created some challenges, it also created opportunities. One is the use of Google Classrooms. Why not make sure every teacher has a functioning GC for every subject? They can serve as the online platform for every course. Most college classes have one (many on Canvas), and GC is a simple and effective version. That way, students who are absent, on independent study, or even homeschooling, can participate. 

And there are many online resources. Many textbooks, public domain literature, supplemental videos, and other educational resources are available on the internet. Often, they’re free! However, I recommend supporting them with donations (ie. Patreon) which can be raised in the course of a course. And, we can consolidate all these online resources, as well as NWEA, with our SIS using a tool like Clever

Expand the use of NWEA (including its instructional tools) as a supplemental Final Exam for English and Math every semester. For that matter, every other high school I’ve ever worked at has a Finals Week. Why not PHS? It will cultivate a culture of academic achievement and prepare students for college. It should go without saying that all our classes should be standards-based and use the state frameworks, but do they? All of them, from sixth through twelfth grade? Post curricula, advertise syllabi!

All the classes on our official, HS Articulation, course list should have accurate content on them. Have we properly updated all of them? No. Can/should we? Yes! Much work has been done, but the process is not complete. And that course list, that menu of offerings, can/should be robust. Use UC Scout to create a smorgasbord of electives (as well as AP alternatives). They are already UC-approved and available to public schools on Canvas for free!

Speaking of electives, how many district transfers mention a lack of music at PM/HS? Why not use the world-class music teacher you already employ to provide 6-12 music options? (teaching to the choir?) In fact, there are several instructional threads that start in elementary school that could extend through to graduation. (Longer conversation about content threads, skill building, and curricular continuity, especially from MS to HS!)…

Much of what I’ve suggested over these four letters is not new. Another previous suggestion picked up from another district is the idea of “baby bonds,” or starting a district-supported 529 for every child. We could start investing in our students throughout their education with us so they can keep going after they graduate. (An object lesson in delayed gratification, not to mention dollar-cost averaging.) 

And how about their parents? Why don’t we have an adult school for the community? Why don’t we offer evening classes to help everyone get a high school diploma, learn English, or teach vocational skills? Not only could we help families with the Naturalization process for citizenship, but we could have a Career-Technical Education program that goes beyond high school. Again, we should not farm out our responsibility as the local public education institution to non-profit organizations. We have the capacity, let’s use it. 

Returning to professional development, perhaps it should be democratic (empowering v. prescriptive)? Of, by, and for the whole staff at a school? Sure, media culture is pervasive, good ideas can be inclusive, but every community is unique. The Anna Karenina Principle may not always apply, but those who know the particulars of a problem are most equipped to find a solution. The answers to problems in Pescadero may not be found in Maine or Colorado. Here’s a suggestion for engagement and inspiration among the faculty.

Thank you for considering these suggestions. I’m sure my colleagues have others, as would the parents of the students who no longer attend our school. In spite of the defections, and the Covid pandemic, we are doing OK. I’ve heard the learning loss is less than expected. Our sports program has momentum, and our student body seems upbeat. Making the retention and recruitment of students a priority, at the same time addressing some glaring problems, will only help to improve Pescadero High School. I’m sure that is a goal we all share.

Yours Truly, R. Vail

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