Tue07222014

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Schools persevere : Local districts begin new year in good shape despite state shortfall

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier Ananya Subramanian, above right, a sixth-grader at Gardner Bullis School, meets sixth-grade teacher Niki Mitchell.

Students returning to their classrooms in Los Altos this week might not notice a big change compared to last year, despite ongoing financial constraints imposed on public schools.

Administrators spent the majority of the spring deliberating ways to deliver the same educational programs with reduced funding.

“Our biggest challenge is maintaining what is expected with greater constraints placed on us,” said Los Altos School District Superintendent Jeff Baier. “It is challenging, but I am confident we will continue to do it.”

Through restructured programs, additional funds from a May parcel tax and continued support from the Los Altos Educational Foundation, the elementary school district is able to maintain its program with few changes.

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District will be able to preserve its full program, with some additional bells and whistles.

Bullis Charter School continues its growth this year, enrolling of more than 460 students and opening a new eighth-grade class.

 

New year, new faces

A familiar face returns to the Los Altos School District this year. Former Covington School Principal Nancy Davis will serve as principal at Almond School for the 2011-2012 school year.

After retiring early two years ago, Davis said she realized that she really missed being a principal.

“I was so pleased there was the opportunity to come back,” she said. “No, I’ll never retire. It was so not for me. A huge piece of me was missing – that piece of me that loves to be a part of children and their educational paths.”

Although Davis is the fourth new principal at Almond in five years, she said everyone has been welcoming.

“The Almond community has been so positive and supportive,” she said. “It is a wonderful community, and I feel they are truly embracing me.”

Despite having fewer teaching positions than last year, the Los Altos School District welcomed approximately 28 new teachers to classrooms this week. The new teachers were needed due to normal attrition: teachers retiring, resigning or taking leaves.

Assistant Superintendent Alyssa Gallagher said the new teachers are trained and prepared to teach in the district, due in part to professional development sessions held last week.

 

Changes to programs

As a result of state funding reductions, the elementary school district will have slightly larger class sizes this year.

Kindergarten through third-grade classrooms will have maximum sizes of 25, an increase of one student compared to last year. Fourth- through sixth-grade classes will have a maximum of 30 students per class as in the previous year.

The library programs and technology specialists at the schools have been scaled back, with hours of the respective specialists set at each campus based on size and need.

The Fine Arts Block was restructured for fourth- through sixth-graders, resulting in more frequent music education for students. Fifth- and sixth-graders will not have to choose between instrumental or vocal instruction and will receive two 30-minute music periods each week.

Core classes in the junior-high program will have no more than 27 students, one more than last year. Junior-high electives will remain the same as last year, with class sizes capped at 30 students.

“The program will look more like it did a few years ago,” Baier said. “It is a positive for kids and they ultimately get to make a choice, which is always good.”

 

Rolling out Khan Academy

and CSTEM

Fifth- and sixth-grade students in the Los Altos School District will experience some new programs in their curriculum.

Khan Academy, which provides new tools to maximize math education, was introduced in a few select classes last year and is scheduled to debut in all fifth- and sixth-grade math classes this fall.

The not-for-profit organization’s mission is to provide a “world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” The curriculum comprises more than 2,100 videos – available through the Internet free of charge – that cover content in math, science, finance and business, one concept at a time.

Concepts are arranged on a “Knowledge Map” that builds from the most basic ideas in the selected discipline to more complex theories reserved for the high-school level. Each concept is presented in digestible 10- to 15-minute video segments accompanied by practice exercises and tutorials.

Baier and Gallagher said it is important to understand that Khan Academy is not a new curriculum but rather a tool to enhance the existing program by providing alternative resources for students and teachers.

The district is also piloting a program for sixth-graders designed to connect Communication, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (CSTEM) teaching and learning through creativity, collaboration and computer science.

If the program proves successful, it could be expanded into other grades or possibly become a junior-high elective, Gallagher said.

Sheen Vaidyanathan will launch the program. A computer scientist and artist, Vaidyanathan has been with the district for five years. For the past two years, she taught digital design to fourth- through sixth-graders.

 

Reaching all students

In addition to providing the same programs without classroom cuts, the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District added several classes and programs aimed at a range of students.

A partnership with Google will allot $150,000 to help underrepresented students in CSTEM classes. Google also donated 200 laptops to the district to promote CSTEM education efforts and bridge the technology divide by making computers accessible to all students.

New classes are available on the campuses at all levels: a new life-science class (for sophomores not quite ready for biology), an after-hours Mandarin class that fulfills the language requirement and a new construction class that focuses on masonry and construction equipment maintenance for students who might want to pursue a certificate after college.

Construction funded by Measure A will continue this year. At Mountain View High, the new weight room and swimming pool are scheduled to open in February. In the spring, construction on new classrooms will begin.

Solar canopies installed on the campuses are saving the district 10 percent more money than estimated, according to Superintendent Barry Groves, approximately $500,000 annually.

 

BCS adds eighth grade

Continuing to grow its program, Bullis Charter School will add its first eighth-grade class this week with 25 students.

Principal Wanny Hersey said innovative block scheduling sets the class apart from the typical junior-high experience. The schedule pairs language arts with social science and math classes with science courses.

“So many of these topics are interconnected, it makes sense to teach them together,” she said.

The eighth grade also scheduled intersessions – three-week breaks from the regular block of classes. The first will feature a sports theme, Hersey said, which will “give students the opportunity to apply and extend interest to sports outside the school and develop lifelong healthful habits.”

Another important component of the eighth-grade program will be the advisory classes, which foster leadership. Hersey said this year the students will take more of an advocacy role in applying their leadership skills in the community. The charter school has introduced a methodical collaboration to extend and apply 21st-century skills with the Youth Engaged in Leadership and Learning Program.

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