Hitting the Books

The New School Year Ushers In Old and New Concerns

by Ethan Stewart

Monday marked a return to academia for thousands of students throughout the combined Santa Barbara School Districts. From Santa Barbara High School on Anapamu Street to Monroe Elementary on the Mesa, school buses jockeyed with minivans and SUVs in the early-morning hours as backpacked, binder-toting kids prepared for day one of the 2006-07 school year. Yet the first-day hustle and bustle belied the fact that attendance was down again this year in both the elementary and high school districts, sparking disappointment on the part of Superintendent Brian Sarvis. While he noted that official enrollment counts aren’t taken until October, Sarvis conceded this week that the districts are “definitely going to have to keep an eye on the situation.” All told, 5,399 kids turned out in the 13 elementary schools, a one percent drop from last year’s first-day attendance totals, while 9,611 students were counted in the district’s four high schools, an approximate 4 percent drop from last year’s total. Explained in part by the declining enrollment trend, the districts also have fewer teachers this year.

Roll call problems aside, Sarvis expressed his excitement about the upcoming school year and optimism about the laundry list of issues facing the districts and the Board of Education. According to Sarvis, teachers old and new will pay particular attention this year to raising student achievement on standardized tests — specifically getting English learners in elementary schools to proficient levels — and to getting high school seniors up to snuff on exit exams. Fifty local seniors from the Class of 2006 have yet to pass the required exam, while approximately 10 percent of current seniors — which translates to about 150 students — are still trying to earn a passing score. (The test is offered a few times a year for students at or above the level of sophomore.) Another hot topic for high schools is the district’s decision to maintain its traditional policy on giving out student information to military recruiters. Despite debate among school board members last year, students will once again be able to “opt out” of the information-sharing practice only by bringing home a piece of paper for their parents to sign.

At the board level, the November election is a major focus, with two seats up for grabs as incumbent Lynn Rodriguez steps down and Dr. Robert Noel seeks reelection. Noel is joined in his bid by San Marcos mother Suzy Cawthon, one-time mayoral hopeful William Hackett, Adams PTA member Kate Parker, Magdalena Maddox, and Citizens for Neighborhood Schools advocate Roseanne Crawford.

Additionally, the board is tackling a facility master plan update that aims to resolve some longstanding and controversial debates over several shared campuses — a tall order, given a total budget that Sarvis recently characterized as “solid, but without any extra money at all.” To this end, the board made what President Annette Cordero called “momentous” decisions this week when it voted to make the current sites of the Santa Barbara Charter School (located at Goleta Valley Junior High) and the Open Alternative School (located at La Colina Junior High) permanent locations, pending a financial analysis. At the same Tuesday evening meeting, the board also directed staff working on the facility master plan to rule out the possibility of splitting the fast-growing César Chávez Charter School campus, and to take a more in-depth look at the costs associated with moving the entire K-6 Santa Barbara Community Academy to underutilized spaces at La Cumbre Junior High. Currently, the academy is split between La Cumbre and an Ortega Street site, a fact bemoaned by faculty and parents.

Another point of community contention is a final report due back before the board sometime in October on the feasibility of turning its property holdings in the Hidden Valley and Tatum neighborhoods into affordable employee housing. Additionally, the board’s ongoing discussion about the possibility of doing away with on-site cooking facilities at several schools — and creating a centralized, state-of-the-art kitchen at Santa Barbara High School in their stead — is slated to be resolved in coming months.

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