Click to enlarge image

With budget woes filling the news, and STAR testing approaching, worried high school parents packed the boardroom and bombards the principal with questions and concerns.

Santa Ynez High School principal Mark Swanitz, pleased with the crowd of prospective and present parents, made his way through a myriad of assorted questions. He started with testing and ended, where he hoped to begin, by airing a student-produced film on STAR testing.

“Our next Principal’s Coffee, and the last one for the school year, will be 8:30 a.m. Friday, May 6, in the boardroom,” said Donna Feazelle.

“How are we going to maintain our standards with the draconian budget?” one father asked. Murmurs echoed the room as Swanitz acknowledged the issue is one asked by all.

“There are going to be a lot of really hard questions for the school board before this time next year,” Swanitz acknowledged. But whatever happens with the budget, the focus will “remain to try to teach students to be prepared for work in a world where the jobs they will have probably haven’t even been invented yet.”

One parent noted that we are in the bottom 20% nationally in terms of school funding, but rate high academically. “We are already very, very efficient. I don’t see what more we can do,” he said.

Swanitz used the analogy of a bucket to explain school funding. The state determines how big the bucket should be based on the number of students a school has. The bucket is filled first with local property tax dollars, and the state then tops it off. A school, like Santa Ynez, that can fill its own bucket is a basic aid school. If the property taxes overfill the bucket, the school keeps those dollars.

The problem is multi-faceted, Swanitz said. Because the state has reduced the size of the bucket, more schools are now basic aid. It has also reduced some of the extra funding that schools get for such things as students at risk. Local property tax dollars are also diminishing, so at every turn, there are fewer education dollars to spend.

Although fairly well-funded for next year, unless the property tax extensions are approved, the enormity of future cuts is daunting, Swanitz said. The day of reasonable class sizes may be behind us. Only one Allan Hancock class is affected so far, but cuts to the dual enrollment program are likely.

One parent urged the school to reduce administrative costs. There is a perception that education dollars are going to management salaries and testing, and not to teachers to teach, he said.

Swanitz is aware of growing concerns “we are over assessing, but while the debate is going on, we have to do what we have to do.” The kinds of changes people want take four to five years to implement.

“We no longer teach to the test. We teach to the standards, and the tests are aligned to those,” he said. “That is why we get such valuable data from the tests.” Swanitz says the future is likely to be a national curriculum which looks close to what California has, and perhaps even electronic testing. But there will still be much that cannot be measured by standardized tests, including communication and collaboration.

Swanitz explained how STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) works and its effect on the school’s API (Academic Performance Index) score. “The nice thing about STAR testing here at Santa Ynez is that we don’t have to change the schedule to get it done.” Students take the tests during their regularly scheduled period for that subject.

Swanitz urged parents to “help spread the word that testing is good for the school. It’s both high stakes for the school and for the students, because their placement in classes is dependent on it.”

Parents expressed concerns about canned tests from text books. One mother complained tests are computer-graded, and neither returned to students nor gone over. She worries this leaves students unable to identify the information they either misunderstood or failed to study. Several others agreed, and had similar experiences.

Swanitz voiced no objection to the tests, or their not being returned, but said he would look into whether teachers are reviewing the tests for information that needs to be corrected. Concerns were raised about the use of inappropriate language at sporting events. While many acknowledged they have heard worse from students on other campuses, appropriate conduct at all events is something students should know is expected of them. Swanitz applauded the parent for admonishing the student, and encouraged others to do so also.

He says assistant principal Dr. Tulles has done a lot to change the culture at school, noting students are no longer allowed in the parking lots.”You are witnessing the beginning of what will be a very positive culture shift,” Swanitz said.

Swanitz reminded parents the third quarter just ended and that grades were mailed. Fall registration is not yet complete, but when it is, the master schedule will be created. Freshman sports, cancelled when too few schools in the league could afford them, will be back in the fall.