Vision and the fortitude leads to right decisions

Julia Espe
Superintendent Julia Espe

As part of our Strategic Plan, I went to the schools to talk to our staff.  My last two articles gave you a portion of the presentation. Here is part three.
One area of demographics identifies students who are impacted financially.  In schools, we call this area Free and Reduced Lunch.  The reason  we try to identify students in these families is  there is a direct correlation between students who have enough to eat and high performance in school.  In other words, students cannot learn as well if they are hungry.
Our district as a whole has about 32 percent of our students who qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch.  We encourage families to sign up for this, for the benefit of the students.
We have two programs to demonstrate the correlation of poverty to struggling in school performance.  The educational program  we offer in Accurate Home Care (the care and treatment program in town) is called Education Options.  The average of students in the Free and Reduced Lunch program in Education Options is 72.7%.  The other program that shows this relationship between being economically disadvantaged and student learning is our new Area Learning Center.  The average of students in the Free and Reduced Lunch program in the Area Learning Center is  70 percent.
Our district has focused staff development time, as well as individual effort, to implement our teaching map, which incorporates best practices in instruction.  As a result, our students have increased in achievement every year, in math and reading, for the past four years.  This is not the case for any of our comparison districts.  In science, our third year saw a dip; however last year’s results continued in our stair-stepping up in student achievement.
We are very happy with our students’ success, and are working hard to help our students have similar results this year.
Our district’s enrollment has been slowly declining the past five years.  Prior to those years, from 2010 to 2013, we lost close to 50 students per year.   This is devastating for a district our size. The financial impact was nearly one million dollars in student funding.
Why did this happen?  It was a combination of students open enrolling out of our district and fewer babies being born in our attendance area.  The school board went to work, doing the hard work of budget adjusting, as well as looking for ways to keep our students in our district.  We have decreased this number and now lose around ten students a year.
Using both local and state data, we found  students were leaving to find districts that were performing better academically.  Parents were also looking for more options for their high achieving students.  We saw a trend of more and more students leaving our district to attend online schools.  Using state data, we found  two programs that parents sought the most in districts were STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and Language Immersion programs.
Our board immediately established the “program initiatives” fund, in order to incorporate programs to retain and draw parents.  This took some smart financial management on the part of our school board.
As a result, our district implemented the efforts of:
• Increasing student achievement,
• Re-inventing our program for high achieving students,
• Initiating our online academy,
• Increasing our number of courses that offer college credit while students attend our high school,
• Spanish Immersion in grades PreK, K and 1, adding one grade level every year,
• Implementing a STEAM program at the Middle School level, for every single student.  STEAM is a STEM program which incorporates art.
The trend was stemmed.  We have fewer students going to other districts through open enrollment, and we have retained our own students.  We have also attracted other students to come to our district.
I am proud of the strides our district continues to make.  We are very fortunate to have a school board with a vision and the fortitude to make the right decisions to improve opportunities for our students.  We are lucky to have the staff, teachers and administrators to do the hard work of improving incrementally, every year, every month, every day.
The next article I write will conclude the Superintendent Update.