Marsh: Optimistic about schools

Incoming school board President Helen Marsh is optimistic about the coming year.

Because the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s financial footing has improved, for the first time in years the board won’t have to worry about making cuts and can concentrate on programs.

The district can continue its work on its vision which is:

• Preschool for all.

• Reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

• Proficiency in spoken English by the end of fifth grade.

• All students ready to enroll in college prep courses by ninth grade.

• All students be college and career ready by graduation.

“I don’t know what the difference is between a college student or one who is getting a job or going into the military,” Marsh said. “These are skills that employers want – to be proficient in technology, the ability to speak in public and (have) manners.”

One of the challenges the district faces is pulling English-language learners up.

“The biggest issue with English-language learners is poverty,” she said. “Look at the socio-economic disadvantage. That’s where we need to start our early education.”

And she pointed to the AVANCE program that teaches parents how to help their children from an early age. “If you tell moms they should talk to their children, they’ll do it,” she said.

Marsh, who has been on the board since 2004, is a strong proponent of preschool education. She would like to see the district offer a year of high-quality preschool to all children who aren’t enrolled in preschool. Right now, the district has preschool programs at El Verano, Sassarini and Flowery elementary schools.

“That’s 120 students in preschool,” she said.

“If we can have kids kindergarten-ready, the teachers will be ahead,” she added.

But Marsh said the parents need to be involved in their children’s education and the right place to start is in preschool. “When parents are involved, they’ll see it as their school,” she said. “Every parent who wants their child in preschool, will have it.”

Another program that Marsh said will expand is the Summer Reading Program in the elementary grades.

“It will expand into a reading and writing academy,” she said. “We need to have longer hours – 150 hours – for it to work.”

The district’s entire summer school program has been revamped in the past few years. “Summer school used to be more of the same old same old,” she said. “But now with the algebra boot camp and the reading academy, we’ve got summer school that’s exciting.”

“We want kids to come out and think that reading is fun … reading is cool,” she added.

Another change at the district is the Common Core State Standards. In the past, under No Child Left Behind, there was pressure on teachers to teach to the STAR test. But under Common Core, teachers will teach fewer concepts and teach depth rather than breadth. And students will take the Smarter Balanced tests on computers.

“Students will be tested on the depth of their knowledge,” she said. “The students won’t memorize, but understand themes on why things reoccur. It’ll teach students to be critical thinkers.”

But, she added, “We can’t stop there. Students have to learn to work in teams, work with technology and how to become a good citizen,” she said.

The district has been going in new directions with its freshmen teams, the ag program, linked learning and the new engineering pathway.

“We’re ahead of the curve with these programs,” Marsh said. “When we go to school board conventions and they start talking about some of these new ideas, we’re already doing them.”

She also has high praise for the district’s solar project. “It’s a tremendous money saver,” she said. “And we got additional money from the state that we’re going to put into facilities, such as new paint and carpets. We’re going to put money into curb appeal.”

She also wants the district to supply its employees with good working conditions.

“All of our employees are educators,” she said. “Last summer the maintenance people were educators teaching the kids about painting and planting. It was an educational experience for both the kids and the employees.”

And she wants the district to ask the teachers what sort of professional development is most relevant to what they’re doing.

“Our challenge as a district, is to help the entire community to understand why they should care about public schools,” she said. “We’re making progress with the Teacher Support Network and the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation.

“We want the community to see what the students are doing,” she added. “Visitors are welcome on campus. The more time they spend on campus, the more they’ll like what we’re doing.”

Marsh said one important part of the high school experience is the Booster Club.

“Five of six kids (at the high school) participate in something the Boosters support,” she said. “And engaged students do better academically.”

But it all comes back to finances. Even though the district is no longer cutting programs, Marsh said, it’s “not where we need to be.”

“California woefully underfunds education,” she said. “We have generous support in Sonoma. But we’re educating with a fraction of the money we need.”

She wants to be able to attract the best and brightest of teachers and the one way to do that is by raising salary schedules.

“I would like our salary schedule to beat surrounding districts,” she said. “There are districts that pay teachers close to what our principals make.”

“If we were at the top of the salary scale for Marin, we could get the best and the brightest,” she added.

She suggested that there be teacher leaders such as master teachers or teacher coaches.

“Sixty percent of teachers have no interest in being an administrator,” she said. “We need to provide opportunities for those teachers who don’t want to be an administrator.”