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New school year brings new beginnings in Sonoma Valley

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The start of the school year is always a new beginning, but this year is even more so than usual in the Sonoma Valley.

School starts Aug. 20 with a new superintendent of schools, all-new senior district staffers, a new AVID program at Dunbar Elementary, a new special education director and forward movement on a campaign to give special education parents and educators a greater voice.

In 2017, concerns over a budget deficit that parents feared might lead to cuts in the district’s special education programs grew contentious. But both administrators and critics seem hopeful for a fresh start this year.

“It’s the beginning of a new era,” said Britta Johnson, president of the school board. “Let’s put the past behind us and move forward, focused on the kids.”

An advocate for special education families voiced similar sentiments.

“I am a firm believer in starting with a clean slate,” said Celeste Winders, a Sonoma mother of four kids. Three of her children are students in the district, one of whom is dyslexic and has ADHD and one of whom is on the autism spectrum. “At the same time, there is a history we want to repair. We are willing to roll up our sleeves.”

By “we,” Winders was referring to a group of about 150 parents of special needs children in the district that works together to lend its members support in easing their kids’ way through the school system.

“We have proposed a special education advisory council,” said Winders. “It would not be just parents. We want to have a nonvoting student member as well as a certificated teacher.”

Schools Superintendent Socorro Shiels has placed the special education advisory council proposal on the agenda of the first School Board meeting of the year, slated to take place Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at the City Council Chambers at 177 First St. W.

Winders and Mindy Luby, her co-leader of the proposed advisory council, met with Shiels and Vanessa Riggs, the district’s new director of special education and student services, on Wednesday.

“We had a very positive meeting. I think we’re all on the right road. The end consensus: This is all about the students, and as long as we stay focused on that, we’ll be fine,” Winders said.

Winders’ attitude is the right one for a parent dealing with an essentially all-new administration, particularly with regard to a new superintendent of schools, said Becca Bracy Knight, executive director of the Broad Center, a nonprofit that offers professional development programs for educators, among other things.

“People should give new leaders the benefit of the doubt and not make assumptions about how they are going to do things,” Knight said. “The important thing is to give that leader room to come up with a plan and figure how they want to lead in that system.”

The executive director added, “Assume good intentions.”

Another new development this year is the AVID, or Advancement via Individual Determination, program rolling out at Dunbar Elementary. AVID grooms students for college.

“All of our classes are going to adopt a college,” said Jillian Beall, principal of Dunbar, where 125 of the 213 students are English language learners and 67 percent of the student body is Hispanic or Latino. She is also the AVID district director.

“Instead of being in Ms. McIntyre’s class in Room 7, you are going to be at UC Davis. Every student will belong to a mock university and will get a T-shirt to match. For UC Davis we are getting navy blue shirts with yellow lettering on the front that says, ‘UC Davis,’” Beall said.

In addition to gaining a sense of belonging and demystifying of the idea of college, students will learn practical study habits such as taking notes, and will do a lot of collaboration, working in teams, Beall said.

The program is already offered at Sonoma Valley High School, as well as the middle schools, Altimira and Adele Harrison, so adopting AVID at Dunbar will offer continuity within the system, Johnson said.

Knight noted that the start of the school year often brings changes in staffing and leadership, new programs and initiatives.

Having a new superintendent and new hires “can be a catalyst for other transitions,” Knight said.

A number of other new faces are coming to the district, including a new principal at Sonoma Valley High School, Justin Mori, who left a position as principal he held since 2012 at San Jose Intermediate School in the Novato Unified School District.

“The high school principal touches all the high school students, whereas there are five different grade schools,” Johnson noted. She said that Sonoma Valley High School plays a central role in town. “It is a community-facing place.”

An all-new cast of characters is in place at the senior district level.

Associate Superintendent Bruce Abbott in January 2018. HR Director Jonathan Ferrer, Associate Superintendent Elizabeth Kaufman and Director of Special Education and Student Services Vanessa Riggs came on board in July 2018.

Superintendent Socorro Shiels arrived in June.

“We’re excited to start the year,” Shiels said. “It’s great to have everyone back and ‘at home.’ The house has felt empty without them, and we look forward to getting to know one another, working together and moving forward.”

Email Janis at janis.mara@sonomanews.com.