Could Plumas lose one of its high schools?Linda Satchwell
Lisa Balbiani, vice principal and teacher at Greenville High School, addressed the school board Nov. 12 regarding her concerns over falling enrollment, scarcity of appropriate electives, student/staff safety, and a lack of resources for special education students, who are granted supplemental services under their individualized education plans.
According to Balbiani, “Despite the commitment to keep Greenville High School a comprehensive, accredited high school that follows the mission and vision of PUSD, this is not happening.”
Her safety concerns center on the fact the school is sometimes left with no overseeing administrator because the two site administrators for the elementary and high school have other duties that call them away.
At those times, said Balbiani, office staff or teachers who aren’t trained to deal with major discipline or safety issues are called to “administer triage and decide what is best in a bad situation,” which, she said, “is not safe or supportive of staff or students.”
Quality education offered at the student’s appropriate level is also lacking, said Balbiani. “Greenville High School currently offers no advanced classes or face-to-face remediation for its students.”
Because of rigid state standards and testing expectations, “the basics are taught with no flexibility for student achievement or advancement. Currently there are many students who cannot take the classes they need to graduate and move on to the post secondary option of their choice.” In fact, total elective offerings at the school “are limited to three sections of foreign language and one section of nine-12 music.”
Because of education to the average, many students who fall on one side or the other of that category are going elsewhere said Balbiani, contributing to the school’s “declining (enrollment) spiral.”
She said her greatest concern was with students who had IEPs. “With one half-time resource teacher and one part-time resource aid, the needs of students are not being met in the regular classrooms, and the terms of the IEPs are not being met by giving students an alternate time and setting for their needs which is a standard accommodation for many resource students.”
Balbiani suggested the school district might, in fact, be in “serious jeopardy of not following the legally binding terms of student IEPs.”
Finally, Balbiani called on the school board to look beyond each member’s local community concerns to the needs of the whole district. If the intent of the district is “to ensure that the needs of all students in the PUSD are being met, then the distribution of opportunity is not fair or equitable to the students of Indian Valley.”
Mike Chelotti, former Plumas Unified School District superintendent and Greenville High principal, spoke in support of Balbiani and reiterated some of her concerns.
Chelotti helmed the district through difficult financial times. He has a wealth of administrative experience, but he’s also a parent and, now, a grandparent of Greenville students.
He said he didn’t believe the board was actively trying to close Greenville’s schools, but that to do nothing would have the same effect. The board needed to be actively involved with Greenville’s schools.
He asked several board members and the superintendent to come to Greenville and simply listen to the students, teachers and parents talk to them about the serious problems there.
He supported Balbiani’s claim that students are leaving the high school at an alarming rate, and said that would cause further reductions in course sections and electives in the spring.
That, in turn, would have the effect of forcing more students to go elsewhere for their education, causing a “death spiral” at the school.
When contacted later, Superintendent Glenn Harris said that in fact the numbers at the school were holding fairly steady—there had been a net loss of two students in the ninth–12th grades this year.
Further, when asked if he had plans to close Greenville’s schools, Harris said the district “can still see a population viable for two to three years out,” in Greenville. As proof, he cited the new $300,000 lighting system for the football field.
But, if school enrollment continues to decline, he said, “we will have to be closing and consolidating” schools. He admitted that was difficult for people, because they’re tied to their own communities. He said, however, “we’d be remiss if we weren’t having the conversation.”
He also went on to say, as he had at the board meeting, that the district needed to look to alternatives to traditional brick and mortar schools, due to continued declining enrollment and the bleak economic outlook.
Distance learning, traveling to other traditional high schools that have programs a student’s home school lacks, charter schools—all have their place in this school district as it evolves Harris said.
Distance learning (web-based coursework) in particular, according to Harris, needs to expand its role. Already, students are taking Feather River College Polycom (live video conference) classes.
Distance learning is also used regularly for credit recovery (remedial coursework).
Harris sees a much-expanded role for web-based courses. He mentioned Aventa Learning (aventalearning.com), which has a comprehensive, well-designed program of online courses that can be tailored to the needs of the district.
Harris said area charter schools are already utilizing these resources routinely, and he commended them for that.
Harris, along with Feather River College, is looking into the prospect of bringing broadband to the area to facilitate online learning.
He has also thought about how to approach the need for a “teacher of record”—that is, a “live” district teacher, as required by the state for all students in web-based classes.
Meanwhile, back at Greenville High, teachers, staff, students and parents are interested in saving their school. When asked about the marked drop in enrollment, attendance clerk Judy Yocum said only, “I agree 100 percent with everything Lisa (Balbiani) said.”
Plumas Charter was even more tight-lipped. In general, the charter schools do not want to be seen as stealing students from the traditional district schools.
Mike Chelotti was anything but guarded, however. The charters aren’t stealing students, he contended. They’re simply serving a population that can no longer get its needs met at the traditional schools—especially at Greenville High.
After making a few quick calls, Chelotti confirmed the high school has lost 13 or 14 students already this year—in three months—with another one set to leave just after Thanksgiving.
All of these students are still living here he said, but they have found alternative forms of education. Most have gone to Plumas Charter, one has gone to Almanor High and a couple to St. Andrew’s, a private school at Lake Almanor.
Harris said the football lights came from Measure A funds, voted and paid for by residents’ tax dollars for facilities upgrades. Before Measure A was put on the ballot, he said, each community was polled to see what it wanted that it would be willing to pay for.
Greenville said it wanted “reconstruction of the football field.” The district didn’t give Greenville its lights; this was a present residents gave to themselves, he said.
Chelotti’s frustration was readily apparent. He said there could have had an ambush at the recent board meeting in Greenville. Irate students, parents and teachers would readily have come out, but they decided to have Balbiani’s well-thought-out comments backed by Chelotti’s request that a couple of board members and the superintendent come out and listen to the community’s concerns in an open public meeting. “How hard is that?” he asked.
The board members, elected by the people, are supposed to serve the whole district, not just their particular area, and the superintendent works for the board, not vice-versa.
For that reason, Chelotti said he blamed the board, not Superintendent Harris, for its seeming indifference. Chelotti is angry he didn’t get any response at all to his request, and he doesn’t plan to give up any time soon. “PUSD isn’t doing a damn thing,” he said.