School Superintendent proposes innovative academy

“If we don’t get a handle on facilities—you’ll have a school district in financial disaster.”

- Glenn Harris


Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

    In a community meeting held at Portola High School library May 26, Plumas Unified School District Superintendent Glenn Harris presented his proposal for a small, innovative academy type program within the high school. The program promises to give underserved students an array of choices currently unavailable.

    In a conversation that Harris said is long overdue, he presented a no nonsense view of our small, rural school district; a district in declining enrollment that is supporting huge facilities — a combination that, if not dealt with, could be the downfall of the district according to Harris.

    Addressing the current decrease in course sections due to declining enrollment, Harris explained that if one of the high schools loses 25 students, that equals one teacher. When one teacher goes, six sections are lost to students. This inevitably narrows choices.

    In the current environment, it has caused students, especially in Greenville and Portola, to opt for an alternative education at area charter schools.

    That, in turn, leads to fewer students and even fewer course sections at public high schools, which leads to an even greater exodus — what Indian Valley Academy proponent and former Plumas County school superintendent Mike Chelotti, has termed “a death spiral.”

    The district has taken a barrage of criticism as its schools have headed on this downward path. Now, Harris is proposing a vigorous and innovative, if temporary, solution.

    This coming year, rather than cutting more sections, he plans to “turn that scenario on its head,” proposing to increase student offerings for the next two years, thereby enabling “students now to have meaningful schedules.”

    Traditional schools need to consider some serious changes if they are to compete with charter schools, to which the district’s high schools are currently “bleeding students” said Harris.

    “We need to explore options,” he continued, including Polycom classes that would include “a number of high schools at the same time.”

    In addition, Harris continues to advocate for online learning. He pointed out that kids do more, and more creatively, with a cell phone than most adults can even comprehend. These same students are already geared towards learning via the Internet.

    For those who tend to close their ears when they hear that suggestion, they should hear that is only one option being suggested — and one that could conceivably be used in conjunction with several other forms of learning.

    Harris envisions “a high school looking more like a college campus with ... a myriad of choices for how kids learn.” If a student’s home life doesn’t allow him to get to school until 10 a.m., for example, or a young mother needs time for her child, the challenge to the schools is to provide more options for them.

    This is better for the students, and is what’s necessary if rural schools are going to survive, he said.

    Harris and other school staff members also spoke of the drain charter schools are causing on the public school system.

    There was a clear awareness that the charter model was one that the district needed to pay attention to — in regards to flexibility of scheduling, acceptance of individual differences and innovative methods of educational content delivery.

    Charters, said Harris, “get to play by a different set of rules,” but “it’s a good thing to have options.” Of public schools, he said, “If it’s a fixed box, parents will take kids to charters ... if we want kids to stay at Portola High School, we need to make it better, (make it) work like a charter.”

    Right now, students are “voting with their feet,” and leaving the public schools in droves. Harris suggested looking at why students are leaving and figuring out what it would take to bring them back.

    The students that are the most underserved, he said, are the high-end, advanced placement students, and the disenfranchised students who feel as though they don’t fit in for one reason or another.

    He introduced a software group, Student Pathways, which provides technology solutions for education. It is, fortuitously, located right in Portola, even though it provides student learning and reporting software nationwide.

    Right now, it is consulting for the district on a volunteer basis said Amy Gruber. While she acknowledged her company would like the business if the school district decides to adopt an academy plan, she said it would continue to help whether or not that occurred. The group is invested in Plumas County schools; most all of the group at School Pathways either went through Plumas County schools — public or charter — or their children went to school here.

    What Harris, in conjunction with School Pathways, proposes — beginning in fall 2010 at Greenville and Portola high schools — is an academy model, similar to a “private academy within a public school.”

    Because it wants to get started so soon, the district is planning a small, pilot program at first. The idea is to serve a few of the students who would most benefit from tailored, individualized instruction, and to make sure the concept works well here. If it does, then the program will be expanded in future years.

    Kathleen Brenneman, of School Pathways, said she envisions a hybrid model. For example, she said, a student might take algebra here at the academy, with teacher oversight, an online AP physics class and then attend a regular U.S. history class.

    The academy would meet in a room like the library, with a “teacher of record” on site at all times. There would also be specialized teachers connected to courses that academy students are taking independently. This means that they will have access to a highly qualified instructor in that subject matter.

    Unlike the charter schools, most academy students will be expected to attend the brick-and-mortar school five days a week. There will be some flexibility, however.

    The academy will be rigorous, with pre-enrollment interviews and contracts. If a student doesn’t live up to his contract, he’ll be dropped from the program.

    Harris said the district would start with two basic academy models: one for college bound students, and one that is technical or career based.

    He didn’t want to proceed unless he had a clear sense that Portola High parents and teachers were behind the idea. Portola High principal Kristy Warren said most teachers were behind the idea, though there was some fear that in the future, it might impact jobs.

    Harris interjected that teachers and parents in Greenville were strongly behind the idea.

    While parents at the Portola meeting were unanimously behind the academy program, one voiced some skepticism about making a decision based on the small group of parents in attendance.

    The district will be pressed for time when it comes to implementation, since it’s just over three months before next school year. When asked why it started on the program so late, Kest Porter, curriculum director, said the idea had developed organically out of dissatisfaction voiced by Indian Valley residents about the lack of options the public high school was providing for their students as enrollment hit an ominous decline.

    Behind the discussion of new and alternative programs at the high schools looms the necessary discussion that Harris said needs to take place regarding district facilities costs and the implication to programs, a discussion that “should have happened years ago.”

    Harris laid out the process for looking at the future of facilities in the district. First, he is forming a citizens advisory committee, which will create a facilities master plan. Yvonne Bales, director of business, and Facilities Director David Putnam will work with the group for eight to 12 months as it analyzes facilities use and costs.

    The group will determine “cost effectiveness and make recommendations to the district administration and board regarding facilities.”

    Harris described a range of possibilities, “from combining to closing schools.” The district will then offer its recommendations.

    Harris emphasized that only a school board can close schools. Therefore, after recommendations are made, the board is required by law to establish a school closure committee composed of seven to 11 people.

    This committee would study the closure issue as presented by the board and the facilities advisory committee. It would then make a recommendation to accept, reject or modify the recommended closures.

    “There are no hidden plans or agendas,” said Harris, adding that he’s “just trying to have the conversations.” He said further, “Sometimes people react out of fear,” but he assured the Portola group these “will be well-informed decisions.”

    He warned, “If we don’t get a handle on facilities, you’ll have a school district in financial disaster.”

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