(From the November 2019 issue of Spotlight, titled "Spotlight on Education: Small School Districts Making a Difference)

San Mateo County has a rich culture of local governance, with 20 municipalities spanning its 455 square miles. These small units of government allow for more community members to participate in local decision-making and develop stronger connections across the county’s neighborhoods. This culture of local control extends to public education as well; San Mateo County has 23 unique school districts, each with its own elected board of trustees.

In this edition of Spotlight, we shine light on the smallest of these school districts in the county: Bayshore Elementary, Brisbane, La Honda-Pescadero Unified, Portola Valley, and Woodside. These five districts, with their combined enrollment of just over 2,100, also reflect the great diversity within the county. Bayshore Elementary, abutting San Francisco in the northeastern most corner of the county, is the smallest district geographically, while La Honda-Pescadero located on the opposite side of the county, covers the most territory, including coastal, agricultural, and mountain communities. Per pupil spending ranges from almost $13,000 in the Bayshore Elementary School District to just over $25,000 in the Woodside School District. The racial and ethnic composition of each district is also unique and reflective of the communities in which they are located.

Very small school districts face a variety of opportunities and challenges not shared by their larger counterparts. Their small size can help them be more nimble in their decision-making and systems change efforts. Their faculty and staff often know students and their families more personally, resulting in a close-knit and connected community. On the flip side, they still have to run an effective school district that includes things like hiring and investing in teachers and staff, managing facilities, responding to emergencies, and making reports to the state and federal government. Because they do not enjoy the same economies of scale as larger districts, small districts can be particularly challenging to operate. Administrators and staff often wear many hats, while always on the look-out for opportunities to collaborate and leverage resources.

Although San Mateo County’s five small districts differ in many ways, they are all laser-focused on improving outcomes for their students – all of their students. Each is committed to equity and recognizes that, given its small size, fulfilling this commitment often requires creative and collaborative approaches. In this edition of Spotlight, you can learn about some of the creative strategies these districts are pursuing to provide all of their students with an enriching education and a safe and supportive environment. 

Bayshore Launches Scratch Kitchen Lunch Program

A short line forms at the salad bar at the Bayshore Elementary School in Daly City as students wait to select fresh vegetables and fruit to add to their hot lunch. The salad bar is part of a new “scratch kitchen” lunch program at the school, and students, parents, and administrators couldn’t be happier.

Students enjoy the choices and the excitement of discovering what foods will be available in the salad bar. Many even talk about the food with their friends at school and are becoming more thoughtful about nutrition and taste in the process. The real vote of approval comes in the increased number of students who now participate in the lunch program. At the beginning of the school year, Bayshore was serving lunch to approximately 150 students. That number has jumped by more than 40 percent to 215. A’Maury, a fifth grader at the school, said he is, “grateful for lunch this year.” He particularly enjoys the pupusas, which are served with “a sauce that is really good.” He also, “likes that there is fruit and vegetables,” and is “learning more about healthy eating.”

If children are happy, then parents tend to be as well. Bridget Rudolph, an instructional aide and parent at the school, is pleased with the new lunch program. “There is a night and day difference between the food this year and last. It’s fresh whole foods, culturally it works, and there are good soups, fun side dishes, and extra veggies.” She added, “I used to make all of my kids’ lunches, but after trying the scratch kitchen for one week, they were sold. 

A key to the success of the program is the people who operate it. Merl Sabado oversees the kitchen program – in addition to other roles she plays at the school, including parent and community liaison. She knows all of the children and many of their families as well. “I grew up with the parents of some of these kids.” Because of these connections, Ms. Sabado is especially invested in the small community Bayshore serves. 

Ms. Sabado also works with Zoila Escobar and Obdulia Godinez, the school’s two cooks, to include meals and flavors that reflect the cultural backgrounds of the students. They pay attention to what students like and will adjust based on what they observe. They are not afraid to experiment and were happy to find that their kale and spinach pizzas were a hit with the kids. Ms. Escobar and Ms. Godinez also started at the school as parents and then worked in the school’s lunch program serving food. They would bring in homemade foods to share with school staff, which made them the perfect choice when the school needed to hire cooks. The kitchen is also supported by Ernestina Games and Maria Reyes. To help them prepare for their new roles, Bayshore sent the team to Life Lab in Davenport to learn tips on how to cook for a school. 

The scratch kitchen also fulfills the vision set by Superintendent Audra Pittman who initiated the program and received an equipment grant from the State of California to purchase a commercial grade heater, stove, refrigerator, and other supplies. “Our new lunch program is centered on healthy eating and values the diverse cultures of our students,” Superintendent Pittman explained. “On the practical side, our lunch program is close to zero-waste and funds itself; it requires no contribution from the general fund.”
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Brisbane Tackles Chronic Absenteeism

After data on the California School Dashboard indicated that chronic absenteeism remained high for some student groups in the Brisbane School District, Superintendent Ronan Collver and his leadership team worked together with the San Mateo County Office of Education to understand and address the situation. After looking more closely at the data, the team concluded that chronic absenteeism was of concern across all student groups and made it a district-wide priority. According to Superintendent Collver, “The Brisbane School District believes that student attendance strongly correlates to a student’s ability to succeed in school. We also believe in “being there” experiences; when a student is absent, the experience cannot be duplicated.”

As a result of the beginning analysis, Superintendent Collver’s team found that the district’s three schools had differing and sometimes cumbersome processes for monitoring and addressing attendance. The complexity of the various systems made tracking and addressing attendance more challenging. The district decided to hire a counselor – instead of contracting out for this service – who is building relationships with families and helping them keep their children in school.

While the school year is still relatively new, these simple solutions appear to be making a difference as absenteeism is down both across the district and among all student groups. Superintendent Collver added, “All three of our schools have adopted procedures for monitoring and improving every student’s attendance rate. It’s rewarding to see that we are on the right path to helping all of our students find success.”  
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La Honda-Pescadero Students Score High on the Smarter Balanced Assessments

The students of Pescadero High School (PHS) knocked it out of the park on the 2019 Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBAC), an annual test administered to students in in grades 3-8 and 11 in California public schools. The percentage of the school’s 11th grade students who met or exceeded the English/language arts and math standards far outstripped the state averages – 81 versus 57 percent for English/language arts, and 71 versus 32 percent for mathematics.

What makes these results even more exciting and heartening is they demonstrate how PHS is succeeding in closing the achievement gap: Latino or Hispanic students from households with low incomes also exceeded the state average for all students, with 62 percent meeting or exceeding the mathematics standard. State-wide, only 17 percent of this student group met the standard. In addition, 69 percent of these students met or exceeded the English/language standard, compared with 45 percent of similar students state-wide.

PHS is a very small, public school serving fewer than 100 students in the most rural areas of San Mateo County. Sixty-two percent of PHS students are Latino or Hispanic, and half receive free or reduced-priced lunch. Superintendent of the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District Amy Wooliever attributes these impressive results – the second highest in the county – to, “a strong commitment by school staff and students to maximize instructional time and engage in rigorous content.” She concluded that LHPUSD is a “small district that is making big dreams come true.” 
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Portola Valley Unveils School Building Designs

Earlier this month, 50-60 community members gathered for the unveiling of schematic designs for new school buildings at the Corte Madera and Ormondale campuses in Portola Valley. The group was thrilled to see their ideas come alive in the designs. 

The Portola Valley School District (PVSD) has made community engagement a priority, providing students, faculty, parents, and the larger community several opportunities to offer input on the designs. The district will continue to seek input on decisions ranging from paint colors to landscaping. After recent concerns over power outages, smoke, and fires, the district also made plans to engage the community in discussions about generators, ventilation, defensible space, and batteries for solar panels. 

The architects, with input from the community, designed buildings that accentuate the beauty of Portola Valley and are integrated into the landscape. For example, a window in the atrium of one building creates a framed view of Whiskey Hill, while the treasured frog pond is visible from the science classroom. In addition to giving students the chance to provide input, some teachers are using the new development as an opportunity to support hands-on learning. After an engineering crew dug a 12-foot trench to examine the geophysical properties of the ground, the seventh and eighth grade science teacher visited the trench with students to teach lessons about geology and earthquakes.

Superintendent Roberta Zarea, who joined the district in July, couldn’t be happier with the community’s support and interest in the school construction projects, which are being funded through a bond passed last year. She sees that the “planning efforts are bringing the community together and creating excitement.” She also gives credit to CAW Architects who “listened to the community and created designs that reflect the dreams and ideas of students, parents, and the larger community.” 
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Woodside Supports English Learners

This year, under Superintendent Steve Frank’s leadership, the Woodside School District made a big push to improve  outcomes for each and every student. With the support of the district’s school board, Superintendent Frank restructured a roving substitute role into a full-time English Learner specialist position. The new position has allowed the district to provide students who are learning English with more support, engage more closely with their families, and help other teachers become more effective at supporting these students as well. 

Key to the success of this effort is Woodside’s collaborative partnership with Stanford University, the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD), and other elementary school districts that feed into SUHSD schools. The partnership has allowed Woodside to provide its new English Learner specialist with training and support, resources and guidance, and tools for classroom instruction. This collaborative meets periodically to discuss individual projects, which has been a great way to gain and share new ideas.

Restructuring the position and committing it to one priority was challenging for the district because of its size and small staff. However, the board, faculty, and community have been supportive. According to Superintendent Frank, who served as teacher and principal at Woodside Elementary School before assuming his current role in July, “For 18 years, this topic was like a broken record. I am really excited to start trying to address it.” 
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