Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

Favorite Night of the Week

Publication Date: 2012-01-07

The school was shut down,but teachers come back every Wednesday night, refusing to shut down the volunteer outreach program.

On her blog, teacher Amanda Nygren describes My Favorite Night of the Week, where she and others continue their volunteer school outreach program, despite the fact that their school was shut down and a charter moved in. Asked for more details, she provided this commentary.

Also included are a story from the community newspaper, describing the impending closing and one from California Teachers Association The Educator, describing this remarkable outreach program.

The story of Park Oaks is kind of a Tale of Two Cities in many ways. About 15 years ago it was a "well balanced" school in terms of diversity. However, as Thousand Oaks grew, new housing developments were established-- quite literally on the other side of the freeway. As a result the district built a new school to house kids in those developments. Lang Ranch is the Taj Mahal of neighborhood schools.

So when this Taj Mahal opened, Park Oaks experienced a sudden decrease in students. Over the next few years we saw The Great White Flight --with the district allowing most of our 'English only' and non-Title One kids to transfer to a prettier, whiter, school.
I'm not a huge fan of using test scores to evaluate schools, but Park Oaks had the highest EL and Hispanic API in the district. We closed with an 805 (which is above the state requirement).

When the topic school closure was first brought up over four years ago (for district budgetary reasons), a racial fire was ignited. Parents had no problem publicly saying they didn't want "those kids" mixing with theirs. Two schools were closed but Park Oaks survived.

But the topic came up again two years later. This time it was because Park Oaks enrollment had declined (which of course it had been doing ever since they opened the Taj Mahal ten years previously). This time we came out swinging. I presented everything from the cost of our volunteer programs (if they had to pay for it) to our test scores. We formed a partnership with Pepperdine University and established a PDS. We reached out to Dr. Richard Valencia of the University of Texas. He studied "the story of our school" and wrote a wonderful letter on our behalf. We followed it all up with the offer that we felt would benefit all. Another school in our district was recently closed, reconstituted both in staff and population, then reopened as a magnet school (of course not federally funded). A large percentage of Title One students were displaced in that process and are now being bused to schools with little to no experience in dealing with that population.

We felt that we specialized in that very thing, working with Title One families of the Conejo Valley. It took us 10 years to build our programs, and although they weren't perfect, we knew we could expedite the learning curve for the schools that were new to this population.
We could form partnerships with schools and teachers and help problem solve. IT WORKED! The school board voted to keep us open as a Demonstration School for teaching English Language Learners and directed the district to support us. They even gave us additional money for the start up! Our families bought uniforms, so that we would look like a "specialty school".

We had a million meetings with district personnel forming "the vision". We spent an entire year adding to our professional development repertoire. Our now Superintendent (at the time he was Asst. Superintendent of Business) met with the staff and looked us all in the eye and said "you can count on the fact that no one will touch this school for five years".
When the new year started, we were in Program Improvement because despite the fact that our scores topped the state-established requirements, we did not meet the ever-expanding NCLB requirements.

Meanwhile, a new charter school opened up, cohabiting with another school with a very different population. This particular charter was formed by people who have no background in education and were, for the most part, angry parents. Needless to say, the adults of these two schools could not "make it work", to share their campus. When it came time to reassess their rental agreement they declined the district's offer to add more portables on the site they cohabitated. They wanted their own school; they wanted the school they cohabitated with to close. Glenwood, the cohabited school, had 75 more students than Park Oaks.

Do you see what's coming? Responding to the charter pressure and the budgetary issues in California, the budget committee decided they would recommend to close Park Oaks and allow the charter to rent the space.

The superintendent pulled me, another teacher, and the principal out of class the first week in March and told us the district could save 450,000 a year in recurring costs. . . You can guess what happened. We had no time to fight. Our community protested and teachers stood with them, but we failed and by the end of the month Park Oaks Elementary School was slated to close in June. Our campus was slated to become the new site for Bridges Charter.

This was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. For so many years we taught our families that together we could accomplish anything, and that they had a voice that mattered. In the end, we couldn't accomplish "anything", and the community voice certainly didn't mean enough. Our kids were farmed out to about 4 different schools (one of which is in Program Improvement).

The one thing the Board of Education did was to insist that the district continue to support our volunteer outreach program. You can see what this is in a five minute video: My Favorite Night of the Week
Weâ€"previous Park Oaks staff and community volunteers-- continue our outreach program; in fact it's the largest it’s ever been, serving over 120 students, K-12 and 65 ESL adults. However we work here on Wednesday nights only with the permission of the charter that our campus was given to.

Maybe when people see this they will understand instead of Common Core, we need community; instead of federally inspired standards, we need federally inspired funding and faith in educators.
Instead of competition, we need collaboration.
I was born to be an educator. I've had the blessing of teaching in the same school that mother teaches in for virtually my entire career. We are both now at Glenwood . This process has forever changed us all. I used to love my job and meet every morning with excitement. But knowing that a gem, like Park Oaks, could have been held up and shown as a beacon for struggling families but instead was thrown away, haunts me. It's hard to devote so much of your life to something you believe in and know that it can all be brushed away. It's hard to be a part of system that abuses as much as it builds.

I never thought that I would do anything besides teach, that might still be true. . . . But who knows? I can say that these families are an inspiration and Wed. nights are my favorite night of the week!

By Michelle Knight
Thousand Oaks Acorn
Conejo Valley Unified's Park Oaks Elementary School may close in June

March 17, 2011

Superintendent Jeff Baarstad recommended Tuesday the Board of Education shut down the Thousand Oaks elementary school to save the district $450,000 a year.

"We've run out of good options,
he told the board

Baarstad said the district's budget review committee, which is made up of teachers, administrators, parents and others, agreed unanimously earlier this month that one of the most effective ways to cut ongoing expenses is to close the kindergarten-through-fifth grade school on Calle Bouganvilla which opened in 1959.
Prior to the meeting, Baarstad said several factors have made closing Park Oaks a more palatable move than other options. Enrollment at Park Oaks has declined steeply since 2004, from more than 400 students to the current 255.
The district projects Park Oaks’ enrollment to dip as low as 200 students next year, Baarstad said.

In the past three years, the 21,000-student district has lost more than $20 million in state funding. Baarstad said the district could lose even moreâ€"between $7 million and $12 million in state fundingâ€"if the governor's 2011- 12 budget proposal, which would extend certain taxes, fails to make the June ballt or is voted down.

In that case, the district will likely have to raise class sizes at its 25 schools, he said.
To keep pace with its ever shrinking income and declining enrollment, the board closed Meadows and University elementary schools in 2009.

"If we were not facing three years of budget cuts with what would appear to be a fourth year almost certain to come . . . we would probably give this another year and see what happens," Baarstad told the Acorn, "because our experience closing schools has not been pleasant."

During the two-hour discussion about Park Oaks' closure at Tuesday’s school board meeting, emotions ran high.

Ricardo Perez, the father of a Park Oaks fifth-grader, said the school has been a closure candidate three times before. Choking back tears, Perez said his 9-year old son asked him if his school may close because the children aren't smart enough. Perez said parents will seek legal advice from lawyers and social justice organizations.

"I tell you we are not going to stand for it," he said.

Other speakers said the district is targeting the school because its population is mostly Latino children who speak Spanish and live below the poverty level.

According to the state's education website, 80 percent of Park Oaks' student population is Hispanic or Latino.

"While it makes sense numerically, the decision is impacting one small group in the community more than the rest of us," said Rogeleo Douglas, a volunteer tutor at Park Oaks.

Others said closing Park Oaks and transferring their children to another school would place a heavy burden on families unable to drive.
Speaking in Spanish, Angelica Aguirre said through a translator she walks her child to Park Oaks because she has no car.

"To get to another school would be impossible for me," Aguirre said. "In case of emergency, how would I get to the school?"

Concerns about programs
Many speakers voiced concern over the possible loss of services offered by the school to help students and their families.

The free Wednesday evening programs, scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m., include a preschool, one- on- one tutoring by high school students and Amgen and church volunteers, adult literacy and mentorship.

Sixteen-year-old Jean Liberman, a student at the Viewpoint School, started the mentoring program last year with fellow students from her Calabasas school and Park Oaks fourth- and fifth-graders.

"These kids really thrive on the special attention they get from the volunteers," Jean said. "I feel strongly this is the kind of school we should be trying to build, not the kind of school we should be looking to shut down."

Ron Meyer, a member of the district budget review committee, took offense at the notionâ€"implied by some of the parentsâ€"that CVUSD didn’t care about Park Oaks students.

"I am a little horrified when I hear people say that we don't care; how dare you," Meyer said, nearly shouting. "The district is not doing this to Park Oaks. The state and education funding is doing this. . . . We didn't make this decision because we don't care; we made this decision because we do care."

Board member Tim Stephens asked Assistant Superintendent Janet Cosaro if the Wednesday evening programs at Park Oaks were movable.
She said they were, providing the parents had transportation to support the programs at their child's new school.

Bridges' connection
Trustee Betsy Connolly said she wouldn't support closing Park Oaks without the continuation of the evening programs and without assurance that Bridges Charter School, which is currently sharing a campus with Glenwood Elementary, would occupy the site.

"I am not persuaded by the argument that Park Oaks should be closed regardless of what happens to Bridges," Connolly said.

In August, Bridges Charter School opened with just under 200 students. Enrollment is expected to number 260 to 280 students in the fall, director Hilda Salas said.

Last year, the district spent $500,000 to add portable classrooms to the Glenwood campus for Bridges. For the upcoming school year, the district offered to add two more classrooms to Glenwood to accommodate Bridges students, although Salas said the school needs at least eight. If Bridges moved to the Park Oaks site, the district wouldn’t have to spend the extra money.

Will the charter school accept Park Oaks as its permanent home?

Salas said she can't say.

"We haven't seen a proposal or been offered anything," Salas said prior to the board meeting. "I'm not even sure Park Oaks will close--they've been up for closure three times before and they've always managed to stay open."

Argument for closure
The closure of Park Oaks Elementary, would save CVUSD $450,000 a year and affect about 200 students. To achieve the same savings, the district could raise the number of students in fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms from 30 students to 32, impacting about 10 times the number of students, Baarstad said in a written report.

Also, it's inefficient to operate a school for under 250 students because personnel and other costs are about the same for that number as they are for 500 students, but the smaller school receives less in state funds, Baarstad said.
He acknowledged that school closure is difficult on parents, staff and students and he said he understands the devotion teachers and parents feel for Park Oaks.

"This is what's so frustrating about being in education right now," Baarstad said the day after the board meeting. "It's an era of declining resources and we have to make difficult decisions. We can’t do all things for all people."
The board is being asked to decide the fate of Park Oaks at is Mon., March 28 meeting because the district must have enough time to mail out school-choice notices and have a proposal to Bridges for a site by April 1.

If the board closes Park Oaks, Baarstad said, its teachers, administrators and staff would be transferred to other Conejo Valley Unified schools. An increase in class size, not the closure of Park Oaks, would influence whether the district lays off teachers or other employees next year, and that would be determined by a drop in state funding, Baarstad said.

A look at Park Oaks
Opened: 1959
Location: 1335 Calle Bouganvilla, Thousand Oaks
Attendance: 225 students
Mascot: Panthers
Most recent API score: 801 (state benchmark is 800)
California Distinguished School, Title 1 school
Ethnic makeup: 80 percent Hispanic or Latino, 10 percent white, 10 percent other *

*statistics courtesy 2010 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program student answer document.

Thousand Oaks rallies for students after school closure
The Educator
By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin

December 2011

School employees were devastated when Park Oaks Elementary School in Thousand Oaks was closed last year due to budget cuts. Staff and students were reassigned to other schools in the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

"It was a horrific experience," says Mandy Nygren, a member of the Unified Association of Conejo Teachers (UACT) who was part of the Park Oaks "family" of teachers, classified staff, students and their families. "We just couldn't fight it."

The district may have closed the school, but the commitment to the neighborhood remains strong for employees who once worked at the site. It is impossible, they say, to just walk away. Teachers and classified staff have continued volunteering -- and recruiting numerous other volunteers -- to help low-income students and their parents in the school's former attendance boundaries. They have turned a portion of the site into the Park Oaks Community Center, and offer services for students and their parents every Wednesday evening in empty classrooms on the campus, which is now the home of a charter school. Ana Alvarez, former outreach education director at Park Oaks Elementary School, works with UACT members and community organizations to coordinate the program.

On a recent Wednesday evening, 12 classrooms were filled to capacity. The 63 volunteers included UACT members, retirees, high school students, representatives of faith-based organizations, and employees from Amgen, a biotech company. Some volunteers offered one-on-one tutoring and mentoring to approximately 125 students in preschool through fifth grade in English and math, while other volunteers conducted workshops in science for youngsters in white lab coats, or dancing lessons for preschoolers. Approximately 72 parents took workshops in subjects that included English as a second language and parenting skills. The event included sandwiches donated by Amgen and produce from the local Rotary Club.

The Wednesday night program began a decade ago because a handful of students needed extra help. As word spread, the volunteer program grew in popularity. Parents, unable to afford tutoring or classes out of their own pockets, eagerly embraced the educational opportunities available for their children and themselves. Wednesday night classes are now filled to capacity.

Tutors and teen mentors work with the same student each week, and strong bonds are formed over time. They may also communicate with the child’s regular teacher about the progress their student is making in school.

"These kids are great, so it's fun," says Sheri Groenveld, a member of Holy Trinity Church who volunteers regularly with second-grader Maritza Lopez. "Maritza is improving so much in her math skills that it’s exciting.”

Viewpoint High School senior Jeanne Lieberman started a mentoring program for fourth- and fifth-graders, which also offers tutoring as needed. She and fellow teen tutors give their charges little "assignments" like studying foreign countries, to teach them about the world and the opportunities that are available to them.

"It's important for these kids to have a role model that's from their generation," she says. "And it's also good they have academic support."

Claudia Hughes, a parent whose three children attended Park Oaks Elementary School, says it helps her to deal with the loss of a community school by coming back to volunteer.

"Park Oaks staff is a unique bunch that not only thinks outside the box, but teaches with their hearts," she says. "They go the extra mile."

While most classes were packed, one held just three men. All of them were unable to read or write in Spanish, their native language, or speak English. One student wrote his name for the first time.

"I have lived in darkness all these years, and you have brought me to light," he told Carman Mendez-Schedtman, an employee of Thousand Oaks High School who volunteers her time.

For Nygren, coming back to her former school site is still painful, but it's also like coming home.

"We promised our students and our families that we would always be there for them no matter what," explains Nygren, who now teaches at Glenwood Elementary School. "As long as our families come on Wednesday nights, we have to be there."

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.