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Salina Teachers Surmount Obstacles

Ohanian Comment; How can labeling by the Feds and takeover by the state possibly help this school? Maybe the Feds and the state should stop demonizing the schools and start helping the Salinas public libraries. Here are two frequently asked questions from the Save Salinas Libraries website.

# Q: What is the status of the libraries? Are they going to close?
A: The current plan is to keep each of the three libraries open from July through December 2005 for 8-10 hours each week. This plan is contingent on Rally Salinas!’ commitment to raise $500,000 in donations which will be dedicated to the short-term operations of the libraries. If enough money is not raised, the libraries will have to close. If enough money is raised, but a long-term funding solution is not in place by December 2005, the libraries will close at that time.

The libraries will remain open on the current schedule through June 17th. This site will be updated as we get new information.

# Q: Why would the City Council close the libraries?
A: Lack of money. The City is short $8.2 million for fiscal year 2005-06. The State of California continues to take the City’s revenues for State priorities. The County, also a victim of State takeaways, raised fees it charges cities in order to make up its shortfall. The economy has not yet recovered from the severe recession of 2000. The City’s sales tax revenues have remained stagnant for the last three years. The City of Salinas is not a wealthy community. Per person, the City of Monterey generates more than 2.5 times the tax revenues produced by Salinas. The City of San Jose, per person, generates more than double the revenues of Salinas.

On a bright Tuesday morning inside Regina Leyva's sixth-grade classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School, 33 students eagerly vie for the teacher's attention.

The classroom is a cramped maze of small school desks and chairs aligned next to one another, making it hard for an adult to maneuver around the quarters. The students, mostly Mexican, sit elbow to elbow while raising their hands enthusiastically during a math lesson.

"I know it's hard, but I'll try to get to everyone I can," Leyva said, as she patiently called upon a few students. Later, she would apologize to those who did not get a chance to speak during the lesson.

Leyva's class serves as a microcosm for the struggling Salinas City Elementary School District, which has had to adapt to the changing ethnic demographics, increased class sizes and dire financial straits over the past decade. With the threat of a state takeover, massive teacher layoffs and possible school closures, the district's problems are mounting while the students and teachers continue to perform to the best of their capabilities.

This week, the district was recognized by the state as a program improvement site as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The act is the brainchild of the Bush administration, in an attempt to hold local school districts more accountable for student performance.

The district also announced that it would lay off as many as 158 teachers and administrators, as a cost-cutting measure to clear up a $4.4 million budget deficit.

Prior to the announcements, Salinas City Elementary School District had six of its 11 schools evaluated as underperforming by the state standard. Its Achilles' heel: a high percentage of English-learning students who lowered the performance rate in crucial sub-groups, some of which fell below the federal standard by a matter of a few students.

In 1992, the district's student population consisted of 57.6 Hispanic and 31 percent white students, according to the California Department of Education. By 1997, that numbers had shifted dramatically to 67.9 percent Hispanic and 22.2 percent white.

During the 2003-04 school year, 76.2 percent of the district's student population was Hispanic; 12.6 percent w hite. The percentage of English-learners was 44.2 percent, up from 27.9 percent in 1992. Also, the percentage of students who received free and reduced-priced meals jumped from 54 percent 13 years ago to 70.8 percent, an indication of the lower-economic background of most of the students' families.

"I don't see how you can compare Monterey County with Vermont. It's not feasible," said Superintendent Donna Alonzo Vaughn, referring to federal standards that do not take into account English-learning students. "I'm all for high standards, but look at how hard our kids are working."

Indeed, all of the district's schools, except Lincoln Elementary, showed some sort of improvement in the Annual Performance Index test, which is the state standard for school performance. Roosevelt was among those that has performed well.

"They've made growth," Vaughn said.

But improvement is not enough. With higher standards comes more pressure to perform well, a challenge the district is struggling to meet.

Deficit's impact|

Inside Leyva's class, students are attentive and eager to learn, which Leyva -- a five-year teaching veteran -- is grateful for. But the impact of the district's $4.4 million budget deficit is evident.

The cap on class size has increased to 33 students this year -- but threatens to go up as high as 36 next year. Leyva has to make do with only 15 dictionaries for her students, some of whom have to share three ways during a lesson. Two outdated maps are on the wall, one of which still refers to Russia and its surrounding countries as the Soviet Union.

"There are just no supplies," Leyva said.

The large class size means that teachers cannot offer students the one-on-one attention they desperately need. Leyva often spends her recess and lunch time, which are supposed to be used for preparation or personal means, to work with students.

"We do our best to get that extra time in," she said.

Added to that is the district's insistence that teachers "differentiate" their lessons to fit each individual student, which Leyva said means "we're essentially giving 33 different lessons." In a large class, with young minds, it's almost impossible.

"We may have a class of sixth-graders, and they may all be 12, but they're not all in the same place," she said. "I think it's important to know your students individually."

Still, Leyva does her best to meet the demands of her job, tag-teaming with other sixth-grade teachers. She'll often trade books and lesson plans with her fellow teachers just to free up time to give students that extra attention.

While the students have put forth a noble effort, the parents, many of whom are originally from Mexico and do not speak English, have had a harder time trying to help their children succeed.

"There is not a lot of parent involvement, but it's not for a lack of caring," Leyva explained.

A lot of parents are not informed of what is going on at the school sites because of the language barriers. Leyva said she speaks little Spanish, and while her parents usually speak little English, she is able to communicate through her students, who sometimes translate for both sides.

The issue has inspired Leyva to help start a program she called "My Parents' Role in Education," which helps students and parents recognize where and when they need to be involved. Leyva said most parents are willing to help out, but because many parents work two jobs and support more than one child, it can be difficult to find the time.

"Parents are an emotional support system, and they need to know that," she said. "They need to know that taking their kids to Wal-Mart and buying them school supplies is a way of supporting their education."

Leyva's program has encouraged parents in her class and other classes to be more active in their children's education.

"They need to be more active in everything, from voting to finding out that more than 100 teachers are going to be cut from the district," she said. "They need to be up in arms about this."

Vaughn said the district has responded to the changing demographics during her three years on the administrative staff, the first two of which were spent in teacher recruitment. All of Vaughn's hires during that time period have been bilingual, she said. She is also on the verge of hiring the district's first Latino assistant superintendent.

"The bottom line is that I want my kids to improve," she said.


The changing face of Salinas City Elementary • In 1992, some 57.6 percent of students were Hispanic and 31 percent white. • By 1997, some 67.9 percent were Hispanic and 22.2 percent white. • During the 2003-04 school year, 76.2 percent of the district's student population was Hispanic; 12.6 percent white. • The percentage of English learners was 44.2 percent, up from 27.9 percent in 1992. • The percentage of students who received free and reduced-priced meals jumped from 54 percent 13 years ago to 70.8 percent, an indication of the lower-economic background of most of the students' families.
Source: California Department of Education

— Marc Cabrera
Monterey Herald


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