The Plumas Unified School District’s board meeting in Portola on April 19 was one of the longest board meetings in recent history.
A good deal of the meeting was about matters happening in Portola: a renovation of the old Feather River Middle School building and improvements to school climate.
Other parts of the meeting talked about progress being made district-wide improving student writing skills and getting help to students when they need it.
Teachers took advantage of the public input time at the beginning of the meeting to plead with the board to do more for incoming teachers.
Teachers concerned about teacher retention
Several long-term Portola High expressed their concerns about heavy workloads and low pay leading to low numbers of teacher applications and many good young teachers leaving the district.
Tania Hutchins, science and Spanish teacher, said, “With 5.5 class preps, the workload is incredible. You need to stop giving new teachers these exhausting workloads.”
Daryl Hutchins, alternative education teacher, said he came to the district after teaching for 15 years in the Lodi Unified School District. Hutchins has since taught an additional 13 years in the district.
Hutchins passed out a spreadsheet that he said demonstrated that he had given up $338,000 in earnings by coming to PUSD, rather than staying at Lodi the entire time.
According to Hutchins’ spreadsheet, net difference between the yearly earnings of Lodi versus Plumas school teachers grows over the first 20 years of service, after which it decreases.
Hutchins said, “I’ve seen some really, really good teachers leave because they got better offers.”
Dave Valle, science teacher, offered that the school board has previously argued that they needed to fix up school buildings and provide computers for all students. Noting that is done now, he said, “You need to find a way to offer teachers a better wage. We are not the leftovers.”
In a separate interview, Hutchins said that teachers have a better relationship with administrators at Plumas Unified than he experienced at Lodi Unified and he appreciates that.
Collaboration with Faith Family Ministries
Richard Blaire said he and his wife, Heather, have been working with local youth for 18 years in the areas of drug abuse, alcohol abuse and suicide prevention.
Blaire said they get 60 to 80 people coming every Thursday evening to their meetings, 150 people during warmer times of the year.
The Blairs want to renovate the vacant Feather River Middle School building to use parts of it as a youth center, community center and church. Richard Blaire said, “I like to dream big. We need a strong partner to help provide a safe place of hope and acceptance for kids.”
The Blairs would like to start by renovating the auditorium and cafeteria right away, with renovation of the upper building to start in the next two years.
In order to get students in the right frame of mind for class, Erin Duenas, who teaches seventh grade math and history, starts her classes with quiet meditations based on profound quotes.
Duenas has found that quiet meditation really calms her students and gets them thinking. She noted, “Everybody’s really into it.”
Improving students’ writing
Karen Miller, who teaches English to students in grades nine to 12, presented the results of a district-wide collaboration to improve students’ ability to write and argue logically.
Miller said common core language arts evaluations are now based on being able to analyze non-fiction situations and argue persuasively in writing. Miller said students must be able to support their conclusions using statistics, citations and counterarguments.
Miller explained that language arts/English teachers are using copies of a magazine on current events, “Scholastic Upfront,” as a means of helping district high school students hone their writing and critical thinking skills.
The teachers take an article out of the magazine, for instance, “Are zoos ethical?” and then have students practice writing a valid argument.
The teachers have found that students in all schools have the same weaknesses to start with, but that students are becoming much better at writing using the magazine.
Miller said, “The teachers love it.” Indeed, she said, teachers from other disciplines, such as history, are asking to borrow the magazines for their classes.
The program is called the “District-wide Writing Assessment.
Student intervention handbook
Shannon Harston, PUSD student services coordinator, has been working with teachers, staff and administrators on a handbook that they can reach for when students are in trouble.
According to Harston, the handbook covers bullying, suicide, substance abuse, sexual orientation, loss of a loved one, mental disorders and all types of abuse — emotional, physical or sexual.
The handbook will tell staff members how to prevent these problems ahead of time, how to intervene should a problem occur and how to follow up after the intervention.
The handbook will list toll-free telephone numbers that students, staff and parents can call for immediate help, and links to government resources, posters, websites and reporting forms.
Harston expects that the handbook will be ready for school board approval in June. Copies of the handbook will be available at all campuses across the district.
Follow-up on Healthy Kids surveys
Healthy kid surveys are given to students at specified grade levels in order for educators to have information on the backgrounds of students and about overall school climate.
Principal Sara Sheridan and her staff have been taking the Healthy Kid survey results and implementing strategies to improve the school climate at Portola High.
In response to increasing opportunities for meaningful participation for students, the school has increased the number of student-driven clubs. These include knitting, mountain biking, art and sports clubs.
In response to students who are struggling with school and missing classes, the school has opened a fulltime study hall so students have a quiet place to study. The school is also contacting students after the first incidence of truancy, working to help students address the root causes of their problems with school.