Mar 17 2016

Report: Increasing CalSTRS, Master Facilities Plan, STEM vs. STEAM

CalSTRS contribution rates increase –

Students raise issues of school buildings overheated and underheated,  a fence around the high school would imply danger, smaller classrooms and more warning about SAT Subject Tests. Parents express concern about reduced art class time in the STEM vs STEAM debate.

March 9, 2016 School Board Meeting Report –

    At this School Board meeting, five members of the School Board met to discuss progress on the Second Interim Report, Master Facilities Plan, and Instructional Program Design for the elementary schools. These members include School Board President Andrea Swensen, Amal Smith, Doug Ireland, Superintendent Randall Booker, and Assistant Superintendent, Business Services Song Chin-Bendib. As noted on their agenda, the School Board’s mission is to “cultivate a learning community where students are engaged in their learning, strive for excellence, and are supported to achieve to their potential.” In other words, their purpose is to improve and maintain the schools in the Piedmont Unified School District. To fulfill this purpose, they meet every month, and sometimes even more frequently than that.

Student Recommendations 

    First, students spoke out about community issues they wished the board to address. Piedmont High School (PHS)  senior Meredith Aebi was called first, and expressed concern about the school’s heating system. She believes the language building is underheated while the 30s building is overheated. Next, PHS senior Maggie White spoke out against the idea of a fence around the high school, noting that it would make her feel less safe because it implies there is something to be protected against. PHS senior Allie Frankel then addressed the Master Facilities Plan, and argued for more, smaller classrooms over less, larger ones. PHS senior Lizzie Bjork supported this notion, and cited that her AP English class is too large, creating a burden on the grading agenda of her teacher. Ashley Gerrity and I also spoke during this public comment portion, and argued that students should be given more warning about SAT Subject Tests. While most students are familiar with the SAT, many do not find out about Subject Tests until their senior year of high school. Since many colleges require that students submit 2-3 tests, seniors must then go back and re-learn materials from their sophomore or junior year in order to prepare. We asked that teachers notify students in February and March about the Subject Tests in June so that even underclassmen students, who may be unfamiliar with the college application process, can take Subject Tests immediately after taking the class instead of re-learning the material in senior year. We believe that this simple act of informing students about the tests would make a significant difference in stress during senior year and improve SAT Subject Test scores for students. After this public comment section, School Board president Andrea Swenson thanked us for our input and said she would consider it in the future.

  Next,  Song Chin-Bendib spoke about the Second Interim Report, which detailed the PUSD budget for the next quarter. She hoped the Board would approve the report with a positive certification in order to pass it. Chin-Bendib described how costs to the District would increase within the next quarter because of the increasing CalSTRS contribution rates. This would mean an increase in cost of $330,000 to $334,000 to the District. The main topic of discussion was the CalSTRS On-Behalf Payment, which meant the District had to deposit $35,000 to the reserve due to a State measure. Swensen expressed her frustration with this measure, as it led to more money tied up in the bank, to which Chin-Bendib agreed. Despite the minor discontent, the School Board all voted to approve the Second Interim Report with positive certification.

  Next, Superintendent Booker discussed the Master Facilities Plan for Piedmont High School. He noted that the new plan’s goals are to not only improve the physical learning environment, but also ensure the District is a “21st century learning environment.” According to Booker, this means courses should include more preparation for college and careers along with flexible classrooms that could be adapted for many subjects. For example, a science classroom that is suitable for chemistry, engineering, and biology. Booker also expressed that in the future, he wants to incorporate more STEM facilities to keep up with private schools. School Board member Doug Ireland agreed with Booker, and noted that he had toured some other impressive private school STEAM facilities too, and would like to see them implemented in PHS. Booker then stated that we wanted the community to get involved with the Master Plan as well, and would consider taking parents on tours of the school to give them a better idea of the amenities needed.

    Finally, the principals of Havens, Beach, and Wildwood elementary schools gave a presentation on their plan for next year’s elementary school schedule. With their new plan, they hope to create opportunities for integration of curriculum, support flexibility and creativity, and minimize transition times. They also would like to implement a “STEAM rotation” where grades 2nd through 5th would take classes on computer science, arts, and basic engineering. The School Board requested that the principals provide a detailed schedule with the minutes of each class. However, they were unprepared to do so. Instead, they argued that they trust the teachers to teach equal proportions of each core subject and cover the material needed. After the principals presented their work on the elementary school plan, the School Board allowed for public comment.

    First, president of PAINTS Hillary Davis expressed her concern with the new elementary school schedule. With the increased focus on the “STEM” of “STEAM,” the schools were planning to cut art time for students. She said she was appalled at the fact that six elementary school art assistants were fired and replaced with one certified instructor. Yet Booker said that this was false information as no one was fired and no new teacher was hired yet. Despite this correction, Davis was still upset over the cut in art hours. Next, Piedmont High School teacher and Piedmont parent Auben Willats affirmed the concern about reduced art hours. She noted that her children love art at school, and would be upset to see it cut. Community member Cami Cobb then also agreed that art at school is important and should be preserved during school. Finally, John Chaney continued the pattern of upset over reduced art hours and supported the idea of more poetry, art, and reading time in school.

I also believe that art in school is important, yet STEM programs are also equally and perhaps even more crucial. In elementary school, I enjoyed art class, however I do not believe school is the only place for art. Rather, I often did art at home as well with plenty of free time in elementary school. However, STEM subjects are not typically available at home. Parents are more likely to gift their children crayons instead of a microscope set, and therefore the community should recognize that it is the school’s responsibility to focus on subjects that cannot be learned at home. The community members also may have overlooked the fact that STEM subjects can involve creativity. For example, most computer programming learning websites and resources for kids are very visual and involve plenty of creativity. With further education on the content of the STEM classes, perhaps the community members would be more receptive to a “21st century learning environment.”

After the meeting adjourned, I interviewed Auben Willats about her concern about the reduced art hours. She stated that she volunteers at after-school art classes, and came to the meeting because she believes her daughters will be fine academically, and, therefore, could benefit from more art. Willats also noted that Wildwood currently has the most art hours, and hopes that the other schools will rise up to meet those hours rather than having Wildwood sink down. In order to further express her concern, she will attend a meeting on March 17th about art in school, and also inform the other third grade and kindergarten parents.

By Rachel Fong, Piedmont High School senior

Editors’ Note:  Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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