A conversation with the Del Mar and Solana Beach superintendents


By Marsha Sutton

When I received an invitation to join the Del Mar Union and Solana Beach school district superintendents for a casual chat over coffee at a local restaurant, I was surprised and delighted.

I was even more impressed when I walked in and heard their friendly conversation about kids, family, winter break vacation time and the weather.

There’s so much in common, so much overlap, between the two local elementary school systems, and now we see two leaders interested not only in professional cooperation but also in relaxed, amiable camaraderie.

Perhaps this was the case in years past, with previous superintendents, but it was never very public.

Although similar in many ways, Holly McClurg and Nancy Lynch, superintendents of the Del Mar Union and Solana Beach school districts respectively, have different approaches to some of the issues they face in education.

We met to talk about the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and initially they began by congratulating the San Dieguito Union High School District for taking the initiative to bring together all five of SDUHSD’s feeder elementary school districts for regular discussions about how to make the drastic kinds of changes CCSS is demanding and how to integrate everything into a seamless transition for students moving from elementary to middle and high schools.

“I give San Dieguito a lot of credit,” McClurg said, noting that all five feeder districts are on board to work together. Lynch agreed, applauding San Dieguito’s push for a united approach.

They also both agreed that the new standards are very different than current standards – which they say is welcome news.

“There’s a genuine interest around Common Core,” Lynch said. “Our teachers love it, [especially] the new focus on math.” But she added that it’s “a bit more stressful” to have to teach in a different way.

McClurg said there’s enthusiasm in her district as well but that teachers are feeling “some pressure” and are nervous because of the need to learn new methods of teaching.

With narrower, deeper and more rigorous standards, students will need to learn how to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that show a more multifaceted understanding of the nature of the lessons.

“They’ve added more depth and complexity,” Lynch said.

McClurg endorsed the new emphasis, particularly in math, on coherence and integration of concepts, meaning the material is linked and built upon what’s been learned in previous grades.

“We want our kids to be fearless about math,” McClurg said.

Lynch said parents are starting to see a difference in the homework. Before, children might bring home a sheet with 100 problems on it. Now, parents may begin to see only four problems with multiple steps and stages – and the need to show more work.

Problems may ask for the best answer, not necessarily the right answer, McClurg said.

Language arts is also in for some changes, even at the elementary level. Writing standards are changing, and more focus is being placed on non-fiction over fiction.

Students need to learn how to read textbooks and other informational materials for important content, both superintendents said, agreeing that this component of learning is essential and has been often under-emphasized in years past.

Many assessments, McClurg said, will focus on how to read questions carefully, even for math.

Lynch said everyone will be a language teacher now – even those teaching math, science or history.

Both said there has been some understandable resistance from teachers over CCSS, as it affects all levels of instruction, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

But they said most teachers, even veteran teachers, have been willing to abandon their personal styles of teaching the material they are familiar with, after gaining a better understanding of the reasons behind the dramatic shift.

“When they see what they can replace it with, then they agree it’s far better,” McClurg said. “When you know better, you do better.”

Staff Development

This led the conversation into the area of professional development. Both said it is essential to the successful transition to Common Core, but each has prioritized spending on teacher training quite differently.

The Del Mar Union School District is receiving $876,800 from the state in Common Core State Standards Implementation funding, and is allocating the money, according to the Nov. 20 board report, in the following way: $662,000 (75.5 percent) for staff development, $130,800 (15 percent) for instructional materials, and $84,000 (9.5 percent) for technology.

The Solana Beach School District is receiving $597,800 from the state and, according to its Dec. 12 board report, will be allocating $269,000 (45 percent) for staff development, $298,900 (50 percent) for instructional materials, and $29,900 (5 percent) for technology.

The major disparity is in the amount of money allocated to professional development, which amounts to about $200 per student. Of its CCSS funding, DMUSD is spending 75.5 percent and SBSD is spending 45 percent on teaching training.

McClurg has been criticized by some parents and teachers for the amount of time teachers are absent from the classroom to attend training sessions. For over a year, complaints have circulated in Del Mar about the use of substitute teachers for staff development days.

Just last month, at the DMUSD’s Dec. 18 board meeting, co-president of the Del Mar California Teachers Association, Tiffany Kinney, reported, according to the minutes, that DMCTA members continue to “express concern regarding the number of instructional days out of [the] classroom for staff development …”

Angry parents and teachers have reported that teachers have been absent from the classroom 20 to 30 days last year, and that has cost kids weeks of quality instructional time.

McClurg said the amount of time teachers are away from their classrooms has been exaggerated, disputing the claim that teachers are out for the equivalent of one month.

“Teaching is grounded in solid research,” she said, defending her emphasis on staff development. She said she has no regrets, “not for a moment.”

Teacher training, she said, is “the most powerful thing, [by] empowering our teachers how to teach as effectively as possible.”

If it’s so valuable, then why did Solana Beach only allocate 45 percent of its CCSS funding to staff development? Lynch responded that her district held many professional development sessions previously.

Lynch said students are already changing and adapting as teachers are learning new standards, and McClurg said even the classrooms look differently than before.

A wide funding disparity also exists in the area of instructional materials, with DMUSD allocating 15 percent and SBSD 50 percent to the acquisition of textbooks and other supporting instructional material.

Lynch said her district may not spend that much on instructional materials, and McClurg said her allocation may not be enough.

But they said districts are allowed to submit changes in their funding plans to the state, and modifications can be made as implementation of CCSS approaches this fall and priorities change.

Both said more money for technology would be allocated to expanded bandwidth and faster connectivity time.

Transformational time

Common Core is not without its critics.

One criticism, McClurg said, is that some states complain there shouldn’t be the same standards for all students nationwide. Both superintendents disagreed with this.

Some say CCSS was driven by a political agenda and initiated by the federal government.

But both Lynch and McClurg pointed out that CCSS originated with governors, universities, business and industry – all of whom came together in frustration over the lack of preparation they were seeing from high school graduates, even those with strong GPAs and high test scores, who often struggled when faced with real-life problems.

Common Core was generated out of a new awareness that students are graduating high school without the skills and knowledge they need for success in college and career.

California is one of 45 states to date to adopt these new common academic standards, which to varying degrees shift away from previous instructional methods, curriculum content and assessment techniques.

If CCSS is so good, what was wrong with the way it’s been for the past 20 years?

McClurg said there has been some frustration over the years, because “we could see how much more kids could be doing.” There’s now, she said, “a sense of relief.”

Both said there has been a recognition for many years that the old system was not doing its best to prepare young people for new jobs, new skills and new careers – work that couldn’t have been imagined 20 years ago.

“There was nothing wrong with it,” Lynch said of the previous educational standards. It was just “preparing for an old mindset” that’s not valid any more.

Both superintendents were enthusiastic about the changes ahead. Lynch said one veteran teacher told her, “This is the most transformational time in education ever.” Both leaders emphatically agreed.

Having seen many education fads come and go, both said this was definitely not the “flavor of the year.”

“This is by far superior,” McClurg said. “It’s all about good teaching and learning.”

Lynch called CCSS more student-focused in its intent to teach kids “how to be more responsible and accountable for their own learning.”

“The days of passive learning are over,” Lynch said.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.