SDUHSD superintendent forum touches on high school choice, Common Core

By Karen Billing

In his sophomore year as San Dieguito Union High School District’s leader, Superintendent Rick Schmitt’s syllabus includes engaging the community, continuing to learn, and to focus first on each of his students’ individual needs.

One way to achieve those goals was holding his first-ever superintendent’s forum on Thursday, Oct. 9, at Canyon Crest Academy. He took center stage and covered what he believes to be key district topics, such as Common Core implementation, family balance and the high school selection process.

“I really do care what you all have to say,” Schmitt told his district “moms and dads,” noting that every time he meets with the community members he learns something new.

The high school selection process is perhaps the hottest topic right now within the district as a High School Enrollment Study Group has been formed to look at options regarding SDUHSD’s open-enrollment campuses of San Dieguito High School Academy (SDHSA) and Canyon Crest Academy (CCA).

Due to a jump in enrollment this year, more students selected CCA and SDHSA and the district heard from many unhappy families of waitlisted freshman students over the spring and summer, upset that their children were being denied attendance at their neighborhood school. The district decided to let in all waitlisted freshman students this year and turn their attention to long-range solutions with the study group, which will seek input from the community and come to the board with potential solutions.

“To fundamentally change how we enroll high school students after 18 years, that’s a big deal,” Schmitt said. “We have an open mind. We’re not sure where (the study group) will take us. No decisions will be made behind closed doors.”

“Our job is to listen, not just to react and fix it. If we just redraw boundaries, then someone is going to be on the other side of the line,” Schmitt said. “Choice has been popular but we want to determine if families still feel that way.”

Schmitt noted that since 2004, 99 percent of freshman students have landed at their school of choice.

At its Oct. 2 meeting, the board also approved a facilitator for the study group from Creative Alliance Group in a 4-1 vote, with trustee John Salazar voting against it.

“Some families questioned whether that was fair or right,” Schmitt said of the facilitator.

Parents’ concerns were that the facilitator lives in La Costa and has two children at SDHSA.

Schmitt assured the public that the facilitator is unbiased and will move the group along “without a stake in it.”

The facilitator will cost $350 an hour which one audience member at the forum challenged Schmitt about since there appears to be no cap on pay.

Schmitt said the district has dozens of service contracts like this one and the facilitator’s fees are “well-deserved.” He also noted that the district is always looking for ways to save money, and said, as an example, by being their own project manager for their Prop AA work, they are saving about $8 million.

Also to help deal with the issue, the district has moved up two Prop AA projects sooner, to build two new classroom buildings at both of the academies to meet capacity demands.

The district is also looking at changing the bell schedule at Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon as the flexible bell schedule is one of the main reasons why students opt for the academies.

Schmitt believes changing the bell schedules at LCC and TPHS will have a positive effect on the selection process.

Schmitt said the district works “extraordinarily hard” to keep parents in the loop with coffee mornings and evening events with principals, social and traditional media and last week’s tours of Proposition AA projects. For the Common Core transition, the district held 18 meetings attended by 2,000 parents.

The feedback received is essential, he said.

Schmitt said around the country some of the complaints about Common Core are that the materials are not aligned, teaches aren’t trained and parents aren’t “in the know.”

At SDUHSD, Schmitt said they have customized their own curriculum so that it is aligned, they’ve invested thousands of hours on training teachers on instructional strategies and they have a really well-developed web site with resources for parents’ Common Core questions.

“It’s not perfect but we take it seriously,” Schmitt said.

One parent had concerns about the concept of “integrated math” and said that it was not working for their eighth grade student. Michael Grove, assistant superintendent of educational services, said that integrated math — the combination of algebra, geometry and algebra II in one grade level class — is not a new concept, although it is a new curricular approach for the district.

“The issues with students struggling have to do with the transition to the Common Core, not integrated math. Students are going to struggle a little bit…they were taught computation and calculations and a lot of repetition and drill learning. Common Core, regardless of traditional or integrated math, asks students to deeply understand and explain their thinking. They’re asked to think about math in a different way.”

Grove said that at a recent meeting at Carmel Valley Middle School, they heard that parents are struggling with how they can help their students at home.

The district has set up a Common Core tab on its website with links providing support for both parents and students. Workbook material, classwork, activities, sample problems and instructional videos can all be found online throughout the modules for every class level.

At the forum, Schmitt also took the time to address some of his observations regarding family balance.

“Our kids are under immense pressure in high school,” Schmitt said, noting that between 1975 and 2010 the number of college eligible students has doubled, but the number of seats available at those colleges has stayed the same. “It has created a competitive environment for kids.”

Schmitt said they want to avoid piling pressure on students, who may feel the need to be involved in every after-school activity and rack up four to eight AP classes, which isn’t even a normal load for the average college student.

“There’s a price to pay for that…think about the balance in the family,” Schmitt said, noting that there is a college out there for every kid if they want to go. “We want our kids to have an amazing high school experience that isn’t all about the performance.”