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Santa Clara Education Desk: May 8, 2013

At almost every Santa Clara Unified board meeting from mid-December through March there’s been an agenda item about extending the grades at Bracher Elementary. Trustees Chris Stampolis and Ina Bendis have promoted the idea, but the board has repeatedly tabled it, noting practical problems.

“I first requested this because the Bracher School Site Council, as I had understood, had explicitly come to the board requesting extension beyond fifth grade,” Bendis explained at the March 28 meeting – the most recent discussion. “Parents and teachers…had unanimously, as I understood it, asked the board to look into this option for the school.”

“There was no communication [about extending Bracher] in this school year,” explained Stampolis, who was formerly Bracher School Site Council chair. “However…in early spring 2012 Mr. [Hector] Sandoval made a presentation from the school site council [and] asked the board to start that dialog.”

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Stampolis was referring to a report Superintendent Bobbie Plough made at the May 10, 2012 board meeting about her meeting with some Bracher parents. “I think it’s important that we show respect for the parent community as a whole over at Bracher for two years of discussion,” he said.

Some Bracher parents say no request was made by them, as a body, to extend grades.

“Saying that the Bracher School Site Council came to the board [asking to make Bracher K-8] is false,” Bracher teacher and parent Susie Tulowitzki told the board. “We never had any discussion this year. Last year there was a discussion about a few parents on School Site Council being interested in making Bracher K-8. We did not vote.”

So what’s been going on?

Plough’s report about the May 2012 meeting – which involved five Bracher parents, the principal, and three Asst. Superintendents – reveals that any drive to add grades to Bracher may have more to do with unawareness about middle school programs than with supposed educational advantages.

“Two points were very clear,” Plough reported. “The parents appreciate the learning environment at Bracher School and they want that same experience for their children as they move into the middle grades.

“A large portion of parent discussion centered around our current middle schools,” she continued. “They felt that student achievement scores are not high enough in middle school. They feel that middle schools aren’t good environments for their children, that they will be exposed to drugs and alcohol, bullying. They feel that by keeping them on a K-8 campus they won’t be exposed to those types of behaviors.

“We encouraged parents to visit our schools,” continued Plough. “Of the five, three had never been on any of our middle school campuses. The others hadn’t in the last two-to-three years. We’re asking middle school principals to reach out to those parents.” Plough also noted Cabrillo’s programs for ensuring high school readiness, including the Read 180-Plus English program, after school tutoring, Step Up to Algebra, and Saturday classes.

Changing Bracher would bring significant compromises, she said, to add the 10-12 classrooms needed. That would mean adding portables or eliminating Bracher’s after-school programs and preschool.

Other challenges include delivering modern expectations for middle grades – locker rooms, science labs, band practice rooms. “It would be hard to offer the advanced programs and electives we offer to middle school students,” Plough added.

These kinds of questions, in the final analysis, have led to the board’s repeated agreement that any discussion of school grade organization had to be more considered than simply adding it to the board agenda.

quot;If we’re going to have a conversation about K-6 or K-8, this needs to be district-wide,” Trustee Jim Canova said. “Once we have that conversation, there’s another: How much would it cost?”

Trustee Andy Ratermann backed up Canova’s position. “The information should come from our staff curriculum committee, which has the global perspective. A focus on one school at the expense of all others is not the way to go about it. This has a ripple effect on the entire district.”

“We need to look at what problem we’re trying to solve,” observed Trustee Albert Gonzalez, noting that as a unified district, SCUSD has ample resources to smooth students’ transition into high school. “I don’t see how this is moving forward on any meaningful issues.”

“We have the Callejon campus built from the ground up to be K-8,” added Canova, who was board president when Callejon was designed. “I’m very enthusiastic about K-8 schools – from the ground up.”

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