Excellence in the San Marcos Unified School District Brings Issues

Did you know that our own San Marcos Unified School District is recognized as one of the best school districts in the entire state? This fact, along with much more information was shared with our club members by Randy Walton, our school board member for the last 9 years.

Our school district’s boundaries include a sizable portion of East Carlsbad, and “slivers” of Vista, Escondido and a few unincorporated areas along with all of San Marcos. There are a total of 18 schools comprised of 2 high schools, 1 alternate high school, 3 middle schools, 1 K-8 school, and 11 elementary schools. There are a total of 22,000 students, over 2,000 employees of which 1,100 are teachers and as a result, the school district is the largest employer in San Marcos.

Demographically the student body is very diverse. 45% are Hispanic, 43% Caucasian, 5% African-American and 2% Filipino. 13% have some kind of learning disability and 40% are considered low income while 17% are still learning English. “As you can see, we aren’t that ethnically diverse as we’re basically half Hispanic and half White,” Randy explained. “But we are incredibly diverse economically.” He went on, “We have true poverty and we have true wealth and this brings a great gift to our kids, a lesson many kids are learning without even knowing it.”

The Results are In!

The district has improved its reputation remarkably from what it was 15-20 years ago. He credited current Superintendent Kevin Holt for much of the turn around. He described Mr. Holt’s vision that he lives every day – that we need to think “K thru 16” and not “K thru 12” – every kid needs to know from Day 1 that they can get to college if they want to. This vision plays out daily where “every single kid deserves to learn every single day and we will not let them fail.” Mr. Holt has now announced he is retiring, and the goal is to have his replacement hired by July 1.

The results? Emphasis was placed on teacher professional development that led to “adopted learning communities” where teachers meet weekly to review issues and progress. Students may be traded if necessary to play to teacher/student strengths, and resources added to solve problems. Additionally there was an effort to ensure every school refocused on visual and performing arts.

The data show it has worked. The San Marcos Marching Band grew from 50 members to over 300 and is now recognized as one of the best in the state. Maintaining good and positive relationships with teachers and unions is key resulting in good comparative pay and excellent benefits. As a result SMUSD is consistently ranked in the top 10% whether analyzed by demographics or subject matter. Two elementary schools are #1 in the state. In the last 10 years English and Math scores have far exceeded those of the county and state. 16 schools are recognized as Gold Ribbon and we are one of the top 10 districts for closing the achievement gap. The graduation rate is greater than 95% with a dropout rate of only 2.6%. “We just don’t let kids fail,” Randy explained.

Excellence Brings Its Own Problems

This excellence has brought with it big challenges however. San Marcos has had tremendous growth over the last decade because of its good schools, and the city of San Marcos is the only still growing city in the county. The school district has little to no say over the size and pace of development, so how to absorb the projected growth of the future student body is Randy’s greatest concern.

“It’s much easier to build a new 500 home development than it is to build a new school,” Randy said. The new Mission Hills High School was built for a capacity of 3,400 students and it already has 3,200 enrolled. San Elijo Hills Middle School is now at capacity as are all the elementary schools. Yet 5,000 new living units are planned in the next 5 years. “This probably means a third high school and a new middle school along with 1-2 elementary schools. Where will the money come from to support so many new schools? Randy admitted that he didn’t know, and that is why there is now a meeting planned with the City and developers in March.

Randy explained an added financial impact: 20% of the budget was cut during the recession and they tried to avoid any hits to the classroom (during that time test scores continued to increase). However, to avoid classroom impact much of the surplus was used, and now the School Board has just been informed that their contribution to CalPers/CalSTRS due to recession shortfalls will have to be increased. This means many millions for our school district.

Q&A – Betsy DeVos and Charter Schools?

The Q&A session was particularly lively given the recent confirmation of Betsy DeVos as new Secretary of Education. He was asked his thoughts on the impact she could have along with his thoughts on charter schools. Regarding Ms. DeVos herself, he feels she will have little impact since California receives the majority of school funding from the state ($240 million) rather than from the federal government ($9 million). “Maybe she’ll change the conversation for the better,” he hoped.

Asked his thoughts on Charter Schools Randy indicated that he is not against them philosophically. He explained however that charter schools are public schools and as a result the $7,500 allocation per student travels with each student that attends a charter school. That is money that is siphoned away from the normal public schools. “Most Charter Schools fail because a well meaning group has a good idea, gets chartered then discovers that its like running a business, have to find a location etc. and they flounder,” Randy explained. He recognized that there are some students with a special niche where Charters fit very well, but there has been a bashing of the public education system driving the rich kids to charters, leaving fewer dollars for the neighborhood schools. And many who leave for charters find themselves often coming back to public schools. This so far has been less of an issue for San Marcos because the district is so large.

But, as Randy said, “The danger is continued criticism of public education and DeVos was the leader of of this in her state.” Most public schools today provide a comprehensive education and is better on par with major successful countries. The data does not support the “alternative fact” that we are way behind – if you remove a small amount of the rural schools. But all things can be improved including the adoption of Common Core. As Randy explained, “We are always looking at outcomes, making improvements.”

And regarding Common Core, when asked why it’s so vilified Randy explained, “Common Core is a set of standards developed in a bi-partisan way by participants from 43 states. It wasn’t developed by the Federal Government and states can opt out. It didn’t become politicized until Obama because President.

Finally Randy was asked how can residents become an advocate for public education in San Marcos? “Tell the good news to everyone” Randy said, however more importantly, advocacy to the city council to stand up against developers is needed. The housing demand will always be there. “When is enough enough?” Randy asked.