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Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times. Contact him at richard_riehl@yahoo.com

Monday, October 20, 2014

Class Sizes in Carlsbad Schools: Fact or Fiction?

Much has been said about class size in Carlsbad schools by candidates running for the school board. All agree they’re too large, some citing reports of classrooms filled with more than 40 students. One candidate, claiming the average class size stood at nearly 30 students compared with under 23 in all of San Diego County, cited a three-year-old report issued during the recession, before Prop 30 brought more school funding and after a -6.4 percent drop in per pupil spending over the previous 4 years (Legislative Analyst’s Office Report, February 7, 2011).

I asked Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Rick Grove for this year’s actual numbers. He reminded me of the district’s funding plan to reduce class sizes this year and next, pointing to the 23 new teachers who’ve been added since last year’s school year began. The district’s average class size alone can be misleading, he told me, because of the differences in school populations and the requirements for smaller classes to accommodate science labs and special needs students. So district-wide grade level averages provide a more meaningful picture of what students and teachers are experiencing. Here are this year’s numbers:

K-3 -- 27 (State law requires a reduction to no larger than 24.1)
4-5 -- 32
6-8 -- 34
HS --- 37

As a high school teacher many years ago I remember well the challenges of teaching English to a classroom filled with 37 hormone-happy sophomores. Yes, CUSD classes are too large. The board and administration show they are working on that. When voters go to the polls in two weeks they may want to consider which candidates are most likely to collaborate, rather than grandstand to solve the problem.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

My Picks for Carlsbad School Board: Partnership Over Partisanship

I haven’t met any of the eight candidates vying for the Carlsbad school board’s four open seats. Nor have I attended their public forums. My choices are based on their campaign websites, the voter’s pamphlet, and fact-checking.

I’m voting for incumbents Veronica Williams and Claudine Jones to fill two of the three 4-year positions.

Williams, a technology professional for 20 years, owns a small consulting business. She holds a degree in mathematics, the California School Board Association’s Masters in Governance, and speaks Spanish. She worked with fellow board members to open Sage Creek High on time and under budget, save more than $1 million by refinancing Prop P bonds, reduce class sizes, and avoid deficit spending in 2012-13 and 2013-14. She promises to base investments on classroom impact, eliminate spending unrelated to student achievement, and seek resources beyond the district.

Jones was appointed to the board last year to fill a position vacated by Kelli Moors. In addition to her 20 years of financial management experience for Fortune 500 companies, she’s been a leader in PTAs, school site councils, the technology advisory committee, the Carlsbad educational foundation, grant writing, and co-founding the parent budget task force.

Maria Rosino-Miracco is my choice for the third position. Facing financial constraints, the board could use an attorney with executive experience managing multimillion dollar budgets. She supports a balanced curriculum of college/career readiness, while keeping the arts and sports alive, spending conservatively, involving parents, and supportive technology for safe/effective schools.

Realtor/Businessman Gil Soto has been an active volunteer in the district but the depth of his experience doesn’t match the three above.

Kathy Rallings’ financial disclosure statement was a deal breaker for me. Of her $12,300 in campaign contributions, $10,000 comes from the Carlsbad Unified Teachers Association. I’m a supporter of organized labor, but that much financial backing from a special interest group makes her an easy target for critics.

Nineteen-year-old Sage Naumann chose to launch a political campaign, rather than continue his education over the last two years. He’s courted Republican and Tea Party leaders throughout the county in this non-partisan election. His strategy is clear. Forty percent of Carlsbad registered voters are Republicans, 28% Democrats, and 25% decline to state. It makes you wonder why Carlsbad city leaders, elected officials, and educators can’t be found among his long list of Republican Party endorsers.

But what troubles me more than Naumann’s lack of education and inexperience is his fact-free, negative campaign. The latest example is posted on his Facebook campaign website, claiming next year’s school district budget will require $5 million in deficit spending he promises to stop. Had he done his homework he would have discovered next year’s budget will not be up for approval until June. The deficit in this year’s budget has been covered with reserve funds.

Naumann does not bother to cite sources for several other claims, including his comparison of class sizes in the Carlsbad school district with those in San Diego County. I couldn’t find that information in a careful search of both the district’s and the California Department of Education’s websites. He didn’t respond to my two requests for a source. In making the case for no new taxes,

Naumann claims, “California has thrown more money at their schools than most other states.” But according to a 2012 US Census Bureau report, California is 36th in the nation in per pupil spending, ranking just below Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas.
While the young candidate’s political savvy is impressive, the issues facing the board require experienced partnership over youthful partisanship.

Jenae Torgerson gets my vote for the 2-year seat. Ray Pearson has a longer resume, but includes his opposition to opening Sage Creek last year, despite 70 percent voter approval of Prop P. His campaign seems to be more about saving money than serving students. Torgerson may lack experience, but a new face with no political agenda, open to learning, will be a good addition amid the seasoned veterans.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

It's Not Too Late To Learn

Eight months ago, shortly after my 70th birthday, I began my quest to conquer calculus. I justified my interest in higher-level math by recalling what I missed in skipping fifth grade. I was able to keep up in all other subjects, but I never made the transition from whole numbers to fractions. Throughout the remainder of my schooling, I decided I was just not good in math, crossing off all careers that required training in it.

I became, instead, a teacher of high school English. After five years of that, having no interest in school administration or counseling, I accepted a position as an admissions officer at a local university. Thirty years later I retired, still lacking fifth grade arithmetic skills.

Unwilling to return to the classroom, I enrolled in the online Khan Academy, which enrolls about 10 million students worldwide, most of whom are decades younger than I. Currently, I’m struggling to graph quadratic equations, enjoying the freedom to learn at my own pace, without a teacher prodding me along. I also like Khan’s requirement for mastery of a concept before being permitted to move on to the next. That’s a far cry from the days I earned a grade of “C” in Algebra I and be happily passed on to earn another “C” in Algebra II, without mastering either level.

A few months after I began my math quest, my wife and I signed up for our first adult education class through California State University San Marcos. It was titled Unbridled Obsessions: The Uncommon Interests and Bizarre Tastes of the Victorian Age, a fascinating class conducted by a fascinating lecturer. It was offered by the University’s Osher Institute, a program designed for students 50 years of age or older. The 30 of us attentive senior students were enraptured by Dr. Jack Williams’ rendition of a quirky time in history with remarkable connections to our own.

We liked the class so much we enrolled in another Osher class last month, titled, Oil, Politics, and the Mideast, taught by an Iraqi-born American, Farouk Al-Nasser, formerly the Executive Director of Iraqi Operations for a San Diego Fortune 500 company. The title caught our interest, not only because of the current world turmoil, but because our son is currently an aid worker stationed in Beirut. Dr. Al Nasser’s presentation has been far more insightful than anything we’ve seen on TV.

Cal State San Marcos is one of 122 colleges and universities from Maine to Hawaii offering Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes designed for students age 50 and older. The founder, Bernard Osher, well known as “the quiet philanthropist,” created the Bernard Osher Foundation in 1977, seeking to improve quality of life through support for higher education and the arts. In 2008 the Foundation provided CSUSM with a $1 million endowment for its program, which now enrolls more than 500 students each year in 13 locations throughout North County.

I’m not sure why going back to school has become so important to me. Maybe it has something to do with my 93-year-old mother, who had to quit high school to help out on the family farm and is struggling today with dementia. It might also be the absence of assignments and grades. This time I go to class only to learn, not to be judged.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Carlsbad's Proposed RV Parking Ordinance

At its January 29 meeting, the city council will vote on a new ordinance that would offer free parking permits for recreational vehicles for up to 144 days a year for a resident, 18 days for an out of town visitor. According to the draft proposal, the new law is intended to respond to "an increase in complaints regarding the parking and /or storage of Oversized Vehicles."

As one who's complained about how often they've put my safety at risk by blocking the view of oncoming traffic on side streets, my response to the proposed law is, don't do me any favors.

Eliminating permanent RV parking will definitely be a big improvement. But this proposal will wind up being costly to taxpayers and is weakened by attempting to accommodate motor home owners. It
may be better to start over again.

Here are its two major problems.

1. Parking permits will allow a resident to park an oversized vehicle for four periods of up to 72 hours per calendar month, making it possible for an RV to be parked in front of an owner's house every weekend year-round. Out of town guests of residents may be granted permits for up to six periods per year of up to 72 hours each, an additional 18 days, bringing the yearly total to 162 days of allowable curbside parking. City streets may become slightly safer for drivers and less trashy by getting rid of permanent parking, but the visual blight will remain.

2. Among the reasons listed for denying a parking permit for up to one year include a two-strikes provision that penalizes an applicant who has violated the parking time limits two or more times, as well as out-of-town visitors who are "not a guest of the applicant." There's no definition of who qualifies as a "guest."

The new law will either increase the burden on compliance code officers or will be left mostly unenforced, creating more of the complaints city leaders want to reduce. I'm guessing it will be the latter, since permits will be free and the cost of assuring compliance has not been addressed. Stepping up compliance enforcement without a parking permit fee is likely to mean the costs will be borne by city taxpayers.

Although the ordinance is well-intentioned, it's far too lenient to make much of a difference to those who share my complaints about RV parking. Seems to me the hulking eyesores will continue to be as obstructive and detrimental to the attractiveness of the city's neighborhoods as they are now.

Here's the link to the draft proposal to see for yourself: http://tinyurl.com/bd7ry6z

Better Than Red-light Cameras

I'm a fan of red-light cameras, despite cursing them for the $600 they cost me for a San Diego intersection photo op and online traffic school instruction.

My wife and I were on our way back from the airport when I came upon the turn off North Harbor Drive onto West Laurel Street. I call it the Intersection From Hell, where two streams of oncoming traffic, controlled by two stop lights, divide. Traffic was light that day, and we were engaged in a spirited conversation. While crossing through the IFH I asked my wife, "Did I just run a red light?" She said, "I think so."

I was certain she was wrong after several weeks of opening the mail with baited breath. Two months had passed before I received the photos of me at the wheel. They were taken from three different angles of our Honda caught in the middle of the intersection while a red light beamed in the background.

After briefly considering a court appearance, pleading old guy confusion in hopes of a reduced fine, I decided to use the painful episode as a learning experience. It not only taught me to be more alert behind the wheel, but to pay closer attention to speed limits and amber lights.

I'm not unhappy with the absence of red-light cameras in Carlsbad. Maybe there are fewer serious accidents caused by stoplight violators. But using technology to improve traffic safety makes a lot of sense. California drivers are famous for ignoring speed limits, refusing to use turn signals, and engaging in rolling stops. Traffic cops need all the help they can get to keep us safe on the road.

The most effective use of technology for traffic safety I've seen is the digital speed limit signs showing your current speed together with the posted speed limit. What makes them so effective when standard speed limit signs and your own speedometer give you the same information? Edward Muzio, CEO of Group Harmonics, explains why. The blinking of their message catches your eye with its instant feedback and displays your speed to other drivers, producing peer pressure to drive within the limit.

Aviara Parkway has digital speed limit signs lining the road as it passes Aviara Elementary School. They light up when you approach the speed limit and begin blinking, SLOW DOWN! SLOW DOWN! when you exceed it. Unlike red-light cameras, you don't get your picture taken and slapped with a fine a few months later.

Red-light camera objectors claim they make too many mistakes, that they create more rear-end collisions, and that they're just a scam to enable cities to collaborate with private companies to pick our pockets.

There's plenty of evidence red-light cameras are more helpful than harmful, but maybe expanding the use of digital speed limit signs and other technology that changes bad driving behavior, rather than simply punishing it, will be both more effective and more acceptable to those who fear Big Brother.

Sandy Hook Could Happen Here

It could happen here. In fact, it did happen here two years ago, on October 8, 2010, when a mentally ill gunman jumped a fence, entered the Kelly Elementary schoolyard and began firing at kids ranging from 7 to 11 years old. Two seven-year-old girls were struck in their arms. It was a miracle nobody died. Had the shooter been carrying the same semi-automatic rifle used by the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer the result would have been a tragedy of the same magnitude.

Wednesday, after several days of grieving for the families who lost loved ones in that small town in Connecticut, we were greeted by a press release from the Carlsbad School District reporting that a high school student had "threatened to cause harm" to other students on December 21. The threat had been made "prior to" the Sandy Hook tragedy. The student has been identified, and school officials say there is "no reason to believe the student has the means to act on this threat" and that they're keeping in "close contact with the family and school authorities to determine the appropriate next steps in keeping the campus safe."

Following the April 2007 Virginia Tech mass shooting that took 32 lives, ABC News reported 323 students had died during the previous 15 years in documented school shootings.

The mass murder of 20 children in Connecticut keeps pace with that annual death rate. Will our response be different because of the age of the victims? Early signals from President Obama and Congress gives me hope, but the pushback against gun control from the National Rifle Association is not encouraging.

We've already heard claims that gun-free zones, like schools, are "magnets for mass murder," since shooters know teachers are unarmed. By that line of reasoning, the way to keep school children safe is for teachers to be trained marksman. And who better to train and credential them than the NRA?
But when it comes to gun control, let's face facts. The current population of the United States is about 314 million. Estimates of privately owned guns range from 190 to 300 million. A 2011 Gallup Poll estimates 47 percent of households own at least one gun.

The question isn't a matter of number of guns, it's their availability to the wrong people. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg says gun shows and online shopping results in only about 40 percent of gun purchases made after background checks.

Legislation banning assault weapons, expanding background checks and investing in mental health treatment can all help to reduce the number of tragedies like Columbine and Sandy Hook. But we can all play a part in cultural change. The graphic depiction of violence in video games, on TV and in popular movies thrives only because of its profitability. Censorship in a free society is not the answer.

But there's something hypocritical about weeping over violent acts while buying tickets to see them depicted on a screen.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Charter School Flunks Twice in One Year

A San Bernardino County charter school failed for the second time this year to win approval to open a campus in North County. Carlsbad school district trustees voted unanimously last week to reject the Oxford Preparatory Academy’s charter proposal. In January the Oceanside school board took the same action on OPA’s bid for a school there.

Charter school supporters often claim school district opposition is driven more by union and administrative protectionism than what’s best for students. On December 6 the newly politicized version of the North County Times, for example, reported the charter school proposal had been turned down mostly because it contained overly-optimistic enrollment and budget projections and a lack of interest shown by local teachers.

But closer look at the facts shows how rejecting the school’s proposal was clearly in the best interests of Carlsbad students. It was not a matter of school district protectionism. In fact, a review of OPA’s curriculum and the students it already serves at its Chino and Capistrano campuses reveals how the school fails to live up to the legislative intent of California’s 1992 Charter School Act. Carlsbad and Oceanside school officials were right to give it a failing grade.

I’m no expert in school budgeting, but there’s little doubt OPA’s projection of an enrollment of 864 students on opening day next fall was wildly optimistic. Responses to a parent survey found just 53 of 685 surveyed saying “Yes” to their intent to enroll their child in the charter school.

But even more important than pie in the sky enrollment projections was the district’s finding that the school’s proposal meets only half of the 16 elements required of charter schools by California’s Education Code.

Here are some of the major deficiencies:
  1. School policies will “promote a disparate impact on the parents of minority students, low income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.”
  2. The students attracted to the school will not reflect the racial and ethnic balance of the Carlsbad School District. In the Capistrano school district, for example, 62 percent of students are white. But OPA’s Capistrano campus enrollment is 72 percent white. In Carlsbad it’s 58 percent.
  3. Enrollment data from existing campuses do not reflect the student population of the chartering districts. The Chino Unified School District’s enrollment includes 14 percent who are English Learners. It’s just 4 percent on the Chino OPA campus. It’s 9 percent in Carlsbad.
  4. The school does not plan to participate in the National School Lunch Program or to provide for daily breakfasts or lunches.
  5. The school’s plan is for a 170 day school year compared to Carlsbad’s a 177 day school year.
  6. The OPA Governing Board is in Chino, 80 miles away. It meets only quarterly and does not require a single board member to be a Carlsbad resident.
The legislative intent of California’s Charter School Act of 1992 calls for charter schools to “Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving.”

I am a supporter of charter schools that meet this intent. An excellent example is Vista’s North County Trade Tech High, which enrolls students who’ve had problems succeeding in a traditional public school because of unusually high absenteeism. In June the school graduated its first class of 20 students. Thirteen will enroll in local colleges, five have been hired as apprentices in local building and trade companies, and two have joined the military. It’s a school that changes lives.

I’m also a supporter of private education, proud of the excellent instruction I received from Dominican Sisters in grade school and Benedictine monks at a small liberal arts college.

But Oxford Preparatory Academy appears to be a place for the white and well-to-do to give their children a college prep private school education at taxpayer expense.

Good for the Carlsbad and Oceanside school officials for recognizing that.