Graduation day at San Rafael High School. (Photo credit: Jessica Merz via Flickr)
A Bay Area school district is the first in the state to try out a new program that’s expected to be a game-changer. It’s only been a year, however, school leaders believe they are better preparing kids to become innovative, successful thinkers to help drive our state’s economy.
“Proficient isn’t high enough and the state is asking for proficient or advanced and that’s what we’re all working towards. But proficient isn’t a high enough goal to propel kids forward to continue to build on knowledge, so they are ready for college and beyond,” said Superintendent of San Rafael City Schools Dr. Mike Watenpaugh.
The new program is modeled on a similar program started by Dr. Jerry Weast, known by many in the education field as the best superintendent in America, when he was the leader of the Montgomery County Schools in Maryland. Weast is now a consultant.
“Dr. Weast identified San Rafael City Schools as the only district in the county that was ready to move the education agenda forward based on the work we had done in the prior four years,” said Watenpaugh. “We became the first school district to have Dr. Weast as a consultant and me as superintendent to have him as a coach.”
According to Watenpaugh, the program forced them to look at their data.
“With the help of a researcher, we found 70 percent of our kids started college.” said Watenpaugh. “Sixty percent went back a second year, but only 30 percent graduated with a degree in a six-year period. It wasn’t good.”
So the district changed the culture of their practices and incorporated effective and proven processes from business and other educational organizations.
“It forced us to be transparent and really honest with the staff, with our community, being real about where we’re successful, where we still need to grow and turning a lot of the solution identification and development to our employees,” added Watenpaugh.
That’s right, everyone is involved and held accountable—from the secretaries, to the custodians, to the groundskeepers, to the teachers—for a student’s success.
“Classified employees play a key role in education of kids,” said Watenpaugh. “They have relationships with kids that nobody else will ever have because kids will tell those folks what they won’t tell their parents or teachers. And they have an opportunity to impact the lives of kids and what we’re doing is promoting that and acknowledging that.”
“It’s personalizing education around doing different things for different populations of kids based on research and it’s really about looking at personalizing the experience for kids, personalizing for employees and doing whatever is necessary to help more kids achieve at high levels and then hit college and not have to be in a remedial course.”
The Bay Area Council was instrumental in bringing this successful program over to California after a business delegation visited Maryland.
“We were all completely blown away by the way Dr. Weast ran the program there,” said Linda Galliher, V.P. Public Policy of the Bay Area Council. “He uses a method of distributed leadership and accountability across the board. Instead of a top-down thing, which is the way a lot of school districts run, he has a matrix organization.”
“In order to do this the right way, you have to really focus on changing the culture. It’s very important and businesses understand this very well, if you don’t get the culture right, you’re not going to be successful.”
Galliher said the Bay Area Council is passionate about California schools because “education is about prosperity, it’s about the economy, it’s about the innovation. We cannot get out-educated by other countries.”
Many believe in order to remain nationally and globally competitive, California must invest on our education system.
“The most important dollars we can spend in education need to go to preschool,” said Galliher.
Watenpaugh believes there are only better things to come, with the program.
“Dr. Weast believed we could be a model for California, being able to take a closer look at ourselves and then to make some decisions as to how to better prepare kids for college and the world of work and then stop doing things that do not align. We can’t wait any longer. it’s just an urgency. If we just plan forever, nothing will happen.”