Smooth move: Few hiccups as new year gets underway for downsized Penn Valley school district
“Welcome to chaos,” Katy Jamison said, laughing with her arms thrown wide to encompass the junior high students sketching designs and ironing quilt fabric in her elective sewing class.
Jamison, along with a large majority of these sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, is a brand-new addition to Ready Springs Elementary School. More than 150 students and staff moved from Pleasant Valley Elementary School to Ready Springs or to Williams Ranch schools after a decision last year by the Penn Valley Unified Elementary School District board to shutter Pleasant Valley.
The reorganization now has clustered all the junior high school students in the district on one campus, a move that has had big benefits, said Ready Springs Principal Teena Corker.
For one, Ready Springs now has a school council, with a leadership class planning events such as school dances, promoting school pride and holding Wednesday spirit assemblies.
District Superintendent Torie England said she was particularly pleased with the opportunity to provide the traditional junior high experience to all the students in the district. Those students function as a school within the school and their section of the campus has its own name: Hilltop Academy.
“Being a junior high student, they just have different needs,” England said. “It’s not just ABCs and 123s for them, they (need to) learn lots of socialization, conflict management and organizational skills.”
The junior high students increase their readiness for the “culture shock” of high school each year, England said. Fifth-graders have one teacher, then in sixth grade have two to three instructors; seventh- and eighth-graders rotate through four to five teachers.
Before this year, the smaller group of Ready Springs junior high students did not change classes.
“Now that we’re all here (145 in all) they rotate through teachers and now they also have electives,” Corker said.
These include creative writing, leadership, French and technology, as well as Jamison’s class, which currently has students designing quilts to donate to the Foothills Healthy Babies program.
“So far, it’s been great,” said Jamison of the move. “Kids are kids, wherever you go, and the team here is amazing.”
Many of the transfers in Jamison’s class say they quickly realized the change of facility didn’t matter as much as the continuity of teachers and fellow students, sentiments echoed by students in other classes as well.
“We do have some of the same teachers, and our kids with us,” said eighth-grader CJ Conder. “The school doesn’t matter, as long as we’re with our friends.”
Fellow eighth-grader Josh Chassaing gave the teachers new to them a thumbs-up as well.
A few of the transfers admitted to feeling apprehension over being in a new school with different surroundings and new people.
“At first I was scared,” said Katelynn Carroll, 13.
But so far, she said, meeting the kids new to her has been a lot of fun.
“We merged perfectly,” Carroll said.
Carroll’s friend, Robin Lawless, chimed in, saying, “We’re all getting along.”
“I haven’t met anyone I haven’t gotten along with,” agreed Carroll.
Work throughout last school year eased transition
Corker — the former principal of Pleasant Valley, who transferred to Ready Springs with her entire staff, including custodians, secretaries and teachers — said the transition has been pretty pain-free.
“The nice surprise is how smooth it was,” she said. “The only hiccup was traffic flow, and that got fixed within a few days.”
Some of the grade levels at Ready Springs already had reached their enrollment cap, but the district worked to accommodate everyone who was a sibling of a junior high school student, England said.
As the superintendent explains it, the district reconfigured its boundaries around grade levels rather than geography; historically, Highway 20 served as the dividing line for where your child went to school. Now, in one big change, all the junior high students are bused to Ready Springs.
The students who were third-graders at Williams Ranch might have it the worst, England said. They moved to Pleasant Valley for fourth grade and are now back at Williams Ranch for fifth grade, then will go to Ready Springs for sixth grade.
“Those poor kids have really been bounced around,” she said. “We’ve been working with them — but at least they’re going back to a school they went to before.”
The changeover caused a push-back when the decision was made, England acknowledged, in large part because of socioeconomic differences in the student bodies of Pleasant Valley, which served Lake Wildwood kids, and Ready Springs, drawing from Penn Valley families.
“We’ve had a real challenge,” she said. “We’ve worked very, very hard to create a culture that every child is welcome here, every child deserves a good education, and none of that other stuff matters.”
Both Corker and England point to efforts made throughout the last school year to host get-togethers for parents and students, to talk about the transition and get feedback.
“We really tried to prepare for this, and I think it paid off,” Corker said.
The district’s enrollment figures did decline from last year. Back in September 2016, when the decision was made to close Pleasant Valley, staff said they expected an enrollment of 578. According to England, the district ended the school year with 565 students and revised the estimated enrollment for this year to 550; currently, enrollment stands close to that, at about 545.
That 30-student drop is partially due to natural attrition, England said.
“In my honest opinion, we lost maybe a dozen to charter schools, and even a dozen is probably a stretch,” she said.
Part of the imbalance is due to declining birth rates, according to England
“That’s just how it works,” she said. “If you have 55 kindergartners coming in and 65 eighth-graders graduating, you have a decline of 10 students.”
According to the superintendent, the number of students some feared would leave “was not even close to reality. The rumor mill had us losing hundreds of students.”
England did acknowledge that any decline was a hit to the district finances, but could not provide a specific number this early in the school year.
At the time the school closure was under discussion, the district’s budget deficit was projected to be more than $337,500 in the 2017-2018 school year; the district anticipated saving $250,000-$300,000 annually if it closed one of its three school sites.
England gave full props to the “majority” of the parents who have been cheerleaders, as well as the staff, whom she called the backbone of the transition — and to her board, for supporting the difficult decisions.
“It’s great to work for people who, at the end of the day, do what’s right for the kids,” she said.
Now that the transition is done, next on England’s agenda is selling the Pleasant Valley school property. Items such as desks and even portable classrooms are being sold as surplus and the district’s board has just approved the sale of the real estate, England said.
The former school site must be appraised and then the district must offer it for sale first to certain government entities, such as the parks and recreation district. That entire process can take as long as 150 days total; if no sale is negotiated, the district offers the site for sale to a second tier of preferred buyers, and then would list it for sale to the general public.
“It’s quite a process,” England said before quipping, “Who knew surplusing a school could be so difficult?”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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