Top education stories of 2019: Sierra Montessori closure tops education stories |

Top education stories of 2019: Sierra Montessori closure tops education stories

Many stories shook the education world in Nevada County in 2019. Most notably, both the Sierra Montessori Academy and Nevada City Charter School closed. And county students lost a significant amount of instruction time due to PG&E’s power shutoffs.

However, there were also positive narratives, including new programs added to districts and a multitude of construction projects being undertaken with bond money.

These are the Top 5 education stories of 2019:


On Halloween, Sierra Montessori Academy closed abruptly.

As it was during the middle of the year, Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay called the closure “uncharted territory.”

There was strong disagreement as to why the school closed three months into the school year.

Many teachers, staff, parents, county officials and some board members said the issues pertained to a few people in power: the school’s former director Stephen DeSena, business manager Pam Hemminger and board chairperson Jody Reavis.

“It breaks my heart that this individual and the board allowed the school to disintegrate to the point that it did,” said former director (prior to DeSena) Henry Bietz a few months ago.

Reavis, Hemminger and, in particular, DeSena disagreed.

DeSena said Bietz ran the budget “on a razor’s edge,” forcing him to make uncomfortable decisions, like firing teachers.

According to Lay and board documents, DeSena was not hired with the school board following proper procedure. He also took a retirement package after resigning, which was also not decided through proper board procedure. From the 2018-19 to 2019-20 school years, the school board infrequently followed the Brown Act.

This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued some new rules to ensure more transparency among charter schools.


In February, the Nevada City Charter School Board decided to not to renew the school’s charter after the 2018-19 school year.

The board said low math test scores on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress exam led to the closure.

“The board is required to consider academic performance as the most important factor when reviewing renewal,” said Superintendent and Principal Trisha Dellis in February.

Most parents were upset with the decision to not reopen the school. They felt the process that led to the school’s closure was opaque.

“Choosing to close the only charter school in the district would be a disservice to the community,” said parent Stacey Smith in February.


There have been several renovation initiatives at Nevada County schools.

This past summer, the Grass Valley School District leveraged over $18 million in bond money to pay to fix leaky roofs, dysfunctional ventilation systems and other problems plaguing its infrastructure.

The bond measure, which was approved in May 2018, has gone to reforming infrastructure at Grass Valley Charter School, Margaret G. Scotten Elementary School and Bell Hill Academy as part of a three-year project.

“We feel pretty good about what we were able to get accomplished this summer,” said Brian Martinez, assistant superintendent for the district, in August.

Nevada Union High School was also renovating its infrastructure this past summer, fixing up the parking lots, campus roads and more with Measure B bond money.

Penn Valley Union Elementary School District is now proposing a bond measure on a 2020 ballot to renovate its school campuses.

“Our goal is to get our sites where they are pretty solid for the next 20 years,” school district Superintendent Dr. Torie England said in August.


Students received less class time this past fall than was anticipated.

Northern California was struck by a series of PG&E power shutoffs and in Nevada County the first series of outages mostly hit Penn Valley, but later ones affected all county students.

Students in Penn Valley cumulatively lost eight days of instruction time, and other Nevada County students lost more than two days at least.

The problem is two fold as teacher contracts now need to be renegotiated and the school year potentially needs to be extended. While missed school days can be waived easily for students, the same is not true for staff members and teachers.

“It will be very difficult to add days to the end of the year on the calendar because it’s something we’ve never done in Nevada County,” said Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay in November.

The county is still waiting for instruction from Sacramento to advise administrators how to adjust the school year.


Nevada Joint Union High School administrators speak very highly of the “Get Focused, Stay Focused.” In fact, it’s arguably the thing they are most excited about.

Nevada Union High School Principal Kelly Rhoden joked that she wants to work for the program.

“In August, our district implemented ‘Get Focused…Stay Focused!’” wrote the district’s Superintendent Brett McFadden in October. “It is a semester-long course for freshmen students that helps them understand who they are, what they might want out of life, and how they’re going to get it. Freshmen take one semester of “Get Focused…Stay Focused!” and a one semester health class.”

The program is meant to adequately prepare students for college and a successful future.

Get Focused, Stay Focused may be part of the Nevada Joint Union High School District for some time to come.

To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email or call 530-477-4219.

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