Other Voices: New school officials face challenges | TheUnion.com

Other Voices: New school officials face challenges

Ralf Swenson began as the new superintendent of Nevada Joint Union High School District on July 1. He knows the district is located in a small, friendly community with a committed teaching staff and talented students. But there are also challenges he should address.

One is hopefully a short-term term problem: The relatively low test scores from the two comprehensive high schools. The second issue I hope he will address is the opaque insider game which seems, at least from the outside, to dominate decision making at NJUHSD.

The two high schools in the district, Nevada Union and Bear River, perform relatively poorly on the state’s standardized tests. This is the case both when they are compared to high schools with a similar socio-economic background and with the local intermediate and elementary schools.

Both NJUHSD high schools consistently score below the 800 threshold the state holds schools accountable to. There has also been little improvement recently; both schools are seemingly stuck at a level of about 770.

More problematic, Bear River is in the bottom ten percent of schools with a similar socio-economic background. Nevada Union does a little better ” it is better than twenty percent of its comparison group. This low achievement level also seems to translate into low rates of college preparation for UC/CSU, as a reported in The Union a few weeks ago.

The irony is that the same students tested at area elementary and intermediate schools do much better. Elementary and intermediate schools in Nevada County have sky-high scores, as every real estate agent advertises.

Seemingly, something goes wrong when our kids hit high school. This is particularly

evident in the easy comparison between Bear River High School and Magnolia Intermediate, two schools which have almost identical attendance areas.

Bear River is in the bottom 10 percent of comparable schools (score 770), while Magnolia is in the upper 20 percent (score 840). There may be very good reasons for this difference, but they are a seemingly a secret closely held by the school board and superintendent’s office, which relates to the second issue I want to raise, that of transparency at NJUHSD.

Government in Nevada County has a reputation as an insider game. NJUHSD certainly has this reputation with respect to teacher hiring, teacher assignments, curriculum development, board deliberations and development of school schedules.

In my view, Swenson’s selection as superintendent was also an exclusive, rather than inclusive process.

My guess is that the transparency problem is not intentional ” there are many conscientious people in the district office.

However, the use of vague job descriptions (including that for the superintendent), difficulty in obtaining and interpreting budget documents, vaguely worded board agendas and an over-reliance on educational jargon push parents, the public and students away from school governance.

For example, all we know from the school board itself is that Swenson was hired because, as School Board Vice President Corrinne Parilo said in The Union, he is “a genuinely nice man,” principal and former athletic director.

But what was the school board’s agenda in hiring him? He is not someone with a background in personnel, budgeting, curriculum reform, discipline or even standardized testing.

Does the school board or the new superintendent have any ideas about such issues, or has the board told him that, as Swenson already said in The Union, “This school district achieves at a high level,” despite the low test scores?

Public information about the district needs to be widely available. Budgets,

enrollment statistics and test scores need to be posted to the District’s Web site with the superintendent’s analysis. And, in the event of disappointing scores, clear professional explanations need to be offered.

The district also needs to engage parents and the community substantively in high school governance. Few volunteer opportunities exist for parents beyond the football games’ snack shack.

Parents should be consulted before important decisions about curriculum are made, not simply informed that there has been a schedule change, class eliminated or policy adopted.

In Nevada County, parents and the community are active in elementary and intermediate schools and interested in the high schools.

While our kids may not want parent involvement in the high schools, it probably is still a good idea. Who knows, maybe even the district’s test scores would start to approach the other schools in Nevada County.


Tony Waters is a parent member of the Bear River High School Site Council. He is also a professor at Chico State. He can be reached via e-mail at twaters@csuchico.edu.

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