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Education's evolving doors

Special report: Innovation, parental demand, advances in learning methods all spell new trends

Posted: December 19, 2010 4:33 a.m.
Updated: December 19, 2010 4:30 a.m.
 

In the Santa Clarita Valley and across California, public education is getting a makeover.

Gone are the one-size-fits-all lesson plans. On the rise are charter schools, changes in the classroom brought on by technology and increasing parent involvement.

This year, Saugus Union School District’s West Creek Academy gave parents the option of sending their youngsters to a public school where arts and music are taught nearly as much as English and math.

The growing Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences is a new charter school where youngsters can learn the Hebrew language, a first for the Santa Clarita Valley.

And local educators say the myriad options are only going to grow as education nears a turning point in how it’s delivered and what is taught.

Expanding demands

Recent years have brought a wave of new schools in the Santa Clarita Valley with the goal of meeting the demands of a new generation of students.

“We’re having to redefine ourselves, in a way, so we can still do what we need to for the children,” Saugus Union Superintendent Judy Fish said.

For instance, West Creek Academy has been met with an overwhelming response from parents living across the Santa Clarita Valley who want their children to experience the school’s innovative arts and music-infused curriculum.

“It does indicate the interest in the public locally and across the country in looking at new ways of teaching students and exposing them to subjects broader than the core curriculum,” Fish said.

At the same time, technology is offering educators tools to reach students in new ways.

“I definitely think we are going to see a more diverse teaching force,” said Priscilla Wohlstetter, University of Southern California professor and director of the Center on Educational Governance. “I also think we are going to see greater diversity in terms of who is providing public education.”

For instance, the country is experiencing a surge in the number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations delivering educational services, she said.

At the same time, students have more access to online educational opportunities, as well as digital and interactive textbooks.

There’s a growing emphasis on career education that teaches skills necessary to compete in the global work force, Newhall School District board member Suzan Solomon said.

One reason for the changes is the discovery of different methods of learning among different students.

“There is no one way that kids learn,” said Wohlstetter, a visiting professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “So you have more opportunities and greater opportunities for diversifying instruction depending on the needs of kids.”

But it’s impossible to overstate the effect of changing technology that has made the world a smaller place in many ways, Solomon said.

“The communication of the world is different than it’s ever been,” Solomon said.

Fish sees technology as one of the fastest-changing aspects of education.

“I don’t think we’ve begun to envision or dream what’s possible,” Fish said. “And it changes so quickly.”

Parent choices

Perhaps one of the biggest changes has been brought about by demands of parents who want choices for their children.

“I’ve got to say that we are going to have way more public choice,” Wohlstetter said. “Here we are in the public sector giving parents a choice to decide which school their child attends. That is enormous.”

She hopes the trend continues.

“The idea of choice and where your child goes to school has been for many years reserved for the elite and the wealthy,” she said.

Trinity Classical Academy Managing Director Wally Caddow sees the public choice movement as a concept that’s in line with President Barack Obama’s agenda for education.

“I just think that people are not going to be deterred and wait for politicians to catch up to them,” Caddow said.

Trinity Classical Academy has experienced dramatic growth during its decade of existence, now counting some 340 students in grades K-11, he said.

Since September this year, 13 students have transferred to Trinity, marking the biggest influx yet during such a short time period, Caddow said.

“We’re just getting a lot of people come our way essentially saying that we want to exercise our choice,” Caddow said. “I think that the public school system has hit a tipping point.”

Solomon argues that flight to private schools caused by state budget crunch isn’t merited, based on local public schools’ performances. Santa Clarita Valley school districts regularly outperform schools across California on state testing.

“I think people tend to mix up the funding issue of our school system with academic success,” Solomon said. “The funding process is what’s failing the system, not the public education itself.”

While Trinity draws former home-schooled students or youngsters from other private schools, the majority are students from public schools, Caddow said.

“Commonsensically, people know when they aren’t getting a decent bang for their buck,” Caddow said.

That puts alternative schools like Trinity in a situation where they can thrive.

“(Residents of the Santa Clarita Valley) don’t have that kind of school that is a true elite prep school,” said Caddow, referring to private schools like Harvard-Westlake. “We feel uniquely positioned to take on that role.”

Challenging environment

Changes in education brought on by parental demand, technology improvements and discoveries in learning methods are occurring against a backdrop of financial crisis in California and some other states.

Millions of dollars have been cut from public schools, which receive nearly all their funding from the state.

Governor-elect Jerry Brown anticipates more budget cuts, especially to education, as he takes office in January.

“I think we’re having to look at how do we do more with less,” Fish said.

Despite the cuts, Fish said the budget cycle will eventually pass, creating a better economic situation for education.

“We have to be prepared for challenges that haven’t even been defined yet,” she said. “That means being flexible. Providing choice.”

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