NOOZHAWK: What motivated you to run for the Santa Barbara School Districts Board of Education? Explain your decision process.

Dean Nevins

Dean Nevins

DEAN NEVINS: I am running for the school board because I want to help improve our public school system, and I believe that the district is going through many significant challenges and faces some significant issues in the next two years. I feel that my skill set, coming from my position on the Goleta Union School District board implementing many successful reforms, and my work both county and statewide, will serve the Santa Barbara School Districts and the challenges it faces to improve education. By having a child in the district, and soon to have two, I also provide a parent’s perspective that I feel is key to an effective and responsive board.

NOOZHAWK: What unique experience or expertise do you have that will make a difference on the Santa Barbara school board?

DN: My extensive expertise with school board issues at the state, county and local levels. I have the most experience on an elected school board, with six years on the board of the Goleta Union School District. One of my challengers has four years of service while the other two have no experience on an elected school board at all. In the interests of completeness, though, I should mention that one of my challengers does have a few months experience on a charter school board. Experience matters because it takes at least one to two years to be effective, no matter what background you have when you join the board. I can be effective on Day One, not Day 700.

My experience is useful because when the other candidates talk about what they would do to address board issues, I can speak of what I have actually done. For example, many candidates speak of issues surrounding the achievement gap and what they would like to do about it. I have been working the last six years on this issue, and by working with the rest of the board as well as parents, teachers, classified staff and administrators, we are closing the achievement gap in Goleta. This is a real world result, not some abstract study.

Because I have talked to many parents, teachers and principals in the Santa Barbara School Districts, I know that there are differences between the Goleta Union School District and the Santa Barbara School Districts. I would start my tenure on the board with many successful reforms under my belt and the knowledge of how to empower the people involved in educating our children to take student achievement to the next level.

NOOZHAWK: Public school funding in California is in a perpetual state of crisis. How is the Santa Barbara School Districts prepared to withstand continued budget pressures from the state? What can the district do to strengthen itself financially at the local level?

DN: The district has lost tens of millions of dollars in funding while the population of children has remained essentially the same. While there are probably some efficiencies to be gained in reducing some overhead and administrative costs, the net gains will be quite small. It makes a nice talking point to say that you will cut administrative overhead to save the budget, but that is not going to work now; the cuts have been too big. The budget mess in Sacramento has put the district in a place where further cuts will hurt kids. The best we can do at this point is to minimize the damage.

The community has been supportive of the district’s efforts to preserve educational programs with the passage of Measures H and I in 2008. This helped preserve and supplement programs in math, science and technology in both the elementary and secondary districts. However, I would be hesitant to move forward with any similar types of direct program-supporting measures in the current economy. I believe our best bet for strengthening the district financially is to have a board that can look at and understand the complex nature of school financing. I would add expertise to the current board, which would help make the best possible decisions in a very difficult climate.

NOOZHAWK: What do you see as the most pressing issue the Santa Barbara School Districts will face in the next five years?

DN: The budget. The amount of money we have, and how it is allocated, will determine a great deal of what happens in the district.

NOOZHAWK: Do you support Measures Q and R, the combined $110 million school bonds for the Santa Barbara elementary and secondary school districts? Why or why not?

DN: I support both measures since the way the state of California funds large projects like this has fundamentally changed. Before the current ongoing budget mess in Sacramento, there was money available to match local resources or pay for projects outright. Currently, matching funds are a complete fiction in which often the state says it will match the money you have allocated for a project, but when you get the money, it doesn’t match, and you are left with a much smaller project or no project at all. If passed, Measures Q and R allow the community to fund local improvements locally and remove Sacramento from the equation. This guarantees that the projects will be able to move forward and improve facilities for both the elementary and secondary school districts.

NOOZHAWK: Assess the overall academic performance of both the Santa Barbara elementary and secondary districts. What are the specific strengths and specific weaknesses of each district. How would you improve them?

DN: To accurately and completely answer this question would require more space than the vast majority of readers would want to read! I’ll just give a few points and a suggestion or two on how I would work to improve them.

At the secondary level there is strength in the breadth of offerings, although that is under pressure due to the budget. The secondary district is also making progress in student achievement but at levels that are similar to the progress being made by the state of California overall. A weakness that I have observed by talking to principals, administrators and teachers is a lack of district-wide collaboration. The principals collaborate at some level, particularly at the junior high schools, but the teachers are not collaborating across the schools that much. This isolation reduces the effectiveness of teaching and doesn’t allow the best practices to make their way across the entire district. I would work to put policies and practices in place to encourage much greater grade-level collaboration across the district.

At the elementary level there is strength in the improving levels of student achievement, but the improvements are not uniform across the district. I would work to have more equity between the elementary-level schools and to provide a common baseline of support for nonacademic programs.

NOOZHAWK: Earlier this year, Santa Barbara School Districts trustees authorized the merger of the GATE and Honors programs. Do you support the new arrangement? Why or why not?

DN: Yes. As a parent of two GATE-identified kids and as someone who has been involved with GATE issues in Goleta as a GATE committee representative, I am less concerned about the label attached to a class as to what is taught in it. GATE was a shift in the 1960s era Mentally Gifted Minor program that went from targeting the top 2 percent of students to having districts set their own standards. Originally, GATE was envisioned as a differentiated learning experience within the regular school day, and the move to Honors is actually closer to the original intent than what we had before. I do think it is a board responsibility, as part of its oversight function, to ensure that the courses stay rigorous — but that is no different than before the name change.

NOOZHAWK: Assess the Santa Barbara School Districts’ special-education and child-care programs. Are they serving these students and their families adequately? Why or why not?

DN: The special-education program was reviewed in detail much greater than I could explain here by the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT). Click here for the recommendations. In summary, the program was not serving the districts’ students and families adequately, especially poor families and the families of English learners.

Summarizing their findings, FCMAT found there was a conflict between program staff and site principals and that there were no clear lines of responsibility and accountability. This created instability and mistrust from parents in general and low-income families in particular. Also, the district identifies 12 percent of students as students with disabilities; a rate higher than California or Santa Barbara County. This high rate of identification is contrary to the effective use of the Response to Intervention and suggests an area for evaluation.

FCMAT made many good recommendations to strengthen the program, and the district is currently evaluating, prioritizing and putting them into practice with input from parents, teachers, counselors and support staff. Among the recommendations are delineating communication flow so people know who is responsible, improving training, and understanding what resources are available locally to optimize their use.

FCMAT later evaluated the child-care program. As Noozhawk reported, it found that the overall program was quite uneven and that there was little oversight. It produced a list of recommendations that were more tweaks to the program than an overhaul.

NOOZHAWK: Describe one new program that the Santa Barbara School Districts can pursue that will provide greater learning opportunities for all students, including English learners and special-education students. How will it help?

DN: There is no silver-bullet program. What will help improve student success is if all the programs that we have can be evaluated in terms of an overall approach to educating our children. That currently doesn’t exist, so we get programs that are not coordinated or work at cross-purposes. I would advocate for the formation of a strategic plan directed by the board and created with input from parents, teachers, classified staff and administrators. With the creation of a real plan backed up by commitments by the board, you have a framework to evaluate current and new programs. This will improve learning opportunities for all students.

NOOZHAWK: What are the best — and fairest — ways to assess teacher performance?

DN: I believe the best and fairest ways to assess teacher performance lies in having clear goals spelled out so our teachers know what is expected. In addition, you need to have a process in which teachers can find out how they are doing, how to improve, and what happens when they don’t improve. Simply stating that you want to “improve teaching” is meaningless when you don’t define what you are talking about. I believe that the development of these expectations, captured in the evaluation instrument, is best done by working with the teachers themselves and taking advantage of their knowledge of what works and what does not.

NOOZHAWK: Is there too much emphasis on student test scores? What can the Santa Barbara School Districts do to broaden its assessments of academic achievement?

DN: I do think that test scores are over-emphasized, but that is the environment in which we currently find ourselves. I think people like having a single metric upon which to judge because it is simple and can be compared to other “like” scores easily. The difficulty is that test scores do not measure all of a student’s educational growth, particularly with the “softer” side of intellectual and emotional development.

One way of broadening assessment would be through the use of portfolios. The portfolio assessment process uses a collection of the students’ work throughout the year to show growth in a subject. Key to this, and one major omission from the testing approach, is the involvement of the student in the evaluation. Typically, portfolio assessment presents the student with a series of rubrics that inform them with what the expectations are for a particular topic. The students can select from their body of work examples illustrating their progression of mastery in the given subject. By educating the students on what they are learning and how it fits together with other things they are learning, the students get a sense of progression and a chance to reflect on what they are doing and where they are going. This can lead to students becoming more self-directed and involved with their own education. This can improve student success and leads to assessment being a way of helping students become better students rather than just a test score number.

NOOZHAWK: Is the Santa Barbara School Districts doing enough to provide its students with technology training? Name an initiative that it does well.

DN: As a computer science professor at SBCC this issue is near and dear to my heart. Ironically, I am not a “tech above all else” kind of person, and I believe that while technology can be useful, it should not drive curriculum. Technology is a tool and should be treated as such. It is more important to me that students can think critically about a topic and argue their case rather than knowing how to use the latest version of PowerPoint. That said, technology can be used effectively to enhance the educational process.

In the last several years, the district has been focusing its technology-related efforts on improving infrastructure. While infrastructure seems pedestrian, it is crucial to implementing any technology-based training efforts for students. Also, since the major focus of modern computing is network related, you need to have a robust network infrastructure, and the district has moved positively to improve it. It has also improved other areas of technology and is now moving to the training phase in which teachers (and others) learn about the new technology and how to use it effectively.

There are two initiatives that are excellent and both incorporate technology in a very appropriate manner. Santa Barbara High School’s Multimedia Arts & Design (MAD) Academy blends technology and the arts and the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy incorporates the hands-on use of technology into a science- and engineering-focused curriculum.

NOOZHAWK: If you could change one thing in the Santa Barbara School Districts, what would it be?

DN: I would increase the budget. The district is at the point now where the cuts hurt kids, and increasing the budget would make a significant difference in the ability of the district to respond to problems. Some things can be done with little additional cost, but there are some things that require spending money.

NOOZHAWK: What is the Santa Barbara School Districts’ greatest asset?

DN: The people of the districts are the greatest asset by far. I’ve talked to many people throughout the district who are parents, teachers, classified staff and administrators, and I’ve found many caring and competent individuals who truly want what’s best for our kids.

NOOZHAWK: Which teacher has had the biggest impact on your children, or yourself? How?

DN: The teachers who have had the biggest impact on my life were my first teachers, my parents. They instilled within me a love of country, education and life. I hope that I’m having the same impact on my children.

NOOZHAWK: How can voters learn more about your candidacy?

DN: Click here for my Web site.

NOOZHAWK: Would you support our plan to have the Noozhawk logo affixed to the tops of the mortarboards worn by the Class of 2011 at their high school commencements? If in official school colors, of course.

DN: I’ll support that right after Noozhawk pays for a districtwide solar installation!

Finally, if you have read all the way to this point, thank you! I hope you will allow me to put my educational leadership and experience to work for you by voting for Dean Nevins on Nov. 2.

Click here for more information on Dean Nevins’ campaign.

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» Click here for Monique Limón’s Noozhawk Q&A.

» Click here for Loren Mason’s Noozhawk Q&A.

» Click here for Kate Parker’s Noozhawk Q&A.