Orcutt Union School District Superintendent Deborah Blow
Orcutt Union School District Superintendent Deborah Blow, seen here at last year’s State of the District speech, plans to retire and the school board hired a search firm Monday to help find a replacement.  (Janene Scully / Noozhawk file photo)

Declining enrollment will provide a challenge for the Orcutt Union School District, even as educators focus on flexible learning programs that have seen students take over a restaurant, create videos and flock to makerspaces.

Superintendent Deborah Blow presented her State of the District speech Tuesday morning at Lakeview Junior High School gym to an audience of approximately 40 community leaders, parents and educators.

In addition to sharing successes, Blow’s annual presentation also sought community input on the challenges ahead.

One big hurdle is declining enrollment, once close to 5,300. The number has dropped to 5,100 for the district, she said.

“That’s a challenge because we get our funding from the number of students we have,” she said.

Orcutt has accepted inter-district transfers including from Santa Maria-Bonita School District, and without those additional students the enrollment number would be even smaller, she said.

The school district leader said another area that worries her involves the larger population of students with greater social and emotional needs than in the past. In response, the district will implement a program, Positive Behavior Intervention and Support, at the schools in phases. 

“It is having simple expectations and teaching students the expectations and how to be safe and caring in our schools,” Blow said of the program.

She also said educators need to teach students about how to use social media effectively to avoid rumors from spreading.

In the past, a struggling student could escape social troubles such as bullying once they left school. 

“Now with social media, they can’t. It’s there 24/7,” Blow said.

Some of the district successes include robust arts programs, she said, and Tuesday’s presentation included videos made by students and performances by a student drum line in a school musical.

“I am so proud to say that the arts are flourishing in the Orcutt Union School District,” Blow said.

This year, the district’s elementary students receive 30 minutes in visual arts lessons weekly, and junior high and high school students can take band and choir elective classes. 

“Our band program has tripled since I’ve been here,” she said. 

The Orcutt Children’s Arts Foundation, a nonprofit organization focuses on raising funds for assorted arts supplies, help keep arts alive and the Orcutt Academy High School Band performed during the OCAF Gala.

Orcutt Union Superintendent Deb Blow

Orcutt Union School District Superintendent Deb Blow talks to Glenn Morris from the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce during a State of the District presentation on Tuesday. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“They’re small but mighty and they have a powerful sound,” she said.

To meet the needs of 21st century students, elementary classrooms now have flexible furniture to allow reconfigurations for various lessons that might not require rows of desks with a teacher at the front of the room.

Examples of the unique learning include a culinary arts class where students took over a Los Alamos restaurant to serve pizza, while other campuses feature gardens to help promote healthy eating.

“Guess what? When they grow it, they’ll eat it,” Blow said. 

Libraries also now house makerspaces to encourage student creativity.

“This sign, ‘library is full,’ is because the makerspace was full,” she said. “When we first launched this we even had students counterfeiting the passes to get into makerspaces.”

The district has undertaken capital projects, funded by the voter-approved Measure G to provide $60 million to boost safety and security at campuses, including fencing at Alice Shaw Elementary School.

Some feared the added fencing to meet modern security concerns would make the campus appear like a prison, Blow said. 

“One of the teachers said, ‘I feel like I’m driving up to a spa,” Blow said. 

She also told the crowd that the district has found success with its charter schools, Orcutt Academy for elementary students who meet at the Los Alamos campus, Orcutt Academy High School for ninth through 12th graders, and an independent study program that meets in Casmalia.

The charter school recently earned a six-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

“We feel good about what we’re doing but it’s validating when someone from outside feels that way too,” said Joe Dana, the district’s director of charter programs. 

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.