Escondido Union School District Supt. Luis-Rankins-Ibarra Monday gave the district’s first ever “State of the District” address since taking the district’s reins in 2014. It was upbeat and optimistic while recognizing the many challenges that the district faces, chief among them declining enrollment, aging facilities, poverty among the great majority of its students, and less than stellar test scores.
The morning began when Leila Sackfield, deputy superintendent led the flag salute. Prior to that the Rincon Bulldog Advanced Band played incidental music before the morning’s program.
The Board of Education, Mayor Sam Abed, the city council and other guests and community members were recognized.
School Board President Zesty Harper said, “As a board member, it is our honor to work with such an amazing and dedicated staff that are all about serving all of the kids of this community. Dr. Luis Ibarra has been serving as the Superintendent since July 2014. In two and a half years, Dr. Ibarra and his team have passed a $182.1 million bond, convened a Declining Enrollment Task Force, implemented districtwide a systemic structure to meet the needs of both academic and social emotional needs, while launching an intense marketing campaign to spread the good news about our district.”
Mrs. Harper and Dr. Ibarra presented the Community Champion award to the Escondido Education Foundation. Dr. Ibarra said, “The Escondido Education Foundation raises funds to support innovative learning in our schools. Last year they donated over $70,000 in support of our iRead program and to support teacher grant projects for our students. As an all-volunteer board, every dollar donated goes directly to our classrooms for our kids!”
Dr. Ibarra began his speech with uplifting rhetoric: “It begins with a vision. To actualize the unlimited human potential of every learner. Before you can move an organization, you have to understand who you are, who you serve, and most importantly imagine what is truly possible.”
EUSD is the sixth largest elementary school district in California, and within its 77 square miles has 17 elementary schools, five middle schools and one intermediate school. It has over 16,000 students and 1,900 employees, making it the city’s second largest employer (Palomar Medical Center is the largest. With 2,376.)
The district, said Dr. Ibarra, has an operating budget of more than $196 million, with a diverse student population where 77% come from homes with low socio-economic status and 44% are English Learners.
“While this describes who we are, it does not define the unlimited potential that exists within all of our students,” said the superintendent. Employing a recurring theme, he added, “Every parent wants what is best for their child, and so do we.”
He noted that the school board previously set four focus goals:
• Raise student achievement
• Create a Positive Culture which embraces and celebrates our diversity
• Ensure a safe and secure environment
• And remain fiscally solvent
“As an organization we understand our primary mission is universal student achievement. We use the four focus goals to measure our success,” he said.
“As we move forward, the road ahead has many challenges, that we, as an organization, will need to overcome,” he said. “We have aging facilities and infrastructure. Our achievement results are not reflective of our students’ unlimited potential. And we have declining enrollment. . .. Rather than ignore the challenges or worse, accept or resign ourselves to the challenges, we have reached out and turned those challenges into opportunities for change.”
The oldest school, Central, was built in 1938. Central “was in dire need of upgrades.” When Dr. Ibarra joined the district in 2014, he successfully led a campaign to pass a $182.1 million bond. This largest bond ever passed by the district has three objectives:
• Safety and Security
• Network Infrastructure
• Modernization of our aged facilities
The district began spending bond money first on security upgrades, building perimeter fencing to schools that were completely wide open. Construction is underway at Central, Orange Glen, and Mission.
“To date, I am pleased to announce that our bond program is currently on schedule and under budget,” declared Dr. Ibarra. “While we knew from the start that our facility needs were greater than our bonding capacity, we promised that we would be good stewards of the public’s funds. That is why in our resolution to pass the bond measure, we specifically stipulated that no Capital Appreciation Bonds would be used to finance any of our facility projects.”
EUSD used historically low interest rates and refinanced older bonds without extending their terms. “This resulted in a reduction of the community’s tax bill by $2.9 million. This isn’t the first time the district has refinanced existing bonds. Since 2007, the district’s actions to manage its debt will have saved taxpayers approximately $5.3 million through 2026,” he said.
“Now, I mentioned that our achievement results are not reflective of our students’ unlimited potential,” he said. “In the area of academic achievement, we have much work to do in this area. In 2015, after a two-year suspension and revamping of our statewide accountability system, our third-through eighth-grade students took the new California Assessment for Student Performance and Progress or (CAASPP). Our achievement results were definitely not reflective of our students’ and our teachers’ unlimited potential. As Jim Collins, the author of the book “Good to Great” writes, before an organization moves forward, they must confront the brutal facts. So how are we responding?”
EUSD hired a research team from WestEd’s Quality Teaching for English Learners to assess the English Learners. Interviewing staff and observing the classroom it recommended:
• Increase the instructional rigor for English Learner students
• Provide ample opportunities for students to engage in meaningful conversations with one another
• Apply just enough support to ensure access to complex disciplinary practices and texts
• Explicitly teach metacognitive and metalinguistic strategies
“While this report was not flattering, we chose to use this as an opportunity,” said Dr. Ibarra. “We now had a clear understanding on what we needed to do differently.”
It hired WestEd consultants to provide intense training for over 200 teachers, all principals, with coaching for each middle school.
To address the various needs of students and families, it added a fulltime parent liaison and fulltime social worker at each school, intervention teachers, academic coaches and a fulltime resource teacher to coordinate intervention and enrichment programs at each site.
Dr. Ibarra said data suggests the district is moving in the right direction, with a 7-point increase districtwide in Language Arts on the State Assessment and a 4- point increase in Math. It also saw “significant gains from grade levels across the district that showed 11 to 28 percent gains compared to the previous year.”
“You see, for us at the Escondido Union School District, we want to prove to the world that the unlimited potential of our students is not defined or limited by their zip code, their socio-economic status, nor by the language they speak. You want what’s best for your child and so do we!” he said.
He noted that over 12 years the district has lost over 3,000 students, including 530 this year. Although statewide birthrates are down, “we also know and understand that parents have choices. And the brutal facts are that parents are choosing other educational options for their children.”
To address this issue, the created the Superintendents’ Task Force on Declining Enrollment. This task force determined several root causes of the decline:
1. Fear – general fear that our campuses were not safe and fear of the transition between elementary to middle, fear that our schools were too large.
2. Negative Perceptions – perceptions about our programs, teachers, schools. The task force helped us understand that most of the public did not know what our district had to offer. Overall the task force felt that we had an image problem.
3. Culture of schools – This perception that our schools were not responsive to the various needs of our parents and our community.
4. Poverty and race – Were our schools equipped with meeting the needs of an extremely diverse community.
Using these possible root causes they devised an action plan—to offer innovative choices.
“In 2014, we pulled two outstanding teachers out of the classroom to design a school that they would dream of teaching in and that students would dream of attending. The journey to design a school was called the Quantum Academy Project. In 2015, this dream was realized with the opening of Quantum Academy,” said Dr. Ibarra. “Ask Questions, seek answers, that is the motto of Quantum Academy. By designing innovative schools such as Quantum, we now provide a 21st Century project-based learning opportunity for our community. However, Quantum is just the beginning.”
Another innovative school is Conway Elementary, which employed EL Education, formerly known as Expeditionary Learning. “[T]hey are transforming their entire school towards providing a high rigorous and relevant curriculum that connects the content to the real world through project-based learning. At Conway, their motto is We’re crew, not passengers!’ ”
At Del Dios Academy of Arts and Sciences they expose 6th graders to arts and sciences to discover their passions. They specialize in visual arts, performing arts, such as drama and dance, or science. If they choose science, they can take special classes such as forensic science, engineering, or computer coding.
“Also on the horizon to providing more relevant hands-on experiences through problem-based learning is Mission Middle School. The team at Mission are preparing cross grade level and integrated curriculum that will help students connect what they are learning to real world issues,” he said.
He highlighted the Robotics Program at Bear Valley Middle School, Reidy Creek, where they practice the tenets from Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and the Ignite dance troupe at Rose Elementary and Ballet Flokorico program at Farr Elementary.
The district redesigned its Bilingual programs to a Dual Language model where K-5 students can become proficient in both languages. This immersion program is offered at Lincoln, Farr, Pioneer, and Glen View. Preliminary data suggests that students in the Dual Language Program outperform single language counterparts, he said.
In October Moody’s assigned a AA2 credit rating which they noted “low debt burden” and “conservative management” as strengths for the district.
“With our decline in enrollment we see deficit spending beginning to increase,” he warned. “This year alone, we are projected to deficit spend approximately $2.3 million. That is why for the upcoming fiscal year, we will be addressing our projected deficit spending in a proactive manner in order to maintain our positive certification with the San Diego County Office of Education. If we proactively make reductions now, we will avoid having to make draconian cuts in the future which could have a negative impact on our instructional program. We cannot compromise our fiscal stability.”
He emphasized that the district “cannot do this alone. . . I am reaching out to all of you. Our community of Escondido. Please join us on this journey. Please join us in making this, the Escondido Union School District, the district that will actualize the unlimited potential of every learner! Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our district is strong and optimistic! You want the best for your child and so do we!”