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The following article was posted on August 3rd, 2022, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 23, Issue 23 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 23, Issue 23

Education Today 2022

By SUN STAFF

 Local students will be returning to campus later this month for the 2022-23 school year, and they’ll be met with a few changes. In our annual Education Today issue, we delve into those changes on the statewide and local levels. Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor talks with officials about how local school districts and community nonprofits are digging deeper into the problem of youth violence, working to meet kids in their trauma and support them earlier in school, and New Times Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal talks with district officials and parents about the new school start times, mandated by state law.



Santa Maria government and nonprofits collaborate on a new program to reduce youth violence

BY TAYLOR O’CONNOR 


COLLABORATION
Community law enforcement agencies and the Santa Maria-Bonita School District will identify students in need of extra support and direct them to nonprofits that can provide mentorship, family case management, or counseling sessions.
PHOTO COURTESY OF COMMUNIFY

Santa Maria had 121 shootings in 2021—26 of which resulted in injuries, and five were fatal—and six murders, according to the Santa Maria Police Department. 

Early intervention with school-aged children is one route to try and prevent that kind of community violence, said Brian Zimmerman, Santa Maria-Bonita School District’s director of pupil services. Some kids are exposed to gang involvement or begin to exhibit violent behavior at young ages, he added.

“A lot of times you’ll see a change in attitude,” Zimmerman said. “Study habits change, attendance goes south, they start to have conflicts with other kids. They’d start to write things like ‘805 West Park’ in their notebooks. Their dress would change, you can see this transition.” 

To counter this, the school district partners with the Santa Maria Police Department and Santa Barbara County Probation Office for teacher training on how to look for signs. The district also collaborates with community nonprofits for extra programming and services to try and prevent students from moving in that direction, he added.

To grow this effort, Santa Maria-Bonita and several other community entities will begin Secure Families—a $2.5 million, three-year California Violence Intervention and Prevention (CalVIP) grant program that will provide a comprehensive, trauma-informed, and family-centered collaboration to reduce youth violence in the city. It will identify and work with fifth through eighth graders who may need extra programming in order to address “the root causes of violence,” according to a program statement. 

“I think it’s going to be a great complement to the other programs we have for students but looking at [those] who need that extra level of [family] support for the overall success of the student moving forward,” Zimmerman added. 

Once students are identified by the school district, the county probation office, or the Santa Maria Police Department, students will get referred to nonprofits like CommUnify, Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley, or Family Service Agency to address their needs through mental health services, mentorship, or extra family support, said CommUnify Executive Director Patricia Keelean. 

“In general, this is about building relationships with the youth and their parents. As we begin to talk with that youth and gain their trust, we will explore what their interests are and engaging them in a conversation to have a better understanding of what their needs are,” Keelean said.  

Before applying for the grant, all the agencies involved sat down to brainstorm what they felt would be the best way to address the needs in the community, and what each organization could bring to the table in order to create a strong, wrap-around services approach, Keelean said. 

“We really did look at what the needs were in Santa Maria. A couple of things close to the top: One is that these youth need consistent connection to positive adult role models, addressing that through the mentoring component,” she explained.

Fighting Back Santa Maria Valley will offer its mentorship program to help students navigate life and conduct themselves in the community, Fighting Back’s Executive Director Edwin Weaver said. 

The mentoring program is based on a rites-of-passage curriculum called El Joven Noble, a comprehensive, indigenous-based youth leadership development program to help young people understand who they are in their community, Weaver explained. 

“The mentors will be conducting circles, which will be using the Joven Noble curriculum, where they will be learning culturally responsive ways of conducting themselves in the community, and what it means to be a man or a woman,” he said. 

Fighting Back has been using the curriculum for five years and works hard at the high school level to reduce violence by teaching restorative conflict resolution skills. Weaver added that he’s excited to start working at the junior high level and grateful for the new collaboration. 

“There’s a window here where a lot of young people find themselves struggling, and that window is at the junior high level. They’re without a lot of outside supports in place for them. As far as preventing young people from going down a path to a tragic end, this is a great time to do that before things are too far down the road,” Weaver said. 

Although Weaver’s hopeful this program will be successful, he said he’s concerned about continued funding once the three-year program ends. 

“The governor tried to cut the [grant] out of the budget, and I was thankful that [Assemblymember] Jordan Cunningham invited me to speak at the state in Sacramento at a hearing to keep this [grant] funded. My hope is that our new assemblyman will continue to fight for this funding, and we will continue to apply for it,” Weaver said. 

Continued funding remains a concern for Seth Miller, CommUnify’s family and youth program director. After three years, the CalVIP grant could possibly be renewed, but it depends on what the qualifying criteria are. CommUnify and its partners would need outside support if they wish to continue outside the grant’s lifespan, he explained. 

“In terms of success, our goal is to see a 50 percent reduction in shootings in Santa Maria by calendar year 2025, and we want to see a 50 percent reduction in campus violence by the same year. Those are the big ones; there are some minor ones like enrollment and see 50 percent of the families of the youth engaged in the program,” Miller said. 

Citing the collaboration’s background research, Miller said that things like treating families over time can cause a reduction in student-involved crime. However, having a direct cause-and-effect relationship between Secure Families and violence reduction remains a research task for the team, he said. 

“I don’t think there’s ever been a full, wrap-around service that’s been offered specifically to address violence. Oftentimes, violence prevention looks at law enforcement or it looks at gun acts, addressing those sorts of things,” Miller added. “This is intended to address underlying issues of trauma of families that causes more trauma and more violence that exists generationally and impacts youth so heavily within our community.” 

Cognitive therapy can also help address violent behavior. Through Family Service Agency and the Santa Maria Youth and Family Center, individual students and their families can receive 20-week counseling sessions for further mental health support, Deputy Chief Executive Officer Steve DeLira said. 

“It helps and teaches families to recognize thinking errors or thinking problems, and allows them to evaluate situations moving forward. We are teaching people to think of the situations, decisions, and possible outcomes,” DeLira said. “It develops your critical thinking skills that will better assist you in outcomes.” 

The gap in peer-to-peer socialization caused by the pandemic has heightened classroom disruptions, he added. Children are physically fighting over disagreements now—where they may not have in the past—and there’s a heightened anxiety among students, which can also manifest in outbursts, he said. 

“We [will] eventually meet our target and we will see an impact in the reduction of violence,” DeLira said. “Whenever a child is healing, then those around them can begin to heal as well.”

Once a child leaves the program, that doesn’t mean support stops. They are allowed to continue receiving help through the network of nonprofits in place through Secure Families, and will have continued guidance as they transition out of the program, he said. 

“Santa Maria has needed a program like this for quite some time,” DeLira said. “Everybody wants a safer community to raise our children in.”

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O’Connor at toconnor@santamariasun.com.


School districts in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties prepare for school days with a later start

BY BULBUL RAJAGOPAL 


BE PREPARED
Lompoc Unified School District schools, including Lompoc High (pictured), are preparing to welcome students back to campus on Aug. 15. While schools across the state are gearing up for new start times, Lompoc is among a few Central Coast districts that implemented the later start times last school year.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LOMPOC UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT

Kids across Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties are set to get a few extra minutes of shuteye when the school year begins later this month, and they have Senate Bill 328 to thank for it.

Approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October 2019, the bill required the school day for California middle and high schools, including charter schools, to start no earlier than 8 and 8:30 a.m., respectively. The new start time was supposed to be implemented by July 1, 2022, but some schools on the Central Coast took the initiative sooner.

“We did do it a year ahead because we had already changed our bell schedule and had been on distance learning, and had a deregulated student schedule with COVID,” said Erin Haley, the assistant superintendent of the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District. “So we knew this was coming in the 2022-2023 school year, and so we thought, ‘We’re going to implement it early and that way we can have consistency and we already know it’s the direction that we’re going.’ It’s been quite positive actually.”

The Paso Robles school district also staggered start times across elementary, middle, and high schools, with classes beginning at 8, 8:15, and 8:30 a.m., respectively.

“It is very nice for families who have kids in multiple grade levels because they can get across town. It’s sometimes tricky when the start times are too close together because parents have to drop them off early,” Haley said. 

SB 328 received approval based on several studies that showed students—especially teenagers—performed better academically and had higher attendance and improved overall health at schools that started later, which offered them more time to sleep. 

“I think students like the later start. It’s true that teenagers require a lot of sleep, and it does provide that opportunity,” Haley said. “What we do notice though is that it shifts the entire day. So, kids who play sports, or who have as activities, such as dance, cheer, band, are all shifted later in the afternoon. Kids are now getting out at 3:30 p.m. instead of 3 p.m.”

There are other impacts of SB 328 beyond a school day that ends later than usual. Students belonging to the agricultural communities of SLO and Santa Barbara counties may have more of an adjustment period when it comes to drop-offs and pickups, especially if their families start work early. But Haley informed the Sun that the Paso Robles school district anticipated this potential setback.

The district offers on-site tutoring programs run by volunteering teachers. Some teachers can choose to teach during the zero-period slot (before first period), and a handful of sport and extracurricular practices take place during this time to avoid staying later after classes. Students who need to be dropped off earlier can use the library, which opens before school starts. Moreover, the district’s campuses offer breakfasts to students. 

“I think communication is key and understanding the why around decisions that are made and making sure that we can support all kids,” Haley said. “So if there are kids who need to be dropped off earlier, we should continue to provide a safe space for them as well. That is the role of public schools, and I’m really proud of the work that Paso Robles has done in extending our support for academic and social and emotional supports. 

“I think there are opportunities we can look at to support kids before the late start time.”

Many Paso Robles parents are happy with the new schedule too. One such parent is Karen Hoye Grandoli, who appreciated the time change but said it came with a learning curve.

“For my high schooler it was better. He got to sleep a little longer which was good because his after-school sport practices were 6 to 8 [p.m.]. They don’t even practice at the high school for soccer,” she said. “By the time he got home and had dinner, shower, time to relax and finish homework it was late. He also has a part-time job on days when he didn’t practice or have games. 

“A lot of people complained the month or so before school started, then everyone seemed to have it figured out,” she continued. “I do believe the science that teens’ natural circadian rhythm makes them more productive this way.”

But not everyone thinks the late start helps with sleep. A delayed end to the school day cuts into time for homework and rest once kids leave their campus. One mother of a teenager in Atascadero High School (AHS), who requested to remain anonymous, told the Sun that her daughter struggled with school days ending at 3:45 p.m.

“My daughter didn’t like getting out late. She was exhausted and felt like she didn’t have enough time to get her homework done. She lost a lot of sleep, but she also had a heavy workload. AHS also changed from block schedule [longer class periods that meet fewer times per week] to seven classes a day, with very short break and lunch times. She said most students prefer block schedule,” she said.

Atascadero and Paso Robles are some of the first school districts in SLO County to make the switch to a later start time. In Santa Barbara County, the Lompoc Unified School District also changed its schedules last year. 

Bree Valla, deputy superintendent of the Lompoc school district, told the Sun that the late start time went into place to smooth the transition process from online to in-person learning once schools reopened last year during the pandemic.

“Students were used to being able to roll out of bed and directly log on to their computer,” Valla laughed. “Their sleeping habits have definitely changed. So, being able to start a little bit later is attributed to get to school on time, focus, not miss out on learning. I think our staff are grateful that that part of the change is done. So, this year, they [students and staff] know what to expect as opposed to having another change thrown on them.”

One of the changes the Lompoc school staff dealt with was the new start time’s effect on school bus timings and routes. The busing schedule was one of the first elements the district designed when considering an early implementation of SB 328. The main knot to untangle was that many of the district’s buses transport both elementary and high school students. 

“In some ways, it’s made it a little easier to have staggered start times between our elementary and secondary schools because we can drop off the elementary and go start our secondary pickups,” Valla said. “It has made the afternoons a little bit more complicated because now they all kinda get out closer to the same time. But luckily, we have very creative transportation staff and bus drivers who step up and do whatever is needed to get it done.”

Like Haley in Paso Robles, Valla credited effective communication as the solution to navigate the schedule, especially for the other school districts that will experience the new time this year. 

“Make sure you do your absolute best to make sure your website is updated. The frustrating thing with Google is people can search and unknowingly pull up old bell schedules,” Valla said. “People have a lot to do to get kids ready to come back to school. Often, this is one of the last things they think about, so constant repetition so that they remember things are a little different this year.”

Reach New Times Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.










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