At a well-attended school board candidates forum held Friday evening at Davis High School, the five candidates staked out sometimes-conflicting positions on issues ranging from world language courses to the school calendar to the Davis district’s GATE program. The forum was co-sponsored by the NewStar Chinese School, an after-hours nonprofit program that leases Davis classroom space, and the Davis High School PTA.
World languages: In response to a question about how many world languages should be taught — the district offers Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Chinese — and whether world language should be a requirement for high school graduation, the candidates staked out differing stances.
Claire Sherman said that while world language is an admission requirement for University of California and California State University systems, she doesn’t think it should be a necessity to graduate from high school. She expressed concern that “a year (of language in high school) is a smattering,” but also believes the district should offer no more than four years in any world language — “after that, there’s UC Davis up the road.”
Susan Lovenburg said, “World languages are an important component to prepare students for the jobs of the future … but I do think the Davis district is challenged to maintain five languages. My focus would be on languages for the future, preparing students for the global economy, and to think creatively about maintaining robust enrollment (in junior high and high school classes).”
Nancy Peterson said she “would not want to make world language a requirement for high school graduation, because as soon as you make something a requirement, you have to take something else out.” But she swiftly added, “In the global economy, one place where the U.S. is falling short is being able to communicate in negotiations.”
Jose Granda — who was born in Ecuador, and has lived in Germany and Switzerland — noted that he speaks three of the world languages taught in Davis schools himself, and added, “Languages are high priorities. … I would support a world language requirement for high school graduation.”
Alan Fernandes said, “I believe our world language program is extraordinarily valuable, and I will work hard to exhaust every possible avenue to attract funding for all our programs.”
School calendar: The candidates were asked about the idea of shifting the school district’s academic calendar so that the fall semester would conclude before winter break — a move that probably would involve starting the school year in early August. Davis High School is trying out portions of this concept this fall as a pilot project, with some final exams to be given in December. Meetings are still under way at DHS to work out the details.
Fernandes said he supports a pilot program to try out the idea, especially if it would “relieve some stress” by putting fall semester finals before winter break, rather than expecting students to prepare for finals during that vacation.
Sherman said she supports the idea “and would take it one step further,” trying to coordinate the school district’s calendar with the UCD calendar to a greater degree.
Lovenburg, noting that she has participated in some long and stormy school board discussions on this topic, said, “There are so many variables that go into the school calendar — sports, STAR testing, where are you going to put final exams? While I see the merits of this proposal, I also know that we have very, very busy lives, and kids have a lot of activities leading up to the holidays, and I want to see this alleviate stress, not add stress. If (a new calendar) does benefit students, they I would support an earlier start to the school year.”
Peterson said, “I am in favor of this shift,” adding that having finals before winter break “allows for more family time over break.” But she worried that a three-week winter break “drops scores for struggling students,” and she noted that “UC Davis students are a large portion of our tutors” working with students in the achievement gap, “and (the UC Davis students) would be away during the first six weeks of school — something to consider.”
Granda noted that Sacramento State, where he is an engineering professor, ends the semester in mid-December. “It might be a positive change,” he said.
GATE: The candidates were asked about the current and future direction of the district’s GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program, including the process for GATE student identification.
Fernandes began by putting GATE in the context of other programs like world language and special education — “all of these different groups within our overall education system” that “unlock interest in learning.” He continued, “With regard to GATE, I think (our) identification (process) needs to be seriously looked at. I’m not sure about the need for private testing.” He added, “The key to providing for these students is differentiated teaching and learning.”
Sherman said, “I have problems with the GATE program, and how testing is done. It has been demonstrated that the OLSAT (the test used in many cases for GATE identification) is an aptitude test” like an IQ test, and added, “I am not sure the GATE program of today is doing the purpose that GATE was supposed to accomplish. GATE has become kind of bloated, a (large) subset of kids in school.”
Lovenburg said the district has “put a lot of money into professional development,” so teachers “are serving the needs of diverse students in the classroom. I believe GATE has grown to the point where we’re trying to serve (both) gifted and high-achieving students in the same classroom, and I don’t think we do as well as we could at serving either of them.”
She added that “this is a very emotional conversation, there is a lot of history related to this conversation.” She suggested bringing in “someone outside the district” to help with an evaluation. “I do think our method of identifying students is problematic; diversity (in GATE enrollment) has improved, but (it) favors those with resources.”
Peterson said that “a well-differentiated curriculum that’s enriched” can “not only serve the GATE-identified but also high-achieving students” in classrooms across the district. “We should push a well-differentiated approach in neighborhood schools, so we’re reaching as many children as possible.” At the same time, “I do believe there is a place for self-contained GATE (classes).”
Granda said he would “like to review the GATE program entirely, with no biases or prejudging.”