CVIndependent

Tue10272020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

When the state closed down schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, an oft-ignored inequity in the everyday lives of Californians became glaringly obvious: A significant portion of the state’s population still lacks reliable broadband access.

When families without reliable internet have children who can no longer go to a physical school, those students’ chances of educational success decrease dramatically.

“In the Coachella Valley, we met with the superintendents of all three school districts early on in this pandemic, and the distance-learning issue was one of their top challenges,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents much of the eastern Coachella Valley, and serves on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s newly formed Closing the Digital Divide Task Force. “It wasn’t from the standpoint of the teacher not being with the students; it was that they couldn’t even connect with some of the families, because they don’t have the services. They can’t afford it, or the technology and infrastructure just isn’t available.

“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap. Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”

Steve Blum is the president of Tellus Venture Associates, a California management and business-development consulting company for the digital media and telecommunications industries; he specializes in developing new community-broadband systems.

“You’ve got two kinds of problems: long term and short term,” Blum said. “The long-term problem is lack of infrastructure, and that’s not something you can fix this week or this month, probably not even this year. As soon as the schools closed, and the students were told that they’ve got to start doing their work online, this problem just blossomed: It went from just being an annoyance to being a total lack of ability to participate in the 21st century—and now, it’s an immediate problem.”

This problem is not being experienced equally across the Coachella Valley’s three school districts. Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District—which includes schools in Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and parts of Rancho Mirage and Coachella—points proudly to the district’s ability to guarantee reliable broadband connectivity to every student household, often via the district’s own broadband network. Built at the cost of $590,000 for infrastructure development and hotspot devices, with an ongoing cost of $1,300 per month, this project became a U.S. Government General Accountability Office model example of a school “district that defied the odds,” as Bailey put it. To make reliable broadband a given for the district’s 28,000 students, spread over 752 square miles, the district found a way to acquire broadband spectrum-usage permission from the Federal Communications Commission.

“My assistant superintendent, Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened,” Bailey said. “We were talking one day about how we’d never be able to get broadband, and there was no way we could get access to spectrum. How do you even start there? Do you call Sprint and ask for some? That’s not going to happen. So, she said, ‘Why not just call the FCC?’ Long story short, that’s exactly what happened. She was brave and called the FCC to determine how you could acquire it. … Now, we can honestly say that every student in our district should have adequate broadband connectivity, whether on their own or through (our network). We have devices coupled with connectivity to provide an equitable learning and teaching model.”

The reality is less optimistic for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes the schools in much of Coachella, a portion of Indio, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City. Despite the recent distribution by the district of mobile-hotspot devices to roughly 3,000 student households, there are still several thousand more that have no reliable broadband connectivity. Those 3,000 hotspots were made possible because of an alliance formed by the city of Coachella and the school district.

“The city of Coachella did not donate any hotspots,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “CVUSD bought them, but the city got a better deal (from Verizon Wireless) than we did, and they were kind enough to let us purchase at their price—and I can tell you that they are being used. The hotspots are being loaned out to the families, and the district is picking up the cost of the service charges through Verizon Wireless.

“Did they prove useful, and will they continue to prove useful? Absolutely. We’re continuing with summer school, and even students who are not doing summer school are still getting access to some district grade-level challenges and contests, (along with) other fun activities for the students to do that will make them think that they’re not doing (school) work—but they are,” Gandera said with a laugh. “I can tell you that over 1.1 million websites were visited by those students, (and) over 24,700 educational apps were downloaded. They’ve accessed more than 35 terabytes of data using our hotspots as of the first week of June.”

But Gandera has not forgotten about the thousands of students remaining, in her overall student body of more than 18,000, who don’t have one of those hotspots—or any other reliable internet access.

“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” she said. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting. I can tell you that we’re continuing to have conversations with different providers, not only about (additional) hotspots, but also looking for a long-term solution for our valley.”

At the north and western end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District—which includes schools in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Thousand Palms and Sky Valley—is also struggling to cope with the needs of at least 2,000 student households that are currently without reliable connectivity or personal digital devices.

“I think that we’ve been fortunate in that, some four years ago, before I started (in this position with PSUSD), the district and the Board of Education took on the mission of having a 1-to-1 program,” said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon. “They had been very diligently ensuring that students in grades 3-12 had access to devices. Also, they were making sure that our students who didn’t have internet had an ability to get a hotspot from us that we pay for.

“We give them a Chromebook and a hotspot. Normally, students would bring them to and from school on a daily basis, and our younger students wouldn’t have access. But throughout this coronavirus time, we’ve tried to get devices into the homes of our families with young children who don’t have an older child (as well). So we’ve been running these ‘tech depots’ regularly, and giving out new hotspots if hotspots aren’t working, and taking back nonworking Chromebooks and issuing new ones. Right now, we have over 20,000 devices out there.

“There are still a handful of our students for whom the hotspots aren’t helpful, because they’re in a place that doesn’t have a tower or other internet access. So, again, it’s been a challenge—but overall, we’re in a good position.”

Online summer-school sessions are under way in all three valley school districts, as local educators make sure graduating students have their necessary course requirements completed, and support students who may have fallen behind during the school shutdowns. According to Dr. Lyon, in PSUSD schools, “We are providing access for all students online using some of our LCAP dollars and COVID-19-related funding.”

According to the California Department of Education website, the LCAP is a tool the state developed in 2013 “for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals to improve student outcomes.”

“This is not something that we typically would do, but we really (wanted) to try to address some of the learning gaps happening for some of our students right now,” Lyon said. “If you go to our website, it will tell you exactly how to access math and English for our elementary and middle school students. It’s (lessons and activities) that they haven’t done before, because we wanted to make sure that we were giving new opportunities. Also, there are live teacher hours that accompany them as well. The teachers are there to tutor kids through the activities and to help if they’re struggling with any of the concepts. As for high school students, we’re primarily working with kids who need the summer credits to graduate, and credit retrieval to keep students on track for graduation.”

However, that still leaves out the 5 percent of PSUSD students who have questionable ability to access the distance-learning strategies and programs.

“We’ve also been giving out paper (lesson) packets and other materials to the parents of students who come in and pick them up,” Lyon said. “I do think that one of the things we’re finding is that some of our students who aren’t necessarily able to get online with us, they’re doing other things to stay in communication. Once the COVID-19 (impact) is better understood, we’ll know better how we’re going to bring kids back (to schools in the fall). Any of the students that we determine are further behind, we’ll work to get them back on campus.”

A recent survey of 4,300 parents running households of PSUSD students shows that 28 percent plan on their children taking part in a 100 percent distance-learning strategy when fall classes return.

“I think a lot of people who have multiple generations living at home,” Lyon said, “are still unsure and fear the older family members becoming ill.”

But for those student households across our valley that remain without reliable broadband access, the problem won’t be solved before the ’20-’21 school year starts.

“We need people to get these rural areas wired,” Lyon said. “The reality is that this is the world we’re living in, and the more that our homes and our neighborhood businesses are wired and have strong (broadband) access, then the better off our kids will be as far as being competitive in the work world. It’s so important.”

Expensive infrastructure investments will be needed to truly solve the problem.

“The federal government has to step up first—and California supplements the federal money,” said Blum, of Tellus Venture Associates. “There are bills in the U.S. Congress to change these funding requirements, but none of them seem to be going anywhere, so I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Assemblymember Garcia said the state has been distributing about $300 million in funding to locales in desperate need of reliable broadband service through the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Internet for All Now Act of 2017.

“My understanding is that we’ve already seen about $533 million worth of (funding being) requested,” Garcia said. “So, there’s definitely the need for this money to get pushed out. … What I’m discouraged about the most is that very few applications came from our District 56 area—even after making a really assertive effort to get folks in our cities and school districts looking at the program. So we’ve got to do a better job. We held workshops; we had the Public Utilities Commission come down to meet with folks about the challenges in our region. But I don’t believe that we had more than one application from our area or the Imperial Valley.”

Blum said school districts need to do a better job of long-term planning.

“Even if they came up with a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, and got everybody vaccinated by the weekend, this broadband problem is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to become more and more important to have broadband access. … The alternative is to sit and wait and hope that somebody like Charter or AT&T or Comcast is going to show up eventually and fix your problems. That could be a long, long wait.”

Garcia said the pandemic has emphasized the seriousness of the broadband-access problem.

“We’re not only talking about the student needs, but we’re talking about mom and dad having to work from home, or the small-business owner who has to change their model of how they deliver a service or a product,” Garcia said. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury or an amenity. It’s a necessity for achieving not just economic opportunities, but we’re clearly seeing uses now in telehealth services, public-safety communications and smart agricultural technologies. So our challenge as this Closing the Digital Divide Task Force moves forward is not just to address the needs of our students, but the overall need to expand our infrastructure. This crisis is presenting an opportunity.”

Published in Local Issues

Last night, I met friends for drinks at a bar on Arenas Road, in downtown Palm Springs. I haven’t been out much this week, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

As we drove down Arenas, unsuccessfully looking for a spot, I was surprised to see that most of the bars appeared to be packed.

“I don’t know if I have ever had more mixed feelings about something in my life,” I told my husband.

On one hand … I was elated to see that all of these small, locally owned businesses were getting much-needed business. It was good to see the servers and bartenders making good money. I was proud to be part of that needed cash infusion.

On the other hand … I kept thinking: Should all of us be out and about like this?

After drinks, we wandered down Palm Canyon Drive and got dinner at a local restaurant. While the street wasn’t dead, it certainly was getting quieter as the night went on.

Again, mixed feelings.

After I hit send on this Daily Digest, I am going to get ready to head to CVRep in Cathedral City, to do a review of The City of Conversation—the only play currently running in the valley that has not yet been shuttered by the pandemic. (More on this below.) Then I am going to meet friends at a charity art event, and go to dinner at Lulu. I am going to savor it like it’s the last good night on the town I have for a while … because it might very well be.

I hope it’s not. But it might very well be.

Here’s today’s news.

• The Desert AIDS Project just announced something huge: It’s opening a COVID-19 triage clinic.

This just arrived in my inbox, from CEO David Brinkman:

“In the next 48 hours DAP will take a bold step and we ask you to please have our backs. Last week, we opened our new clinics for DAP’s day-to-day healthcare operations, leaving our original clinic temporarily vacant. Today, I worked with our infectious disease doctors to develop an emergency plan of action to ensure the health and well-being of all we serve. The original clinic will be transformed this weekend into a specialized COVID-19 triage clinic. This will allow our medical experts to screen patients demonstrating symptoms in a quarantined space, while also allowing our non-symptomatic patients to continue having their health needs met without potential exposure.

“This is no small undertaking. Desert AIDS Project is the healthcare home to 7,000 of our friends and neighbors, most of whom live at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below. And, the majority of our patients are of an age with significantly increased risk. We already are seeing a dramatic increase in inquiries and we must be able to meet the need as it grows in the coming weeks.

“This new clinic will cost DAP $575,000 to operate over the coming months.”

Wow.

See the full announcement—and make a donation while there, if you can—here.

• As for those plays: Yesterday, we reported that Desert TheatreWorks, Palm Canyon Theatre and CVRep were moving forward with their productions. This morning, however, Desert TheatreWorks announced last night’s production of The Producers would be its last until April 10, while Palm Canyon Theatre announced it was cancelling the final two planned performances this weekend of The Pajama Game. As of now, PCT plans on proceeding with the rest of its season—Sordid Lives is slated to open Thursday, March 26—but noted that this is a “very fluid situation.” This makes CVRep the last theater company standing: As of this writing, The City of Conversation will continue at least through this weekend.

Read more about all of this tomorrow in the second Installment of the Independent’s Pandemic Stories series. Yeah, I said yesterday that story would be available today … and then things changed. It’ll be worth the wait, I promise.

• All schools in Riverside County are closed for the next three weeks, per county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser. More info here.

• Good news: During the closure, kids in need within the Palm Springs Unified School District can still get free meals. School buses will be delivering them on normal morning routes, or they can be picked up at schools. Get the details hereDesert Sands and Coachella Valley Unified are also making meals available to kids at schools.

• The United Way of the Desert has launched a very good information page, chock full of resources and phone numbers people may need during this crisis. View it here

• This is amazingly cool: Yesterday, we reported that the Certified Farmers’ Markets had been suspended for the time being. Today, the organizers have started posting direct contact info for the various vendors (with their blessing) on the Certified Farmers’ Market Facebook page, so people can directly contact and buy from the vendors if they so choose. Get all the 411 here.

• The Palm Springs Art Museum has decided to close for the time being. More info here.

That’s all for now. Please, support local businesses. Be a good neighbor. Stop hoarding crap. Be smart and diligent and caring. More tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

In the past decade, California has adopted more than a half-dozen laws intended to prevent bullying, strengthen suicide prevention and cultivate inclusive learning environments for LGBTQ students in the state’s public schools.

But the state’ school districts are implementing these new laws inconsistently, according to a sweeping report-card-style analysis from the Equality California Institute.

As an emotional, hours-long hearing last week on statewide sex-education guidance underscored last week at the state Board of Education, California has been slow in general to fully embrace new laws aimed at deterring discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, along with those questioning their sexual identities.

Public middle and high schools were required to follow the sex-ed laws in the California Healthy Youth Act beginning in 2016, but the state Board of Education just last week approved a new framework for teaching sex education. The state board came up with the framework—teaching recommendations educators are not required to follow—after two years of public deliberation.

Equality California’s analysis, published earlier this week, used a 90-question survey covering school climate, curriculum, teacher training, suicide prevention and transgender students to rate school districts’ LGBTQ policies on a three-tier, color-coded scale.

Of the 130 K-12 school districts that participated in the years-long survey effort, 22 school districts were given “top tier” ratings; 80 were considered “middle tier”; and 28 districts were labeled “priority districts,” the lowest rating.

The two valley school districts that participated—Palm Springs Unified and Desert Sands Unified—were given middle-tier ratings. The Coachella Valley Unified School District is not listed as participating.

Advocates and legislators have heightened their focus on policies that are more inclusive of LGBTQ students, as research generally shows that these students are more likely to drop out. They also experience bullying and attempted suicides at rates higher than the rest of their peers.

“We have worked tirelessly over the last two decades to enact laws and policies that create safer, more supportive learning environments for our LGBTQ students,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group. “But our work cannot—and does not—stop in the Capitol. For these laws to be effective, they must be implemented.”

Among the survey’s other highlights:

• All of the 130 school districts that responded to Equality California’s survey said they had anti-bullying policies in place, and most explicitly prohibit bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

• 118 school districts said they require students to take sexual health and HIV prevention classes, and three-fourths of those districts said their curriculum “incorporates discussions of relationships other than cisgender heterosexual relationships.”

• 113 school districts said all of their schools allow kids to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

• The report identified 45 school districts that don’t give employees training “that even generally covers diversity, anti-bias, cultural competency and/or equity and inclusion.”

• A majority of school districts in the survey do not appear to be including LGBTQ-inclusive textbooks in their social studies curriculum, which goes against a 2011 law mandating that schools include “the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans” in their history teachings.

Notably, many of the local school systems identified as “priority” districts are located in rural or conservative-leaning areas that have pushed back against the new requirements, specifically the California Healthy Youth Act, which requires middle and high schools to teach “medically accurate” comprehensive sexual health education.

“We recognize that even the most well-intentioned school districts may feel impeded by a lack of resources, limited staff capacity, difficult local social climates and other barriers, all of which can slow the journey toward a safe and supportive school climate,” Zbur said.

There were 213 K-12 school districts that didn’t respond to the survey, a participation rate that Zbur called “deeply disappointing.”

The Independent’s Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

So many school districts are struggling to deliver the basics of an equal opportunity for education that one in three statewide has been targeted for special assistance, according to a comprehensive state report card released by the California Department of Education last week.

The state identified 374 school districts out of roughly 1,000 that qualify for additional help—more than 60 percent more than last year, when the state issued its first set of ratings under the new “school dashboard” system.

School districts that qualify for the so-called “State System of Support” show such low scores or so little progress among student groups that they fall into a “red zone” on two or more educational indicators, from test scores to suspension rates and chronic absenteeism. Last year, the state identified 228 such districts, but critics questioned those numbers, noting that test scores pointed to a far more widespread need for assistance. Since then, the dashboard has been tweaked.

None of the three Coachella Valley school districts had any overall ratings in the red zone—but 29 of the 78 schools within the local school districts (37.2 percent) fell into the red zone in at least one of the six categories measured this year.

Carrie Hahnel, interim co-executive director of Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, said one-third of the state’s districts “are struggling with equity.”

“(This) should create a tremendous urgency for our newly elected state leaders and local leaders to start to do something dramatically different to support our students so that several years from now, far fewer schools are struggling to create opportunities for all students,” Hahnel said.

The California School Dashboard, intended to offer a more holistic assessment of public-school performance, was created in part to help the state identify low-performing school districts and help them. It also replaces the state’s old standardized-test-based system as a way for communities to see how their schools are doing.

To that end, this year’s dashboard paints a somewhat chaotic picture, reflecting both the California school system’s vast size and its vast mission. Like the aggregate data earlier this year on standardized test scores—which showed a majority of California students underperforming in basic subjects, and little or no progress in closing the achievement gap between affluent and underprivileged children—its color-coded charts are a call for action and dispiriting.

Only 40 percent of California’s public schools received “passing” marks in English language arts last year—and only 33 percent met the state’s targets in math. More than half of the state’s schools were in or near the “red’ zone on chronic absenteeism, and even supposed bright spots, such as graduation rates, were clouded by the state’s widespread use of online “credit recovery” courses and other techniques used by districts to deter dropouts, and perhaps artificially inflate the proportion of students who actually meet requirements to graduate.

The dashboard itself also remains a somewhat controversial work in progress. On one hand, its trove of data on multiple barometers is far more three-dimensional than the old system. Schools no longer receive a single overall rating by the state, and the new system takes into account not only a school’s performance, but whether it improved or declined from the prior year.

But critics complain that it’s confusing, even with adjustments in this second year and the addition of new indicators to deepen the picture. The dashboard rates schools’ performance on an indicator using five different colors. Red is the lowest achieving mark, followed by orange, yellow, green and, finally, blue, the highest rating. A school is considered to have a favorable mark if they are rated green or blue on an indicator, though the state’s rubric does not explicitly spell that out.

In fact, the state’s color labels in general have broad interpretations, to the point that it can be difficult to deduce the significance of a rating. For example, a school that has a middle-of-the-pack yellow rating in math could either have posted very high scores this year that significantly dropped compared to the year before, or achieved very low scores that significantly improved from the previous year.

And a green rating does not necessarily mean that a majority of a school’s students are meeting grade-level expectations. It doesn’t even mean that all of its various student sub-groups aren’t in the yellow, orange or red.

That said, an analysis by CALmatters and the Independent of schools’ performance ratings found widespread room for improvement:

• Chronic absenteeism: About 3,600 elementary schools across the state-—about 47 percent—received red and orange ratings on this indicator, meaning that more than 10 percent of their students missed 18 days or more out of the school year. Officials say this statistic is important, because it helps indicate a student’s engagement and whether they’re likely to drop out of school. Of the 64 schools within the valley’s three school districts receiving ratings in this category (high schools were not measured), 16 were in the red zone, with 34 in the orange zone. That means just 14 received yellow or better ratings.

• School suspensions: More than 5,000 schools, or roughly 53 percent, received green or blue ratings in this indicator (including 56.2 percent locally). About 30 percent were rated red or orange (35.9 percent locally). While school officials are generally optimistic about the state’s direction in this category, many schools continue to have disparities in school suspensions that negatively impact black and Hispanic students.

• Graduation rates: One of schools’ overall top-performing indicators, more than 1,000 high schools, or about 58 percent, were rated green or blue for their graduation rates (including 11 of 17 locally). This backs the state’s record graduation rate touted by many school officials. But there’s the aforementioned credit recovery asterisk, and ...

• On college/career readiness, schools are faring worse. One of the new indicators on the dashboard measures how well California’s high schools prepare students for postsecondary careers. About 675 schools, or 38 percent, were rated green or blue in this category—but just four of 17 local schools were rated green, with no blue ratings. The state gave nearly half, 47 percent, of high schools a red or orange rating.

A closer look underscored the diversity of California, where more than 6.2 million students are enrolled in some of the most elite and most challenged public schools in the nation.

The three Coachella Valley school districts received decidedly mediocre ratings. The east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District—where 91.3 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 46.3 percent are English language learners—received middle-of-the-road yellow ratings in all of the categories, save graduation rate and chronic absenteeism, where the district received even worse orange ratings.

The west valley Palm Springs Unified School District—where 88.5 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 32 percent are English language learners—received green ratings in the graduation rate and college/career categories—but orange ratings in the other four categories.

The Desert Sands Unified School District—with 71.6 percent of students considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 23.8 percent English language learners—earned green ratings for graduation rate and suspension rate; a yellow rating in the college/career category; and disappointing orange ratings in the other three. 

Elsewhere in the state: West Contra Costa Unified, where 72 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and one-third are English language learners—and where California’s new superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, was once on the school board—rated orange in reading and math and orange in student suspensions.

Meanwhile, in Kentfield Elementary, an affluent Marin County district of 1,200 kids whose residents include Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, the dashboard scores were an upbeat mosaic of blues and greens. Only about 10 percent of Kentfield Elementary kids come from low-income households.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district and California’s largest, ranked yellow in both reading and math, with a blue for its low suspension rate of 0.5 percent.

And at all three districts, their wildly different academic performance ratings notwithstanding, the rating for chronic absenteeism was a glaring orange.

Michael Kirst, the president of the California State Board of Education, which developed the school-accountability system, said in a statement that the dashboard “shows us which students have the greatest needs and which areas of our educational system need the most attention, which is exactly what it was designed to do.

“Challenges that once may have been hidden, such as how poverty, homelessness and disability affect student learning, are now in sharp focus,” Kirst said. “Conversely, it also shows us which school districts are succeeding so they can serve as models for others as we build professional sharing networks throughout the state.”

Hahnel, of EdTrust-West, said the new dashboard is “a big facelift” from its first version, but that “there are still issues with accessibility.”

“There’s a lot of data to explore, and that’s great,” Hahnel said, “but it’s not always intuitive, and it does take some digging and deciphering to make sense of it all.”

While this year’s dashboard measures more data than it did the year before, it’s drawn some criticism for what it’s left out. The dashboard now measures schools’ performance in addressing chronic absenteeism, but not at the high school level, where data is more likely to show higher rates of absences among older students.

Samantha Tran, senior managing director for education policy at Children Now, an Oakland-based nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, said it’s “really unfortunate” that the dashboard lacks chronic absenteeism for high schools. The metric, Tran said, helps you find “kids who are not engaged fundamentally” in school and who would be less likely to graduate.

“You really should have it on the dashboard, color code it and make sure districts are looking at it,” Tran said. “(Chronic absenteeism) is one of those leading indicators where you can really turn around what’s happening for a kid.”

Click on the images in the gallery below to see charts with local school information. For complete information on each school and school district, visit caschooldashboard.org.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This story was originally published on Dec. 10 and updated on Dec. 27.

Published in Local Issues

California’s public schools have enjoyed a remarkable restoration of funding since the bone-deep cuts they endured during the recession—but many are now facing a grave financial threat as they struggle to protect pensions crucial for teachers’ retirement.

Over the next three years, schools may need to use well more than half of all the new money they’re projected to receive to cover their growing pension obligations, leaving little extra for classrooms, state Department of Finance and Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates show. This is true even though the California State Teachers’ Retirement System just beat its investment goals for the second straight year.

Some districts are predicting deficits, and many districts are bracing for what’s to come by cutting programs, reducing staff or drawing down their reserves—even though per-pupil funding is at its highest level in three decades, and voters recently extended a tax hike on the rich to help pay for schools.

At the same time, some districts are grappling with how to simultaneously afford raises for teachers who have threatened to strike. The situation could become even bleaker if California’s economy doesn’t keep growing.

If there’s another recession—which economists say is increasingly likely, given the record length of the expansion under way now—the higher pension payments scheduled could push some districts deeper into the red, Legislative Analyst’s Office data indicates.

“Many districts’ budgets would be upside down with expenses growing faster than revenues,” said Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, the state agency responsible for overseeing schools with financial problems.

School systems that saved money over the last few years will be able to use it to buy time, Fine said, but those reserves “won’t eliminate the impact or make that problem go away.” Tackling it will likely require new sources of revenue or an array of cuts.

“Building maintenance could suffer; grounds care could suffer; class size could suffer; instructional coaches could suffer; athletic programs could suffer; technology could suffer; intervention programs could suffer,” Fine said.

The problems stem from the state Legislature’s reticence to mandate steeper payments into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The system was badly underfunded and careening toward collapse four years ago when school districts, teachers and the state all agreed to pay more to reduce its unfunded liability, which now stands at $107 billion

Districts took on the greatest share of those new costs, agreeing to increase payments from 8 percent of their payroll in 2013 to 19 percent by 2020.

No matter how burdensome the larger and larger pension payments may be, actuaries say they’re necessary to protect teachers’ hard-earned retirement and prevent the system from running out of money. Teachers don’t get Social Security, and unlike firefighters or police officers, most retirees earn modest pensions of about $55,000 a year.

The Brown administration has directed an additional $20 billion to the state’s public schools since 2013 and says districts have had plenty of time to plan for the pension payments ahead. But many school leaders and advocates want the state to invest even more, especially since California still ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending compared to other states.

“Knowing that these liabilities were growing, we provided districts with the resources they needed to plan accordingly,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest teachers union is downplaying the problem and encouraging its members to bargain for raises. California’s teachers may be among the nation’s most generously paid, but they say the money doesn’t go very far, because the state’s cost of living is so high.

School officials are left with a Gordian knot of politically charged problems, forced to make escalating payments into the pension fund while trying to elevate disadvantaged students’ sagging classroom performance, which remains among the country’s worst despite the state’s big investment in their learning through a policy championed by Brown.

“We need to graduate more kids and close academic achievement gaps, but we can’t move the needle when costs are rising like this,” said Dennis Meyers, executive director of the California School Boards Association, who stressed that his group is not seeking to reduce teachers’ retirement benefits.

“We simply need more revenue, and we’re out here waving the white flag, looking for relief.”

Each of California’s school districts is bound to tackle these challenges differently, so CALmatters visited three of them whose circumstances are emblematic of what others across the state are experiencing. During those visits, we spoke with the people working to solve the problem.

Fremont Unified devotes a greater share of its budget to salary than any other district in the state—69 percent. (The three Coachella Valley school districts devote either 55 or 56 percent. See the percentage devoted to salaries at each of California’s school districts here.) So when the largest pension payments are phased in, Fremont will be hit especially hard. That means the district’s budget could face cuts even as enrollment in the Bay Area school system grows.

Sacramento City Unified knew that larger pension payments were coming and saved money to prepare for them. Then the local teachers union criticized the district for hoarding cash and threatened to strike. Now the contested funds are being used to finance a raise that teachers say is long overdue—and that the county superintendent believes the district can’t afford.

In Los Angeles, growing demand for charter schools and a dwindling birth rate has led to declining enrollment in the district’s own schools, which means pension payments will rise even as the district’s state funding shrinks. School officials recently predicted that a quarter-billion-dollar budget deficit was just two years away.


Raul Parungao’s distinctive grin and his cheery demeanor belie his concern about Fremont Unified’s finances.

Situated between Oakland and San Jose in the pricey Bay Area, the school system pays its employees more than most. That makes it a desirable place to work, but also means it will be hit especially hard when the largest payments required under Brown’s pension plan are phased in.

“There’s this sense in the community that we’re flush with cash, but I try to remind people about the other half of the story,” said Parungao, the district’s chief business officer.

Even though revenue is rising because enrollment is growing, the district must hire and pay more employees to serve them. And over the next three years, while Fremont predicts its revenue will grow by $26 million, a 7 percent bump, it also expects its employee pension and health care costs to climb by $14 million, a 23 percent surge.

“Here’s the bottom line: the extra revenue we expect to get from the state won’t be enough to keep pace with our pension contributions,” Parungao said. “The problem hasn’t exploded big yet, but it will. It’s only a matter of time. I haven’t met another chief business official who isn’t concerned about this.”

Meanwhile, Fremont’s teachers just won a small raise after months of protracted negotiations.

The current pay scale is competitive, with veterans making $114,000 a year, but leaders of the local union say about half of the teachers still don’t make enough to live in the district and must commute from up to an hour away.

But no matter how tough it may be for the district to afford this 1 percent pay hike, teachers deserve one, said Victoria Birbeck, the union’s president

“The series of small raises we’ve received haven’t covered cost of living,” she said. “Besides, the district has known about the governor’s plan for a few years now. There should have been better planning.”

Parungao said planning isn’t the problem. The district stretched to offer teachers a raise last year and even had to shift its budget by millions of dollars to accommodate that 2 percent increase, which came after a 13 percent bump over the prior three years. Plans to upgrade students’ textbooks and computers were postponed, and class size for kindergarten, first- and second-grade students increased slightly.

Given the district’s rising pension and other fixed costs, the new agreement’s $7 million price tag will be tough to accommodate. Still, Michele Berke, one of the district’s board members, acknowledged that for many teachers, $1 spent on pensions isn’t as good as $1 spent on salary.

“As we negotiate with the union, STRS is the elephant in the room,” she said in an interview before the deal was finalized, referring to the acronym for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. “We’re paying toward your future, but those payments don’t help put food on the dinner table.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg only worked with a few key players one weekend last fall when he helped broker a deal to avert a citywide teacher strike, and former school board president Jay Hansen was one of them.

Hansen had tried for months to negotiate the terms of a pay increase for the city’s 3,000 teachers, but the district and leaders of the local teachers union were far apart, and neither side would budge. An acrimonious relationship between the two camps was partly to blame for the impasse.

“It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Hansen said. “No one remembers why they can’t get along.”

At issue during the talks was the $81 million sitting in Sacramento City Unified’s savings account, a sum the district had built up over several years with spoils from California’s booming economy.

The union said the money should go toward class-size reduction and raises for teachers that would make the district a more attractive place to work. Sacramento educators are paid less than their peers in nearby districts, but they also receive more generous lifetime health benefits, records show. The district said it had saved the money to help cover rising pension and employee health care costs in the lean budget years ahead.

In the end, Steinberg helped craft an agreement that gives Sacramento teachers an 11 percent raise over three years. But just a few weeks after Steinberg announced the deal during a celebratory news conference on the steps of City Hall, Sacramento County Superintendent Dave Gordon delivered some bad news: The district can’t afford it.

“Based on the review of the public disclosure and the multi-year projections provided by the district, our office has concerns over the district’s ability to afford this compensation package and maintain ongoing fiscal solvency,” Gordon wrote in a December letter to the district.

The district’s own budget offers proof of Gordon’s concerns.

Over the next three years, the school system anticipates its revenue will grow by $6 million, a 1 percent increase, while its pension and health care costs grow by more than $18 million, an 11 percent increase. A popular summer program for struggling students has already been eliminated to save money

A second letter Gordon sent in January further underscores his concerns. He called the district’s plan to use one-time money to help cover the cost of the new contract a “poor business practice” that “only perpetuates the district’s ongoing structural deficit.”

“The pension contributions are putting a strain on everyone’s budgets,” Gordon said in an interview.

Even though Hansen had been the union’s adversary during months of stalled contract talks, he defended the district’s decision to offer teachers a raise, calling it “the right thing to do” despite the school system’s escalating pension and health care costs. “We did it anyway,” he added.

Steinberg echoed Hansen’s perspective.

“A strike would have been calamitous for everybody,” he said. And Sacramento isn’t the only place in California where teachers are thinking about a show of force: At least half a dozen other local unions fighting for higher wages have held labor actions in recent months.

In an interview with CALmatters that union leaders cut short after refusing to answer some questions, Executive Director John Borsos rejected any suggestion that the district won’t be able to afford the contract it recently signed or that it ever claimed to have needed the money stockpiled in its savings account to cover rising pension costs.

“They have more than enough to cover the pension increases,” Borsos said. “And they didn’t make that argument at the bargaining table.”


Gov. Jerry Brown promised his 2014 funding plan would shore up California’s teacher-pension system, but at least one young Los Angeles teacher, Josh Brown, says he’s not counting on it. The Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School special educator is so worried about the system’s solvency that he has an alternative retirement plan: using a portion of his salary to invest in the stock market.

“I’m a fifth-year teacher. I’m 30 years old, and I’m paying into a pension system that may or may not be around when I retire,” he said. “If I were 65 years old and retiring soon, I would feel differently. Right now, I feel frustrated and worried.”

The largest payments required under the plan will be tough for many districts to manage, but they’re going to be especially vexing for large urban districts like Los Angeles Unified, which lost 100,000 students in the last decade and expects to shed more. (Here's the toll of that under-enrollment, school by school.) That’s a problem, because California’s schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and fewer students means less money.

In Los Angeles, the swift enrollment decline is due to a dwindling birthrate and growing demand for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, meaning their budgets are separate from that of the district.

Over the next three years, the district anticipates its employee pension and health-care costs will climb $90 million, a 5 percent increase, while its revenue dips about $270 million, a 4 percent decline. The result is a $258 million budget deficit in 2020 that the district can no longer paper over, push off or ignore.

“We’re going to have to tighten our belts to save our schools,” said Nick Melvoin, a board member whose stark views on district finances have been criticized by skeptical local union leaders and fellow board members. “We’re in a death spiral.”

The district plans to tackle the deficit with a one-time $105 million bailout from the state and central-office staff reductions. But observers says officials will soon need to consider some painful measures it has so far been able to avoid, like boosting high school class sizes or closing schools with dwindling numbers of students.

At least 55 schools across the district are under-enrolled by a quarter, and 10 of those are half-empty, a CALmatters analysis of building capacity and enrollment data shows.

“Our costs are rising, and as a result, there are hard choices and trade-offs to make each time we look at the budget,” said Scott Price, the district’s chief financial officer.

Parent Paul Robak fears that if the district doesn’t tackle its budget problems soon, it could be taken over by the state. At a recent board meeting, he urged the members to reject a health-care spending plan that would further squeeze the budget. The members listened and thanked him for testifying before approving the agreement.

“It’s as if the board members are prancing down the lane and covering their ears, pretending nothing’s wrong,” said Robak, who has been active on the district’s parent councils for a decade. “Everyone will lose if we fail to act.”

Board member Kelly Gonez also acknowledged the district’s budget woes and the pressure of rising pension and health care costs, but said officials should be trying to ease the pain by finding new sources of revenue, not by making cuts. All but one other board member declined to comment.

Even as a fiscal crisis looms, Los Angeles teachers are negotiating for a raise.

“Everyone who works in the district comes to work with an expectation they’re going to be treated fairly. They need to be treated fairly,” Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and the district’s new superintendent, told the Los Angeles Times. “How we strike that balance remains to be seen.”

United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl declined CALmatters’ request for an interview. However, at a Pepperdine University event held before the state bailout was announced, he pledged to keep pushing for more money and predicted that the state would come through.

“If we take it off the table,” Caputo-Pearl said, “then we are acknowledging that the public district system is going to go off a fiscal cliff, which (is something) I’m not willing to acknowledge.”


Flooded with calls from anxious school officials, Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge and several other Democrats pushed earlier this year for a fix that would boost districts’ funding by $1 billion a year. In the end, Portantino convinced Brown to include about half as much in the state budget he signed a few weeks ago.

He insisted that the money be “flexible,” meaning districts may use it to cover rising pension costs or for anything else. But California’s schools are still underfunded compared to other states, and to better fulfill their responsibility to students and taxpayers, that must change, he said.

“In a few months, we’ll have a new governor with a new set of priorities,” Portantino said. “Is there more to do? Absolutely.”

CalSTRS’ first official report on the impact of districts’ growing pension obligations is due to the Legislature in the middle of next year, when school budgets will likely be squeezed the most.

In the meantime, Fine hopes a recession doesn’t strike soon and that districts can manage their budgets without needing to make cuts or send out pink slips. He was a deputy superintendent in Riverside during the Great Recession and remembers how painful it was to carry out round after round of layoffs.

“We lost one of the best counselors and some very bright teachers. I had to layoff someone who years earlier had taught my young children how to swim,” Fine said. “I remember their faces.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

The initial East Valley goal of the Agua4All campaign: Bring relief to thousands of students who had no access to safe drinking water by installing 60 bottle-filling stations at the schools of the Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD).

An April 8 rally at Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal celebrated success: By the end of March, that goal had been eclipsed, as 75 stations had been set up. As a result, students now have free reusable water bottles and on-campus access to one or more Agua4All stations, providing safe drinking water on a continuous basis.

“It’s been an extremely important effort that was initiated by the California Endowment, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Community Water Center. Now we want to take it statewide,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, of the East Valley’s 56th District, in an interview. “We introduced a piece of legislation (AB 2124) that allocates the resources to enable taking this effort across the state of California.”

The bill is currently in the hands of the state Assembly.

Sarah Buck, the RCAC Agua4All campaign supervisor and rural development specialist, said she hopes the program will be expanded to other Coachella Valley schools.

“One of our goals down the road is to get the interest and attention of the Desert Sands Unified School District to create a partnership and replicate what we’ve done with the CVUSD so that we can install filling stations in all of their schools as well,” she said. Desert Sands operates schools in parts of Bermuda Dunes, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indian Wells. “But that may be a little ways out. Right now, we’re in the phase of looking for and waiting for funding to continue those efforts.”

Still, a lot of work remains, especially when it comes to the numerous unpermitted trailer parks where so many families live without infrastructure.

“We have installed at least one filling station and up to six at every single one of the schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, with the exception of Westside (Elementary School in Thermal),” Buck said. “But we’ve only put a few stations in community access sites. We put two at the Mecca Boys and Girls Club and two at the San Jose Community Learning Center. So in this next phase in Coachella, the goal is to put them in more community places so that not just kids have safe water access … but that their families (do) as well.”

Victor Gonzalez, a Coachella resident, shed more light on the depths of the problem. “I lived in Lake St. Anthony trailer park from 1992 all the way up to 2015, so I grew up in those conditions,” he said. “We were not connected to the (Coachella Valley Water District) system, so a lot of these trailer parks resorted to using wells. For a long time, we were getting water in our homes that had dirt in it. This was the water that we would be drinking. We’d shower in it, and my mom and my dad cooked with it.”

Fortunately, recent actions have improved life for Gonzalez’s sister and friends who still live at St. Anthony’s.

“About two years ago,” Gonzalez said, “Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation established a reverse-osmosis center in the trailer park where people can go to get safe water for cooking or brushing their teeth, for example. But the tap water is still untreated.”

Is it possible to bring about permanent and convenient solutions that would deliver safe drinking water to the homes of all residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley? Garcia said he could foresee such a reality. “I do. In some places far sooner than others, but I really do. I think the Flint, Mich., case has shed light on what I call the smaller Flint, Mich., communities throughout the country—and I’m speaking specifically of those in California.

“California adopted a position that water is a right, and everyone should have access to safe water. Last year, we were successful in getting a bill signed by the governor that would allow very specific point-of-use technologies to be utilized in remote, rural areas to address the high levels of arsenic being found. This bill was directly beneficial to households in the communities of the eastern Coachella Valley, and it was sponsored by Sergio Carranza (executive director of PUDC) and the Pueblo Unido Development Corporation out of the eastern valley.”

The Coachella Valley Water District must play a prominent role in implementing permanent long-term solutions for the communities of the eastern valley it serves. Toward that end, a Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Committee was established within CVWD late in 2015. Garcia said the committee came into existence “thanks to the leadership of (CVWD board member) Castulo Estrada, who represents the district that has the majority of these communities being affected by the lack of infrastructure. He’s to be credited for that effort. He’s spearheading the CVWD efforts to address these issues in a timely and responsible way.”

Gonzalez also said Estrada’s election to the board in 2014 is leading to positive change. “For a long time, our area was not really represented by the board members we cast our votes for,” he said. “But in these last elections, we were able to vote for someone who really represented the people of our community. And it came as a result of community input and advocacy to change the voting mechanisms.”

Published in Local Issues

The Coachella Valley Unified School District is doing its best to keep the East Valley connected.

The district—which encompasses 21 schools at the eastern end of the valley from Indio to the Salton Sea—recently announced that the school board had approved the installation of wireless Internet routers on all 100 buses in the district’s fleet. The decision came after a successful pilot program, which began eight months before, with the implementation of Wi-Fi connectivity on three buses.

Also approved was the installation of solar panels on 10 buses in order to extend the routers’ battery life so they can become mobile wireless “hotspots” that will be parked overnight in communities where no wireless access currently exists.

Superintendent Dr. Darryl Adams sees this strategy as part of the core service the school district must provide to its students.

“You know every school district eventually is going to have to ensure that students have (continuous Internet) access,” Dr. Adams said.

This innovative program grew out of brainstorming sessions involving Dr. Adams and his administrative team.

“We have a great team working to ensure that our students have Internet access,” Dr. Adams said. “One of the things that I thought of was that we have all these buses, so why can’t we put a router on a bus? That would allow us to park the buses overnight in communities where there was no access. Also, students would be able to connect on the way to school, while on field trips or going to athletic events. So, sometimes when I come up with these crazy ideas, the team will look at you and say, ‘There, he’s lost it again.’ But this time, they said, ‘No. Let’s listen to this. Let’s see if we can do it.’ And, as it turned out, we could actually do it.”

The total first-year cost of the initiative is projected to be $232,065. That includes all hardware, software, installation and connectivity charges. The funding will come solely from the CVUSD budget.

How did the administrative team demonstrate the pilot program’s success to the board? “Because the tech is so new, and the transition into it is new, there’s not a lot of quantifiable data available,” Adams said. “But we looked at the qualitative data through satisfaction surveys and talking to students, and talking to parents, and we got a lot of positives.

“Students have been coming over to the district offices and sitting in the parking lot to connect, or they were going to their school sites and sitting out there to connect. So we knew there had to be a better way.”

A significant part of that “better way” is the mobile-hotspot feature of this program. CVUSD director of technology Michelle Murphy saw the demand very clearly.

“We visited trailer parks and talked to residents, and we found the need to be even greater than we thought,” Murphy said. “They had tried other services that had promised them low fees for connectivity, and they didn’t receive the service that they’d been promised.”

She anticipates that all of the buses will be Wi-Fi operational by Christmas break of 2015.

The new mobile Wi-Fi access is the latest development in the student-connectivity effort that began with the passing of Measure X in CVUSD territory back in 2012. With 67 percent of voters approving, that bond earmarked $42 million to be made available to the school district in segments. The first phase of the program began in 2013 and utilized $20 million to build Wi-Fi connectivity into each school campus, and purchase an iPad for every one of the approximately 19,000 students in the district.

“We plan to refresh (our students’ iPads) every two years to keep up with the changes in technology,” stated Dr. Adams. “We’ll probably use about $5 million for that refreshing program, and that leaves us $15 million. So, we should get to 2021-2022 with this money. And we’re hoping that federal and state governments by that time will give the school districts that money—just like they used to give us textbook money, we’re hoping that they’ll be giving us tech money now to ensure that our students remain connected. Because if they’re not, then the U.S. will be at a disadvantage, since other countries are doing this already.”

Published in Local Issues

Agua4All is a program with a catchy, informative name and an inarguably laudable objective: delivering safe drinking water to every resident of the state, regardless of location or income level.

The program aims to provide this necessity via its proprietary water-filling stations, which are being installed in schools and community-meeting areas like parks, youth clubs and libraries. For too many Californians, the only accessible source for safe drinking water is commercially sold bottled water—an unaffordable solution for many underprivileged families.

Currently in its pilot phase, Agua4All is focusing on disadvantaged communities in southern Kern County—and right here in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The original idea was actually conceived by The California Endowment, which has been the major funder of the program,” said Sarah Buck, rural development specialist for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), which is charged with supervising and coordinating efforts around this program. “They have given us the opportunity and responsibility of designing it in a way that makes sense. Once this current pilot phase is over, we can replicate it and continue this work throughout all of rural California.”

From January through early March, the RCAC ran a fundraising campaign, the second in the last year, on the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform. Unfortunately, the donation response was dismal, with just $575 raised.

“I think the first one was more successful because it had a very targeted goal and message,” said Buck; the first effort raised more than $5,600. “For the second Indiegogo campaign, The California Endowment thought that because (celebrity chef) Jamie Oliver was going to be introducing our campaign while making an appearance in Sacramento, the campaign might take off because of that. Although the campaign didn’t raise very much money, we did have a huge bump in awareness and social-media chatter about the program.”

Fortunately, Agua4All has received support from other corners. “We have been able to secure other funding from a number of foundations and banks,” said Buck. “For instance, we got funding from the Weingart Foundation for the work that we’re doing in the eastern Coachella Valley. We’ve gotten funding from the California Bank and Trust, from Rabobank, and we got almost $450,000 in funding from the state of California, with the support of the State Water Resources Control Board, to put in arsenic filters for Kern County’s city of Arvin, where they have arsenic in the water. So we’ve been able to leverage the endowment’s original funds to access a lot of other different types of funds.”

Specifically in the eastern Coachella Valley, the RCAC is excited about how the program is expanding rapidly.

“We have definitely fostered a great relationship and partnership with the Coachella Valley Unified School District,” Buck said. “They’ve been very supportive, and the vast majority of the taps (water-bottle-filling stations) that are going into the Coachella Valley are in the schools. We’ve started by concentrating on the schools that are in the unincorporated areas, especially because a lot of those kids, when they go home, don’t necessarily have safe drinking water. So we have been putting our stations in a lot of the schools in Thermal, Mecca and Oasis. Toward the end of this pilot phase, we’ll probably be putting some into West Shore or the city of Coachella.”

As of the deadline for this story, the RCAC had installed 11 water-bottle-filling stations in Coachella Valley locations through Agua4All.

“Our original goal from The California Endowment was to put 60 stations into the Coachella Valley, and 60 into Kern County,” Buck stated. “So we’re on the way there. They just got a new order at the Coachella Valley Unified School District. Every weekend, they’re putting in some of the new units. … They just finished up with John Kelley (Elementary) School (in Thermal), and they are starting … with the Cahuilla Desert Academy.”

There are other facets to the Agua4All program. Those include the distribution of free plastic water bottles, provided by Nalgene, to potential users of the safe water being provided.

“We have formed a fantastic partnership with Nalgene (a maker of a wide variety of BPA-free plastic bottles),” Buck said. “They have donated 1,500 bottles so far, and they are committed to donating at least 5,000 bottles for this pilot project. We’ve been doing a purchase and donation match. Also, they’ve given us a hugely reduced price to make it affordable. We got funding from the Weingart Foundation to buy extra bottles, and those will go into the schools in Coachella Valley.”

Another valuable relationship for Agua4All is a tie to first lady Michelle Obama’s Drink Up campaign, which is designed to promote increased water consumption by individuals to improve their health.

“All of the safe-drinking-water-filling stations that we are installing will carry both our logo and the Drink Up logo,” stated Buck.

These two initiatives share common goals, too. “We’re intending to do a lot of water promotion, education and outreach on why it’s important to drink safe water instead of soda,” Buck said. “We’re trying to get a behavioral change in motion, because a lot of people in these communities haven’t had accessible safe drinking water for their whole lives, so getting them to trust that the tap water won’t give them cancer is going to be a challenge. But it’s something we know is really important. We want these communities to drink more water and be healthier overall.”

Published in Local Issues

In 2003 and 2004, an ambitious group of young Latino community organizers and activists, all raised in the eastern Coachella Valley, returned home after earning college degrees.

They were known as over-achievers in their hometowns, and they searched each other out, they say, because they were determined to make a difference. They wanted to improve the lives of their friends and loved ones in the barrios and farm fields of the eastern valley, in part by gaining power via the political process.

A decade later, it’s clear: These organizers and activists, all Democrats, are making a mark and attaining many of their lofty goals.

V. Manuel Perez recently was elected to the Coachella City Council after three terms in the State Assembly. Eduardo Garcia swapped places with Perez, sort of: He just joined the State Assembly after serving as Coachella’s mayor. Maria Machuca is the president of the Coachella Valley Unified School District Board. Most notably, Dr. Raúl Ruiz is beginning his second term representing the Coachella Valley in Congress.

We talked to these young leaders about how they attained their current success—and what they have in mind for the future.


“I grew up in Cochelita, which was one of the toughest areas in Coachella Valley at the time, and we saw the injustices at an early age,” recalled V. Manuel Perez, who successfully ran for a Coachella City Council seat this year after a failed bid for the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. (He was term-limited out of the Assembly.) “Why was it that in my barrio, there weren’t any parks, so we had to play football and tag in the middle of our street, where drive-by shootings were ongoing? And why was it that my parents would come home from work as farmworkers late in the day, only to go to work early the next day so that they were too tired to help me with my homework? And why, whenever I had a toothache, did we have to wait until the end of the week to go to Mexicali to see the dentist, because we didn’t have health insurance?”

Garcia was first elected to the Coachella City Council in 2004 and became mayor two years later, not too long after finishing college. “What I remember quite vividly is that there was a group of us who happened to be returning to the Coachella Valley from other endeavors,” Garcia said. “In my case, I was returning from finishing my undergraduate work at UC Riverside. Manny (Perez) had been organizing and working in the central and Northern California areas (after his graduation from UC Riverside and Harvard University post-graduate work), and a few others were returning from college. We all got together and really started organizing community events in and around the cultural and art arena, with a specific objective to raise consciousness about issues affecting our community.”

Machuca (right) graduated from Coachella Valley High School and continued on to Cal State San Bernardino. “And I always said that my goal after getting a college degree was to come back home regardless,” she said.

Josseth Mota, the current community services coordinator for the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, introduced Machuca to the group of young men, including Perez and Garcia, who had started meeting regularly to launch a community-service organization that could make a difference in their hometowns. She was already doing work with the Fair Housing Council and the Mecca Community Council.

“They told me they’d really like to get some women involved in their group, because then, it was a whole bunch of guys,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We need mujeres (women), because when a movement is going on, it’s pretty much the mujeres who move things forward. So I was interested, but I was going to be the only girl in this group with these guys who I’d only heard of back in high school.

“I knew Eddie Garcia, because he was a year ahead of me at Coachella Valley High School. Victor Manuel (Perez), I had heard about when I was in elementary school, because he was the guy who went to Harvard, and that was huge for us. And Raúl Ruiz, I knew because when we were in high school, some of us wanted to start an Aztec dancing club, and Joe Mota said he knew this guy who could teach us how to do the Aztec sun dance. The problem was that this guy was waiting to hear if he would be accepted at UCLA to go to medical school. … Back then, really, nobody from our background made it to that kind of college.”

After teaching several lessons, Ruiz indeed went off to medical school. “The next time I saw him was when he came back after he’d gotten his medical degrees. He was working at Eisenhower Medical Center, and he joined our Raices meetings,” she said. (More on those meetings later.)

Perez has known Ruiz—whose office did not respond to an interview request for this story—since he was a kid.

“Raúl and I grew up together and played Little League ball together,” Perez said. “We were in high school for four years together, and he was always president, and I was his secretary, treasurer and director of assemblies. When he went to UCLA, I was at UC Riverside, where I was an organizer, and he was organizing at UCLA. So we would have lots of discussions, but once he went off to Harvard Medical School, I kept strong ties here locally. Then I went out to Harvard as well, and Raúl and I were roommates there for a short time. So we would talk about these issues, but as far as the strategy to run for office and build a political infrastructure in Coachella Valley, that began in 2003-2004. When Raul came home, that’s when he began to engage. That was in 2008, and that’s when he decided to run for office as well.”

By the time Ruiz returned to the valley, Perez, Garcia, Machuca and others had already started building what they called their Raices infrastructure.

“Its emphasis was to educate politically, perform community outreach, and find individuals who we can transition from the conscious to the critical consciousness—so that perhaps they recognize their self-power, their self-agency, so that they can say, ‘You know what? There are things that we can change here. There are things we can transform,’” Perez said.

However, Perez was quick to point out that Raices also stemmed from the efforts of leaders from generations before, “from the Coachella Valley Voters League organization, whose members really put an emphasis on building political capital in the eastern Coachella Valley, to the movement of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers, in which many of our parents were engaged.”

Perez was the president of Raices when it was founded in 2004.

“I always felt while organizing that we have to hold ourselves accountable to each other, and the best way to do that is by having an infrastructure, an organization that has a mission,” he said. “Because what I’ve learned through organizing in other areas throughout California is that if you identify someone who should run for office, and if these individuals are not accountable to an entity larger than themselves, they stop working with the collective and for its goals.

“We felt we had to form an organization that would do three things. First was to build and develop the political voice of the eastern Coachella Valley; second was to develop and create access to healthier communities; and the last was to utilize the cultural arts for social activism. Those were the three points of emphasis for Raices that exist to this day.”

Machuca said the development of Raices into a fully formed nonprofit organization was the organic result of the group’s shared aspirations.

“When we started meeting around founding Raices, it was weird how we had known of each other years ago, but now we were connecting to do something for our communities,” Machuca said. “So it felt genuine; it felt real; it felt like we were going to make a difference for the generations that came after us and give them something that we couldn’t have, and didn’t have. We were meeting once a week, and then it became twice a week, and then it became almost every night, because we were that passionate about putting this organization together and getting it off the ground.”

The group was initially called Youth for Change, but the members eventually decided the movement needed to involve everyone, not just young people.

“It was at one of those meetings that we came up with the name Raices,” she said. “It was supposed to be an acronym for something, but we never came to an agreement on what those words would be.”


Garcia said a key moment in Raices’ history came when the group screened a documentary by Antonio Gonzalez Vasquez called Living on the Dime: A View of the World From Along the I-10.

“This video had to do with the growth and development of the Inland Empire and the impact of building the Interstate 10 freeway right through those communities,” he explained. “And by impact, I mean how the I-10 divided communities into east/west/north/south, how it brought about different socio-economic groups in the region, and how the political structure began to govern in a way that gave us a division between the haves and the have-nots.

“We showcased the film at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Coachella with the idea of beginning a conversation among the residents about the importance of growth and development in Coachella and the eastern end of the Coachella Valley. This was at a time when we were just beginning to see all the development and building activity that was going to occur. So that was our first real ‘action’ that triggered the discussion about responsible growth and development strategies for the city of Coachella, and whether areas of the city were being planned out responsibly to benefit both existing residents and the new residents in terms of developing public amenities like city parks and community centers.

“From there, members of the group moved on to discussions of direct involvement and representation of our Latino citizens at the government level. So, I’m simplifying things here, but that really was the first action that led ultimately to several of us running for public office.”

In 2004, Perez ran for the CVUSD school board, while Garcia ran for the Coachella City Council. Their campaigns did not go off without a hitch.

“As we started organizing some of the campaign events and actions, we began to feel the division between us and some of the elders in the community,” Machuca said. “We wanted to work with them, but it seemed that they saw us either as young and naïve, or as being in over our heads, as we were trying to change our world. At first it, it wasn’t too bad, but then as people began declaring that they were going to run for so many local positions, the division became a reality. It became: ‘How dare you disrespect us elders by running against us!’ Although it was never really said in so many words, it felt that way.”

Still, Perez and Garcia went on to win their races.

“We bonded even more during the real grassroots effort of those campaigns,” Machuca said. “We learned so much about the dos and the don’ts of campaigning and just how dirty things can get. We tried to play nice, because at the end of the day, we didn’t want the community to be divided. And we had a lot of community support, which showed in the results of the elections. We were young, had new ideas, and we grew up there. Some of the opposition ran their campaigns on platforms criticizing the fact that we left our communities to get college degrees. … But we came back!”

Despite the political wins, some of the people within Raices did not like the political direction in which the group was going. “They wanted to stick only with the arts, culture and community-building aspects of our mission,” Machuca said.

Ultimately, those dissenting members prevailed, as the original organization has been transformed into Raices Cultura.

“Today, Raices is focused on its nonprofit work and bringing about opportunities for Latino youth by utilizing our indigenous art and culture as the anchor,” Garcia said. “But everything is done with a community focus to create a critical consciousness in our youth to look at ways to improve their lives and the lives of others in their community, despite the barriers and challenges that many times exist in communities like ours. That is the focus of Raices today.”

While Perez may see more of a link between the nonprofit and the development of future eastern Coachella Valley community leaders than Garcia does, he perceived a change in direction as well.

“It’s morphed over the years,” Perez said. “When we first started, we recognized that we needed to continue to think of ways we could change things politically and change the institutions of power. But at the same time, we knew that as we grew older, eventually, the next generation will need to take the lead. So back in the day, what we would do, for example, is bring in computers and provide tutorial services on how to access higher education in the hope that afterward, they’d come back home. Now it’s more about offering instruction concerning cultural identity, and for that matter, self-love. A lot of courses are based on spirituality and the teachings of the Aztecs and the Mayans, a lot of indigenous culture … .

“Also, there’s an emphasis on trying to influence individuals toward self-love as opposed to self-hate. What we’ve seen for years is youth violence—youth-on-youth shootings, and gangs, drug abuse and domestic violence. A lot of that comes from the anger that develops in a person because of the oppression that they’ve had to endure for so many years. So the teaching that goes on today is helping to develop individuals with more positivity in their lives. That spirituality piece is really, really important.”


What’s in store for the political arm of this heavily Latino community-service collective? Perez said there’s a lot of work left to do.

“We identified people over the years who have engaged in our campaigns,” he said. “In the Ruiz campaigns and also in mine, you’d see a lot of youth out knocking on doors, passing out literature and phone-banking. So that’s kind of a training ground where the young people get to see up close what we as candidates go through. … Some of these youngsters have gone on to higher education and are now leaders with organizations that are registering people to vote, like Voto Latino, or for that matter, are doing organizing work with UFW (United Farm Workers).”

Perez said he always made it a point to offer internships to youths who wanted to learn about the policy-making process.

“What does it really mean when you work on an issue, and then pass a policy?” he asked. “How do you connect those dots? For instance, what does it mean if we pass legislation on a safe route to school that has some funding attached, but in Coachella or Mecca or Thermal, there’s a lack of sidewalks? … It’s not about an individual; it’s about a collective, a movement. And ultimately, it’s about achieving social justice through policy, organizing and developing the human being’s capacity as social capital, and to finally turn our community around in ways that are very positive.”

To accomplish those ends, the policy-making representatives of these eastern valley communities need to maintain their political presence. Garcia envisions a solidification of power in a more formal organization informed by the Raices Cultura ideals.

“The question is: Will Raices Cultura programs and participants influence the development of a democratic political structure that weighs in on issues of local, state and national significance? The answer is yes,” Garcia said. “It happens by natural progression, and I think what’s missing here is the actual organization of an official Democratic club which attributes its beginnings to the formation of Raices 10 years ago, and is a political organization and framework … able to lead the charge on issues of policy and importance to our community. I think we’re getting there, and will very soon create an organization from the eastern Coachella Valley that is strictly political and on the Democratic side of the spectrum.”

Below: Eduardo Garcia: “I think what’s missing here is the actual organization of an official Democratic club which attributes its beginnings to the formation of Raices 10 years ago, and is a political organization and framework … able to lead the charge on issues of policy and importance to our community.” PHOTO BY KEVIN FITZGERALD

Published in Politics

Higher-education degrees are increasingly based on what you can do rather than how long you sit in a classroom, so it is pertinent to ask how technology is affecting K-12 education.

A recent symposium, “Literacy Summit 4,” held at Cal State San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus, brought together four teachers showcasing their efforts to incorporate computer-based learning into their lesson plans.

The east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) has made the news based on its ambitious goal of providing 18,000 iPads to its students. Katherine Quintana, who teaches at Coral Mountain Academy in Coachella, has already begun using the iPads under the CVUSD pilot program. Quintana has co-produced a short video documenting the project’s use by 120 teachers in CVUSD classrooms.

“The capabilities are endless,” says Quintana. “Students are empowered to find their own answers to questions. It’s instantaneous, spontaneous and exciting—a change-based learning model that supports critical-thinking skills where students can confront real-world problems, and teachers can more easily track student proficiencies.”

Apps such as Brain Pop provide students with instant feedback on their progress using animated lessons in science, social studies, English, math, engineering, health, art, and music. Google Earth lets students see the world they’re studying. Educreations enables students to create their own presentations and work collaboratively on projects.

Quintana says, “For the most part, it has been hugely positive. I’m not a real techie person—I was pretty much ‘old school.’ But this was a great opportunity to just jump into the pilot program and realize that we have kids capable of teaching their teachers and each other. It really helps teachers be better teachers.”

But what about local schools that do not have the same broad policy of incorporating technology by providing iPads to all students?

Karen Foerch taught fifth-grade last year in the west-valley Palm Springs Unified School District. She is now a technology specialist, teaching other teachers how to use technology in their classrooms.

“The classroom-management apps are particularly valuable,” Foerch says, “whether to track student performance and be able to provide instant feedback for students and parents, or to be able to contact parents directly so that they can manage students’ homework assignments and deadlines.”

Foerch found the use of technology actually improved the attention span of students with attention-deficit issues. “The technology approach to presenting material fits right in with how many students think,” she says. “That’s how their brains work.”

Applications like Class Dojo help teachers manage their classrooms, including tracking behaviors so that students and parents can access results without having to wait for formal teacher/parent conferences. Grade Cam gives teachers the ability to streamline time-consuming test-scoring and grade-reporting. Remind 101 lets teachers text students and parents en masse with updates on assignments and homework.

Foerch maintains, “It’s all about saving time and giving teachers more time to teach.”

Another app Foerch recommends to teachers is iBrainstorm, which lets students capture ideas instantly, organize them and share them with other students to collaborate on projects. “Using applications like this allows students to manage their own time,” Foerch says.

Then there’s Science 360, which immerses students in critical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills and enables them to research materials that enhance their classroom learning.

Foerch uses apps like Dragon Dictation, helping students convert speech into text for improvements in writing and reading skills. It’s particularly helpful for students who are English-language learners.

Other helpful apps include Quizlet, which lets students create their own flash cards to facilitate studying, and Bluster, used by fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to expand vocabulary skills.

Teachers Wende Hamann and Kelly Fitchpatrick teach humanities, language arts and social studies at Palm Desert Charter Middle School.

“The kids aren’t intimidated by all this,” says Hamann. “We need to learn the culture and how to implement these programs in our classrooms.”

Apps available via Google allow teachers to simplify grading and track assignments in student folders that are then accessible by parents. “Kids are learning, and we’re learning,” says Hamann. “A computer-based curriculum also allows us to teach what it means to be a good ‘digital citizen’ so that students realize that what they do on-line will be seen by others.”

Flipping the classroom,” based on the Khan Academy approach, is another innovation in K-12 education. Students watch videos of their teacher’s presentation of lessons as homework, and then classroom time is focused on research, problem-solving and group work. Students can more easily go back and review something to better understand the material, rather than missing an important concept in a traditional lecture format.

In a flipped classroom—increasingly being incorporated in schools across the country—the teacher is seen less as “the sage on the stage” and more as the “guide on the side.”

The world of education is changing rapidly. With more than 20,000 apps applicable to K-12 education already available, finding the right ones for a particular teacher and classroom can be a daunting prospect. Teacher websites, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, allow teachers to share information with other educators across the country. Many apps are free or available at very low cost, and according to the four teachers at “Literacy Summit 4,” they are well worth the effort.

Pat Fredericks, a member of Cal State University Associates, a CSUSB-PD support group, said in her opening remarks at the symposium, “There is a demonstrated need for these programs in the Coachella Valley. Applied technology helps promote technological literacy as well as program development.”

CSUSB-PD has opened the Porter Resource Room on the third floor of the Indian Wells Building, providing resources for history and social studies for kindergarten through sixth-grade, all aligned to the recently adopted core-curriculum standards.

If you haven’t visited a classroom recently, stop bemoaning the state of American education—and find out for yourself how technology is changing the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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