Placer High meeting yields wealth of input

Parents, public set three-year course for Placer Union schools
By: Andrew Westrope,
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Strategic Planning Sessions, 6-8 p.m.

Loomis: Thursday, Feb. 27, at Del Oro High School auditorium, 3301 Taylor Road

Colfax: Thursday, March 6, at Colfax High School library, 24995 Ben Taylor Road

Foresthill: Tuesday, March 11, at Foresthill High School theater, 23319 Foresthill Road

Auburn families turned out in droves on Thursday for the first of four community forums to be hosted by the Placer Union High School District.

The aim of these forums, according to district officials, is to let the public contribute directly to the district’s first-ever strategic plan while new educational standards and a new state funding formula take effect.

The stage for Thursday’s forum was the Placer High School cafeteria, which hosted an audience of more than 120 parents, students, teachers, administrators, business owners and members of neighboring school districts.

The event began with an introduction from Placer Union High School District Superintendent George Sziraki and Assistant Superintendent Jeff Tooker. Along with the introduction Common Core standards were briefly discussed and the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula.

Ron Dwyer-Voss, a community organizer hired by the district to help gather public input, then explained what sort of “strategic plan” the district hoped to build. He said a strategic plan is less a point-by-point “to-do list” than a three-year vision of what the shareholders want the district to become, and what sort of priorities will get it there.

“A strategic plan is just coming up with that road map, and identifying what we have to work with to get from here to there,” he said. “It starts with figuring out where ‘there’ is, and at the same time saying, ‘What do we have to work with?’”

Over the course of the evening, Dwyer-Voss partitioned the audience into groups to discuss possible goals and priorities for such a plan. When they made lists of what they most wanted the district to provide, a handful of common themes appeared – college and career readiness, support for teachers and staff, a focus on students and a conducive learning environment. Once the district has gathered these lists from Loomis, Colfax and Foresthill, the board will develop specific goals and draft a three-year strategic plan to be adopted this summer.

The event ran for two hours as predicted, and Dwyer-Voss, having traveled the country doing strategic planning seminars for 20 years, said it was the most participation he’d ever seen.

“A lot of places are doing this, but there might be five or six people, they have a little conversation, vote on some things, and that’s that. These guys have gone way above and beyond to actually develop a strategic plan that times with the launch of Common Core,” he said. “If your standards are new and the way you’re getting funded is new, saying, ‘This is the time to rework the strategies’ is brilliant. I wish more were doing it.”

Dwyer-Voss said parents can contribute to the strategic plan online as well, but the value of the public forums is collaboration and building off each other’s ideas.

“In a survey, whatever I offer is what I alone can think of,” he said. “In this process, it’s what me and 11 other people at my table came up with together. It’s almost always better, in terms of quality.”

Sziraki was also satisfied with the evening for both its turnout and its feedback, though he said it was one of the first of many steps in a long information-gathering process.

“I felt like we gave the opportunity to the community to voice their opinions,” he said. “I’m still digesting the information. The turnout – we anticipated 75, so it was larger than we thought, but that’s a good problem to have. As far as the outcome and what Ron did, I think we have enough information in front of us that we’re going to try and look at some patterns and determine what those next steps are. And we have three more community forums, plus a champion committee’ to synthesize that information and see what we need to do.”

Conferring among each other after the forum, several participants said they were pleased as well.

Patti Mason, a parent, said she came to find out what direction administrators intended and what the school could do better, and she left with optimism.

“I think we addressed some really key points that, as a district and a community as a whole, we need to focus on to help our kids be more productive once they get out of school,” she said. “I think we’ve identified some really strong things.”

Preparedness for life after high school was a common concern, as espoused by 18-year-old Ciarra James, a senior at Placer High. As a foster youth, she said she wants to extend to other students the sort of “life training” requirements which have been a regular part of her life.

“There’s something I wanted to put out – teaching students how to go out into the world, like life skills. I think that should be a big part of high school, things like taxes, job applications, college applications,” she said. “My whole group was really supportive of that idea, and they added on to it, and they all agreed.”

Gena McArdle, another parent, said she also felt satisfied that she’d been heard in a democratic way.

“I fee like I had a voice,” she said. “I think it was a great process that gave everybody a voice, a chance to share their thoughts on what was important, what they value in the system and education, and gave the administrators an opportunity to hear what parents and teachers are thinking.”

Her son, 15-year-old Taylor, student, said he just wanted to be involved.

“It’s a really important decision for the school to decide where the money is going … I wanted to see what other people’s opinions are and where the money goes, because I have mine,” he said. “I was glad I came here. It was better than I expected it would be.”

Placer High parent Kelly Chandler said she wanted to get “a sense of whether or not there would be an effort at truly changing the direction of education,” and while the evening met that expectation, it did not guarantee she would be pleased with the result.

“I think there’s a great turnout from the community, and I appreciate the district seeking input from a variety of stakeholders,” she said. “I think there’s potential. It depends where it goes from here.”

Following the district’s next three community forums, the board of trustees will present focus areas and potential strategic directions in March, develop more specific goals through April and present a written strategic plan in April or May. The board will modify it as needed and vote on adoption in May or June.