Supporters turned out in force, powerful statement by Nystrom reverses voting stalemate

It’s not often that a school board meeting brings the audience to its feet or has people in tears, but that’s exactly what happened at the April 10 meeting of the Windsor Unified School District Board of Trustees.

There was a hint of the unusual evening ahead when construction manager Eric Van Pelt announced that the planned presentation on replacing the playing surface at Windsor High School would have to be postponed as the representative had gotten into a car accident on his way to the meeting.

But, that would pale in comparison to what was to come.

Two years ago Windsor Oaks Academy launched a pilot program to try out Big Picture Learning (BPL), a student-driven, “Learning Through Interests” -based program. The time had come to determine if the program was here to stay. From the beginning, the staff had raved about the program, and along the way had changed the name of their school to North Bay Met Academy to reflect the input of Big Picture Learning (the first BPL schools all have Met in their name). The room was packed with staff, students and parents, all sporting their trademark purple shirts and griffin logo.

Principal Susan Nystrom got up to introduce the proceedings. “Thanks for allowing us to come here tonight to share our program,” she said. “Data is important when evaluating anything, so tonight we will share with you qualitative and quantitative data about our program.”

Then one by one, every staff member got up to introduce themselves and then a student, parent or mentor to discuss their experiences.

“I’m in 10th grade and I’ve been in school just this year, but I think it should stay Big Picture for a couple of reasons,” said Elijah Finley. “The teachers always help you and support you when you need it and its a good way to make up credits. The cool thing is you can make up credits by interning at a job. I think the school should stay this style because it could fit any kid who decides to enroll at this school.”

Advisory teacher Jeremiah Kahmoson said, “I have been at Windsor Oaks Academy for eight years and with the transition we’ve made I can stand up here and talk to you about how important the shifts we’ve made are. But, instead I’m going to read something from a graduating 12th grader who couldn’t be here in person because she is attending an SRJC course this evening,” before reading a written piece from Abby Pigsley.

“I needed more than WHS could offer, I had the credit deficiency of a sophomore as a junior. I was nervous to attend Oaks, but then got comfortable. Now I’ve got my credits back and I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’m so happy to be accepted and finally in a place I felt at home and the work felt meaningful. College is an option for me now because of this new school. The teachers genuinely care. I have never felt so important, they believed in me and I was constantly being reminded about how much potential I have ... I’m excited for life. If not for Met Academy, I would not be the success I can acknowledge I am. I have had more opportunities for my future in the last two years, than in my entire life.”

Parent Rosa Garcia said, “I was so worried for my son in high school, it was very bad. But now it is excellent, he has all As and Bs and I am so happy for him. This school for me is like family, there is a lot of attention, they put a lot of focus on the kids when they need help and I am very happy ... I would appreciate it if you keep the program. It is really important.”

Chris Bertram is a mentor with the program, and owns a motorcycle shop in Windsor. Though he was there to support a student who had interned with him this semester, Josh Zappa, he made an additional statement. “I struggled with school and there were no programs like this,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was not great in school, but I always had a mechanical mind. Something like this is really beneficial. The trades are suffering; we are lacking mechanics, electricians. It was a real pleasure working with Josh. It would be sad if this program left, it would have been very beneficial for me, being dyslexic. I’m lucky I found something I’m good at and love. It’s great for them to get out there and get their feet wet in the work world, because its real out there and scary.”

Nystrom then moved into the quantitative portion of the presentation. She stated that the demographics of North Bay Met are moving closer to that of WHS, though it is still a male-heavy population.

The biggest and most remarkable gains have been the improvements in attendance and drop in discipline issues. The attendance rate is around 90 percent, up from 88 prior to BPL, and discipline issues have plummeted. In 2015-2016, prior to the BPL program, there were 414 discipline entries and 57 suspension days. In 17-18, there were 159 discipline entries and six suspension days.

The benchmark assessments in English Language Arts and Math show steady improvement over time and grade point averagess continue to rise steadily.

However, it soon became clear that not all members of the board were as dazzled by the program. Trustee Esther Lemus was out ill, so that left four members to vote, and the possibility of a gridlock. That possibility seemed likely, after Eric Heitz moved to approve adoption of the program and President Bill Adams seconded, but Vice President Sandy Dobbins and Trustee George Valenzuela expressed concerns.

“You’ve done a great job with the multiple measures presenting here, but what I’m missing are test scores,” said Dobbins. “It’s the second year. We should be able to see some cohort as to whether they are increasing or decreasing.”

Director of Educational Services Lisa Saxon interjected that due to the small number of students and rotating nature of students, coupled with the fact that the assessment test is only given in the 11th grade, it is not possible to get statistically significant scores or cohorts.

Dobbins then expressed concerns regarding the finances of the program, and the facts that it is difficult to determine whether the program cost the district more than it recovered from state funds. This led to a conversation between Dobbins, Adams and Chief Business Officer Lois Standring about the numbers, but the unfortunately murky answer appeared to be, “it’s not entirely clear” though Standring made the point that costs would go down as student numbers rose (the program has been kept purposefully small during the pilot), up to about 80 students.

Valenzuela stated that while he thought the program was a good one, he was uncomfortable committing to something permanently, and wondered if it could be put on a five-year rotation, similar to a charter school.

“I have a problem with saying this is something were going to do forever, and my concern is the financial impact,” he said. “We have some programs where we don’t come ahead in terms of the money, and I’m not saying it’s not worthwhile, but I can’t commit to something forever, when its not something that is running itself.”

“I apologize if I wasn’t clear enough,” responded Standring. “It costs more per students at BPL than at WHS, but it’s expensive across the board. We have a deficit all the time and I can tell you it’s not because of BPL, it’s a general problem.”

“I don’t think anyone on the team nor any of us as administrators believe that if there are lean times or budget cuts in the future that approval would make it immune to cuts or reductions,” added Saxon. “We always have to monitor efficacy and have to make modifications.”

Adams then opened the floor to Nystrom again, to give her one last chance to defend her program. The room fell silent, and Nystrom’s voice cracked with emotion.

“Thanks for allowing me to speak, I will speak from the heart and not as a professional. It would definitely have an impact by limiting it to five years. It would make me feel that the board has some issues with what we are doing. I keep bringing you data like discipline and attendance and no one mentions it.

“The fact is the students are engaged. You have students here speaking in front of you, that wouldn’t speak in front of anybody. These are really important things ... why do we quibble over the dollars spent on a school,” she asked, tears coloring her voice. “I’ve been at WOA a long time, it loses money, because our kids didn’t come to school and they weren’t being successful and when they left they were failures. Now we’re seeing students at the SRJC and four-year colleges. I’m sorry I’m speaking forcefully, but it’s been a long journey for me. You have to trust us. We’re professionals with, combined, hundreds of years of education. Trust us. This is the way to go, please allow us to continue without limitations.”

The room burst into life as supporters leapt to their feet cheering, crying and clapping. Nystrom choked back tears as the board prepared to vote.

“Thank you for your candor and passion,” Adams said, before the vote began. Heitz and Adams immediately voted yes, as did Dobbins after a brief pause. Valenzuela waivered for a moment, before saying, “Oh, what the hell, yes.” The room erupted again, and Nystrom ran to the dais to give hugs to each board member and the administrative team.

Staff members openly wept, and exchanged hugs with students and parents. Garcia came back and grabbed the microphone for one last comment.

“Thank you so much, this is excellent! Susan is focused on all the kids. I’m so happy; it’s a very good program. We need it for all the kids. Thanks,” she said wiping away tears.

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