Tight budgets driving big changes in Sacramento area schools

08/11/2012 12:00 AM

08/10/2012 11:43 PM

Students returning to school in the Sacramento area should expect another year of large class sizes, fewer teachers and reduced resources.

But they also can expect new programs including "transitional kindergarten," Internet safety training and new International Baccalaureate programs as districts move forward despite budget cuts.

"It's important that education keeps up with a 21st-century pace and we provide challenging and rigorous programs for our students," said Lisa Kaplan, Natomas Unified school board president.

Nonetheless, four consecutive years of state budget cuts have taken their toll and this year features more of the same.

Nearly 650 teachers in Sacramento County received final termination notices in May, meaning most won't be returning to classrooms.

Another 550 bus drivers, food service workers, secretaries and other support staff have been cut.

Students in the Sacramento City Unified School District are the most likely to notice changes this year. The district made deep cuts to balance its budget, including laying off 239 teachers, eliminating adult education programs and reducing its janitorial staff by half.

The district's students can expect larger class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, fewer arts and music programs, and fewer assistant principals and librarians.

Fewer school bus routes

Sacramento City Unified officials also have drastically cut busing, only transporting students in mandated programs and those whose route to school is considered unsafe.

It isn't the only district without school transportation. Elk Grove Unified and Natomas Unified eliminated all but mandated busing years ago. This year, Woodland Joint Unified and Galt Joint Union Elementary School District have cut all but rural routes and the busing of special education students.

Galt Joint Union Elementary School District has 60 seats open for middle school students who don't mind getting a bus ride to school and finding their own way home. The district will hold a lottery to decide who gets on the bus.

The biggest changes this school year may not be seen until midyear. Districts are set to make drastic cuts – including shortening the school year – if tax initiatives on the November ballot don't pass and the state makes automatic cuts to school funding.

Some districts already have negotiated furlough days with teachers in case the state makes more cuts. San Juan Unified could reduce its year to as few as 168 days, Natomas Unified to 164, Sacramento City Unified to 167, and Folsom Cordova Unified to 175 days if the state approves more cuts.

New initiatives

Despite the looming threat of even tighter budgets, some local districts are pushing ahead with new academic programs for students.

Most noticeable this year may be the addition of a new grade level called "transitional kindergarten." The classes are meant to accommodate thousands of California children being pushed out of kindergarten by a new state law that requires new students be age 5 by Nov. 1 instead of Dec. 2.

Also, a federal mandate that went into effect July 1 will have students in all grade levels taking classes educating them about Internet safety and cyberbullying this year. The training is required if schools want federal funding for technology.

In addition, families also may notice a big change in curriculum this year as school districts begin to roll out the new Common Core Standards. The new curriculum – with some unique additions for California schools – are meant to make education standards more consistent nationwide.

The curriculum, which students will begin to be tested on in 2014, will be phased in at Elk Grove Unified schools beginning with math in kindergarten through second grade and English language arts in third through sixth grades, said Elizbeth Graswich, district spokeswoman.

"It just made sense to begin to roll it out over a two-year period rather than in one year," Graswich said. "We have been communicating with our parents so we are prepared."

San Juan Unified officials are opting to focus on rolling out Common Core English language arts programs focusing on literacy in all grades, as well as math in grades 7 and 9.

Finally, school districts are adding popular classes including the much-lauded International Baccalaureate program. Students at Inderkum High School and Natomas Middle School in Natomas Unified will be able to take part in IB programs beginning this year.

International Baccalaureate programs prepare students for rigorous college study, allow them to earn university credits and help them gain admission to the best colleges.

Unlike during the growth years, few new schools are opening this school year. Natomas Unified, however, decided to reopen the Leroy Greene Academy for sixth through 12th grades Wednesday. The school's curriculum will focus on technology and business.

Many school district officials decided it was time to spiff their schools up a bit over the summer. Twin Rivers Unified spent the summer modernizing many of its schools and adding technology, said Tom Janis, assistant superintendent.

Natomas Unified schools had repairs and major cleaning. Some had minor face-lifts like new floors and landscaping, while others underwent major renovations – adding classrooms, sidewalks and parking lots.

"It's one of the things we have pride in – our campuses – and we needed to make sure that pride is shown in the upkeep of our facilities," Kaplan said. "Unfortunately though, because of budget cuts, education was a little more of a priority."

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