Debra LaVoi read a student essay on the solar system, asked questions about “Cat in the Hat” and watched fifth-graders take a math test at the Science and Technology Academy in Knights Landing last week. It was the third school the Woodland Joint Unified superintendent had visited before lunch.
Before LaVoi took the reins of the 9,932-student district five years ago, Woodland’s cumulative Academic Performance Index score was 731 out of a possible 1,000. Despite budget cuts since then, the district’s overall score increased to 767, while graduation rates increased 10 percent between 2009 and 2011.
“She has been very instrumental in bringing in great administrators and teachers,” said school board President Sam Blanco. “She has been an incredible asset.”
District officials now have the chore of replacing LaVoi, who will retire on June 30.
Nearly two-thirds of the district’s students are from low-income families and one-quarter are English learners, according to 2012-13 state data. Woodland Joint Unified could serve as a model for high-poverty California districts required to spend more on low-income students, English learners and foster children under a new state funding plan.
LaVoi, 61, credits the district’s recent academic successes to classroom instruction that engages students, collaboration between teachers and a requirement that every educator embrace the basic premise that “every child can learn” despite their backgrounds or circumstances.
During budget cuts, the district protected resource teachers who work with English learners. Teachers also began breaking English learners into groups by ability and spending 45 minutes each day on language development.
English learners, as well as struggling students, get added help in after-school programs. High school students who are falling behind have access to learning centers before, after and during the school day, where UC Davis students provide help.
In some cases, LaVoi and district trustees have taken drastic measures. They brought in new principals and replaced half the faculty at two chronically underperforming schools – Beamer Park Elementary and Whitehead Elementary. That “turnaround” approach is one of four options available to struggling districts under California and federal law.
Beamer Park Elementary is now a dual-immersion school that teaches students equally in English and Spanish. The school, where 65 percent of students are English learners, received an API score of 803 last school year and won the California Association for Bilingual Education Award of Excellence. Administrators from 10 school districts have visited the school to observe instruction, according to Woodland Joint Unified officials. The school had an API of 739 before the turnaround in 2011.
T.L. Whitehead Elementary School, which also has a large English learner population, has made huge bounds since half of its staff was replaced in 2010. The school’s API score has gone up by nearly 100 points – from 704 to 802.
“With the turnaround model, what you tend to do is assemble a team that ... wants to be there, shares the same philosophy and gives people a chance – if they don’t want to be there – to opt out,” LaVoi said.
All teachers that left the turnaround schools were placed in other schools in the district, LaVoi said.
Two more campuses are slated for a turnaround next school year – Woodland Prairie Elementary and Ramon Tafoya Elementary – after both failed to make the annual gains required by the state. Woodland Prairie has an API of 750 and Ramon Tafoya an API of 784.
“It’s not a decision we take very lightly at all,” LaVoi said of turning over staff at a school. “It only occurs after many years of trying other things and they haven’t been as successful as we would have hoped.”
The decision to make dramatic changes at the schools hasn’t always been popular with parents or teachers. “Budget cuts, school restructuring – she’s weathered it all,” said Barbara Herms, principal of the Science and Technology Academy.
A woman who identified herself as the president of the district’s teachers union, Woodland Education Association, had no comment when contacted by phone.
LaVoi doesn’t like to take the credit for the academic upswing. “This is an amazing district and they have been working very, very hard,” she said of teachers and other staff. “What I can do well is pick out talent.”
Last week, LaVoi observed children at the Science and Technology Academy in the rural community of Knights Landing about 11 miles northeast of Woodland. The students worked in small groups at different stations. The groupings of desks, which encourage student interaction, are now standard at district schools.
When LaVoi became superintendent, the campus, then known as Grafton Elementary School, had just been shuttered by the district to save money. LaVoi learned just how upset the residents of Knights Landing were when she manned a school district booth at the Yolo County Fair a month into her job.
“People were angry,” she said. “They really let me have it. They said by losing the school, they had lost the heart of their community.”
The superintendent created a committee that met every Monday to decide how the property could serve the community. Teacher and lifelong Knights Landing resident Maria Martinez said she realized LaVoi was “a superintendent that really cared and was open to ideas” when a planned 15-minute meeting went 90 minutes and ended with both of the women crying over the impact of the closure.
A year later the campus reopened as a charter school, making it eligible for federal startup grants and state funding.
When Grafton Elementary closed, it had an Academic Performance Index score of 696 and an enrollment of 115. The Science and Technology Academy has an API score of 860, enrollment of 250 students and a waiting list. Last month, it was selected as a 2013 California Business for Education Excellence Star School.
LaVoi considers Herms one of those talented finds. The first time she saw Herms teach, “it was a zoo.” There was hands-on learning and students using data, LaVoi said. Everyone was using academic language.
“There was such a spirit of inquiry and innovation in that class,” she said. “I became curious about Barbara. I snooped. I looked at how her students were doing.” LaVoi saw results. She tapped Herms to become principal of the Science and Technology Academy.
“It has been the most incredible experience for me,” LaVoi said of her five years at Woodland Unified. “I love what I am doing and appreciate a community so helpful. I wouldn’t be happy doing other kinds of work. It’s hard, but it’s the best job anybody can have.”
After five years running the Woodland district, LaVoi said she doesn’t feel ready to retire and has “actually been avoiding this.” She earns $200,216 annually and has seen the fruits of her efforts. So why retire?
She said she wants to spend more time with her husband, Bill Rogers, who is the reason she came to California in the first place. She met the pharmacy manager 20 years ago while visiting San Francisco with a friend and moved two years later from Nebraska.
“I am married to the most wonderful man in the world,” she said. “Bill is 14 years older than I am and he is ready for us to start doing our bucket list. Timing is everything and I want us to do this before we can’t. The district is in good shape and it’s a good time to bring a new leader.”