Sacramento school reopening triggers unexpected parent concerns

Sally Evey works with students at Washington Elementary in 2013. Officials have announced plans to reopen the school with an emphasis on rigorous subjects.
Sally Evey works with students at Washington Elementary in 2013. Officials have announced plans to reopen the school with an emphasis on rigorous subjects.

When local leaders announced plans in June to reopen midtown Sacramento’s Washington Elementary School with an emphasis on rigorous subjects such as science and engineering, parents at nearby David Lubin Elementary School were disconcerted.

After spending two years creating their own science-based curriculum, Lubin parents worried that local politicians might undercut their efforts by trying to install a similar science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) program at a campus less than 2 miles away.

“We’re already on the path toward STEAM,” said Jennifer Aten, whose sons are entering the third and fifth grades at Lubin. The East Sacramento school, she said, is “near the finish line” and could become a model for future science-based campuses in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

The tension reflects just how popular science-focused curriculum has become in recent years as advocates suggest it better prepares students to compete for high-tech jobs.

The Lubin parents’ worries began in June when Trustee Jay Hansen and City Councilman Steve Hansen announced plans to reopen Washington in fall 2016 as a neighborhood school and a destination campus for commuters to downtown who want their children to be STEAM savvy.

Superintendent José Banda in June called the Washington reopening an opportunity to reverse the district’s trend of declining enrollment. Trustees closed Washington in 2013 due to falling enrollment; the campus had 222 students in its final year and capacity for 706.

At Lubin, parents said they were dismayed by Sacramento leaders throwing their support behind Washington. They said they want district support for their efforts, too.

With guidance from Principal Richard Dixon, parents at Lubin researched a strategy for transforming their campus. This summer, nine teachers attended a California State University, Sacramento, symposium to learn the state’s new science standards. Aten said the Lubin program has integrated STEAM elements into every classroom.

Dixon said the school capitalized on its reputation for award-winning robotics. A community survey and parents’ interest in moving forward, he said, “was really the genesis of this STEAM conversation.”

Concerns from Lubin parents prompted STEAM references to be removed from the board item that trustees approved this month to reopen Washington and to hire a principal to oversee preparations for opening next year.

“We changed the agenda so we could clarify that this (vote) was about opening the school,” Hansen said. “There was a lot of consternation among other folks, so it was just to keep things from getting unsettled. To clear up any misconceptions, we decided to stay focused on saying we want this school to be a destination,” Hansen said.

Parents at Lubin worked for two years to create and incorporate the STEAM curriculum. The school’s website boasts a STEAM focus across its kindergarten through sixth-grade classes.

Jay Hansen said he thinks Washington and Lubin can co-exist as science-focused programs despite their proximity.

“Some Lubin supporters ... I think were under the misconception that there could only be one (STEAM school) in the district,” the trustee said Monday.

“They’ve done a lot of great work,” Hansen said of Lubin parents. “I think they were concerned that their program would be jeopardized. I think it’s just the opposite. I think we can share best practices with each other.”

Rancho Cordova’s Riverview STEM Academy – STEAM without the arts emphasis – can attest to the growing popularity of science-based elementary programs.

The magnet K-5 school launched the program in fall 2014 and started small, with one classroom for grades K-4, with plans to grow in subsequent years. The waiting list the first year reached 150.

This year, the school added six classes, including a new fifth-grade class. Enrollment more than doubled, from 123 students to 269. And there remain 76 students on a waiting list, said Folsom Cordova Unified School District spokesman Daniel Thigpen.

Despite the removal of STEAM references from the Washington agenda item this month, Hansen said he is still pushing for that approach at the midtown campus.

“We’re a declining enrollment district,” he said. “We have to be uber-competitive.”

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