Put to the test

Superintendent has done his homework; now the grading begins

Chet Francisco, superintendent of the Chico Unified School District, has gotten support for his coordinated-curriculum plan.

Chet Francisco, superintendent of the Chico Unified School District, has gotten support for his coordinated-curriculum plan.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

When you meet Chet Francisco, the first thing you notice is his smile. Framed by a tidy mustache and accented by inviting eyes, the warm, welcoming expression makes even a stranger feel like a friend.

He has many reasons to grin entering his first full year as superintendent of the Chico Unified School District, having had a whole summer to prepare. And you don’t have to visit his office to see his smile yourself. Whether he’s conferring with teachers or catching up on lessons with students, Francisco makes an effort to meet people on school grounds.

Chico Junior High School teacher Jenn Flory recalls a visit by Francisco to her classroom.

“One of my kids went up to him and told him what was going on [in class],” Flory said. “He reached down and gave the kid a big hug.”

It’s nice that he’s visible and seems to be “kid-focused,” Flory said.

Visits to schools and classrooms help Francisco stay in touch with students and the educational process, he said: “I like to talk to the kids and ask them what they’re working on.”

But there’s more to Francisco than friendly interactions. He has serious plans for Chico Unified School District. His vision includes more teacher collaboration, a rigorous pre-college program and clean, colorful campuses.

It also includes more testing, so the infectiousness of his smile may have its limits.

Before coming to Chico last October, Francisco was superintendent of the Murrieta Valley Unified School District in Riverside County, overseeing the learning of nearly 20,000 pupils. Since beginning work here, he has made apparent his hands-on approach to managing the education of the district’s 14,000 students.

In the upcoming year, Francisco hopes to establish more collaboration on the part of teachers and administrators.

The goal matches the motto he has written on the whiteboard in his office:

“Individual student academic success via a K-12 sequence of teaching, learning, assessment and support.”

The slogan isn’t particularly catchy, but the idea behind it is interesting.

Francisco believes all students in the district should be learning the same material as others in their grade level, regardless of the school or the teacher. That unified curriculum would lessen the transitional strain on children who move to a new school, said Joyce Burdette, principal of Chico Junior High. But Francisco’s primary aim is to link one level to the next, for a more comprehensive education from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Teacher Vallarie K. Jensen and Principal Joyce Burdette are extremely proud of the new quad at Chico Junior High. The area used to be rundown and mismatched. Jensen teaches the SOUL—Students Offered Unlimited Leadership—program at the school.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

The district will administer common assessments for each grade level at the same time, though teachers will be given the freedom to teach the material in their own ways.

For example, all third-graders may take the same social-studies test at the same time to gauge students’ learning. If certain students are falling behind, they may need to review or be re-taught the subject. In some cases, the school may intervene by placing students in after-school or pull-out programs.

The testing will also open dialogue between teachers about different ways to teach a topic. If one class scores well on a test, the teacher may be able to instruct fellow teachers whose classes scored poorly on a different approach to the subject.

Although the tests may help teachers learn exercises that improve their ability to teach certain subjects, they will not be required to teach according to a script or list of prescribed activities. That is a good thing, said George Young, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association, which negotiates contracts with the district. Along with salaries (see sidebar, this page), terms include freedom to craft curricula.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen scripted teaching,” Young said, “but it’s ugly.”

Having the freedom to teach a class differently is important because students have different needs. Burdette cited an example to explain why.

“If I have a class of English-learners and you have a class of advanced students, your students may get it [the material] by you just telling them, while I may have to do activities and act it out for them.”

Both styles of teaching should result in students comprehending the same material—and, in theory, doing well on the exam.

Testing is a sensitive subject.

Young said he is frustrated with No Child Left Behind, the federal education plan that he says requires students be tested so much there is little time to teach.

Yet despite the time required for CUSD’s additional exams, Young supports the district’s plan to compare students with uniform testing.

He hopes to establish a window in which the testing can be completed, so as not to force all teachers to test on the same day. The window would allow teachers to decide when testing fits into their curriculum schedules and lessen the interruption.

The district ran a pilot program for testing last year, said Flory, who sits on the advisory board that helped create it. The plan is to administer tests every six weeks.

The results of the test depend on how it is presented to students, Flory said. Last year her students did not score well on the pilot test. She said she feels the poor results were due to lack of preparation and the students being burnt out after completing statewide standardized testing.

Chico High School senior Miranda Strisower thinks testing would be a good tool to hold teachers accountable for student learning. But Strisower—enrolled in Advanced Placement classes—said that between APs, SATs and STARs, the last thing high school students need is more tests.

“That would kill us in AP classes,” she said.

Barbara Burkett, parent of a Chico High student, agreed with Strisower. While the idea sounds good in theory, she is not sure more testing is a plausible idea.

In addition to monitoring student learning, Francisco has CUSD at work on upgrading its existing campuses and programs.

Francisco is working with administrators to see that schools are clean and colorful. The hope is that the campuses will instill school pride and become places students want to be, he said.

At Chico Junior High, fresh paint has brightened up dull walls and benches. Splashes of color have enlivened the quad area behind the front office that Burdette hopes will someday become a peaceful grassy area, shaded by trees, where students can go to read.

An effort has also been made to coordinate the classroom furniture. “Making sure the furniture matches just makes it look better,” Burdette said.

Moving from style to substance, Francisco is also working to continue to meet the needs of students in alternative schools such as Fairview High School, which has a program for students with children.

Also new this year is an online U.S. history course at Chico High—the first Internet course offered by the district, said Kelly Staley, assistant superintendent.

It is unlikely that the district will offer an entire course load over the Internet anytime soon. But if students are interested, district may begin offering more online courses, Staley said.

Looking ahead, Francisco hopes to collaborate with Butte College on a high school that would offer both college prep and occupational training, spanning grades 9 through 14.

Students enrolled in the school would be able to take both high school and Butte College classes. The classes would allow students to either complete two years of college, or to earn a certificate that would help them to land a job immediately after graduation.

Francisco knows the plan will require a lot of coordination among the faculty. To ensure adequate supervision, the school would work best with a small student body of 300 to 400 students, Francisco said. He plans for the school to be a choice school, meaning students choose to attend versus being required to by enrollment boundaries.

Francisco hopes to build the school on the land previously acquired for a high school, on the northwest side of Bruce Road behind Raley’s Skypark Plaza shopping center. The parcel is roughly 50 acres.

Building a school for only 300 to 400 students would not pose an immediate problem for the district because the population of high school-aged students has, for the past few years, remained fairly constant. Because of the stagnant student population, the district has not made building a new high school an immediate priority.

Pleasant Valley High School student Elora Limberg said she thinks students would be attracted to the school if it offered a quick way to earn a GED, but as a college-bound senior she wouldn’t be interested. Burkett and Strisower both expressed concern about the age range at such a school—"I think some kids aren’t really mature enough for that,” Strisower said.

New ideas aside, perhaps the most impressive thing about CUSD’s coming year is the support and excitement gathering behind Francisco. From administrators to teachers, his staff seems to be on board.

The reaction from the students remains to be seen, as does the impact of his initiatives. Still, early in his tenure, he has broad-based backing that is rare in the realm of public education, where issues often spur battles that divide communities.

That certainly is worth smiling about.

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