No Letup in Excellence for San Marino’s Schools

San Marino’s public schools continued to maintain a lofty perch in statewide measurements of student learning in the past year, even in the wake of a new instructional method (Common Core state standards) and testing system (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium).
In an assessment of students in grades 3-8 and 11 who met or exceeded standards, the San Marino Unified School District registered a figure of 84%, according to data released in September by the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. This was a whisker ahead of the 83.5% registered by both La Cañada Unified and Piedmont City in Alameda County.
It was a great source of pride for SMUSD, which had previously held the top spot statewide for 11 straight years, from 2003 through 2013, in the now-defunct Academic Performance Index.
La Cañada built a case for being the top-performing district in the state, citing mean scale scores that had LCUSD first in English for grades 4, 5, 6, 7 and 11, and first in math in grade 6. (SMUSD’s No. 1 finishes in the mean scale scores were for 3rd-grade English and math.)
SMUSD’s assistant superintendent for instruction, Gary McGuigan, acknowledged the value of mean scale scores, but said, “We tend to look at what used to be the API, where the focus was, ‘How many students scored proficient or higher?’” By that measure, 33% of San Marino’s students met the standards and 51% exceeded them, for an aggregate of 84% that was unmatched statewide.
RECOGNITION FOR VALENTINE
Another key achievement for the SMUSD in 2015 was a bright blue ribbon for Valentine Elementary School, announced in late September by the U.S. Department of Education. Only 335 schools nationwide were recognized as National Blue Ribbon Schools for this year. It was Valentine’s first such honor (the other three schools in the district have previously earned the distinction).
Principal Colleen Shields said that Valentine staff “strives to keep children in our school on the edge of their seats, engaged in learning, whether it is while discussing a science discovery with a peer, editing an opinion paper, sharing ideas on how to resolve a playground dispute, analyzing a work of art or learning to play the marimba.”
TECH EMPHASIS
An extra push was given to tech instruction at the start of this school year, reflecting a curricular passion of Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss and the district’s Academic Advisory Committee. Added to SMUSD’s course offerings were an introductory coding class and a programming class at San Marino High School, a coding class at Huntington Middle School, as well as after-school instruction for students in grades 4 and 5 at Carver and Valentine elementary schools.
“I see that we have industries like engineering that are just begging to have graduates come out to hire,” Cherniss said. “We’re not sending enough qualified applicants from our schools. I see that as a need and want to expand on it.”
Brought on board to teach the classes at the high school was Daniel Lee, who spent the previous eight years teaching computer science in Southern California high schools. Demand quickly overwhelmed capacity for the instruction at SMHS, so Lee is letting many students take the classes without a grade as “teacher assistants.”
OPERATING FUNDS
The school district received a big boost in March with the passage of one of its two parcel taxes — the larger one, which will add $865 to annual property tax bills for each parcel in the SMUSD and provide $4 million annually to the SMUSD for the next six years. That money is used for programs that range from core subjects to enrichment.
The school district was also strongly underpinned by the San Marino Schools Foundation, as usual, as the SMSF’s Annual Campaign delivered $2.14 million in donations to the district in June. Christopher Kealey, who took over as executive director and director of development early this year, said the current school-year campaign is off to a robust start, and that year-end donations over the past week have been strong.
ALSO NOTEWORTHY
• Among the key hires for the current school year were Eric Bergmann as assistant principal at San Marino High School and Michael Lin as assistant principal at Huntington Middle School. Mark de la Vega also stepped into some big shoes as he replaced Ben Ubovich, who retired after 27 years as SMHS’ musical director. De la Vega has already made impressive strides with the Marching Band.
• Strings instruction was added at Carver and Valentine elementary schools, enhancing the performing arts presence in the SMUSD. Enthusiastic Thomas Simpson was brought in to work with budding band and strings musicians at both schools.
• San Marino High School entered into an agreement with the Huntington Library for an honors humanities class, in which students roam the galleries, at times with a curator, to examine art and literature through the original works.
• The district in late October celebrated a thorough refurbishment of the Huntington Middle School Auditorium, upgrades that included reupholstered seats, restored armrests, a fresh coat of paint for the walls, acoustical panels and individual numbers on the seats for assigned ticketing.
• On the School Board, Lisa Link and Chris Norgaard, whose terms were up this fall, held onto their seats without an election because no one filed to challenge them. Earlier this month, Link stepped down as president at the completion of her one-year term and gave way to Nam Jack. “I know you’ll do an amazing job, just because you did the last time,” Link said of the former School Board president [2012-13].
• The high school celebrated the 60th Grad Night in a glorious history. Grad Night Chair Janis Wong, Business Chair Yvette Nikoui-Smith and Creative Chair Joanne McCloskey sifted through the memories of past Grad Night extravaganzas as they pulled off the usual Grad Night sensation, this time with a theme of Monsters University.
• A new athletic field was installed at San Marino High School, just in time for graduation in June. It included a state-of-the-art artificial playing surface, accented with brilliant markings in Titan blue. It proved to be the ideal launching pad for the football team’s CIF championship season in the fall.

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