Academic intervention emerged as a key theme in each of the reports from San Marino’s four school principals recently as they gave their traditional opening-of-school-year presentations to the board of education.
The reports also signaled a theme of dialing back the celebration of the San Marino Unified School District’s academic successes in favor of making sure the students working toward such accomplishments are, at the end of the day, healthy and responsible.
Valentine Elementary School Principal Colleen Shields said she planned to build upon success stories from the prior school year — an emphasis on student mindfulness and STEM — in starting the new academic campaign. This will be the third year that the school runs a FIRST Lego League, a precursor to the full robotics teams fielded by the high school.
“Together with Carver [Elementary School], I think between our two schools we had 10 teams last year,” Shields said. “It was their second year and I really enjoyed seeing our students and how well they could problem-solve and address an issue under pressure. It was really impressive.” FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is an international youth organization.
Given that this also is the school’s third year in implementing the Next Generation Science Standards, the principal said her science faculty planned to emphasize the Amplify Science curriculum. Shields added she planned to evaluate the program using a variety of benchmarks, including the traditional ones.
“We want to look at how well it teaches the science content, what are the instructional strategies and practices, how easy is it for teachers to use, does it have the materials we need. But we also want to look and see if it meets that criterion that [new district Superintendent Jeff] Wilson has challenged us in,” she explained. “Does it promote elasticity in the thinking of students? Does it help promote their people skills? Does it give us a chance for students to identify and solve complex problems? Do they develop those skills? How well does it allow us to use that interdisciplinary knowledge piece?”
As for professional development, Shields said that the book “The Advantage,” which Wilson directed the district’s faculty to read, provoked a recent staff activity in which everyone was asked to share stories about their hometowns and challenges growing up.
“We ended up spending almost two hours on the activity,” Shields said. “There were tears, there were smiles, there was laughter, and I saw our staff bond in ways that I hadn’t seen before in the past. It was really touching. It really brought to the forefront why so many of our teachers go into teaching.”
Shields added that the school will continue to use and expand such avenues as Mind Yeti programming — from the Committee for Children, a social-emotional learning advocate — and mindfulness meditation practices to promote mental health care and wellness for students.
Carver Principal Michael Lin said his approach to finding focus areas was to identify outlying data or traits.
“In terms of accomplishments, we look at the margins where risks and opportunities exist,” he said. “The accomplishment question is ‘Have we broadened the frontiers of what is possible? What are we doing for at-risk students? What early interventions are we providing to address critical achievement gaps?’”
With that in mind, Lin said Carver will continue to build on phonics and reading fluency programming for his students, an effort that saw success this past year.
“The program is successful not only at bringing at-risk students to become fluent readers — therefore being able to access subject content — but it is also successful at attenuating the number of students requiring special education,” he said.
Lin tipped his hat to the Carver PTA, a variety of outside grants and the San Marino Schools Foundation for giving the school the ability to start and maintain enrichment programs that the entire student body can use to complement its education.
“Unlike other school districts where only the gifted and talented students will have access to the enrichment programs, all of our students have access to these programs,” he said. “New programs continue to be developed and they evolve based on a perpetual cycle of input backed by sustainable local fundraisers and volunteerism.
“At Carver, a healthy culture of volunteerism and giving is rooted in healthy relationships among our staff and families,” Lin added. “We have a focus on building the relationships between school and home, professional relationships among the staff and nurturing relationships between staff and students.”
Other goals for the year included continued work on NGSS, additional refinement and practice of safety drills and simulations — “We want to see students not be scared, but be prepared,” Lin said — and implementing the six pillars of character promoted by Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
“We will be building on our invisible mentorship program and other developmental assets by implementing the six pillars of character education schoolwide, with character assemblies and awards to celebrate student successes [in those domains],” Lin said.
Huntington Middle School Principal Alana Fauré said her signature start-of-school moment was just before the ribbon-cutting for the Barth Athletics Complex in August, for which many of her school’s students were wired to portable mics to serve as tour guides. The entire project, she noted, had a 100% safety rating throughout its two-year construction.
“That was my moment where the excitement really took hold,” Fauré said. “I would say our opening of school was monumental and that was because of the Barth Athletics Complex. It’s a monumental thing for our community, for our district and for HMS. We are so excited about it.”
Fauré lauded the “herculean efforts” by those involved with the construction to allow it to open early so that incoming 6th-graders could use it for their Where Everybody Belongs orientation. The student body already has had its “historic” first meeting at the complex together for a spirit assembly.
“That was a fabulous day for all of our excited 6th-graders to come and meet one another, have some fun, learn about the campus and their schedules, and kind of get an orientation to what their first day of school would be like,” she said.
Extracurricular instructors at HMS have been “thrilled” with the students arriving from the elementary schools, Fauré said, and they have had to add more teams to their clubs to accommodate everyone. Fauré also touted her school’s success with intervention programming last year and aims to continue to develop it as funding allows. Key to the success of such programs — such as word morphology, important for phonics — was hosting it during zero period.
“We found a sweet spot of time where these classes captured a group of at-risk students and students who needed some interventions,” she said. “We didn’t have any conflicts with team sports and we had a lot of very interested English-language learners who were able to take advantage of a couple of really key classes.
“The evidence is there,” Fauré continued, saying she’s had a “sneak peek” at state data. “I’m excited about trying to continue that this year and — maybe having to figure out some creative funding ways to do it, in the [shortage of federal] Title I funds — we’re going to continue to provide those academic support programs one way or another. We’d like to continue refinement of those avenues for our students. This year we’re focused as a faculty on developing a growth mindset culture.”
At San Marino High School, Principal Issaic Gates detailed a busy start to the year, for students and faculty. The city Fire Department walked staff through a series of drills on using fire extinguishers and blood control kits, and a professor from USC helped put staff through an enlightening professional development workshop.
For students, Gates said he is excited to dive into Year 2 of the school’s partnership with Caltech for a STEM research course.
“It’s pretty awesome,” he said. “The only reason we can have that course is because we have a fantastic school board and we have parents who just happen to be Caltech professors who support us. There are about 30 students and two San Marino High teachers teaching that course. It’s a great exploration of the scientists at a top-tier research university.”
Gates added that one of his assistant principals, Soomin Chao, has worked to fulfill a school board directive to add additional honors and AP courses where available. This year, SMHS introduced AP U.S. history, advanced digital filmmaking, advanced dance company and — Gates sounded awestruck as he said it — an advanced business management course through the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.
“We say that we exist as administrators to serve educators and drive growth,” Gates said. “That really is what our job is. From an administrative perspective, we’re just really working hard to serve our teachers, our counselors, our coaches and our staff.”
Gates added that the school would soldier forward on the Titan Student Center, part of the districtwide Student Wellness Initiative entering its second year, and improve upon the success the program has already seen. (The district’s Joint Powers Insurance Authority awarded the program its Eagle Award this year.) Additionally, SMHS will undergo a second active-shooter drill after its inaugural exercise last year.
Academically, Gates said he also is keenly paying attention to an ongoing effort to bring dual enrollment at Pasadena City College as an option for SMHS students.
“We are listening to that,” he said. “It is important that we also increase our access for students and their internships. Internships are a major part of students deciding what type of work they want to do, or more importantly, what they don’t want to do.”