SMUSD Tweaks Instruction for 2016-17

As the San Marino Unified School District prepares for the start of school in 11 days, it has refined the scope of its instruction — from Twitter to Twain.
The 2016-17 school year, which begins Aug. 15, will reflect further expansion of computer science offerings and the adoption of a new English language arts curriculum. The district will also broaden mindfulness training at the high school, and will unveil an improved mobile app to give parents better access to information about their children’s education.
The ongoing goal, Superintendent Dr. Alex Cherniss said, will be “to strengthen what we have and expand upon what we need.”
One step in that expansion is the addition of an advanced-placement computer science class at San Marino High School.
Upon arriving here as superintendent two years ago, Cherniss vowed to beef up the district’s instruction in coding and computer science. In that short period of time, the SMUSD has instituted computer coding for 4th- and 5th-graders after school and for Huntington Middle School students before school. An introductory computer coding class was launched at the high school in 2014, followed by an intermediate course in 2015 with the hiring of computer science teacher Daniel Lee. And now the AP computer science class is set to launch, also taught by Lee.
Surveying tech instruction that now runs from grade 4 to 12, with three tiers at the high school, School Board President Nam Jack said, “I think we have ramped it up. We’ve gone from maybe 10 mph to 60 mph.”
She added: “What has changed is the depth and breadth of it. Coding is now down to the elementary level. Before, we had computer instruction in high school but it wasn’t as complex. Now we’re talking about computer coding. I think it was one of Alex’s goals. In this ultra-competitive environment, we have to constantly assess and reassess what strategies work and what innovations we can bring in that will be impactful.”
Another source of excitement for administrators and teachers is a new English language arts curriculum. The Common Core State Standards came into play three years ago, but San Marino teachers quickly learned that the curriculum they were using lined up neither with the Common Core nor the state’s standardized testing. They began improvising in an attempt to best serve their students.
“We had so many of our teachers so frustrated,” Cherniss said, “because they kept having to create this on their own. Principals would have to develop trainings. Everybody was making up curriculum. … Now we have curriculum that is aligned with the Common Core and will prepare our kids for standardized testing.”
The state Board of Education provided a range of curriculum materials, all of which place a greater emphasis on critical thinking. An SMUSD committee spent a year poring over them before making a recommendation to the San Marino board.
Not surprisingly, the new curriculum has a strong online component, to provide teachers more options for presenting the materials and give kids more familiar methods for accessing them.
“We have to look at innovative ways and different instructional methods to create an optimal learning environment for our students,” Jack said. “With social media and everything going on, everything is at lightning speed. We have to balance innovation with good, old-fashioned, sitting down and learning.”
The SMUSD’s revised mobile app, to debut at the beginning of the school year, is another technological upgrade.
Cherniss explained that previously, parents of kids at multiple schools had to have an app for each school. This year, everything will be funneled through one, “and you can follow your students from any school you like,” Cherniss said, “accessing their grades, communicating with teachers. Most importantly, the school can readily communicate with you through push notifications.”
On the horizon for San Marino are the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted nationwide and will be instituted locally. Online testing will be conducted on a pilot basis next spring, with the curriculum likely to be adopted by SMUSD in 2017-18, Cherniss said.
Finally, the school district will continue its bid to encourage mindfulness among its high-achieving, often-anxious scholars.
This past school year, San Marino High School incorporated mindfulness training into its health curriculum, enlisting the aid of Daisy Mastroianni, a credentialed teacher and co-owner of Mindfully U. She worked with health classes twice a week for eight weeks, instructing students for about 30 minutes each session. Her training encompassed everything from breathing exercises to impulse control to conflict resolution and heightened empathy for others.
Teachers in other classes at the high school expressed interest in availing their students of the benefits, too, and SMHS plans to rely on its Link Crew student leaders to impart the concepts in those classrooms this year.
“Teenagers, especially, are more likely to listen to their peers,” said counselor Laura Ives. “It’s just a natural part of adolescence. We think this might reach more students — that crowd that is on the edge and not quite buying in.”
Teachers in other classes at the high school have received training in mindfulness, Cherniss said. The district has also received feelers of interest from parents of elementary and middle school children, so it will explore the possibility of bringing it to the lower grades.
“The reality is, a lot of our kids are under quite a bit of pressure,” Cherniss said. “Any ways that we can reduce their anxiety and help them be centered and balanced is really important.”
The 2016-17 school year could be one of big impacts in other areas, too. The district has identified some ambitious facility needs, and briefly considered a $120 million bond issue for the November ballot. After weighing the tax implications and gauging the community’s appetite on the matter, the SMUSD decided this past spring to pull back on that project and instead launch a Facilities Master Plan process to assess needs at each campus and educate the public about them. That will begin this fall.
Another implicit challenge for the district is operating with ever-shrinking allotments of state education funding.
“No matter what funding formula they come up with, San Marino is going to come up short,” Jack said.
She added: “The key words for the district are balance and assessment. By that I mean balancing our immediate needs while looking to what our future needs may be.”

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