Novato School District reports surge in enrollment

  • Pleasant Valley Elementary School principal Tony Quan walks through one of the classrooms filled with new furniture in Novato, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • The books are laid out on new desks in Pleasant Valley...

    Books are laid out on new desks at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Novato, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. Pleasant Valley Elementary School principal Tony Quan said the school received new furniture during the summer holidays. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Journal)

  • Second-grade teacher Danelle Block sets up the library in her...

    Second-grade teacher Danelle Block sets up the bookshelf in her classroom before the first day of school next week at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Novato, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (Alan Dep/Marin Independent Log)

In a significant turnaround, the Novato Unified School District nearly reversed its impending enrollment decline, increasing this year by nearly 300 students.

“Our enrollment has grown from 7,168 students last year to 7,439 now,” Jan La Torre-Derby, the district superintendent, told the board at its Tuesday meeting.

One of the biggest jumps took place at Pleasant Valley Elementary School. The school had 389 students in March, but now has 437 enrollment, a peak of 48 students in six months.

Tony Quan, the school’s principal, said a “big chunk” of the increase comes from transitional kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds that were expanded statewide this year.

“Also, COVID restrictions have been lifted, so public schools are back to full-time,” Quan said.

Just eight months ago, the district was forced to cut $4 million from its budget to offset future deficit spending or insolvency due to declining enrollment.

The January cuts also resulted in the layoff of about 30 teachers — a move the district may want to revisit due to teacher shortages in Marin and elsewhere.

“We have hired 42 people so far,” La Torre-Derby told administrators. “Our human resources department works day and night.

La Torre-Derby said the biggest teacher gaps were in special education, math and science.

“We want to have teachers with the appropriate qualifications,” she said.

Mariah Fisher, president of the Novato Federation of Teachers union, chastised district officials, reminding them that she had previously warned against teacher layoffs, particularly for four math teachers. Fisher, a parent of three in the district and a teacher since 2008, said she was “the most nervous I’ve ever been” about some of her children’s classes being filled with long-term substitutes. instead of full-time teachers.

“I met other union leaders in Marin yesterday,” she said. “They all thanked us for the wonderful teachers they received from our layoffs.”

“We all knew that firing four math teachers was the wrong thing to do, but we did it anyway,” she said. “Now we are suffering.”

Unlike staffing shortages, Novato’s surge in enrollment comes with good financial news.

As part of the final state budget, Novato schools are expected to receive more than $14 million in state per-student grants, block grants and COVID-19 recovery funds, according to Lois Standring, deputy superintendent of the district.

“Today I bring you unprecedented news,” Standring told directors. “A $14 million change – for good.”

All public school districts in Marin will see additional money in the form of one-time block grants and COVID recovery assistance. But state-funded districts such as Novato Unified and San Rafael Elementary District will reap the highest rewards because they receive per-student grants based on average daily attendance. The more students they have, the more money they receive.

About $2.4 million of the $14 million for Novato will come from increased grants per student, Standring said. Another $6.5 million will come from an Apprenticeship Restoration Grant that can be spent over five years. Additionally, the district will receive $665,000 for transportation — nearly double the amount previously allocated — and $4.5 million over three years for art and music education.

“Some of that is permanent money, but more of it is one-time money,” Standring said. “The governor and the lawmakers who worked on the budget did great things.”

While some of the grants are limited in how they can be used, some can be earmarked for salary increases, Fisher said.

“I implore you to engage us in negotiations,” Fisher said, adding that the union had asked for talks to begin in June, but that never happened. “Petaluma schools now pay more than Novato.”

She said teachers who live in Petaluma, because it’s cheaper, and work in Novato, are thinking because they could work in Petaluma, not have to commute, and make more money.

“It’s a terrible thing for Novato,” Fisher said.

Board Chairman Derek Knell responded to Fisher, saying he “feels a sense of urgency about this” and looks forward to meeting the teachers.

In a related issue, the number of students in the district with approved special education protocols has risen to about one in seven, according to Angela Williams, director of special education.

Williams said the number of students with such protocols, known as Individualized Educational Plans, or IEPs, rose from 869 last year to 1,089 this week. Even though the district’s base per-student rate for special education will increase from $715 to $820, the teacher shortage is tough, Williams said.

“We still have a significant number of openings that we are trying to fill,” she said. “Some teachers resigned or retired over the summer, and three more resigned over the weekend.

Special education classes have been mostly remote for the past two years of the pandemic, and “some teachers don’t want to go back to in-person learning,” Williams said.

“They are tired,” she said.

Administrators have expressed concern about the sharp increase in the number of students with special education protocols.

“These IEPs have grown to more than 1,000 since May 2021,” administrator Greg Mack said. “I would like to understand what motivates him. These numbers are monstrous.

Administrator Ross Millerick agreed. “Two years of COVID have had significant stress for students,” he said.

La Torre-Derby said the district “needs a short-term and long-term plan” to intervene and support students who may be struggling before they are identified as special education students.

Williams said she hopes to create a board position specifically for special education parents in each school’s parent-teacher association so that special education needs are represented in the school community as a whole.

About Margaret L. Portillo

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