On doing better with less, much less


Email Sandra Nichols

  "Like the wide variety of birds that may someday become a tourist attraction, we have our special ways of chirping. I appreciate the variety of birds as I appreciate differing human perspectives. . . ."


icture a family struggling to make ends meet. As the paycheck shrinks and a new baby is born, the task of even treading water in the financial ocean becomes daunting.

California schools are facing a widening gap between resources and needs. Like families, our school districts are called upon to do the balancing act.

Schools have been pushing student performance up, recognizing and correcting certain failures in the system, and nobody wants this to stop. Accountability has blossomed into a network of measurement devices including tests, standards, benchmarks, rubrics, self-evaluations, and parent satisfaction surveys.

Meanwhile, more students keep coming. They learn x, y, and z, and they move on. New students move into their slots. They haven't learned x, y, and z, yet. The teacher starts again. This sounds more like a treadmill than it is, because real teachers and real students experience so much more than the acquisition of the skills defined by the standards.

Some of these skills are very difficult to measure. Take, for example, a growing enthusiasm for bird watching in our community and its potential as a tourist attraction. That was the subject of a report in this publication that teachers might share with their students. Though focusing on standards, teachers often seek to develop individual interests in natural resources, beauty and one's own community. Now, we wouldn't want this to stop, would we?

Another recently reported phenomenon is that a growing number of immigrants to our community speak indigenous languages of Latin America. This is a trend of which many of us have limited awareness. Of course, we have a history of welcoming speakers of many languages to our community and our schools. But the reality is that it is much more difficult to welcome and serve those whose languages we do not speak.

Pop Quiz: How do you continue to push performance to ever-higher levels with shrinking resources?

I feel like one of my teachers, who once said, "I asked my students some really difficult questions today because I wanted to know the answers!" Of course, teachers do not know all the answers. Neither do administrators, nor trustees.

Do not despair! There is a system in place, which will allow the pop quiz question to be answered by a larger pool of wise people. YOU!

The California School Boards Association advocates the solicitation of community input. "Ensure opportunities for the diverse range of views in the community to inform board deliberations." Hear, hear!

We do not all speak with one voice — even though we are admonished to do so by certain political leaders. We hum, sing, and whistle different tunes in a variety of styles. The result is this potpourri which is our community and our country. Like the wide variety of birds with which we share these quarters and want to develop as a tourist attraction, we have our special ways of chirping. I appreciate the variety of birds as I appreciate the different human perspectives.

I recently shared with you and California legislators the message that our schools are not factories in which we can cut back on the number of widgets we produce. We can not slip backwards, folks. We must forge ahead. We have new problems to face, but we must keep our focus on the target.

Wonderful things can happen when the teacher walks into the classroom. The relationship between the teacher and the students can flourish given the prerequisites: a classroom, appropriate materials and support. They need the lights on, the plumbing working, and the school plant secure.

I am not discouraged about the state of California public schools because I have that optimism so common in teachers that leads to productivity in the face of adversity. I had a friend who taught beside me who said, "Just give me a room and some students and LET ME TEACH!" That joyful attitude, which celebrates the actual learning experience, makes my day.

Returning to the anti-analogy in which we consider the relationships between schools and students as different from that of factories and widgets, consider this. Factories can reduce production or shift to cheaper raw materials and they will end up spitting out fewer and poorer products. Schools must not sacrifice our mission and our future. We are committed to focus on what will make every student develop the skills he or she needs to become a contributing member of society.

Sandra Nichols is President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 20,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2003