Middle school ascension

Board members TJ Owens, left, Jim Rogers, right, and John

– Construction of the Gilroy Unified School District’s newest
school site is nearly half complete, but answering the challenging
questions of who will run Ascension Solorsano Middle School and who
will get to attend the state-of-the-art campus is just getting
under way.
GILROY – Construction of the Gilroy Unified School District’s newest school site is nearly half complete, but answering the challenging questions of who will run Ascension Solorsano Middle School and who will get to attend the state-of-the-art campus is just getting under way.

A potentially controversial challenge involves setting attendance boundaries for Solorsano. With 76,000 square feet of buildings, including a top-notch multipurpose room, science labs, band rooms and a $2-million gymnasium, Solorsano could make Gilroy’s other middle school students feel like the neglected stepchildren of the district.

“We’re talking about a brand new school versus schools that are 40 years old,” said Dom Galu, the GUSD’s administrator in charge of state and federal projects.

Galu is leading the fledgling Middle School Task Force that recently met for the first time to begin tackling that and other questions. The group is made up of teachers, parents, students, administrators and other district staff.

“The members of this task force will make an impact on this district for years to come,” Galu said. “Are there some challenges we have to face? You bet there will be.”

It’s likely the district will do away with its magnet school system and use neighborhood boundaries to determine who will attend Solorsano, as it now does with its elementary schools, said Superintendent Edwin Diaz. But Diaz anticipates blending the school with a balanced student population that reflects the socio-economic and ethnic diversity of the community. The Middle School Task Force will make a recommendation to Diaz and the school board, Galu said, by the end of November.

The idea of a balanced student population at Solorsano makes sense to parent Rosa McCann, whose fifth-grade daughter would attend the new middle school if the district used a neighborhood schools policy. McCann says she’d support a balanced student population even if it meant abandoning a strict neighborhood schools policy, which could send her student to an older school farther from home.

“We live in a diverse society. We don’t just live with middle class people. Schools need to show that. That’s what our community is in Gilroy,” McCann said. “I’d be concerned if the new school just drew from the more affluent area in town. It has to be a mixed draw.”

The school is being built off Santa Theresa Boulevard and Club Drive, across from the high-end homes overlooking the Eagle Ridge Golf Course.

The district is not anticipating every parent to feel the way McCann does. For Galu, that’s another reason to support Measure I, the district’s $69 million school bond on the Nov. 5 ballot. Measure I will construct a new high school and repair and renovate other GUSD campuses.

Passage of Measure I would mean new science labs at Brownell, as well as a new multipurpose room with food service facilities and a remodel of the existing food service area into a music instruction classroom. Over at South Valley, 55 percent approval of Measure I will bring an expanded library, multimedia center and computer labs, among other improvements.

Designs for those projects would start immediately after the passage of Measure I, the district said.

“The facilities will still be different,” said Galu, “but with the renovations and upgrades we can at least offer quality facilities at every middle school in the district.”

The difference in facilities makes another challenge for the task force – establishing a consistent curriculum between GUSD middle schools – that much more important. Historically, the district has used a magnet school approach to setting curriculum at the middle schools, with Brownell focusing on arts and humanities courses and South Valley on science and technology. Students then attend their school of choice.

The task force is looking at what each school teaches now as well as how educators at each site are teaching the material, Galu explained. Two particular documents endorsed by the California Department of Education will guide the group as it makes recommendations on what middle schools should teach. The documents are “Taking Center Stage,” a sort of how-to guide for teaching the state’s required academic content, and “Turning Point 2000,” which discusses strategies for educating adolescents.

“Our goal is to take the program out of the equation” when people decide which school is best to send their kids, Galu explained. “We want to say our academic programs are all of the same caliber. To say all of our facilities are equal may be a little bit out of the equation.”

Aligning the curricula takes on added significance after last week’s release of standardized test results. The Academic Performance Index, the state’s benchmark system of evaluating student performance, showed that for the second year in a row test scores at Brownell decreased, while test scores at South Valley had another upswing.

The Middle School Task Force, in addition to making attendance and curriculum recommendations, will be involved with staffing decisions for the 16-acre campus. But recommending who should be principal of Solorsano will be handled outside of the task force.

The position will be advertised during November, Galu said, with the goal of having a principal selected by the school board by the end of January. The new principal would begin work Feb. 1.

It is not clear how extensive the search for the new principal will be. Linda Piceno, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, did not return repeated phone calls. However, past practice in the district is to advertise the opening in the district and in “Ed Cal,” an Association of California School Administrators newspaper that goes out to all school administrators in the state.

“The interview process will be handled within the human resources department, consistent with other high-level hirings,” Galu said.

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