AVENAL — Complaints led to an investigation of a Kings County school district this year.
The Kings County Grand Jury investigated Avenal High School and the Reef-Sunset Unified School District as a whole after receiving complaints from teachers and other staff about some of their procedures. The grand jury recently published its report online.
In its findings, grand jury members criticized the school and district for the implementation of its block schedule, lack of Chromebook use monitoring, poor communication, being rude and more.
“We’re still crafting a response to the report, which will be delivered in August,” said District Superintendent David East. “We will address all of the grand jury’s findings and recommendations.”
Recently, the district switched to a block schedule system for Avenal High, in which class periods are longer than the typical 50-minute classes at many schools. The district has said it’s to better prepare students for the time demands of higher education.
“It offers teachers the chance to teach more deeply, which is really important especially with the new Common Core standards,” East said.
According to the report, the schedule received some criticism from teachers who said they didn’t receive much warning about it and that they weren’t included in the development of the schedule.
The district, however, said in the report that the school board conducted an opinion poll of teachers about the block scheduling and that, according to the board, up to 70 percent of teachers were in favor of using the block scheduling.
The district also said it held meetings with parents to inform them about the change and that training was offered to teachers.
“I don’t think [the grand jury] made the recommendations with complete information,” East said. “The amount of teacher input and training was much more than they claimed.”
According to the report, the grand jury also received complaints that the schedule wasn’t really helping students learn, as their attention tended to slip toward the end of class due to the extra length.
According to the district website, however, the new scheduling resulted in a higher number of students passing their courses in the first semester using the scheduling. The district also said the scheduling led to fewer behavioral problems from students.
Upon attending classes and investigating the issue, the jury determined that the block-scheduled classes are too long and that students are unable to stay focused on their lessons by the end. The jury recommended that the district keep a closer eye on the use of block scheduling in classes.
The grand jury said one of the reasons why they believe students aren’t staying engaged during the longer class sessions is due to Chromebook misuse.
“While their purpose is sound in theory, it was noticed by grand jury members that a number of students were using these Chromebooks for things other than class work, [including] social media, music and games,” the report said.
The jury recommended that teachers should more closely monitor students using the devices to make sure they are being used for learning.
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One of the grand jury’s biggest criticisms is the lack of communication between the district office and teachers, as well as other staff. The jury said teachers and community members have stated that they aren’t always made aware of what’s going on in the school and district.
“I think [the jury] was receiving information from an incomplete set of respondents,” East said. “Their primary investigation took place at the high school, so I’m not sure it represents the district as a whole.”
The report found that there needs to be a better communication system between the district and school staff, whether that’s in-person, over the phone or in writing.
The grand jury advised that district administrative staff spend at least one day a semester at each school to get a better understanding of its needs.
“This would provide an opportunity for the district administration to better understand the concerns and needs of the teachers and school staff,” the report said. “This also allows for a better relationship between the district and the student body.”
Despite some concerns about the investigation, East said he agrees with the jury’s conclusion that communication should be improved.
“I think we can always do better,” he said. “We definitely have room for improvement.”
East believes electronic correspondence is satisfactory but wishes to put more emphasis on face-to-face communication. He said he thinks that is the main area that needs to be improved.
As part of the investigation, the report said jury members attended a board meeting in which students made presentations to grand jury members informing them about some of the goings-on at each campus.
The report claims that during these presentations, district administrators and board members were sometimes rude to the presenters.
“Negative facial expressions and gestures being made toward the presenter and/or audience were noted several times,” the report said. “The grand jury observed gestures were also made by district administrative staff toward the board. When the administrator making the gesture saw that the members of the grand jury were watching, they stopped.”
At a board study session they attended, the jury also noticed inappropriate behavior, including board members who, “appeared to be napping and one texting during part of the discussion.”
East said he couldn’t comment on these incidents as it is a private personnel matter.
The jury recommended that the district hold workshops for administrative staff on the need to be civil and polite during meetings or when they are representing the district.
Despite the criticisms, the grand jury acknowledged in its report that the district office and Avenal High School were cooperative during the investigation. A grand jury spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.