"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Jaime Castellanos, superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Monday was opening day. How did it go?
Castellanos: It went very smoothly. I was able to make five different high schools myself, and the other assistant superintendents were able make visits to the rest, but it was a good, smooth opening, and kids were in class, and very few in lines, so it went well.
Signal: How many students are there in the district?
Castellanos: Currently we're just a tad under 22,000 students; we're about 21,700 students.
Signal: Is the district growing?
Castellanos: Yes, it is. As we looked at numbers today; we were estimating about 800 students more, but we were closer to 1,000. I figure we (have) roughly about 1,000 (more) students this year.
Signal: You're new to the Hart District. What's your background?
Castellanos: I was Newport Mesa Unified School District for the past six years; I was there as assistant superintendent for secondary education. Prior to that, I was a principal for Buena High School in the Ventura Unified School District, and then at Fillmore High School in the Fillmore Unified School District. Various other positions prior to that, as well.
Signal: So that's the Newport Beach what's the Mesa part?
Castellanos: Costa Mesa.
Signal: How does Newport-Mesa compare population-wise to the Hart district?
Castellanos: There are a lot of similarities. The population there it's K-12, for one, not 7-12, and it's about 23,000 students. I was primarily responsible for working with grades 7-12. So its pretty much the same experience I'm having here, from that regard.
Signal: That's a older, established area. How do you see the differences here?
Castellanos: First of all, there is a lot of growth here that is not happening in Newport-Mesa. It's slow, gradual growth (there), but here it's just booming.
As you know, we have a number of new schools that opened up in the last three or four years, and we have some of those on the books down the road, because we are looking between now and 2010 that we possibly could be pushing 30,000 students. That is the projection; we'll see if we get there.
Signal: There has been a lot of talk about where in Castaic a new high school will go. At one point a site was identified in Sloan Canyon, but it wasn't well received by the public. Is the district still on track to build a high school in the NorthLake community?
Castellanos: At this time we are. I was up there about a month and a half ago with the assistant superintendent for business, looking at the plot where it's going to be placed, and just trying to get bearings about where things are going to be. Right now, the plans are to have it in the NorthLake area.
Signal: When will we see a seventh junior high school?
Castellanos: Right now we're probably about four to five years out before we look at another junior high. We'll probably be looking in the area close to Golden Valley (High School) and that side of town, because that's where the growth is coming at this point in time. But we're probably still a ways out from that.
Signal: What were some of the opening-day concerns on the part of parents?
Castellanos: I just happened to bump into only a couple of parents who were there, and they were parents of freshmen; I think they were concerned about where their classes for the students were going to be, what time the lunch hour was, will they be taken care of, and so on. But other than that, I think it was just typical concerns parents have with freshmen. Once they get into the sophomore year, they've been there a year, so they know the lay of the land and how it works.
Signal: This year the West Ranch High School campus is being used for the first time; last year the freshman class was at Rancho Pico Junior High?
Castellanos: Freshmen only, and they were housed at Rancho Pico Junior High School.
Signal: And every time a new school opens, the boundaries change; were all of the boundary issues settled last year?
Castellanos: There really aren't any boundary issues with Rancho Pico and West Ranch. The kids who live in that particular area will be going to that school and are going to that school. The only difference this year is, West Ranch has picked up an extra grade, so they are looking at 9-10 this year and then they'll grow into 11 and 12 in the next couple of years.
Signal: What's the deal with staggered start times?
Castellanos: Well, you have, obviously, Rancho Pico they're across the street from West Ranch, and then I believe there is going to be an elementary school built, also; I believe (they) are opening up in late September down the road from us, near Valencia (Boulevard) and The Old Road. So right now so the middle school and the high school are 15 minutes apart, and we're hoping that we can work it out with the elementary school to stagger their start, so it's also 15 minutes apart. Because there was quite a bit of traffic there (Monday), with the new school opening up, of course, and hopefully that will abate over the next few months. But we'll have to do some talking about what their start time will be so we can coordinate it.
Signal: Who has the option of taking the bus now and who doesn't?
Castellanos: We have buses that run to our junior highs and our high schools, obviously, but it's within a three-mile circumference of the school. If you go beyond that, then you have to have your own transportation.
Signal: So are there yellow school buses for high school kids?
Castellanos: There are. For some. Because not all of them drive until they're usually about juniors.
Signal: There was some discussion in recent years when the district cut out buses for high schoolers and the kids were jamming the city buses in the morning.
Castellanos: Yes, we still use those a lot, too.
Signal: There are some teacher-related items on the special election ballot in a couple of months. What interests you there?
Castellanos: Well, I'm interested in all of the (things that) impact us as educators, but one of the main issues is ... tenure. Right now it's two years and one day; on that first day of the third year, a teacher is officially tenured by the state of California.
Gov. Schwarzenegger now is looking at a five-year tenureship, so it will take the teachers longer to reach that tenure, which means a principal, between year one and year five, can go ahead and what they call "non re-elect" or not rehire that teacher to come back. So that has some implications for teachers and for the collective bargaining agreement as well, because it does change that.
Signal: We tend to talk about tenure in the context of pay, but are they really different issues?
Castellanos: I think they are really different issues. I don't think you can assume just because a teacher has been in the business for 20 years that they are necessarily a better teacher than somebody, or more effective than someone, who has been in it for 10 years.
I do know that Gov. Schwarzenegger did have (a merit pay proposal) in initially, and then took it off the ballot because it just wasn't going to fly. But I basically think right now, before you get into a tenure situation, you have some really major issues to decide. One of the (biggest) issues is, who is going to decide whether a teacher gets merit pay or not? Is it going to be the administrator? Is it going to be the administrator in conjunction with the union? Is it going to be the union? So that's probably the most important issue that needs to be worked out, and I don't see that really forthcoming down the road.
Signal: Does the Hart district base pay strictly on longevity? Can merit be taken into account?
Castellanos: Not particularly. Every school district in the state of California really works the same way. It's not based on merit; it's based on longevity. The longer you're in there, you move up in "step and column," so the more years you teach, if you have a master's (degree), if you have professional development hours, all these add into it, as well. That's typically how teachers raise their salary, and of course (there are) raises. But there is no structure there for merit at all, at this point in time.
Signal: Now the California Teachers Association is suing over the budget; what's your take on the $3 billion that was supposed to come to education this past year but didn't?
Castellanos: Well, that came to pass when Gov. Schwarzenegger first came into office. He did what they call now the education bill, where, if we would forego $3.1 billion, I believe, at that time, he would go ahead and pay us back somewhere down the road. Well, the problem that educators are having now (is), he hasn't stayed true to that (promise). He has reneged on it. So that's the major issue with it right now.
Also there was a increase this last year in the moneys that came to educators, and we didn't get what we felt (was) our fair share of it. So that's really the central issue, to be real simplistic about it, is that he made a promise to education that he would take the money and use it for (other) things and pay us back. That hasn't happened to this point.
Signal: What has been the impact on the Hart district? Are there programs you'd like to provide but can't?
Castellanos: I haven't been here long enough to know how much of an impact it's had on the Hart district. I know it's had a impact statewide, because with less money, there is less you can do. So you have to make decisions on what programs you keep, or you might not be able to give raises that you'd like to give to the teachers. So there are effects of that nature. But to be honest with you, I haven't been here long enough to really say that I've seen definitive effects on it in this district at this time.
Signal: Hart district administrators have pointed out that special education isn't fully funded, for instance; is it the state or the federal government that isn't fully funding it?
Castellanos: Both. But that's been with us for many, many years. We have a lot of mandates for special education, to deliver programs, but the federal government and the state do not fund it, so it's always what we call encroaching on the general fund. So we have (fewer) dollars in the general fund for regular education programs that we have to put in special ed. And that's always been the rub that we're given mandates it's that kind of the old saying that you're given mandates; you're asked to do more with less. And that's what happens.
Signal: No Child Left Behind calls for national education standards, but we've heard complaints that the government isn't providing enough money for schools to meet the goals. What's your view?
Castellanos: I think theoretically, it has gotten the attention of the education community. There is no doubt about that. We're really focused on raising student achievement. But I think a couple of the weaknesses of it are that we don't have a level playing field with every state. Every state was allowed, just before NCLB came upon us, to go ahead and develop your own standards for your own assessments. We happen to have if not the highest, one of the highest (standards) in the whole nation here (in California). So the problem with that (is), we have a higher standard than other states do, so we're not being assessed on the same standards across the board. That's one of the weaknesses of it.
The other thing, too, is that every three or four years, the standards what they call the AMOs, the Annual Measurable Objectives, increase to we get to 2014 where every student, regardless of whether they speak English or not, or they're special ed or not, must be proficient or advanced.
The problem with that, that we have at this point in time, is that with all the things that we have going on with the different languages that are out there, that one district can have you know, L.A. Unified has 58 different languages. I think here, we have about 25. So you have a lot of those things going on.
So I think the problem is that (we don't have) the same standards, and we're looking at it for it to be a growth index, so if you grow every year and you keep growing, then things should be fine for that. But that's not what we have right now.
Signal: We always talk about how Santa Clarita schools typically score in the top 10 percent in standardized testing. Do you think No Child Left Behind poses any real challenge for us?
Castellanos: Well, I do. As I said, again, as the standards continue to increase they just went up this year from about, I think, 16 percent or so of your kids in English language arts had to be at the advanced-proficient level, and 13 percent in math had to be at advanced-proficient. Well, now, it's at the 25th and the 23rd percentile in both. Two years from now it's going to go up into the high 20s and eventually, as I said, in 2014 where every kid in your district has to be at the advanced-proficient (level).
I don't see that happening. I wish I could say it will, but I don't believe that will happen.
Signal: English language learners have to be advanced-proficient, too?
Castellanos: Correct. I think there (are) just too many factors that aren't taken into account in terms of, you know, when kids come to school with other baggage, as we call it with issues at home, abuse issues, neglect issues, or they're behind in reading, for example. These are issues that you just can't put into that formula. I see that being an issue for all school districts down the road, and that's why I believe something's going to have to change, sooner or later, on that.
And I think, right now, as I said, they are, at the federal government level, looking at a growth standard as opposed to what we have now. I think that's a step in the right direction. But we have a long way to go before we get to that final end of it.
Signal: You've been at the Hart district only about six weeks or so
Castellanos: About seven weeks.
Signal: Is the so-called "achievement gap" between regular mainstream kids and English language learners, for instance, something that you want to "close"? Or is there another way we should be looking at it?
Castellanos: Well, first of all, this is the fifth school district I've worked in, and everyone has that same issue. You do have an achievement gap between your higher-performing students and the lower end. The challenge for every district is always to see what you can do to close that, and you do have to close that. I mean, that's our obligation, to work on that. The Hart school district is no different. We have our high achievers, we have our kids in the middle, and we have our kids at the other end.
I have taken a really careful look at that and looked at the data, and as you said earlier, the scores are good. But they can get better. Even for all kids, not just the bottom end. We just got our preliminary scores this week, and at the end of this month we'll get what they call the sub-group breakdowns. We will know how the Hispanic kids did, how the Anglo kids did, the African Americans, Filipinos, etc., and in special ed and then we can see how each group really has done, as a group themselves, and then we compare them to one another. And based on that information, it gives us a good idea of where we need to focus our instructional programs.
This district is really no different than the others I've worked at. Everybody does have an achievement gap, and that's something you've always got to work hard to close.
Signal: Again recognizing that you're brand new, have you had an opportunity to assess how well the elementary districts are preparing kids for junior high?
Castellanos: Oh, I wish I could say I have. I've just had my hands full working with 7-12 right now. Maybe down the road I will be able to do that, but not at this point, no.
Signal: Another thing that predated your arrival was the controversy over allegations of racism at Valencia High School. What is the Hart district doing differently to ensure against racially motivated incidents on campus?
Castellanos: Well, first of all, before I came on board, I was keeping a real close eye on the subject from afar, obviously, because I knew I'd be coming into it.
What I want to say up front is, I think the schools have done a lot of things (to promote) diversity. But I think we're guilty of being our own worst enemy in the sense that we don't get out the information on a continual basis to the community as to what we are doing to deal with diversity issues.
But I know since November, when the parents came to the board and had their issues raised, we have done a number of things. We have had, I think, four days of training now with our administrators, because we felt we needed to start there. We have also had the classified (employees) do it; I think it was (Aug. 10) when we had everybody together. And the classified will be having another training I think around the 22nd or 23rd of this month. So we have done that.
And then recently I just hired an interim coordinator of diversity/ROP, which is Regional Occupational Program. The only reason I did that is, I feel that the direction of the diversity program, whatever it is that we do, it needs to be at the district level. I don't want it to be politicized out there, to be real frank with you. I don't want to have somebody take a spin on it and get on a platform just because it's advantageous for them to do so. So I'm having it at the district level, where it needs to be, and that person is going to be directly responsible to me, so that I have a definite hand to know what is going on with all these issues. And also I have been working close in hand with the ad-hoc diversity committee, as well, just make sure that I look at this as a great opportunity to do something good.
We have had a lot of negativity since November; I think we need to put that in the past. We need to learn from it, but we need to move on and see what we can do to improve the situation. And if there are issues of race out there, then we need to deal with them honestly and up front, and do the best we can with it, knowing that not everybody is going to agree with how we deal with them. But that's just how it goes.
My intent right now is to make sure that the district maintains the program and the leadership and the direction in this area, and I'm going to do everything I can to make it happen. Because my ultimate goal here is to make our school safe for every single student, no matter who they are, what their ethnic background is, or where they come from. That's what is, to me, the crux of the whole situation.
Signal: Is there a set procedure now, if a kid comes to a teacher and says another kid called him a name?
Castellanos: Well, that's what part of what the training is going to do. It's going to talk a little bit about what happens when a student comes to a teacher or custodian or a coach, whatever it may be.
There has always been a set procedure. I think the problem is, do kids feel comfortable going to a administrator or to a teacher with a situation where they've been called a name or somebody has intimidated them or bumped them in the hallway or what they mad-dogging, you know, stared them down? But I think, right now, the student committee, I know, reported out at the last meeting that they want to come up with some kind of, maybe an anonymous, drop-it-in-a-box kind of thing, so that the administrators can look into it. The only difficulty with that when it's anonymous, you don't know who it came from; you don't know exactly what has happened; but it may call your attention to a part of campus to keep your eye on.
We haven't gotten to the point where we have really, clearly spelled out the process that we would use. But there has always been a process. It just, again, at this age, kids sometimes feel comfortable going to an administrator; sometimes they don't. So we want to see if we can broaden that, where kids do feel comfortable going to a adult, or having another way to communicate.
Signal: Should schools be "teaching diversity"? Is that a goal?
Castellanos: In honesty I think we teach it every day, by example. If we catch a kid saying something in the hallway to each other sometimes the same ethnic groups call each other the name they find distasteful. And you can't allow that to happen. At the same time I think we have a lot embedded within our curriculum, whether it's in English or social science, where we talk about these kinds of issues. I think it just can't be relegated to Martin Luther King Day or Cinco de Mayo; it's got to be year-round.
Part of the training that we're trying to do right now is to have people get in touch with their own vices, their own stereotypes, because I think that's important, to understand how you react to people and how people react to you.
So I think there's a lot of things that we have been doing. But as I said earlier, we don't get the word out well enough. One of the things we're going to be doing is a much better public relations campaign to get out, on a consistent basis, what we do, and what we do well with it. But there's still always room for improvement, and as I told the administrators and the classified (employees), diversity is the responsibility of everybody in the school.
But I also want parents to understand, it's part of their responsibility in the house to deal with it, and part (the responsibility of) the community to deal with it, too. So it's a multi-pronged attack. It's not just a school district problem. We all own it. Until we face up to the fact that we do own it, things don't get much better until people realize, hey, you know, as I said earlier, this is a great opportunity to do something good.
If people want to spin negative things off of it, that's up to them. But I'm not going to allow it to happen. My thing is, to look at, I've got an opportunity here; let's do something positive about it.
Signal: The Santa Clarita Valley Facilities Foundation is the nonprofit developer that developed the Golden Valley High School site and purchased the Sloan Canyon property where you aren't planning to build a school. Do you see the Facilities Foundation as a mechanism you plan to use in the future?
Castellanos: Well, obviously, I'm learning a lot about the foundation, as well, because it's something new to me. I haven't had a foundation that actually built schools. I've had foundations at school sites, where parents have donated money and have helped add to the school, in areas of minor construction.
I have asked questions about it, too, to determine how it functions. But at this point in time, like I said, I have no reason right now to say it's going to disappear. I'm still trying to find out more about its longevity if it's here until all the schools are built, or is it for a finite time span? So I'm still learning more about it myself, and I'm asking questions, and I have talked to our attorneys about it, and how it functions, so I have a better understanding of it.
So right now I can't say that it will be around forever or it won't be. I really don't know right now. I just know, at least for the rest of this year, it will be functioning; on into the future, that's something that I'm going to have to look at and work out.
Because the thing is, I was hired here as the superintendent to deal with the instructional and program issues. And that's why (former Superintendent) Bob Lee has been kept on as a consultant for the next one to three years, because he has that expertise in that area. Mine is in instruction. But I still have to be involved with that, because I also want to know what's going on, on the construction side of the schools. Because it does affect programs. You build schools around what the program is going to be, not the other way around.
So I am in a learning mode, and I will be learning more about the function of the SCV (Facilities) Foundation.
Signal: Something that has flown just under the radar is the gay and lesbian group on one of the campuses.
Castellanos: If there is, I'm not aware of it.
Signal: Well, do you see an avenue for that kind of club on campus? What are your feelings about an organized student group like that?
Castellanos: Well, to answer the first part of the question, I'm not aware that there is a gay or lesbian club on any campus right now; if there is, it's something I will look into, just for my information. But I think, what the community needs to understand is that when you look at club situations, for example we do not have a right to ban any club on the campus. For example, if people are going to ban clubs on the campus, typically the only clubs you could if you're going to ban clubs, you have to ban them all.
The problem is, the way the Constitution is right now, it protects the rights of individuals. Just because we have a distaste for a certain group of people, or we don't like their viewpoints, or what they are trying to espouse, we don't have a right to say no.
When I was in the Orange County school district, there was a district there that basically had some kids come forward and wanted to have a gay and lesbian club. And the way the board handled it which I think was incorrect at the time is that they went ahead and banned all clubs, which to me was unfortunate, because now you're taking clubs away from those kids who wanted to be a part of that.
And by law they were told by their attorney, and they ended up losing it is that if you're going to have a club outside of what they call curricular clubs if you have a Spanish, a math, a chess club and that's all you have, then you don't have to have all these other clubs. But the problem is, every school district, including this one, that I've worked in, has a lot of different clubs, extracurricular and curricular. And if you have extracurricular clubs, you must allow these other clubs to exist if they want to. You can try to stop it, but that's the law. The law is real clear on that. That's what we have to work with.
Signal: We've gone back and forth with uniforms over the years. Do you see anything happening with the dress code?
Castellanos: There are a couple of our schools that have gone to dress codes. It's voluntary, and I think there are certain restrictions that the law puts on it; you can't force a parent into it. I think typically you have to have 75 percent of your parents who are willing to do that. But if a parent objects to it, you really can't force the issue.
I've always been a advocate of not having uniforms at the secondary level, only because I think part of the kids' education is to learn to dress appropriately. In terms of school, or if they go to church, or if they go to a dance, there are certain ways that you need to dress and that you do not need to dress. I've always been of the philosophy, I deal with the offenders one at a time, rather than putting (in) a rule for a few who have offended, (onto) the whole group.
But it's always a challenge. It is. I was on campus (Monday), kind of looking around at that. One young lady came up and saw us and immediately did "this" with her top. Well, that tells you something right there. So the principal gave her a nice, friendly reminder and said: If you come back like that tomorrow, then we'll have some issues with it.
So I think, again, within limits, you have to give students an opportunity to learn to make good decisions, and when they don't, then you try to help them make the right decisions, by some consequences with it. That's always how I've always looked at dress codes. But if a school wants to have it, and the majority of parents vote for it, and the staff, then fine. I'll support it.
Signal: As we head into the second week of school, what do you want parents to know?
Castellanos: I think I'd like them to know probably three different things. In terms of our focus for the district, we're going to be looking at our strategic planning process, once we get school a little more underway. Because we need a roadmap to the future, as to where we're going to go, where our priorities monetarily and personnel-wise are going to go. But we just need a roadmap, and we haven't had one for about 10 years.
Second thing, I'm going to really emphasize reading literacy. Because, as you know, that's the basis for all learning. If kids aren't being able to read at grade level and some of these books they have are at the college prep level, so its at a higher reading level they are not going to be successful. So that will be my focus, and how we can take the intensive literacy program that we have at summer school to a wider group.
Then the last thing is customer service. I want parents to understand that we need to be as responsive to them as possible, and that means we need to get back to them within a reasonable time. If they call the school, the district office, I don't want to see them go on to five or six different people and (get) more and more frustrated and angry before they get an answer to their question.
At the same time, internally, we need to value ourselves as people, and we need to treat each other with respect, and we need to work with ourselves within the district office, and then making sure we're responsible to the school sites when they need things, too. So those are probably going to be the three major areas that will be my focus this year.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.