Willett: It makes sense. If our people are to have a place in the business world you mentioned the importance of preparing students for college. But even more important is preparing students for life, and for business.
One of the things that we try to stress is that our end product is not college. That may be a way of getting there, but the end result is actually work. So we have a number of career paths that are in our schools. We do internships, we do work projects, all kinds of things, job shadows, to get the kids to focus on the relevance of what they're learning in class, to what they're going to be doing throughout their lives. That's really the end line.
Signal: The state seems to have put a focus on college education at the expense of vocational training. You've had to cut back on the amount of vocational training you're providing so you can focus more on the college path, right?
Engbrecht: It's actually one of the components of the strategic plan that was just passed by the board a few months ago, and that we're working to implement, is career-technical preparation. There are a couple different committees going on, one of them being the School and Business Alliance, which is very active in this community and has just presented a strategic plan for the next five years on ways to make sure kids aren't losing out on those career-technical experiences, while we're also trying to prepare as many students for college as we can.
When you were talking about the exit exam, kids take it for the first time in the spring of their sophomore year. Ninety percent of Hart District students pass that test the very first time they take it. It's on math, basically up through algebra, and basic reading skills, and needing to write an essay. I think that when we hand out a diploma, knowing what's behind that diploma, we're certifying to employers, to colleges, that these are the basic skills that we know our students have mastered.
Signal: How do you respond to people who say you're "teaching to the test?" Is it your job as curriculum director to figure out how you're going to get everybody to pass the test?
Engbrecht: In a way, it certainly is. But the best way to have students do well on the state tests is to provide good instruction and good teaching, and that's where we're putting our efforts in the Hart District.
We're not trying to play games with test prep or, how can we use gimmicks to get those scores up a little? When we set a goal for improving our Academic Performance Index, we do it by offering staff development to help teachers to be more effective. We do it by looking at the curriculum in our core academic classes and making sure that it's aligned with what the state of California is saying we're supposed to be teaching.
I think those are good things to be doing, and that's kind of where we're putting our focus.
Signal: How well does what the state says you should be teaching mesh with what you think the kids should be learning? Do the tests really test things kids need to know?
Engbrecht: For example, the high school exit exam has a math section and an English section, so if you're looking at what students need to know in those two disciplines, yes. The tests do a pretty good job.
It's not at a level that says you're ready to go to college or you're ready to join the workforce. Like I said, it's basic algebra, it's being able to write an essay, it's being able to understand the written word. It does a good job of showing basic skills, but not readiness for anything post-secondary.
Signal: I'm not hearing a lot about arts education.
Willett: Teaching those skills is not necessarily exclusive, because we are working on teaching, for instance, writing, across the curriculum.
One of the things that businesses have told us is that they want kids who can write. They want kids who have a command of the language, who can write a report or a business memo or whatever it is they need to do to fulfill their obligations. So when we teach writing and we teach these specific skills, we may be also teaching that in the construct of social studies or history or other subjects we're interested in, but you still have that foundation.
Signal: So while they're writing, they're writing history whatever it is.
Willett: Right, whatever it is. Yes.
Engbrecht: I like that you brought up arts a minute ago, because it's true that while we're accountable to the state testing, sometimes you hear enough about that and it's not the total of what goes on in schools. The arts programs are wonderful in this district. If you've attended any of the musical productions, any of the theater, the students are really excelling in those areas, and it's too bad that those areas don't get the same emphasis from the state as the core academic subjects.
Signal: Does that translate into, they're not getting enough money from the state for that kind of thing?
Engbrecht: It has in the past. But this year, we've just found out about a sizable grant for the arts, and there are teams at the different schools who have come together to start making decisions about how some one-time money, a fairly large pot, can be spent on the arts. And then there'll be a smaller amount of ongoing money that the state has pledged, now, to become part of the budget.
So before we start spending the money on new tubas and art material, the first step will be to get the experts from the field together to say: What are we doing? What's our curriculum? What can't we do because we haven't been funded, and where are we going to put this money?
So yes, up until now, it's been very much underfunded. This is a good step in the right direction.
Signal: Do you have drama class and band and choir in all of the junior highs and high schools now?
Engbrecht: In all of the high schools, yes. Theater, band, a full visual arts program. In most of the junior highs, that varies from school to school.
Signal: What would you like to be able to do that you're not doing in the arts?
Engbrecht: Well, for example, you may know that I used to be the principal at Canyon High School, and for the entire time I was there, we had an outstanding drama department. We had an outstanding music department. But there was really no venue for them to perform.
For years, we used the multipurpose room at La Mesa (Junior High), and then when the Hart (High School) auditorium was finished, we would sometimes travel across town. We're so pleased to hear that that's in the plans a performing arts venue. (It will provide) easier access to some of the expensive materials and band equipment, costumes. Those types of things take a lot of money, and we don't like for it to fall on the shoulders of boosters organizations to provide those types of things for us.
Willett: Just arranging schedules sometimes, if kids want to get into an exclusive college or university, they need to take these advanced placement classes. They're worried about their grade point averages, and maybe band is only offered one period and maybe the AP class that they need to take in economics or whatever is at that same time. We have a lot of our band programs that will start with what used to be called "Zero period." It usually starts around 7 o'clock in the morning, and I believe West Ranch's award-winning band, by the way, is meeting after school, because they need to fit that into the schedule.
But we have four of our marching bands that are in the state competitions (earlier this month). It is really exciting to have four of our schools, and one of them, first-time school, West Ranch High School, is the first time around. They've made it up to the state finals, which is no small accomplishment.
Signal: Let's go back to college prep for a minute. COC Superintendent-President Dianne Van Hook mentioned not long ago that COC is taking 60 percent of all Hart District graduates today, and that's up from 25 percent (eight) years ago. The question is, why is that? You could read it a number of different ways. Does it mean the Hart District isn't preparing kids well enough to get into a four-year university?
Engbrecht: Our preparation rate for four-year universities is quite sound.
I have two adult sons who both graduated from the Hart District. One went straight to U.C. Santa Barbara after he graduated and had a wonderful time there. My other son went to COC, and I think it was really through that experience that I learned first-hand what a great option that was for students.
I sincerely believe that the reason we have such a high percentage of students going to College of the Canyons is because it's one of the best community colleges in the state, and because it offers families the option of a very good education for the first two years of college without having their 17-year-old or 18-year-old halfway across the country or three hours away by car. And for me as a parent, it was a wonderful experience. He ended up going on to San Diego State, ended up exactly in the same place as his brother.
As I talk to parents, many of them like that option because it keeps the student in the community.
Signal: And now you'll be partnering with COC to provide something exciting and new. Tell us about the early college high school.
Engbrecht: It's very, very exciting. College of the Canyons and the Hart District were just approved for a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to plan an early college high school. It's not a new concept; there are about 170 across the nation, but there are only 20 of these programs in California.
What an early college high school does is, it's a small school, grades 9-12. At the end of the four years, not only does the student graduate from the Hart District with a high school diploma, but they'll also have up to two years of college course work under their belts.
The goal is that four years after entering as a ninth grader, you could have the equivalent of an AA degree or your two years of undergraduate transferable college work to the U.C. system.
Willett: Totally free. No cost for tuition, no cost for books, and you're earning those college units while you're earning your high school diploma.
Engbrecht: How this works is, the program will be located on the new Canyon Country Educational Center site for COC, which is now under construction, and the students will attend school there, at that COC site. They'll take their high school classes from William S. Hart teachers, but then as early as ninth grade, they'll be taking one or two college classes that are carefully chosen for their suitability for our students. All along the way, they get extra support to make sure that they're capable of doing college-level work.
The thing that makes this so exciting is it's targeted towards students who we call "at-promise" students who are capable but may not have the mindset that they're college material, perhaps because their folks didn't attend college or they don't have older siblings who have gone off to college, but kids who need to have some of the barriers the financial barriers, and just the social barriers removed to make college part of what they think about every day when they get up to go to school.
Signal: What criteria will you use to identify these kids?
Engbrecht: We're going to start an outreach program very soon after we get back from winter break. We're starting with a ninth-grade class only, and then each year, an extra grade will be added so that ultimately it will be a four-year program.
To find this first ninth-grade class, we'll be going to all the junior high schools, sending out information to all Hart District families, inviting them to informational meetings. There's an application process, there's an interview.
Since we only start with about 70 students, we won't be able to take everyone, unfortunately. We'll want to make sure that the student is capable of doing college-level work, so there will be minimum expectations as far as reading ability; they need to be ready to go into algebra. But other than that, it won't be necessary to be an A or B student in junior high.
Signal: Is there a family-income criteria?
Engbrecht: No, although the Bill and Melinda Gates grant requires us to do special outreach amongst students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. That doesn't mean that it's limited to students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, but we are supposed to take special pains to make sure that they know about the program.
Signal: Why in Canyon Country? Do you think there are more socioeconomically disadvantaged kids in Canyon Country than Valencia?
Willett: Actually we have Academy of the Canyons right now, which is a middle college high school on the Valencia campus of COC.
Signal: Who is that for?
Willett: That's for grades 11 and 12. That's the difference in that program. A lot of times, kids just want the smaller campus feeling. Sometimes they are just ready for college work, they want to get on with it, and so they do very well there.
This starts in the ninth grade, and the fact that there is another COC campus gives us the opportunity to provide a program on each side of town, to take advantage of the new classes and the new campus that COC is going to be offering. So I think that was why it was done, more than where the students will come from because they'll come from all over the valley. There's no geographical restriction whatsoever.
Signal: It would seem like a model student for this would be someone whose parents are working class, maybe they're relatively new to the country, and the student hasn't had siblings who've gone to college. If they live in Newhall, will you be providing transportation?
Engbrecht: None of our schools have school bus transportation at this time. Unfortunately, that stopped years ago. But we've always been very successful in working with the city to provide (that) types of transportation, and we're quite hopeful that we'll be able to do that again.
Willett: This is the same with COC involvement in all of our schools that draw from across the valley. They use the city buses very well. The city has been very accommodating at arranging those bus schedules so that they're convenient to the starting and stopping times of the schools.
Of course, it'll be slightly different with the college classes, but it should be a wonderful opportunity for students to get started.
Signal: This clearly isn't for your above-average income, gifted, college career-oriented kid. I know you, Pat, have an interest in gifted education. Is there an opportunity for gifted kids to earn a two-year degree from COC while they're in high school?
Engbrecht: Pretty much. There is a process called concurrent enrollment, and we have close to 1,000 students in the district who have already taken advantage of this, through an agreement we have with COC. Students who attend our schools full-time can take one, two, sometimes up to three courses at COC without tuition as they're still attending their schools. It's quite typical for an 11th or 12th grader to take four or five classes at their campus and then go over and take the courses at COC.
Willett: The advantage with schools like Academy of the Canyons is that they're right on the COC campus. It makes it much more easy for those students to work it into their schedule, to go to the college classes at the same time that they're going to high school. And there's nothing to say that very bright kids can't go to either one of these schools. There is an outreach to bring in the kids who have the potential and may not have realized it or thought about it, but there are certainly opportunities for kids to stretch themselves. They do very well.
We had a young lady who graduated from Academy of the Canyons a couple of years ago, I think, and she graduated with her high school diploma and her AA degree a week ahead of time and then she went to Stanford (on a) full-ride scholarship. Absolutely fantastic. So these are not remedial, by any means, just because we're reaching out to a different population.
Signal: If kids want to get ahead of the game, can they take college career path-oriented classes during summer school?
Engbrecht: Yes. In fact, one of the other collaborative projects that we have with COC is an enriched summer program where Hart District students can take advanced math classes, Spanish, art, a course called Pre-Advanced Placement Seminar, which teaches them to be ready for college-level work. Those are all during the summer. They're free. They're sponsored by College of the Canyons. We had about 400 students involved in that last summer, and we're hoping to double the size of the program for this summer.
Willett: We were really pleased that that opportunity was available to us through COC, because the (funds) for us to offer summer school programs are a little limited. They're more restricted to remedial kinds of programs. So the fact that we could partner with COC and offer these things to our students was a great advantage.
Signal: What are the big initiatives now in the Hart District? What's going on with the new strategic plan?
Willett: One of the points in that is the parent partnerships. We've really got our schools reaching out to the families and their student population.
Parents are no longer just running bake sales and maybe re-shelving books in the library. They've set up family centers where they invite the families to come in, and offer them tools that they can check out to help their kids with homework. They offer workshops and seminars in the math programs, in how we teach writing, so that the parents are able to help their kids with homework.
We're really working on communication, two-way communication between the schools and the families. Our goal would be to have every teacher have their own Web site where parents could look in and find out what the homework assignments are for this week, how their kids are doing. We're not there yet.
Signal: So parents can find out what their kids are supposed to be doing.
Willett: Exactly. And we're not there yet. We have some teachers that offer it. Just the other day in administrative council, we went through some of the outstanding Web sites that we have where they update them daily, sometimes, and they have all kinds of information that is available to help parents understand what's going on and really be a part of their students' education.
Signal: What excites you about what's going on in the district?
Engbrecht: For the last three years, I've really seen a focus on student achievement. We've always talked about it, but I think it's down to the grassroots. You walk onto a campus now and the students know what they're supposed to be working on.
The teachers are so committed to making sure that every student succeeds. We've always done pretty well with the students who are setting their sights on college, but there are so many students in our community who, as you said before, they're not going to be going to college, so what are we doing for them? I think we're starting to make inroads in making sure that all students are getting the same exciting curriculum and they're getting opportunities to succeed.
Willett: And they see a connection. It's no longer, "Why am I learning this stuff?" It is, "How is this going to be relating to what I want to do with my life?" That's an important connection for them to make. Kids who understand that connection, there's a big difference in the way they achieve.
Signal: Several years ago in the Hart District, there was a class where you could learn life skills how to write a check and that sort of thing. Do you have that kind of class? Do they have home economics anymore?
Willett: They do have some foods classes, and when we were talking about the vocational education classes, I wanted to mention that they haven't all gone away. They have changed somewhat. We now have video classes, we now have graphic design classes.
Willett: Yes following what is the new career technical education. We still have a couple of very good auto shops.
One of the problems with that is that auto shops are no longer changing a few spark plugs with a wrench or draining some oil, and it's very expensive. It all requires computer education, and we do have a couple of schools that have that, where Saugus High School is paired up with COC, to be able to provide some of that equipment and the (Santa Clarita) Automobile Dealers Association has helped out because they want some well-trained people, too. They need them. And they're offering internships. They're taking our students into their shops, training them, giving them a head start so that they've already got some job experiences behind them. It helps the business as well as our kids.
Signal: Where do people find out how to sign up for the early college high school?
Engbrecht: They certainly could give me a call. We have a principal who will be active starting in January. Her name is Mrs. Erum Jones. And we have a Web site that's going to go live right after the first of the year.
Parents of eighth graders should be looking for some printed material that they'll get, probably in January. If they haven't received anything by the end of January, they could certainly give me a call at the district.
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 Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.