CVIndependent

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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

A while back, a reader complained that I never discussed the plight of people who are unable to wear face masks—so I asked readers who deal with that plight to write in, and explain how they handle (or don’t handle) that dilemma.

Even though this Daily Digest is emailed to 4,000 people, and available to the entire world at CVIndependent.com, I received a grand total of … zero replies from people who say they won’t wear a mask.

I did, however, receive replies from some people who said they have difficulties wearing masks—but do so anyway.

“I have COPD, and it is VERY uncomfortable to wear a mask,” said one reader, who asked not to be identified. “It is hard to breathe through a paper or cloth mask.”

This reader mentioned mask and oxygen options that would help—but are out of the reader’s price range—before concluding: “Anyways, I do wear a mask when out in public and try to keep my breathing slow and steady which helps.”

I also received this from a reader: “Don’t like Newsom. Don’t like gay marriage. Don’t like anarchy. Don’t like looters. Don’t like Biden. Trump is stupid about masks, but he is better than Biden on the issues in my opinion. However, if I am within six feet of a person or going into any store, bar, etc. I will wear a mask.”

OK then!

I’ll conclude this non-debate with this advice from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, as stated in some of the agency’s news releases: “People with medical conditions that prevent safe use of a face covering are asked to wear a face shield.”

Translation: One way another, cover your gosh darned face. There’s no excuse not to.

Today’s links:

Here’s the latest District 4 report from Riverside County. (District 4 includes all of the Coachella Valley, plus the vastness between here and the state line to the east.) The numbers, simply put, are not good. Please note that the cases are presented here based on the testing date, NOT the report date, so the more-recent weeks’ numbers will always seem smaller than they actually are, given the length of time it takes to get test results back.

• However, I do want to point out one encouraging sign: For the third straight week, the weekly positivity rate has decreased. As of the week ending July 5, it’s 12.2 percent—still too high, as the state wants that number below 8 percent, and preferably much lower. However, that’s down from 14 percent as of the week ending June 28; 14.6 percent as of the week ending June 21; and 16 percent as of the week ending June 14. I am still waiting on an explanation from the county on how, exactly, this number is calculated—but lower numbers are always good, and I am crossing my fingers tightly that is evidence that the measures we’re taking locally are finally starting to slow down the COVID-19 spread.

• From the Independent: Kevin Fitzgerald recently spoke to Desert Healthcare District CEO Dr. Conrado Barzaga about his declaration that systemic racism is a public health crisisand we’re seeing that play out in the eastern Coachella Valley during the pandemic, as COVID-19 cases there are sky high compared to the rest of the valley.

• Sigh. Squabbles between Moderna Inc. and government scientists are responsible for the delay in one of the most-promising vaccine candidates, according to Reuters.

The Palm Springs Unified School district plans on starting the school year on Aug. 5 with all-online instruction, before moving to a hybrid model within a month or so, if the pandemic allows it. 

• Related and utterly unbelievable: The president is threatening to withhold funding from schools that don’t reopen for in-person classes in the fall, and his administration is forcing the CDC to issue weaker guidelines for school openings. Why?!

• The results are in regarding Sweden’s grand experiment to keep society mostly open and let the virus run its course: The death rate there is sky-high, and the country’s economy is no better off than the economies of its neighbors that did shut down.

Related: Is the cure worse than the disease? Experts writing for The Conversation crunched the numbers—and came to the conclusion that, no, shutdowns were better for society overall than letting the virus run amok.

Also from The Conversation: The feds’ plan to send home foreign college students if they can’t attend in-person classes would be very bad for the economy.

• Oh, great! Our partners at High Country News are looking at the possibility that North American bats could get SARS-CoV-2. Key quote, from the subheadline: “This is bad news for bats and humans.

• CNBC put a weird spin on this story: “Apple Maps driving activity is slowing again in warning sign for the economy.Yeah, but if more people are staying home, isn’t that a good sign for battling the coronavirus?

• The Washington Post has revealed that at the government-run Southeastern Veterans’ Center, in the Philadelphia area, patients received a “COVID cocktail” including hydroxychloroquine—which has some pretty terrible side effects. According to the Post: “Though precise estimates vary, the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs said about 30 residents received the drug. Several nursing home staff members placed the number higher. The Chester County coroner, who reviewed the medical records for some of those who died, said at least 11 residents who had received the hydroxychloroquine treatment had not been tested for COVID-19.” Yikes!

NBC News looks at what it’ll mean for the United States to pull out of the World Health Organization. Key quote: “Apart from the effect on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. exit from the WHO also puts at risk a polio vaccination program that has long been a priority for the U.S. across several administrations. Trump’s decision comes just as doctors believe polio is on the verge of being eradicated from the planet.”

• Equinox—which operates 23 gyms in Southern California—is asking some of its teachers to do a lot more for a lot less, with a lot more risk mixed in, according to BuzzFeed. Key quote: “Despite the risk, Equinox is asking its group fitness instructors to come back to the gym and teach classes at a discounted rate, keeping the teachers at their 75 percent pay, rather than restoring their pre-COVID-19 rates. Instructors have also been asked to help clean the group fitness studios after classes, without additional pay, as part of an effort to more frequently deep-clean the studios.”

• Finally, Randy Rainbow is back with another Trump parody video: “Poor Deplorable Troll.”

That’s today’s news. Please consider supporting honest independent local journalism by becoming a Supporter of the Independent. Be safe. Be kind. Wear a mask. The Daily Digest will return on Friday.

Published in Daily Digest

When the state closed down schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, an oft-ignored inequity in the everyday lives of Californians became glaringly obvious: A significant portion of the state’s population still lacks reliable broadband access.

When families without reliable internet have children who can no longer go to a physical school, those students’ chances of educational success decrease dramatically.

“In the Coachella Valley, we met with the superintendents of all three school districts early on in this pandemic, and the distance-learning issue was one of their top challenges,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents much of the eastern Coachella Valley, and serves on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s newly formed Closing the Digital Divide Task Force. “It wasn’t from the standpoint of the teacher not being with the students; it was that they couldn’t even connect with some of the families, because they don’t have the services. They can’t afford it, or the technology and infrastructure just isn’t available.

“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap. Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”

Steve Blum is the president of Tellus Venture Associates, a California management and business-development consulting company for the digital media and telecommunications industries; he specializes in developing new community-broadband systems.

“You’ve got two kinds of problems: long term and short term,” Blum said. “The long-term problem is lack of infrastructure, and that’s not something you can fix this week or this month, probably not even this year. As soon as the schools closed, and the students were told that they’ve got to start doing their work online, this problem just blossomed: It went from just being an annoyance to being a total lack of ability to participate in the 21st century—and now, it’s an immediate problem.”

This problem is not being experienced equally across the Coachella Valley’s three school districts. Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District—which includes schools in Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and parts of Rancho Mirage and Coachella—points proudly to the district’s ability to guarantee reliable broadband connectivity to every student household, often via the district’s own broadband network. Built at the cost of $590,000 for infrastructure development and hotspot devices, with an ongoing cost of $1,300 per month, this project became a U.S. Government General Accountability Office model example of a school “district that defied the odds,” as Bailey put it. To make reliable broadband a given for the district’s 28,000 students, spread over 752 square miles, the district found a way to acquire broadband spectrum-usage permission from the Federal Communications Commission.

“My assistant superintendent, Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened,” Bailey said. “We were talking one day about how we’d never be able to get broadband, and there was no way we could get access to spectrum. How do you even start there? Do you call Sprint and ask for some? That’s not going to happen. So, she said, ‘Why not just call the FCC?’ Long story short, that’s exactly what happened. She was brave and called the FCC to determine how you could acquire it. … Now, we can honestly say that every student in our district should have adequate broadband connectivity, whether on their own or through (our network). We have devices coupled with connectivity to provide an equitable learning and teaching model.”

The reality is less optimistic for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes the schools in much of Coachella, a portion of Indio, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City. Despite the recent distribution by the district of mobile-hotspot devices to roughly 3,000 student households, there are still several thousand more that have no reliable broadband connectivity. Those 3,000 hotspots were made possible because of an alliance formed by the city of Coachella and the school district.

“The city of Coachella did not donate any hotspots,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “CVUSD bought them, but the city got a better deal (from Verizon Wireless) than we did, and they were kind enough to let us purchase at their price—and I can tell you that they are being used. The hotspots are being loaned out to the families, and the district is picking up the cost of the service charges through Verizon Wireless.

“Did they prove useful, and will they continue to prove useful? Absolutely. We’re continuing with summer school, and even students who are not doing summer school are still getting access to some district grade-level challenges and contests, (along with) other fun activities for the students to do that will make them think that they’re not doing (school) work—but they are,” Gandera said with a laugh. “I can tell you that over 1.1 million websites were visited by those students, (and) over 24,700 educational apps were downloaded. They’ve accessed more than 35 terabytes of data using our hotspots as of the first week of June.”

But Gandera has not forgotten about the thousands of students remaining, in her overall student body of more than 18,000, who don’t have one of those hotspots—or any other reliable internet access.

“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” she said. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting. I can tell you that we’re continuing to have conversations with different providers, not only about (additional) hotspots, but also looking for a long-term solution for our valley.”

At the north and western end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District—which includes schools in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Thousand Palms and Sky Valley—is also struggling to cope with the needs of at least 2,000 student households that are currently without reliable connectivity or personal digital devices.

“I think that we’ve been fortunate in that, some four years ago, before I started (in this position with PSUSD), the district and the Board of Education took on the mission of having a 1-to-1 program,” said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon. “They had been very diligently ensuring that students in grades 3-12 had access to devices. Also, they were making sure that our students who didn’t have internet had an ability to get a hotspot from us that we pay for.

“We give them a Chromebook and a hotspot. Normally, students would bring them to and from school on a daily basis, and our younger students wouldn’t have access. But throughout this coronavirus time, we’ve tried to get devices into the homes of our families with young children who don’t have an older child (as well). So we’ve been running these ‘tech depots’ regularly, and giving out new hotspots if hotspots aren’t working, and taking back nonworking Chromebooks and issuing new ones. Right now, we have over 20,000 devices out there.

“There are still a handful of our students for whom the hotspots aren’t helpful, because they’re in a place that doesn’t have a tower or other internet access. So, again, it’s been a challenge—but overall, we’re in a good position.”

Online summer-school sessions are under way in all three valley school districts, as local educators make sure graduating students have their necessary course requirements completed, and support students who may have fallen behind during the school shutdowns. According to Dr. Lyon, in PSUSD schools, “We are providing access for all students online using some of our LCAP dollars and COVID-19-related funding.”

According to the California Department of Education website, the LCAP is a tool the state developed in 2013 “for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals to improve student outcomes.”

“This is not something that we typically would do, but we really (wanted) to try to address some of the learning gaps happening for some of our students right now,” Lyon said. “If you go to our website, it will tell you exactly how to access math and English for our elementary and middle school students. It’s (lessons and activities) that they haven’t done before, because we wanted to make sure that we were giving new opportunities. Also, there are live teacher hours that accompany them as well. The teachers are there to tutor kids through the activities and to help if they’re struggling with any of the concepts. As for high school students, we’re primarily working with kids who need the summer credits to graduate, and credit retrieval to keep students on track for graduation.”

However, that still leaves out the 5 percent of PSUSD students who have questionable ability to access the distance-learning strategies and programs.

“We’ve also been giving out paper (lesson) packets and other materials to the parents of students who come in and pick them up,” Lyon said. “I do think that one of the things we’re finding is that some of our students who aren’t necessarily able to get online with us, they’re doing other things to stay in communication. Once the COVID-19 (impact) is better understood, we’ll know better how we’re going to bring kids back (to schools in the fall). Any of the students that we determine are further behind, we’ll work to get them back on campus.”

A recent survey of 4,300 parents running households of PSUSD students shows that 28 percent plan on their children taking part in a 100 percent distance-learning strategy when fall classes return.

“I think a lot of people who have multiple generations living at home,” Lyon said, “are still unsure and fear the older family members becoming ill.”

But for those student households across our valley that remain without reliable broadband access, the problem won’t be solved before the ’20-’21 school year starts.

“We need people to get these rural areas wired,” Lyon said. “The reality is that this is the world we’re living in, and the more that our homes and our neighborhood businesses are wired and have strong (broadband) access, then the better off our kids will be as far as being competitive in the work world. It’s so important.”

Expensive infrastructure investments will be needed to truly solve the problem.

“The federal government has to step up first—and California supplements the federal money,” said Blum, of Tellus Venture Associates. “There are bills in the U.S. Congress to change these funding requirements, but none of them seem to be going anywhere, so I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Assemblymember Garcia said the state has been distributing about $300 million in funding to locales in desperate need of reliable broadband service through the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Internet for All Now Act of 2017.

“My understanding is that we’ve already seen about $533 million worth of (funding being) requested,” Garcia said. “So, there’s definitely the need for this money to get pushed out. … What I’m discouraged about the most is that very few applications came from our District 56 area—even after making a really assertive effort to get folks in our cities and school districts looking at the program. So we’ve got to do a better job. We held workshops; we had the Public Utilities Commission come down to meet with folks about the challenges in our region. But I don’t believe that we had more than one application from our area or the Imperial Valley.”

Blum said school districts need to do a better job of long-term planning.

“Even if they came up with a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, and got everybody vaccinated by the weekend, this broadband problem is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to become more and more important to have broadband access. … The alternative is to sit and wait and hope that somebody like Charter or AT&T or Comcast is going to show up eventually and fix your problems. That could be a long, long wait.”

Garcia said the pandemic has emphasized the seriousness of the broadband-access problem.

“We’re not only talking about the student needs, but we’re talking about mom and dad having to work from home, or the small-business owner who has to change their model of how they deliver a service or a product,” Garcia said. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury or an amenity. It’s a necessity for achieving not just economic opportunities, but we’re clearly seeing uses now in telehealth services, public-safety communications and smart agricultural technologies. So our challenge as this Closing the Digital Divide Task Force moves forward is not just to address the needs of our students, but the overall need to expand our infrastructure. This crisis is presenting an opportunity.”

Published in Local Issues

Last night, I met friends for drinks at a bar on Arenas Road, in downtown Palm Springs. I haven’t been out much this week, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

As we drove down Arenas, unsuccessfully looking for a spot, I was surprised to see that most of the bars appeared to be packed.

“I don’t know if I have ever had more mixed feelings about something in my life,” I told my husband.

On one hand … I was elated to see that all of these small, locally owned businesses were getting much-needed business. It was good to see the servers and bartenders making good money. I was proud to be part of that needed cash infusion.

On the other hand … I kept thinking: Should all of us be out and about like this?

After drinks, we wandered down Palm Canyon Drive and got dinner at a local restaurant. While the street wasn’t dead, it certainly was getting quieter as the night went on.

Again, mixed feelings.

After I hit send on this Daily Digest, I am going to get ready to head to CVRep in Cathedral City, to do a review of The City of Conversation—the only play currently running in the valley that has not yet been shuttered by the pandemic. (More on this below.) Then I am going to meet friends at a charity art event, and go to dinner at Lulu. I am going to savor it like it’s the last good night on the town I have for a while … because it might very well be.

I hope it’s not. But it might very well be.

Here’s today’s news.

• The Desert AIDS Project just announced something huge: It’s opening a COVID-19 triage clinic.

This just arrived in my inbox, from CEO David Brinkman:

“In the next 48 hours DAP will take a bold step and we ask you to please have our backs. Last week, we opened our new clinics for DAP’s day-to-day healthcare operations, leaving our original clinic temporarily vacant. Today, I worked with our infectious disease doctors to develop an emergency plan of action to ensure the health and well-being of all we serve. The original clinic will be transformed this weekend into a specialized COVID-19 triage clinic. This will allow our medical experts to screen patients demonstrating symptoms in a quarantined space, while also allowing our non-symptomatic patients to continue having their health needs met without potential exposure.

“This is no small undertaking. Desert AIDS Project is the healthcare home to 7,000 of our friends and neighbors, most of whom live at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below. And, the majority of our patients are of an age with significantly increased risk. We already are seeing a dramatic increase in inquiries and we must be able to meet the need as it grows in the coming weeks.

“This new clinic will cost DAP $575,000 to operate over the coming months.”

Wow.

See the full announcement—and make a donation while there, if you can—here.

• As for those plays: Yesterday, we reported that Desert TheatreWorks, Palm Canyon Theatre and CVRep were moving forward with their productions. This morning, however, Desert TheatreWorks announced last night’s production of The Producers would be its last until April 10, while Palm Canyon Theatre announced it was cancelling the final two planned performances this weekend of The Pajama Game. As of now, PCT plans on proceeding with the rest of its season—Sordid Lives is slated to open Thursday, March 26—but noted that this is a “very fluid situation.” This makes CVRep the last theater company standing: As of this writing, The City of Conversation will continue at least through this weekend.

Read more about all of this tomorrow in the second Installment of the Independent’s Pandemic Stories series. Yeah, I said yesterday that story would be available today … and then things changed. It’ll be worth the wait, I promise.

• All schools in Riverside County are closed for the next three weeks, per county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser. More info here.

• Good news: During the closure, kids in need within the Palm Springs Unified School District can still get free meals. School buses will be delivering them on normal morning routes, or they can be picked up at schools. Get the details hereDesert Sands and Coachella Valley Unified are also making meals available to kids at schools.

• The United Way of the Desert has launched a very good information page, chock full of resources and phone numbers people may need during this crisis. View it here

• This is amazingly cool: Yesterday, we reported that the Certified Farmers’ Markets had been suspended for the time being. Today, the organizers have started posting direct contact info for the various vendors (with their blessing) on the Certified Farmers’ Market Facebook page, so people can directly contact and buy from the vendors if they so choose. Get all the 411 here.

• The Palm Springs Art Museum has decided to close for the time being. More info here.

That’s all for now. Please, support local businesses. Be a good neighbor. Stop hoarding crap. Be smart and diligent and caring. More tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Welcome to the first-ever Coachella Valley Independent Daily Digest. The goal for this Daily Digest is to round up reliable, vetted news related to COVID-19 and the accompanying societal changes. There’s too much unreliable information floating around on social media (and even coming out of some elected officials’ mouths)—and in this space, we'll sort through it all to get to truthfulness and sanity.

In addition to news updates, we’ll also highlight good things happening—specials from local businesses (that REALLY need your support right now), enlightening comments from members of the community, and so on. Please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you have anything you think should be included.

And with that ... here's the news.

• As we were getting close to clicking send on this, the Palm Springs Unified School District announced it would be closing schools the next two weeks. They're moving up Spring Break, essentially. Parents are receiving this message right now: "Hello PSUSD families. This is Supt. Sandy Lyon. I wanted to provide you with an update on the coronavirus situation as it relates to our District. You may be aware that over the past day, there has been an increase in the number of confirmed cases here in the Coachella Valley, and there are a number of tests pending that could result in several other confirmed cases. Additionally, both the Riverside County Department of Health and Governor Newsom issued a directive to suspend gatherings of over 250 people. As a result, Palm Springs Unified School District is moving its two-week spring break. It will begin on Monday, March 16."

• Eisenhower Medical Center announced earlier today that visitors will no longer be allowed at EMC for the time being. More on what EMC is doing to protect the community can be found here.

• As of this writing, local theaters have made a split decision on whether to stay open or not. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, Coyote StageWorks and the Desert Rose Playhouse have cancelled or postponed shows this weekend, Palm Canyon Theatre, CVRep and Desert TheatreWorks are letting the shows go on. Read more about this in the second installment in the Independent's Pandemic Stories series tomorrow (Saturday).

As for that first Pandemic Stories installment: Kevin Fitzgerald talked to the owner of Piero's PizzaVino about the cancellation of the BNP Paribas Open tennis tourney, and how that devastated her and her staff. Piero's is one of the few local restaurants to have a pop-up location at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, alongside big names like Nobu and Spago.

• As for closures and cancellations: The Palm Springs Gay Softball league has suspended practices and play through March, and the national NAGAAA Cup tourney the league was hosting at the end of March is cancelled. Other recent cancellations/closures include the Palm Desert Food and Wine fest, all Certified Farmers Markets through at least March 30 (though the Palm Springs Cultural Center remains open for now), the Palm Springs Library (though the Palm Desert Library remains open), and shockingly, The Abbey down in West Hollywood.

• From our partners at CalMatters: As the coronavirus toll rises, so do concerns about health-care workers' safety.

• Earlier today, President Trump declared a national emergency. The press conference was ... well, fascinating. At one point, after Trump said he didn't take any responsibility for the pandemic, a reporter from PBS asked him about his firing of the national pandemic response team. His response was that he didn't do it, and that this was a "nasty question." As for that firing, Snopes says it's true that it happened.

• Support local businesses! If you're comfortable with going out (while taking all the precautions that you should be), local bars and restaurants need you right now. If not, order food from a local restaurant on GrubHub or one of the apps!

• Alternately, consider buying gift cards from local businesses. Some places are offering 20 percent bonuses.

• If you found this email helpful, forward to a friend, or have them email us and we'll add them to the list. Please consider supporting the Independent, too ... we could use it!

Until tomorrow ... stay safe; support local business, and wash your hands!

Published in Daily Digest

In the past decade, California has adopted more than a half-dozen laws intended to prevent bullying, strengthen suicide prevention and cultivate inclusive learning environments for LGBTQ students in the state’s public schools.

But the state’ school districts are implementing these new laws inconsistently, according to a sweeping report-card-style analysis from the Equality California Institute.

As an emotional, hours-long hearing last week on statewide sex-education guidance underscored last week at the state Board of Education, California has been slow in general to fully embrace new laws aimed at deterring discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, along with those questioning their sexual identities.

Public middle and high schools were required to follow the sex-ed laws in the California Healthy Youth Act beginning in 2016, but the state Board of Education just last week approved a new framework for teaching sex education. The state board came up with the framework—teaching recommendations educators are not required to follow—after two years of public deliberation.

Equality California’s analysis, published earlier this week, used a 90-question survey covering school climate, curriculum, teacher training, suicide prevention and transgender students to rate school districts’ LGBTQ policies on a three-tier, color-coded scale.

Of the 130 K-12 school districts that participated in the years-long survey effort, 22 school districts were given “top tier” ratings; 80 were considered “middle tier”; and 28 districts were labeled “priority districts,” the lowest rating.

The two valley school districts that participated—Palm Springs Unified and Desert Sands Unified—were given middle-tier ratings. The Coachella Valley Unified School District is not listed as participating.

Advocates and legislators have heightened their focus on policies that are more inclusive of LGBTQ students, as research generally shows that these students are more likely to drop out. They also experience bullying and attempted suicides at rates higher than the rest of their peers.

“We have worked tirelessly over the last two decades to enact laws and policies that create safer, more supportive learning environments for our LGBTQ students,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group. “But our work cannot—and does not—stop in the Capitol. For these laws to be effective, they must be implemented.”

Among the survey’s other highlights:

• All of the 130 school districts that responded to Equality California’s survey said they had anti-bullying policies in place, and most explicitly prohibit bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

• 118 school districts said they require students to take sexual health and HIV prevention classes, and three-fourths of those districts said their curriculum “incorporates discussions of relationships other than cisgender heterosexual relationships.”

• 113 school districts said all of their schools allow kids to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

• The report identified 45 school districts that don’t give employees training “that even generally covers diversity, anti-bias, cultural competency and/or equity and inclusion.”

• A majority of school districts in the survey do not appear to be including LGBTQ-inclusive textbooks in their social studies curriculum, which goes against a 2011 law mandating that schools include “the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans” in their history teachings.

Notably, many of the local school systems identified as “priority” districts are located in rural or conservative-leaning areas that have pushed back against the new requirements, specifically the California Healthy Youth Act, which requires middle and high schools to teach “medically accurate” comprehensive sexual health education.

“We recognize that even the most well-intentioned school districts may feel impeded by a lack of resources, limited staff capacity, difficult local social climates and other barriers, all of which can slow the journey toward a safe and supportive school climate,” Zbur said.

There were 213 K-12 school districts that didn’t respond to the survey, a participation rate that Zbur called “deeply disappointing.”

The Independent’s Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

So many school districts are struggling to deliver the basics of an equal opportunity for education that one in three statewide has been targeted for special assistance, according to a comprehensive state report card released by the California Department of Education last week.

The state identified 374 school districts out of roughly 1,000 that qualify for additional help—more than 60 percent more than last year, when the state issued its first set of ratings under the new “school dashboard” system.

School districts that qualify for the so-called “State System of Support” show such low scores or so little progress among student groups that they fall into a “red zone” on two or more educational indicators, from test scores to suspension rates and chronic absenteeism. Last year, the state identified 228 such districts, but critics questioned those numbers, noting that test scores pointed to a far more widespread need for assistance. Since then, the dashboard has been tweaked.

None of the three Coachella Valley school districts had any overall ratings in the red zone—but 29 of the 78 schools within the local school districts (37.2 percent) fell into the red zone in at least one of the six categories measured this year.

Carrie Hahnel, interim co-executive director of Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, said one-third of the state’s districts “are struggling with equity.”

“(This) should create a tremendous urgency for our newly elected state leaders and local leaders to start to do something dramatically different to support our students so that several years from now, far fewer schools are struggling to create opportunities for all students,” Hahnel said.

The California School Dashboard, intended to offer a more holistic assessment of public-school performance, was created in part to help the state identify low-performing school districts and help them. It also replaces the state’s old standardized-test-based system as a way for communities to see how their schools are doing.

To that end, this year’s dashboard paints a somewhat chaotic picture, reflecting both the California school system’s vast size and its vast mission. Like the aggregate data earlier this year on standardized test scores—which showed a majority of California students underperforming in basic subjects, and little or no progress in closing the achievement gap between affluent and underprivileged children—its color-coded charts are a call for action and dispiriting.

Only 40 percent of California’s public schools received “passing” marks in English language arts last year—and only 33 percent met the state’s targets in math. More than half of the state’s schools were in or near the “red’ zone on chronic absenteeism, and even supposed bright spots, such as graduation rates, were clouded by the state’s widespread use of online “credit recovery” courses and other techniques used by districts to deter dropouts, and perhaps artificially inflate the proportion of students who actually meet requirements to graduate.

The dashboard itself also remains a somewhat controversial work in progress. On one hand, its trove of data on multiple barometers is far more three-dimensional than the old system. Schools no longer receive a single overall rating by the state, and the new system takes into account not only a school’s performance, but whether it improved or declined from the prior year.

But critics complain that it’s confusing, even with adjustments in this second year and the addition of new indicators to deepen the picture. The dashboard rates schools’ performance on an indicator using five different colors. Red is the lowest achieving mark, followed by orange, yellow, green and, finally, blue, the highest rating. A school is considered to have a favorable mark if they are rated green or blue on an indicator, though the state’s rubric does not explicitly spell that out.

In fact, the state’s color labels in general have broad interpretations, to the point that it can be difficult to deduce the significance of a rating. For example, a school that has a middle-of-the-pack yellow rating in math could either have posted very high scores this year that significantly dropped compared to the year before, or achieved very low scores that significantly improved from the previous year.

And a green rating does not necessarily mean that a majority of a school’s students are meeting grade-level expectations. It doesn’t even mean that all of its various student sub-groups aren’t in the yellow, orange or red.

That said, an analysis by CALmatters and the Independent of schools’ performance ratings found widespread room for improvement:

• Chronic absenteeism: About 3,600 elementary schools across the state-—about 47 percent—received red and orange ratings on this indicator, meaning that more than 10 percent of their students missed 18 days or more out of the school year. Officials say this statistic is important, because it helps indicate a student’s engagement and whether they’re likely to drop out of school. Of the 64 schools within the valley’s three school districts receiving ratings in this category (high schools were not measured), 16 were in the red zone, with 34 in the orange zone. That means just 14 received yellow or better ratings.

• School suspensions: More than 5,000 schools, or roughly 53 percent, received green or blue ratings in this indicator (including 56.2 percent locally). About 30 percent were rated red or orange (35.9 percent locally). While school officials are generally optimistic about the state’s direction in this category, many schools continue to have disparities in school suspensions that negatively impact black and Hispanic students.

• Graduation rates: One of schools’ overall top-performing indicators, more than 1,000 high schools, or about 58 percent, were rated green or blue for their graduation rates (including 11 of 17 locally). This backs the state’s record graduation rate touted by many school officials. But there’s the aforementioned credit recovery asterisk, and ...

• On college/career readiness, schools are faring worse. One of the new indicators on the dashboard measures how well California’s high schools prepare students for postsecondary careers. About 675 schools, or 38 percent, were rated green or blue in this category—but just four of 17 local schools were rated green, with no blue ratings. The state gave nearly half, 47 percent, of high schools a red or orange rating.

A closer look underscored the diversity of California, where more than 6.2 million students are enrolled in some of the most elite and most challenged public schools in the nation.

The three Coachella Valley school districts received decidedly mediocre ratings. The east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District—where 91.3 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 46.3 percent are English language learners—received middle-of-the-road yellow ratings in all of the categories, save graduation rate and chronic absenteeism, where the district received even worse orange ratings.

The west valley Palm Springs Unified School District—where 88.5 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 32 percent are English language learners—received green ratings in the graduation rate and college/career categories—but orange ratings in the other four categories.

The Desert Sands Unified School District—with 71.6 percent of students considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 23.8 percent English language learners—earned green ratings for graduation rate and suspension rate; a yellow rating in the college/career category; and disappointing orange ratings in the other three. 

Elsewhere in the state: West Contra Costa Unified, where 72 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and one-third are English language learners—and where California’s new superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, was once on the school board—rated orange in reading and math and orange in student suspensions.

Meanwhile, in Kentfield Elementary, an affluent Marin County district of 1,200 kids whose residents include Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, the dashboard scores were an upbeat mosaic of blues and greens. Only about 10 percent of Kentfield Elementary kids come from low-income households.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district and California’s largest, ranked yellow in both reading and math, with a blue for its low suspension rate of 0.5 percent.

And at all three districts, their wildly different academic performance ratings notwithstanding, the rating for chronic absenteeism was a glaring orange.

Michael Kirst, the president of the California State Board of Education, which developed the school-accountability system, said in a statement that the dashboard “shows us which students have the greatest needs and which areas of our educational system need the most attention, which is exactly what it was designed to do.

“Challenges that once may have been hidden, such as how poverty, homelessness and disability affect student learning, are now in sharp focus,” Kirst said. “Conversely, it also shows us which school districts are succeeding so they can serve as models for others as we build professional sharing networks throughout the state.”

Hahnel, of EdTrust-West, said the new dashboard is “a big facelift” from its first version, but that “there are still issues with accessibility.”

“There’s a lot of data to explore, and that’s great,” Hahnel said, “but it’s not always intuitive, and it does take some digging and deciphering to make sense of it all.”

While this year’s dashboard measures more data than it did the year before, it’s drawn some criticism for what it’s left out. The dashboard now measures schools’ performance in addressing chronic absenteeism, but not at the high school level, where data is more likely to show higher rates of absences among older students.

Samantha Tran, senior managing director for education policy at Children Now, an Oakland-based nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, said it’s “really unfortunate” that the dashboard lacks chronic absenteeism for high schools. The metric, Tran said, helps you find “kids who are not engaged fundamentally” in school and who would be less likely to graduate.

“You really should have it on the dashboard, color code it and make sure districts are looking at it,” Tran said. “(Chronic absenteeism) is one of those leading indicators where you can really turn around what’s happening for a kid.”

Click on the images in the gallery below to see charts with local school information. For complete information on each school and school district, visit caschooldashboard.org.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This story was originally published on Dec. 10 and updated on Dec. 27.

Published in Local Issues

California’s public schools have enjoyed a remarkable restoration of funding since the bone-deep cuts they endured during the recession—but many are now facing a grave financial threat as they struggle to protect pensions crucial for teachers’ retirement.

Over the next three years, schools may need to use well more than half of all the new money they’re projected to receive to cover their growing pension obligations, leaving little extra for classrooms, state Department of Finance and Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates show. This is true even though the California State Teachers’ Retirement System just beat its investment goals for the second straight year.

Some districts are predicting deficits, and many districts are bracing for what’s to come by cutting programs, reducing staff or drawing down their reserves—even though per-pupil funding is at its highest level in three decades, and voters recently extended a tax hike on the rich to help pay for schools.

At the same time, some districts are grappling with how to simultaneously afford raises for teachers who have threatened to strike. The situation could become even bleaker if California’s economy doesn’t keep growing.

If there’s another recession—which economists say is increasingly likely, given the record length of the expansion under way now—the higher pension payments scheduled could push some districts deeper into the red, Legislative Analyst’s Office data indicates.

“Many districts’ budgets would be upside down with expenses growing faster than revenues,” said Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, the state agency responsible for overseeing schools with financial problems.

School systems that saved money over the last few years will be able to use it to buy time, Fine said, but those reserves “won’t eliminate the impact or make that problem go away.” Tackling it will likely require new sources of revenue or an array of cuts.

“Building maintenance could suffer; grounds care could suffer; class size could suffer; instructional coaches could suffer; athletic programs could suffer; technology could suffer; intervention programs could suffer,” Fine said.

The problems stem from the state Legislature’s reticence to mandate steeper payments into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The system was badly underfunded and careening toward collapse four years ago when school districts, teachers and the state all agreed to pay more to reduce its unfunded liability, which now stands at $107 billion

Districts took on the greatest share of those new costs, agreeing to increase payments from 8 percent of their payroll in 2013 to 19 percent by 2020.

No matter how burdensome the larger and larger pension payments may be, actuaries say they’re necessary to protect teachers’ hard-earned retirement and prevent the system from running out of money. Teachers don’t get Social Security, and unlike firefighters or police officers, most retirees earn modest pensions of about $55,000 a year.

The Brown administration has directed an additional $20 billion to the state’s public schools since 2013 and says districts have had plenty of time to plan for the pension payments ahead. But many school leaders and advocates want the state to invest even more, especially since California still ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending compared to other states.

“Knowing that these liabilities were growing, we provided districts with the resources they needed to plan accordingly,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest teachers union is downplaying the problem and encouraging its members to bargain for raises. California’s teachers may be among the nation’s most generously paid, but they say the money doesn’t go very far, because the state’s cost of living is so high.

School officials are left with a Gordian knot of politically charged problems, forced to make escalating payments into the pension fund while trying to elevate disadvantaged students’ sagging classroom performance, which remains among the country’s worst despite the state’s big investment in their learning through a policy championed by Brown.

“We need to graduate more kids and close academic achievement gaps, but we can’t move the needle when costs are rising like this,” said Dennis Meyers, executive director of the California School Boards Association, who stressed that his group is not seeking to reduce teachers’ retirement benefits.

“We simply need more revenue, and we’re out here waving the white flag, looking for relief.”

Each of California’s school districts is bound to tackle these challenges differently, so CALmatters visited three of them whose circumstances are emblematic of what others across the state are experiencing. During those visits, we spoke with the people working to solve the problem.

Fremont Unified devotes a greater share of its budget to salary than any other district in the state—69 percent. (The three Coachella Valley school districts devote either 55 or 56 percent. See the percentage devoted to salaries at each of California’s school districts here.) So when the largest pension payments are phased in, Fremont will be hit especially hard. That means the district’s budget could face cuts even as enrollment in the Bay Area school system grows.

Sacramento City Unified knew that larger pension payments were coming and saved money to prepare for them. Then the local teachers union criticized the district for hoarding cash and threatened to strike. Now the contested funds are being used to finance a raise that teachers say is long overdue—and that the county superintendent believes the district can’t afford.

In Los Angeles, growing demand for charter schools and a dwindling birth rate has led to declining enrollment in the district’s own schools, which means pension payments will rise even as the district’s state funding shrinks. School officials recently predicted that a quarter-billion-dollar budget deficit was just two years away.


Raul Parungao’s distinctive grin and his cheery demeanor belie his concern about Fremont Unified’s finances.

Situated between Oakland and San Jose in the pricey Bay Area, the school system pays its employees more than most. That makes it a desirable place to work, but also means it will be hit especially hard when the largest payments required under Brown’s pension plan are phased in.

“There’s this sense in the community that we’re flush with cash, but I try to remind people about the other half of the story,” said Parungao, the district’s chief business officer.

Even though revenue is rising because enrollment is growing, the district must hire and pay more employees to serve them. And over the next three years, while Fremont predicts its revenue will grow by $26 million, a 7 percent bump, it also expects its employee pension and health care costs to climb by $14 million, a 23 percent surge.

“Here’s the bottom line: the extra revenue we expect to get from the state won’t be enough to keep pace with our pension contributions,” Parungao said. “The problem hasn’t exploded big yet, but it will. It’s only a matter of time. I haven’t met another chief business official who isn’t concerned about this.”

Meanwhile, Fremont’s teachers just won a small raise after months of protracted negotiations.

The current pay scale is competitive, with veterans making $114,000 a year, but leaders of the local union say about half of the teachers still don’t make enough to live in the district and must commute from up to an hour away.

But no matter how tough it may be for the district to afford this 1 percent pay hike, teachers deserve one, said Victoria Birbeck, the union’s president

“The series of small raises we’ve received haven’t covered cost of living,” she said. “Besides, the district has known about the governor’s plan for a few years now. There should have been better planning.”

Parungao said planning isn’t the problem. The district stretched to offer teachers a raise last year and even had to shift its budget by millions of dollars to accommodate that 2 percent increase, which came after a 13 percent bump over the prior three years. Plans to upgrade students’ textbooks and computers were postponed, and class size for kindergarten, first- and second-grade students increased slightly.

Given the district’s rising pension and other fixed costs, the new agreement’s $7 million price tag will be tough to accommodate. Still, Michele Berke, one of the district’s board members, acknowledged that for many teachers, $1 spent on pensions isn’t as good as $1 spent on salary.

“As we negotiate with the union, STRS is the elephant in the room,” she said in an interview before the deal was finalized, referring to the acronym for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. “We’re paying toward your future, but those payments don’t help put food on the dinner table.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg only worked with a few key players one weekend last fall when he helped broker a deal to avert a citywide teacher strike, and former school board president Jay Hansen was one of them.

Hansen had tried for months to negotiate the terms of a pay increase for the city’s 3,000 teachers, but the district and leaders of the local teachers union were far apart, and neither side would budge. An acrimonious relationship between the two camps was partly to blame for the impasse.

“It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Hansen said. “No one remembers why they can’t get along.”

At issue during the talks was the $81 million sitting in Sacramento City Unified’s savings account, a sum the district had built up over several years with spoils from California’s booming economy.

The union said the money should go toward class-size reduction and raises for teachers that would make the district a more attractive place to work. Sacramento educators are paid less than their peers in nearby districts, but they also receive more generous lifetime health benefits, records show. The district said it had saved the money to help cover rising pension and employee health care costs in the lean budget years ahead.

In the end, Steinberg helped craft an agreement that gives Sacramento teachers an 11 percent raise over three years. But just a few weeks after Steinberg announced the deal during a celebratory news conference on the steps of City Hall, Sacramento County Superintendent Dave Gordon delivered some bad news: The district can’t afford it.

“Based on the review of the public disclosure and the multi-year projections provided by the district, our office has concerns over the district’s ability to afford this compensation package and maintain ongoing fiscal solvency,” Gordon wrote in a December letter to the district.

The district’s own budget offers proof of Gordon’s concerns.

Over the next three years, the school system anticipates its revenue will grow by $6 million, a 1 percent increase, while its pension and health care costs grow by more than $18 million, an 11 percent increase. A popular summer program for struggling students has already been eliminated to save money

A second letter Gordon sent in January further underscores his concerns. He called the district’s plan to use one-time money to help cover the cost of the new contract a “poor business practice” that “only perpetuates the district’s ongoing structural deficit.”

“The pension contributions are putting a strain on everyone’s budgets,” Gordon said in an interview.

Even though Hansen had been the union’s adversary during months of stalled contract talks, he defended the district’s decision to offer teachers a raise, calling it “the right thing to do” despite the school system’s escalating pension and health care costs. “We did it anyway,” he added.

Steinberg echoed Hansen’s perspective.

“A strike would have been calamitous for everybody,” he said. And Sacramento isn’t the only place in California where teachers are thinking about a show of force: At least half a dozen other local unions fighting for higher wages have held labor actions in recent months.

In an interview with CALmatters that union leaders cut short after refusing to answer some questions, Executive Director John Borsos rejected any suggestion that the district won’t be able to afford the contract it recently signed or that it ever claimed to have needed the money stockpiled in its savings account to cover rising pension costs.

“They have more than enough to cover the pension increases,” Borsos said. “And they didn’t make that argument at the bargaining table.”


Gov. Jerry Brown promised his 2014 funding plan would shore up California’s teacher-pension system, but at least one young Los Angeles teacher, Josh Brown, says he’s not counting on it. The Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School special educator is so worried about the system’s solvency that he has an alternative retirement plan: using a portion of his salary to invest in the stock market.

“I’m a fifth-year teacher. I’m 30 years old, and I’m paying into a pension system that may or may not be around when I retire,” he said. “If I were 65 years old and retiring soon, I would feel differently. Right now, I feel frustrated and worried.”

The largest payments required under the plan will be tough for many districts to manage, but they’re going to be especially vexing for large urban districts like Los Angeles Unified, which lost 100,000 students in the last decade and expects to shed more. (Here's the toll of that under-enrollment, school by school.) That’s a problem, because California’s schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and fewer students means less money.

In Los Angeles, the swift enrollment decline is due to a dwindling birthrate and growing demand for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, meaning their budgets are separate from that of the district.

Over the next three years, the district anticipates its employee pension and health-care costs will climb $90 million, a 5 percent increase, while its revenue dips about $270 million, a 4 percent decline. The result is a $258 million budget deficit in 2020 that the district can no longer paper over, push off or ignore.

“We’re going to have to tighten our belts to save our schools,” said Nick Melvoin, a board member whose stark views on district finances have been criticized by skeptical local union leaders and fellow board members. “We’re in a death spiral.”

The district plans to tackle the deficit with a one-time $105 million bailout from the state and central-office staff reductions. But observers says officials will soon need to consider some painful measures it has so far been able to avoid, like boosting high school class sizes or closing schools with dwindling numbers of students.

At least 55 schools across the district are under-enrolled by a quarter, and 10 of those are half-empty, a CALmatters analysis of building capacity and enrollment data shows.

“Our costs are rising, and as a result, there are hard choices and trade-offs to make each time we look at the budget,” said Scott Price, the district’s chief financial officer.

Parent Paul Robak fears that if the district doesn’t tackle its budget problems soon, it could be taken over by the state. At a recent board meeting, he urged the members to reject a health-care spending plan that would further squeeze the budget. The members listened and thanked him for testifying before approving the agreement.

“It’s as if the board members are prancing down the lane and covering their ears, pretending nothing’s wrong,” said Robak, who has been active on the district’s parent councils for a decade. “Everyone will lose if we fail to act.”

Board member Kelly Gonez also acknowledged the district’s budget woes and the pressure of rising pension and health care costs, but said officials should be trying to ease the pain by finding new sources of revenue, not by making cuts. All but one other board member declined to comment.

Even as a fiscal crisis looms, Los Angeles teachers are negotiating for a raise.

“Everyone who works in the district comes to work with an expectation they’re going to be treated fairly. They need to be treated fairly,” Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and the district’s new superintendent, told the Los Angeles Times. “How we strike that balance remains to be seen.”

United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl declined CALmatters’ request for an interview. However, at a Pepperdine University event held before the state bailout was announced, he pledged to keep pushing for more money and predicted that the state would come through.

“If we take it off the table,” Caputo-Pearl said, “then we are acknowledging that the public district system is going to go off a fiscal cliff, which (is something) I’m not willing to acknowledge.”


Flooded with calls from anxious school officials, Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge and several other Democrats pushed earlier this year for a fix that would boost districts’ funding by $1 billion a year. In the end, Portantino convinced Brown to include about half as much in the state budget he signed a few weeks ago.

He insisted that the money be “flexible,” meaning districts may use it to cover rising pension costs or for anything else. But California’s schools are still underfunded compared to other states, and to better fulfill their responsibility to students and taxpayers, that must change, he said.

“In a few months, we’ll have a new governor with a new set of priorities,” Portantino said. “Is there more to do? Absolutely.”

CalSTRS’ first official report on the impact of districts’ growing pension obligations is due to the Legislature in the middle of next year, when school budgets will likely be squeezed the most.

In the meantime, Fine hopes a recession doesn’t strike soon and that districts can manage their budgets without needing to make cuts or send out pink slips. He was a deputy superintendent in Riverside during the Great Recession and remembers how painful it was to carry out round after round of layoffs.

“We lost one of the best counselors and some very bright teachers. I had to layoff someone who years earlier had taught my young children how to swim,” Fine said. “I remember their faces.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

The Foundation for the Palm Springs Unified School District is mounting a fantastic production for its annual fundraiser—with a little help from some friends.

The Grab Your Seat: Icons and Idols concert on Thursday, Jan. 18, at the Richards Center for the Arts at Palm Springs High School will pay tribute to a handful of rock ’n’ roll’s biggest stars: Tony Award-nominated singer Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin; singer/songwriter Von Smith as Freddy Mercury (pictured to the right); high tenor Jake Simpson as George Michael; and tap dancer and opera singer Rogelio Douglas Jr. as Prince.

During a recent phone interview, Ellen Goodman, the executive director of the PSUSD Foundation, said the idea for the show came from photographer and philanthropist Michael Childers.

“The school district really wanted to produce something for the community that would celebrate the renovated auditorium at Palm Springs High School, the Richards Center for the Arts,” Goodman said. “We really wanted something that was different and would be kind of culturally aligned with our student population and family population. We were brainstorming, and Michael Childers and (Deb Len Productions’) Debbie Green sat together and came up with this idea. It would be something that is sustainable through the years, and is a tribute and a celebration of past, current and future artists. I can’t really take any credit, and I have to say that Michael Childers and Debbie Green began the incubation, and Michael Childers just ran with it. That’s where the idea came from.”

When I mentioned that George Michael was notorious for his risqué music videos and song lyrics, she explained that the show pays tribute to late performers who were all eccentric in one way or another.

“Aside from Janis Joplin, it feels like an ’80s theme where it’s mostly pop rock,” she said. “The tribute combines talents who have passed on and (have) a legacy. When we looked at pop-rock performers who fit that genre, these entertainers seemed like the ones to include in our first year’s theme. George Michael fit that, and the music is totally in line with Prince and Freddy Mercury. They’re all kind of racy, not just George Michael. Janis Joplin would be considered quite racy during her time, and so would Prince. They all carry the same genre musically.”

The production is going to be focused on the music by the legends, Goodman said.

“It’s a band, so it’s not going to look like your traditional theater production that would have an orchestra or be … entertainment similar to Broadway,” she said. “It’s going to look like a mini-rock concert. I say ‘mini,’ because our band will likely be a six-piece. Our theater is almost 900 feet long, and we’re probably going to have a lot of singing along with some loud music.”

This event will show off the potential of the recently renovated Richards Center for the Arts, Goodman said—and people can choose to literally (sort of) “grab your seat” by naming a seat in the theater in their or someone else’s honor, in exchange for supporting the PSUSD Foundation.

“I want to believe that everything that we do there shows it off in a positive light, and we’ll be coming in on the heels of the Palm Springs International Film Festival,” Goodman said. “We have an orchestra in there, and musical theater in there, and I think (this event) is going to maximize this auditorium in terms of sound and stage in a way that some of the other events won’t. Every event is different, but I really think we’ll be able to maximize the sound, lighting and stage with this show.”

Grab Your Seat: Icons and Idols takes place at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 18 at the Richards Center for the Arts, 2248 Ramon Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $75 to $125. For tickets or more information, call 760-416-8455, or visit www.grabyourseat.net.

Published in Previews

Higher-education degrees are increasingly based on what you can do rather than how long you sit in a classroom, so it is pertinent to ask how technology is affecting K-12 education.

A recent symposium, “Literacy Summit 4,” held at Cal State San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus, brought together four teachers showcasing their efforts to incorporate computer-based learning into their lesson plans.

The east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) has made the news based on its ambitious goal of providing 18,000 iPads to its students. Katherine Quintana, who teaches at Coral Mountain Academy in Coachella, has already begun using the iPads under the CVUSD pilot program. Quintana has co-produced a short video documenting the project’s use by 120 teachers in CVUSD classrooms.

“The capabilities are endless,” says Quintana. “Students are empowered to find their own answers to questions. It’s instantaneous, spontaneous and exciting—a change-based learning model that supports critical-thinking skills where students can confront real-world problems, and teachers can more easily track student proficiencies.”

Apps such as Brain Pop provide students with instant feedback on their progress using animated lessons in science, social studies, English, math, engineering, health, art, and music. Google Earth lets students see the world they’re studying. Educreations enables students to create their own presentations and work collaboratively on projects.

Quintana says, “For the most part, it has been hugely positive. I’m not a real techie person—I was pretty much ‘old school.’ But this was a great opportunity to just jump into the pilot program and realize that we have kids capable of teaching their teachers and each other. It really helps teachers be better teachers.”

But what about local schools that do not have the same broad policy of incorporating technology by providing iPads to all students?

Karen Foerch taught fifth-grade last year in the west-valley Palm Springs Unified School District. She is now a technology specialist, teaching other teachers how to use technology in their classrooms.

“The classroom-management apps are particularly valuable,” Foerch says, “whether to track student performance and be able to provide instant feedback for students and parents, or to be able to contact parents directly so that they can manage students’ homework assignments and deadlines.”

Foerch found the use of technology actually improved the attention span of students with attention-deficit issues. “The technology approach to presenting material fits right in with how many students think,” she says. “That’s how their brains work.”

Applications like Class Dojo help teachers manage their classrooms, including tracking behaviors so that students and parents can access results without having to wait for formal teacher/parent conferences. Grade Cam gives teachers the ability to streamline time-consuming test-scoring and grade-reporting. Remind 101 lets teachers text students and parents en masse with updates on assignments and homework.

Foerch maintains, “It’s all about saving time and giving teachers more time to teach.”

Another app Foerch recommends to teachers is iBrainstorm, which lets students capture ideas instantly, organize them and share them with other students to collaborate on projects. “Using applications like this allows students to manage their own time,” Foerch says.

Then there’s Science 360, which immerses students in critical STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) skills and enables them to research materials that enhance their classroom learning.

Foerch uses apps like Dragon Dictation, helping students convert speech into text for improvements in writing and reading skills. It’s particularly helpful for students who are English-language learners.

Other helpful apps include Quizlet, which lets students create their own flash cards to facilitate studying, and Bluster, used by fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to expand vocabulary skills.

Teachers Wende Hamann and Kelly Fitchpatrick teach humanities, language arts and social studies at Palm Desert Charter Middle School.

“The kids aren’t intimidated by all this,” says Hamann. “We need to learn the culture and how to implement these programs in our classrooms.”

Apps available via Google allow teachers to simplify grading and track assignments in student folders that are then accessible by parents. “Kids are learning, and we’re learning,” says Hamann. “A computer-based curriculum also allows us to teach what it means to be a good ‘digital citizen’ so that students realize that what they do on-line will be seen by others.”

Flipping the classroom,” based on the Khan Academy approach, is another innovation in K-12 education. Students watch videos of their teacher’s presentation of lessons as homework, and then classroom time is focused on research, problem-solving and group work. Students can more easily go back and review something to better understand the material, rather than missing an important concept in a traditional lecture format.

In a flipped classroom—increasingly being incorporated in schools across the country—the teacher is seen less as “the sage on the stage” and more as the “guide on the side.”

The world of education is changing rapidly. With more than 20,000 apps applicable to K-12 education already available, finding the right ones for a particular teacher and classroom can be a daunting prospect. Teacher websites, such as Teachers Pay Teachers, allow teachers to share information with other educators across the country. Many apps are free or available at very low cost, and according to the four teachers at “Literacy Summit 4,” they are well worth the effort.

Pat Fredericks, a member of Cal State University Associates, a CSUSB-PD support group, said in her opening remarks at the symposium, “There is a demonstrated need for these programs in the Coachella Valley. Applied technology helps promote technological literacy as well as program development.”

CSUSB-PD has opened the Porter Resource Room on the third floor of the Indian Wells Building, providing resources for history and social studies for kindergarten through sixth-grade, all aligned to the recently adopted core-curriculum standards.

If you haven’t visited a classroom recently, stop bemoaning the state of American education—and find out for yourself how technology is changing the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The Palm Springs Unified School District is expected to save more than $6.9 million in energy costs over the next two decades after the installation of solar systems at campuses across the district.

Among the 11 sites, including the district’s service center, is Cathedral City High School, where district officials are planning to hold a “flip the switch” event on Monday, Oct. 28.

Some of the solar systems are already in place, and the rest are expected to be installed by the end of the year, according to information distributed on a district PowerPoint presentation. The district includes schools in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Thousand Palms.

With five different rate tiers between May and October, calculating the district’s power rate is complex, said Julie Arthur, executive director of facilities and planning for the district. However, the district has projected a savings of $6,949,731 over the next 20 years.

That figure assumes a roughly 2 percent annual increase in energy costs. Arthur said the true savings could be as much as $25 million, or even more, because the district has historically seen 3.75 percent increases, Arthur said.

“Just this summer, Southern California Edison had a 5 percent rate increase, so we’ve already saved 5 percent,” Arthur said.

(In an annoying bit of bureaucratic nonsense, Robert Villegas, a Southern California Edison spokesman, referred questions about rate increases over the years to the California Public Utilities Commission. When asked for that information, California Public Utilities Commission information officer Christopher Chow referred us back to Southern California Edison.)

Arthur said the district had explored wind energy as well, but opted for a solar solution with SunEdison, which assumed the installation and equipment costs. The district is only required to pay for the state inspections. Arthur did not know the precise cost, but estimated it would be roughly “a couple thousand” per site.

Because the solar panels will continue to generate power during the summer months when school is out, yet area energy consumption is at its peak, school and company officials called the partnership “a win-win.”

The school board approved a 20-year energy-service contract with SunEdison. It effectively locks Palm Springs Unified in to the 2012 rates the district paid to Southern California Edison.

“Wouldn’t you love to pay the same amount for your gallon of gasoline for the next 20 years?” Arthur said.

Formed in 2003, SunEdison focuses on making and installing solar systems for schools, prisons, commercial buildings and utilities.

“I’d love to have solar panels at every school,” Arthur said. “We just don’t have the parking lots to make it an option.” She said the district is also looking to add two additional school sites: Raymond Cree and Nellie Coffman middle schools.

Palm Springs Unified is one of three school districts statewide with SunEdison contracts.

“It seems to be mostly Southern California schools that are showing interest at this point,” said Dawn Brister, a SunEdison spokeswoman. “Palm Springs is an early adopter for solar. They really are ahead of the game.”

The district’s move to solar was part of its 2010 energy master plan, said Shari Stewart, Palm Springs Unified’s school board president.

“One of our main objectives is to go as green as possible, if we (can) save money,” Stewart said.

As for other valley school districts: Desert Sands Unified, which includes schools in Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Coachella, La Quinta and Indio, is “researching potential projects but (has) nothing in the works at this time,” said Cynthia McDaniel, assistant superintendent of business services.

It is unclear whether Coachella Valley Unified has or is exploring solar power. Anita Meraz, a spokeswoman for the district with schools in Indio, Coachella, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City, did not return multiple emails or calls to her office and cell phone.

“I’m happy we’re one of the first,” said Stewart, of Palm Springs Unified. “We’re going to be saving a tremendous amount of money over the long haul.”

Published in Local Issues

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