(The city recap will be provided on New Year’s Eve.)
(This post has been updated from the print edition.)
Benicia Unified School District has seen its share of activity in the last 12 months. Schools were honored by the state, the public turned up at school board meetings to voice their concerns on issues and the biggest Measure S project was finally completed.
Although leadership changes were small compared to 2016, there were a fair amount of devlopments in this category. Deputy Superintendent Dr. Michael Gardner retired after more than 35 years in the education field and six years with BUSD. He was succeeded by Dr. Khushwinder Gill, who had aserved as assistant superintendent with the Lammersville Unified School District.
Carin Garton left her position as the principal of Joe Henderson Elementary School after seven years to become the principal of Marley Park Elementary School in Surpirse, Ariz.— her home state. She was succeeded by Melanie Buck, who had previously served as the principal of Lincoln Elementary in Vallejo for five years.
Finally, JoAnn Severson retired after five years in the top position at Liberty High School, which had been preceded by a 26-year teaching and administrative career at Benicia High School. She was succeeded by Zachary Pless, who had served as a vice principal at Martinez Junior High School for three years and also taught at Rodriquez High School in Fairfield.
BUSD also saw its share of retirements, including Benicia Middle School music teacher and Viking Band Director Glenn Walp, who had served in the position for 18 years and was also the band director at Vallejo Junior High School for 14 years before that. He was succeeded by Matt Ferriera, who had taught music at St. Mary’s College High School in Berkeley for 10 years.
In terms of Measure S projects, the district completed a fire alarm upgrade at Benicia High and also spent time discussing future projects, including further fire alarm upgrades at Mary Farmar and Robert Semple elementary schools which are expected to start construction in the summer of 2018 and a modernization of the BMS campus, which is expected to begin construction some time next year. The renovation would consist of constructing new modular classrooms in the northwest wing, a new kitchen and lunch shelter as well as a new drama classroom, and removing the lower portables.
However, the biggest Measure S news was the completion of Benicia High’s renovated George Drolette stadium. The old stadium was demolished the previous summer with plans for a new stadium to be completed in the spring. However, an exceptionally rainy winter season led to construction continually being pushed back. It finally opened in September with a ribbon cutting. The new stadium features aluminum bleachers that can seat up to 3,300 people, an 8-lane all-weather track, upgraded lighting, a new concession stand relocated to the front of the stadium, a “memory brick” circle emblazoned with the names of past and present Benicia High Schoolers, and a new entryway with signage welcoming Panthers. The only element remaining from the previous stadium is the scoreboard. The next day, the Panthers played their first home game in two years where they defeated the visiting Armijo High School.
In 2016, three of BUSD’s elementary schools were named as California Gold Ribbon Schools. That honor was matched in 2017 when all three of the district’s secondary schools were recognized by the state. In February, Liberty High School was named as one of 35 model continuation high schools in the state for the first time in its history. In April, the school was honored at the California Continuation Education Association Conference in Fresno. Benicia Middle and Benicia High School also received Gold Ribbon honors, BMS for its efforts to support the social-emotional needs of students and BHS for its Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) program. Benicia Middle was also named as a Title 1 school, and BHS received an additional Exemplary Arts program award. BHS hosted a Gold Ribbon Day in May, where various stations were set up highlighting its arts program and a plaque was presented by County Superintendent Lisette Estrella-Henderson.
An additional honor went to Angela Porter, the campus supervisor of BMS who was named as the classified education employee of the year at both the county and state levels. Benicia High math teacher Lee Anne Aidt was named as one of the county’s certificated employees of the year.
2017 was a year when natural disasters made headlines across the world. When this happened, BUSD students came together to provide aid. After BMS English teacher Matthew Cunningham’s Texas home was damaged by Hurricane Harvey, members of the school’s Where Everybody Belongs program came together to raise money. Additionally, Benicia High adopted two Houston-area schools that had been affected by the hurricane.
More locally, the Wine Country fires that impacted the Napa and Sonoma regions also impacted Benicia schools, which were closed for several days due to unhealthy air quality from the fires and led to events such as Benicia High’s Homecoming being rescheduled. Throughout it all, BHS students volunteered at Northgate Christian Fellowship to deliver and sort through donations. Additionally, the school’s stadium also served as a practice field for Napa and Vintage high school’s football fields while those schools’ campuses were closed off.
Benicia HIgh saw its share of changes this year. The biggest was the adoption of a new bell schedule. After numerous unsuccessful attempts for the faculty to come to a consensus on a viable schedule that most effectively utilized the state’s required amount of minutes, the school finally settled on a new schedule in May. The schedule consists of three traditional days and two block days, featuring a new Access period where students can work on homework or projects, meet with teachers, make up tests, view the “Panther TV” student news program, and attend workshops or guest speaker presentations provided by the Counseling Office and College and Career Center. The schedule was adopted at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year and will continue to be refined over time, according to Principal Brianna Kleinschmidt.
The special education department also saw an overhaul of its model. Students with Individualized Education Programs now spend most of their days in general education classes rather than resource classes while still receiving support from their case managers. There also is a new curriculum support class which replaces the traditional directed studies. The classes are open to students at specific grade levels and allow students to be able to work together on assignments from other classes.
Benicia High also saw an expansion of its Career Technical Education department, featuring such new courses as introduction to medical careers, Construction and Building Trades 1 and basic automotive/welding. The latter two courses mark the respective returns of wood shop and auto shop but have been updated for 21st-century learning.
Graduation at DVC
As the date for the class of 2017’s graduation drew nearer and construction continued at Drolette Stadium, it was becoming unclear if graduation could be hosted at the normal site. The administration began exploring other options but remained optimistic that the stadium would at least be open enough to host graduation. A ticketing system was proposed, where seniors would only be allowed to invite up to six guests and those who did not need all six tickets would be encouraged to give them to seniors who needed additional tickets or have them raffled off in a lottery system. The community did not like this idea, so an online poll was conducted to see if parents and students would prefer to hold graduation at the school’s stadium or Diablo Valley College’s stadium. Up to 60 percent of students and 53 percent of parents preferred the latter option, so that is where it was held.
Teacher shortage/negotiation impasse
The teacher shortage that has been affecting American school districts in recent years certainly impacted Benicia, and the issue was brought to the school board’s attention in late 2016. Among the issues pointed out: teachers using their prep periods to take over for classes without teachers, vacancies being filled by non-credentialed teachers and Spanish teachers monitoring the use of Rosetta Stone.
Concurrent with this was an impasse over salary negotiations, which was declared by the Benicia Teachers Association in November 2016. A mediation was held in February, but a settlement was not reached.
The two issues were brought up by several teachers, students and parents during the public comment at a March school board meeting. Shortly after, the district and BTA were able to reach a tentative agreement which the school board approved that month.
The new graduation requirements debate
In January, the board held a study session to discuss proposed new graduation requirements for Benicia High and went into further detail at its regular March 16 meeting. The proposed requirements— which would go into effect starting with the class of 2022— aimed to increase college readiness for all students and were modeled after the UC system’s A-G requirements. These conditions included requiring an extra year of science, an extra year of math, two years of the same world language, one year of a visual or performing art and one year of a new ninth-grade course titled “Get Focused.” The requirements were unanimously approved as part of the consent calendar at the board’s April 6 meeting.
However, as faculty, students and the community learned about the requirements, they began voicing their concerns. Issues included the lack of input from staff and the community, and potentially decreased space for electives and multiple years of visual or performing arts. These issues were discussed first at an informational meeting at the high school and again during the public comment portion of a June school board meeting. Superintendent Charles Young re-agendized the matter for the following school board meeting, where the previous requirements were reinstated by the school board by a 3-to-1 vote (Trustee Stacy Holguin was absent, and Trustee Diane Ferrucci voted no.) The discussion was reopened in December, with the community invited to provide more input this time around. It will likely continue to be discussed in 2018.
In the midst of this debate, another issue was brought up regarding Benicia High’s 36-year-old Performing Arts Building. Among the issues brought up were overhead lights without support beams, leaks in the drama room and the facility posing safety issues in the event of an earthquake. The school board voted in November to approve applications for grant funding, which would include replacing the lighting and acoustic fixtures, converting and expanding the old costume shop into a dance studio, adding changing rooms in the backstage and production support space in the backstage, and expanding the stage to provide more performance space. If approved, BUSD could receive $3 million which it would then have to match through Measure S or other facility funds.