State schools superintendent Torlakson visits Alpine County

Tahoe Onstage

California State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson shares a laugh with teacher Philip Marks and fourth-graders Lauren Lundy and Lillian Rotonda.
Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

A week after visiting a school in Los Angeles with an enrollment of 4,000, the state’s top education official was touring the Diamond Valley Elementary School campus, which has 80 students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

“It is a small school in numbers but mighty in its focus and learning,” said Tom Torlakson, California’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, on Sept. 20.

At the end of the year, Torlakson’s second and final term will come to an end. With his trip to the rural school south of Lake Tahoe and a few miles from the Nevada state line, Torlakson stayed at the Woodford’s Inn the night before to get an early start to his visits.

Alpine County has the smallest population in California. Alpine County Schools Superintendent Patrick Traynor, who led a tour for Torlakson, said the county has just one stoplight. He said it’s great where the principal and superintendent both can know the name of every student. He added the county is 95 percent National Forest land, which makes it beautiful place to teach and learn.

Traynor did note the challenges that  small school systems face without the economies of scale of larger ones. He added that even small changes at the state level can have major impacts on small systems. Traynor discussed the challenge of out-of-state tuition costs for the district’s students to receive their comprehensive high school experience. Torlakson and his staff took note and said they would continue to push for this in Sacramento with the Department of Finance.

Traynor took Torklason, his wife Mae Cendan and staff to each classroom at Diamond Valley, the nearby Alpine Early Learning Center and the Woodfords Indian Center at the Hung-A-Lel-Ti Colony of the Southern Washoe Tribe, explaining many aspects of Alpine County that make its educational needs unique. Fifty five percent of Alpine County students are Native American, for instance, which adds great richness to its culture and presents many different learning opportunities

Torlakson has been a city councilman, country supervisor, a state senator and assemblymen. He estimated he has gone door-to-door to up to 20,000 homes on his campaigns. On Thursday, he met all of Diamond Valley’s students, and many were curious about the visitor who wore a suit.

“Do you always wear nice clothes?”

“I knew I would be meeting bright students, so I wore a bright tie.”

“Where do you live?”

“If you take Highway 4 all the way to Contra Costa County, that’s where I live.”

“Is it a mansion?”

“No, it’s just a house.”

“I thought you were going to be 7-feet tall.”

In person, Torlakson did not appear larger than life, but the figures he mentioned fascinated some of the students.

There are 10,000 schools in California and 6.2 million students. When he was elected, Torlakson said he received more than 4 million votes.

Seventh-grader Andrew Mortimer looked up from his desk, wanting to make sure he heard it right. “Million?” he asked.

Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Torlakson and Alpine Superintendent Patrick Traynor meet at Diamond Valley.

Diamond Valley has some impressive numbers, too. Its student performance results had significant improvement from Spring 2017 to Spring 2018 in English and mathematics. Traynor attributed a great teaching and support staff and also the district’s embracement of innovation, particularly the new Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS).

Traynor said his staff, with Ms. Erin Dobyns, as the County Office of Educations Funding Coordinator/Special Projects, pursues grants that make many opportunities for students possible. Traynor thanked Torlakson for the support of the governor’s scaled-up Multi-Tiered System of Support grant that allowed the county office and district to invest $50,000 in improving their system.

Superintendent Torlakson was pleased to see Diamond Valley Elementary School, where each student has access to a laptop computer and has such a strong district IT department for support. There also is a music program and three sports teams, cross-country, basketball and track and field with a possible volleyball team

But there are big challenges, as well. Torlakson said the reason for his trip was to learn about those matters.

When ask about urgent issues, Traynor said most pressing for Alpine County Schools is Measure B, a bond initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot. If 55 percent of voters support the measure, nearly $5 million will be raised to upgrade school facilities for both Diamond Valley and Bear Valley Elementary Schools. Superintendent Torlakson agreed that school facilities are essential to work with the learning environment in order to facilitate student learning. He wished Alpine Schools hope with the passage of Measure B for the sake of its students.

At the conclusion to his visit, Torlakson said, “This is a skilled learning school with enthusiastic teachers, energized students and great leadership all around. It is magical to see it working so well.

“We have homework to do, and we like homework. I learned that there are some hurdles that seem illogical and should be eliminated. It seems unfair. There is a burden here that other rural schools don’t have to endure. Legislation proposals are needed and that needs to begin with local legislators. This is a non-partisan issue.”

Regarding Measure B, Torlakson said in follow-up communication, “Alpine County is a special place, and I am proud to join community members is support of Measure B. I met wonderful students, teachers and staff when I toured your schools, and I know it’s time to invest in upgrades to help all students achieve their dreams in the 21st Century careers and college.”

 

Measure B would:

  • Repair aging fire safety and electrical systems.
  • Repair leaking roofs and decaying walls.
  • Maintain drinking water safety.
  • Provide accessibility for students with disabilities.
  • Repair and update outdated classrooms to protect the quality of academic instruction in core subjects like math, science, reading and writing.
  • Upgrade emergency communications systems and create a safe environment for students.
  • Provide updated school and classroom technology.

Strict Fiscal Accountability Provisions

  • All revenue from a bond measure would benefit Alpine County schools, be controlled locally and could not be taken by the state.
  • A Citizens’ Oversight Committee and annual audits would ensure funds are spent as promised.
  • No funds could be spent on administrators’ salaries or benefits.
  • The proposed measure would cost an average of approximately $28 per $100,000 of assessed value (not market value) per year to fund $4.95 million of improvements.

 — Tim Parsons

About Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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