West Marin School: A Success Story Threatened


March 11, 2010
West Marin Citizen


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The West Marin School doesn’t have an easy assignment. Roughly half the students are Latino; and many of those are from homes in which little or no English is spoken. The school somehow has to teach together the children of doctors and ranch hands—of parents who read the New Yorker and parents who don’t do much reading at all.

It could be a prescription for an ethnic chasm. Instead, Latino and other students are learning and growing together, to a remarkable degree. It is a success story you probably don’t know about if you don’t have a child there; and much credit goes to the team that handles the early grades. The kindergarten, first and second grade teachers all are bi-lingual, and fantastic teachers to boot.

They are backed up by a classroom assistant in the kindergarten who is a Latina grandmother, and by a reading specialist who works hard with the kids who otherwise would fall behind. Not only do the kids get the support they need; their parents can talk to teachers in their own language, without feeling intimidated, or ashamed of their spotty English.

Here’s the result. In my son’s second grade class, every single child is reading at grade level or higher. This includes at least one who started kindergarten speaking practically no English at all. The English speakers go to Spanish class when the Spanish speakers are getting extra help in English. The bilingual environment becomes a benefit for all.

Budget cuts might soon bring this success story to an end. Major blame goes to Proposition 13; and also Governor Schwarzenegger, who has lacked the courage to ask people in the state – especially the very richest – to pay a little more.

But our school board and teachers’ union still can keep West Marin School basically intact, if they really want to.

There are members of both who are taking that large view. I think they can prevail, especially if the board and union hear from the rest of us

Nobody knows exactly how big the budget gap is going to be next year, because the state share is yet to be determined. The best guess is at least $230,000, which is a big bite for a small district such as ours. Over eighty percent of the budget goes to teachers and staff. Any substantial new cuts are going to have to come from there.

I don’t want to harp on regional divisions. But the fact is, the Shoreline District is weighted towards the northern end– that is, Bodega Bay and Tomales. The majority of the school board is from there. The district offices are in Tomales, along with the high school and Tomales elementary. The high school has been especially effective at ginning up support among parents, students and staff; and high schoolers are better able to make their case at school board meetings than our first graders are.

The way the budget chips are falling seems not entirely co-incidental. The high school stands to lose parts of two positions. Tomales elementary stands to lose one. West Marin meanwhile would lose both the kindergarten and first grade teachers that I mentioned. The second grade teacher could be gone as well. The reading specialist who has been crucial to the kids from non-English speaking households (and others too), might be shifted to other duties.

The entire team for West Marin’s portal of opportunity would be dismantled. Teachers in the higher grades would have to deal with the damage. An ethnic chasm could open up. Parents with options could start to defect; and the school could return to the days – which veterans on the staff remember – when the slower learners “fell through the cracks” and were forgotten.

We don’t have to go that route. There will be pain no matter what, but at least we could spread it out. First, sacrifice has to start at the top. Is it really necessary to have three generals in Tomales – two principals and a superintendent – for a system that has less than 600 kids, of which 150 are at the southern end to begin with? In the past, the superintendent and high school principal roles have been combined. We could do that again and save well over $100,000

Then there’s the school board. I hate to suggest this, because these folks are working hard at what has become a thankless job. But in the spirit of shared sacrifice, they could pay for at least part of the medical insurance they now get for free.

That brings me to teachers. I’d give them all raises if I could. My son has had three so far, and their dedication and over-the-top excellence has left me limp with gratitude. Thank you, Sharon Zarate, Melissa Riley, and Ann Haley- Harper. But the first two at least will be gone next year, along with the “reading intervention” (the technical term) of Sue Gonzalez, if nothing else happens.

To save them, their colleagues are going to have to step up to the plate.

Small cuts for all could save a crucial few from going overboard.

I know it’s tough. But solidarity is the highest tradition of the labor movement. If it’s any comfort, many of us parents have taken hits in recent years too. We will have the teachers’ backs when the time to restore what they give up, comes.

West Marin Citizen contributor Jonathan Rowe lives in Point Reyes Station.