School Board candidates talked about how to improve standardized test scores and adequately serve all students -- including those not destined for college - during a forum hosted by the Triplicate on Wednesday.

Five candidates running to represent districts 3 and 4 on the Del Norte County Unified School District Board of Trustees gave opening and closing statements and answered questions during the event at Mary Peacock Elementary School.

Candidates running for District 3 include incumbent Frances Costello, the current School Board president, and retired teacher Edna Smith. District 4 candidates include retired teacher Judith Cordts, Fort Dick Bible Church Pastor Roger Daley and psychologist Tod Roy.

District 3 encompasses Smith River, Hiouchi and Gasquet, while District 4 includes Fort Dick and Lake Earl as well as some neighborhoods on the west side of Northcrest Drive and both sides of Lake Earl Drive. Residents countywide can vote in both races, but the candidates must live in the district they hope to represent.

Improving education

Triplicate Editor Richard Wiens opened the question portion of the forum by asking candidates to give specifics on how they would improve the education Del Norte students are receiving. Wiens prefaced his question by pointing out that the county's students consistently perform below the state average on standardized tests.

Daley said it's difficult to come into a School Board as one person and make change.

"In our educational system in this one community there are so many layers that we have to try to work through and try to work with this group and try to work with this group and we've kind of lost focus," he said.

Daley quoted a Wall Street Journal article that stated SAT scores dropped by 36 points in the last 30 years. The newspaper's research indicated schools need to focus on the core disciplines of language, math, history and science, Daley said.

"Those really are the core values, the core fundamental issues that we really ought to focus on," he said. "The problem is we've brought into the school so many other secondary and tertiary classes or requirements or stipulations or extra things that really take away from what they should be learning. We can offer trade classes. Not everybody's going to go to college. The SAT is not for everybody. In our community we do not need everybody equipped in a competitive world."

Daley added that schools should be teaching students life skills like how to balance a checkbook or repair cars.

Roy acknowledged the changes the School Board has made in addressing students' test scores, and noted the board has looked at what other districts are doing.

"In that respect they have developed a strategic plan that's going to occur over the next three yearsin which they are going to be focusing on a significant number of issues in order to address the education of our children in our community," he said. "They've developed what they call (Professional) Learning Communities to address this issue of achievement gap and addressing the needs of educating our children. In that respect my contribution would be to be in full support of that plan and its implementation, especially the ongoing assessments that are required in order to know what they're doing and what changes they may have to make."

Wiens questioned Roy further on communication between Del Norte students and their teachers.

Roy responded that better communication was already being accomplished through the introduction of advisement periods at the high school this year where students can go three days a week for tutoring.

"I think this is the way that they're going and I would support it and be an advocate for it should I be elected to the board," Roy said.

Cordts said that when she was a teacher, she needed to do a lot of things to stimulate learning. She often had students that were coming from programs that didn't work for them.

"When my grandchildren were here in Mary Peacock, actually, Pizza Hut had a reading for fun (program) where they got rewards for the number of books they read. I would want to look to the community and see if we could do something like that again. If children can enjoy reading at an early age and start that, that would do so much to encouraging all the academics to work better," Cordts said. "When I taught I tried very hard to find ways to spark interest. Sometimes with movies, sometimes it was just showing how what they are learning correlated with what their life was really about. I think that's an important part."

Like Roy, Smith noted the School Board is currently taking steps to address students' test scores. She brought up the Del Norte Engaged Learning Model, a new program the district is implementing this year, saying it will help teachers relate to teachers better, but it's not going to be the answer to everything.

"In all the years of teaching, one thing doesn't work," Smith said. "You have to have the parents involved. You have to have everybody involved. And you have to have the kid in school."

"Getting their kid to school, keeping them fed, keeping kids motivated is as much the parent's responsibility as it is the school's responsibility," she said. "Teachers work hard. They don't just go home at 3 o'clock when the kids go home. They are hard-working, dedicated people and we need to support them. Right now they're trying to make a change, good, but one little change is not going to do it, it's a long-standing kind of problem that we've had, it's going to be a long time before we get it solved."

As the only current member of the School Board on the ballot, Costello said she was involved in implementing the Del Norte Engaged Learning Model this year. It was a two-year process, she said, that involved the community, teachers, School Board and administrators.

"It's a multi-faceted approach to trying to improve our education and the school system," Costello said, adding that Professional Learning Communities increase collaboration and communication among teachers. "We have pockets of very excellent teaching going on in our district and this way we can share what's happening. Also our data coaches, which is also new, we have data coaches at each school site. Those data coaches are helping our classroom teachers look at student achievement, look at test scores and helping them analyze what our kids need and where they are and where they should be going. I do believe that we are moving in the right direction, but I also believe we have a ways to go."

Life after high school

Another forum question touched on the school district's effort to get students ready for college and the reality that not all students go to college after graduating from high school.

Costello, who has been in education for 30 years, said at one point when she was a teacher the district decided to eliminate all vocational education programs. Students took more English and math courses and fewer electives, she said, adding that in recent years the district has reversed that approach to vocational education.

"One of the reasons that Mrs. (Coleen) Parker was hired at Del Norte High School was because she has an outstanding background in vocational programs," Costello said. "(She) has now implemented more career programs at the high school, we've started career programs in the after-school program. Some of the technology programs, the shop classes, carpentry class, implementing a program for health service providers, and we're all moving now back in that direction. Is it enough? Maybe not. But I think it's in the right direction."

The district did have classes through a regional occupation program, Smith said. She added that her grandson took welding classes in high school that kept him working while he was in college.

"All kids are not going to college," Smith said. "Everybody should know that everybody's not qualified to go to college. I'm a strong advocate of the junior college system. Even for kids going on to a four-year college, unless they're a valedictorian or salutatorian, a lot of kids do not learn the skills that it takes to go to college. Not all going to college. And if you think about it, who makes the most money now? The computer nerds. There are things that don't require college that are a real necessity in our technological age."

Smith said absenteeism needs to be targeted.

"Our graduation rate is appalling," Smith said. "We have to do things to keep these kids engrossed in going to college. We have to find things the kids will do and help them to be motivated."

Roy said an emphasis on math and reading is important for all students, whether or not they go to college, because it teaches how to process and analyze information.

"They do need these basic skills," he said. "The district is paying, from what I understand, through this strategic plan, is emphasizing these factors in terms of preparing students for their future. I would welcome the introduction or reintroduction of vocational education in the school because that is a foundation (for) developing a workforce to take the place of those retiring out."

Cordts said ideally she would like to have every student do consumer home economics so they could "live in the real world and know how to function." She added that the district should also do vocational interest testing early in high school to give students an idea of what career path they might take. She added that allowing students to learn via computers might be a good way of engaging them and motivating them.

"We keep talking about parents' involvement and my experience in this district is we have a lot of parents who are not wanting to be involved or care about what happens with their students," Cordts said. "I'd like to see if we can do a campaign to show the importance of education and the importance of that diploma. I've always told my students, it doesn't get you a lot, the diploma, but it shows potential employer that you didn't quit."

Daley said he comes into contact with about 50-60 students who attend Del Norte County public schools.

"I struggle to find the basic philosophy of state-run schools to help teach the students about what's going to really happen in the real world," Daley said. "For instance, accountability ... What we should be teaching them is when you don't perform, you don't pass. As an employee that's the way it works for you. That's the way it works for everybody else in the private sector."

Daley said schools should teach students that parents have a right and responsibility to help them and they should be involved. It's the parents' responsibility to motivate their children, he said.

Daley also addressed "moral accountability," in terms of how students treat one another and how they treat their teachers.

"It's shameful how students treat one another and how they treat their teachers and there's no authority for the teachers to say, 'out of the classroom, you can't treat people that way,'" Daley said.

Eligible voters statewide have until Oct. 22 to register in order to participate in the Nov. 6 general election.

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