Bakersfield City School District Superintendent Robert Arias walked a crowd of about 100 people through a presentation last week on the district's challenges, and what's being tried to overcome them.
Among other things, he talked about an incentive program to reinforce good behavior, the summer learning centers the district launched last year to keep students from falling behind over summer break and professional learning communities designed to share best practices among teachers.
But at the end of the day, Arias told the crowd, the district needs input from the community on what it should be doing to encourage learning.
"We've gone above and beyond in terms of trying to elicit feedback," he said at the second of two community forums the district held in the BCSD auditorium this month.
School districts across California are gathering input from staff and parents as part of a state-mandated process related to the new Local Control Funding Formula.
That's a new formula for distributing state education dollars giving school districts a bigger say in how money should be spent locally. Previously, a lot of that money came with stipulations on how it could be used.
But districts can't arbitrarily set priorities behind closed doors. By law, they must solicit input from parents, employees and others with an interest in education.
Once they have gathered that feedback, districts are required to prepare and make public a Local Control Accountability Plan that describes specific strategies for meeting annual goals for students.
School boards have until July 1 to adopt their plans, but most have already started soliciting input on what priorities should be funded.
The plans should cover the next three years, but are to be updated annually during that term.
Districts have the discretion to tailor the plan to some degree to address their unique issues, but there are some basic points the state has mandated for everyone. All plans, for instance, must include information on pupil achievement on statewide tests, the percentage of English learners making progress on English proficiency, and suspension and expulsion rates.
Parent Keisha Smith, who attended BCSD's community forum last week, was very interested when Arias mentioned efforts to close the gap between whites and minorities in expulsion rates, including cultural sensitivity training for teachers.
"I'm not naming any names, but I can tell you from my experience with my son that there are definitely teachers in this district who are making judgments about students based on preconceived notions without bothering to get to know them," Smith said.
Mother of two Amber Perkinson perked up when Arias talked about extending school library hours.
Would the district provide new money for that or cut something else to pay for it, she wanted to know.
Arias responded that new money would be set aside for that.
"That made me feel a lot better," she said later.
To facilitate such exchanges, most districts are, at the very least, posting surveys on their websites, but some have opted to go beyond that.
"We know not everyone has access to computers, so we're also sending paper questionnaires home with students and talking to parent groups at their meetings," said Mary Westendorf, superintendent of the Fruitvale School District.
It's common to query people at meetings of school site councils and Parent Teacher Association groups, and unions representing certificated and classified employees.
"The law says we don't have to create a new process for gathering community input if we already have systems in place to do that, and we've had those avenues for years," said Superintendent Chris Crawford of the Greenfield Union School District in southeast Bakersfield.
But Greenfield will host open public forums, too, at some point, Crawford said, because he knows not all parents attend those meetings.
Fruitvale's Westendorf said she looks forward to hearing what parents and employees have to say.
"We're very, very interested in the feedback," she said.