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Santa Rosa City Schools expands online options for fall

With just three weeks to go before the school year opens Aug. 17 with online-only instruction, Santa Rosa City Schools officials are rolling out three distinct return-to-school models and asking the families of its nearly 16,000 students to choose.

While all schools in Sonoma County are prevented from offering any form of in-person instruction until the county emerges from California’s COVID-19 watchlist, Santa Rosa City Schools is unveiling its varied programs to counter criticism levied at districts and schools throughout the state that distance learning last spring was spotty at best.

District officials on Tuesday sent an email to families outlining three back-to-school choices: distance learning, an online-only option meant to loosely replicate a typical school schedule; Learning House, an online project-based curriculum that will link students and teachers from various campuses in smaller learning groups; and distance learning with an option to move to a mixture of online and in-person classes in October if safety permits.

All programs must meet state standards for minutes of instruction and standards-based curriculum. Families have until Aug. 3 to choose.

Curriculum options and sample schedules are posted on the district website.

The idea for the new, project-based Learning House option, in which students will be matched with peers and teachers from campuses other than their home school, emerged from the district’s 220-plus person return-to-school committee that met over the spring and summer to craft a more rigorous curriculum for online instruction.

“The entire community really wanted to re-imagine what distance learning could look like,” said Rani Goyal, director of secondary math and science for the district.

Assistant Superintendent Anna Guzman said lessons were learned in the spring. The idea of project-based learning emerged, in part, from committee discussions about how to reach students, both academically and emotionally, when they are not on campus.

“Our teaching staff, our partners out in the community and our students can really have an opportunity to not only re-create education but also co-create with each other,” Guzman said. “This has been trying and challenging, but it can really be a silver lining through this whole situation.”

School board President Laurie Fong, who spent years as principal at Montgomery High and is a lifelong educator, is an admirer of what is being offered in the Learning House model.

“I have a long history with learning communities as a teacher. I am really a fan of it,” she said, adding that collaboration is key. “Your English isn’t a separate subject from your history or a separate subject from your art or even your math. Each teacher brings part of that as they are planning their projects. Kids are doing so much writing, so much reading. What science is involved? How are they going to represent what they learned? Are they going to represent it in Spanish or in a mathematical model or a dance piece?”

Santa Rosa Teachers Association President Will Lyon said there is excitement in the ranks about the program but also unease because of the stresses already mounting in delivering another round of online teaching in a pandemic.

“There are administrators and teachers who are excited about the possibilities. And there is a whole group of people who are excited about the possibilities but not under these circumstances, maybe later,” he said. “Probably, in some ways, it would get more support from teachers and families if it weren’t for the crisis.”

All three models are open to all students, from transitional kindergarten to seniors. Those who choose Learning House are asked to commit for a full semester. Those who choose distance learning must select between a full semester or the option to go back part-time should classes resume when officials reassess in early October.

The sample schedule for Learning House shows a block schedule in which math and science are blended one day and math and English blended the next. Social science is intermixed with English and science. Electives are offered.

Both the Learning House and distance learning options call for a maximum of 90 minutes of live instruction in Zoom classes, four days a week, for middle and high school students. Elementary school students are to receive between 60-90 minutes. Other types of live interaction, such as text messages or email exchanges with teachers, are also required but do not count toward the Zoom maximum.

Students in specialized programs such as ArtQuest at Santa Rosa High or International Baccalaureate at Montgomery High will not lose their place if they choose Learning House but cannot take those specialized courses while in the Learning House model.

Some have expressed concern that teachers and parents are overwhelmed and the new program is as yet too ill-defined for families to make an informed decision with only 12 days to evaluate their options.

“We are asking parents to pick a learning model for their students without a clear definition of what that looks like,” Steele Lane Elementary School teacher Micah Carlin-Goldberg told trustees at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

Carlin-Goldberg said teachers are being peppered with questions about the three options not only from families, but fellow teachers. Teachers, too, are being asked to choose between straight distance learning and Learning House.

“What is Learning House? What is distance learning? What do they look like? What is right for my children? Who is going to be teaching each model?” Carlin-Goldberg said.

Carlin-Goldberg said district outreach — via email and on the Santa Rosa City Schools website — is not working for large swaths of parents, many of whom are front-line workers or who do not have access to technology and become largely cut off from school business during the summer months.

“We are leaving these parents out. They don’t do email,” he said. “We are not communicating with our parents well enough. We are leaving out our most vulnerable. ... I don’t know how to fix it, but it’s not right.“

Lyon said he remains positive about the options but that he, too, has questions. He recommended an online forum where both parents and teachers could ask questions of district officials “before we ask them to make a choice that is going to affect the next year of their child’s life or the next year of their teaching practice.”

Fong said the district is rolling out as much information as it can, and she encouraged parents to continue asking questions.

“Ask as many questions as you need — this is your child’s education,” she said. “This a new age and a new time, and just keep asking questions.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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