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January 3, 2006 > Interview with Dr. John Bernard, Newark Unified School District Superintendent of Schools

Interview with Dr. John Bernard, Newark Unified School District Superintendent of Schools

In September 2003, TCV interviewed Dr. John Bernard who had assumed the reins as Superintendent of the Newark Unified School District (NUSD). A recent discussion with Dr. Bernard touched on the state of the district and the future for NUSD.

TCV: What has been happening at NUSD this year?

Bernard: We have a lot of good things going on this year in Newark. One good thing is that the Board of Education and the Newark City Council just approved the new strategic plan goals. There are five new goals to help improve the district to make sure parents and the community are aware and involved in what is happening, helping us to move forward.

We have settled a multi-year contract so there will be no negotiations for the next year and a half. There are things we need to work on, but it is a positive. The Board of Education has a goal to make sure we are fiscally sound and to end deficit spending, making sure our revenues and expenditures are in line. This will require budget cutting next spring, so between February and May or June, it will be difficult. The severity of this difficulty will depend on what happens in January with the governor's budget which is due out in a couple of weeks. We have to build our budget on those ideas.

In May, the governor will present a revised budget and we have to revise our budget by June. When the final state budget is set in July - sometimes as late as September - we need to revise our budget again to conform within 45 days. In the big scheme of things, we still have to open school next year. It is a confusing process.

TCV: How has the recently formed Newark Education Foundation helped the district?

Bernard: The district is very fortunate to have received funding from the city of Newark to re-create the elementary and junior high school instrumental music program. That was in place years ago but was cut because of state budget issues. I am a strong proponent of music in the schools. There is a lot of research that shows that youngsters engaged in music are stimulated in the same way as learning language which helps with reading, mathematics and other areas. Because there has been a lot of interest in bringing this back, the city of Newark provided a two-year grant - $150,000 per year - to develop these instrumental music programs.

This will provide a "wave" of kids coming to the high school interested in music. We have a high school music teacher that, as the demand grows, will be given more sections of music to teach. At the last Newark Days parade, for the first time in many years, Newark Junior High School and Newark High School entered marching bands. Two years from now they will be more dynamic and four years from now they will be spectacular!

In order for us to perpetuate this program, since the grant is for only two years, the Newark Education Foundation was formed. The individuals who are on the board of directors are prominent "Newarkians" who really care about arts and music in the schools. They are giving their time and effort to fundraise. We are confident that the program will continue after the grant money from the city ends. There are events planned for next spring to help accomplish that goal.

TCV: Has enrollment declined in Newark?

Bernard: We are seeing a little bit of that in Newark. What happens in some communities is that when people really like a community, they continue to live there after the children have grown. The impact on school districts is that you may have a block that at one time had 25 or 50 kids coming to school and now there are none. This is what we - and many others in the Bay Area - face as many young families are moving out to the Highway 5 and Highway 99 corridor. Hopefully, we are leveling off, because we still do have families moving into our area and many have children, some not of school age yet.

TCV: Does this present a situation where people are less involved with the schools and therefore, less supportive of your efforts?

Bernard: I don't think so. This is the fifth school district I have worked in and I have found that most individuals, including seniors, want good schools in their community. If there are good schools, the value of their home remains strong and the community tends to be well cared for. If you have schools that are achieving, parents remain in that area and they take care of their homes making it a nicer and safer place to live.

There is always a challenge when there are a significant number of people who do not have school-age children in their home. There are ways to bridge that. For example, we have a "Seniors in the School" program at elementary and junior high school levels that is very successful. For some, this is the first time in their life that they are engaged with children. Others have retired, having worked in schools as teachers or classified staff and continue to be involved.

At high school, we have a program called HOSTS (Helping One Student to Succeed). This was initiated by the city and is now a joint effort of the city and the school district. Every Tuesday, at two different times, a number of adult community volunteers come to school as mentors and tutors for students who are in the process of acquiring English. Some are school district employees, some city employees, some from the Chamber of Commerce and people who run businesses in the Newark area. The students are very appreciative. That also helps form a bridge with those who do not have kids in the school system.

TCV: How does NUSD handle the influx of students who are learning English as a second language?

Bernard: The issue of immigrants of different ages, coming to our country is not new. California is unique since there are many different languages we are dealing with - over 65 different languages - in the Bay Area. The way in which teachers are being developed to meet this challenge is through CLAD (California Language Acquisition and Development) certification. All teachers coming out of the colleges for the last 10 years have been CLAD certified. This means that the teachers are being taught language development issues. For instance, a youngster who speaks Farsi may know the concepts of electricity, but not the English words for them whereas a younger child may not understand the concepts. Teachers are taught that it is how you teach that will make things more understandable to the student - visuals, hands-on versus lecture. Teachers who have not received this training are now becoming CLAD certified.

TCV: Are there problems attracting new teachers to NUSD because of housing costs, etc?

Bernard: A challenge for us and throughout the Bay Area is the high home prices but for most positions, we have more applicants than positions. Throughout the state there are certain positions that are in high demand - special education, speech therapists, math and science subject specialists for the secondary schools. These are the same challenges that other school districts have.

We are pleased that with our recent settlement, our salary schedule has improved. That will help us attract more teachers, but we are in competition with neighboring school districts. We are pleased that we have a very high level teaching staff working in Newark; a lot of our teachers know that Newark is a good place to work and a good place to live. Some are a product of our school system and we are very proud of that.

TCV: Newark has been successful in receiving education grants. Why?

Bernard: We think we have special qualities for our size school district with one high school, not an extremely large one. At my previous district we had approximately the same number of students but we had two comprehensive high schools. That created a division and competitiveness in the community, some not positive. One thing that attracted me to Newark was that there was one high school and one junior high school so for the last six years of education all parents are together bringing all their skills and talents, energy and passion for making the schools great and the parents supportive.

As a school system, we are like many other districts facing the new state and national accountability models. We had good things happening but they were not a fit with the new models so we had to transition to a different way of holding ourselves accountable. Some have risen to the occasion while others wonder whether this is simply another move of the pendulum and want to wait to see what happens next. We can't afford to wait because there are state and federal sanctions for not following these guidelines.

This year we have moved halfway from being a program improvement district - the only one in the county that has done that - due to what I call a "can do" attitude of the Newark school system. Teachers and principals are working hard to do this and the Board of Education is working hard to maintain a common focus on their three goals of safe and supporting schools, improving academic achievement and monitoring finances.

TCV: Is there a good relationship between local school districts?

Bernard: Superintendents Pat Jaurequi (New Haven), Doug Gephart (Fremont) and I have met regularly to find out how we are working independently and how we can work collaboratively. Also, joining that mix at times is Doug Treadway (Ohlone College). Pat, Doug and I are working on a college connection program that we are hoping to put together for next September. If we run into a snag on something, we call each other for information and advice. When I was in Marin County, we had similar relationships with bordering districts.

TCV: Is there a lot of student movement between districts?

Bernard: We have some. Parents who work in a school district away from their home district are allowed to enroll their children in that school district. If someone lives in another area but works in Newark and would like their children to attend Newark schools, they would be welcome if we have available space. We also have movement due to child care. If your kids are staying with someone in another city for care, you can apply for permission to have them go to schools in that area. Usually there is a reciprocal relationship between school districts. Of course, there are families that move in and out of the school district. So, you can't really know or plan for the number of incoming kindergartners will come in each year. Movement between kindergarten and first grade is easier to estimate. Kids don't come in nice little boxes of 20 or 30. Whoever comes in, we welcome them and educate them.

If there was an influx between June and September and we ended up with many more second graders and a few less fourth graders than we thought we would have, someone teaching fourth grade may have to move to a second grade class. We do that usually within the first six to eight weeks. At the high school level, for instance, planning is a bit easier since some subjects such as English, are required and we know how many students are in the school so can plan for the correct number of sections; electives can be a bit more difficult although we are bound by law to have them work within their credential.

TCV: How do state and federal mandates impact the district?

Bernard: At the elementary level, there have been rigid guidelines for textbook purchase, for instance. Although many teachers have been unhappy with prescriptive programs, we find the kids are achieving greater advancement due to consistency in the way it is being done. They are familiar with how the program was designed, the protocol, procedures and vocabulary from grade to grade. Many of the teachers who were uncomfortable with this initially are becoming more comfortable and trainers in our district, helping others. At the secondary level, there is no consistency at this time. This is being compared with state standards.

We are taking one subject area - science - and that curriculum will be seamless all the way from kindergarten through Ohlone College. Meetings and conferences are held with the science departments of the schools to develop strategic plans of how to develop the curriculum. Now the science department of the high school understands that the books they are choosing for their subjects needs to be part of the flow from everything that has happened before as opposed to being content purists. We are developing a similar program in mathematics and will be following up others including music, grades four through 12.

TCV: Although many students learn within the parameters of an integrated standard curriculum such as the science, how do you handle those who do not?

Bernard: This is taken into account. The science educators, for instance, are looking at how, as instructional leaders, they can help teachers to differentiate between students based on their skill sets. If you know early on that a student is very bright you can move him or her to a fast track and immediately jump into AP (Advanced Placement) in high school. For those who are not making it - and this is a challenge we have throughout the system - we have to realize our responsibility is to educate all children. This is a change because we have come from a system of tracking - college preparation, business classes and vocational - where certain subjects were restricted. The federal statute of "no child left behind" as well as the state has said this is not going to work. Every youngster needs to be at a proficient level by the time they leave high school so they could qualify to go to college, if desired.

TCV: What is done for kids who are more successful in alternative schooling?

Bernard: Being able to read is an expected skill in all disciplines. The ability to compute mathematically the concept of algebra is also required. If a youngster is bright in a specific area, you take this as the main area to educate them in basic skills. There is a high school in Colorado, for instance, that teams different subject matters together. Project groups may tackle a subject using many different disciplines and skills. During one cycle, a group was required to study the Panama Canal and examine the difference between developing the project today versus what was done historically, examining economic, scientific, biological, political issues using today's technology to create a presentation.

This is deep, project-based learning which engages all team members. It is our responsibility to make sure that student abilities develop and issues between kids do not prevent learning. At "The Future of Education" presentation in December, I spoke of the three-second rule where adults cannot allow any negative behavior that happens in their presence to go unchecked because silence gives consent. When kids are born, their brains are wired to be successful and demonstrate brilliance. It is a case of "you snooze, you lose" and "if you don't use it, you lose it."

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