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January 17, 2006 > Fremont schools, focus on quality

Fremont schools, focus on quality

An interview with Superintendent Doug Gephart

In a continuing series, TCV is interviewing local school superintendents about educational opportunities and challenges facing their districts. In this issue, TCV speaks with Doug Gephart, Superintendent of Fremont Unified School District (FUSD). Prior to his appointment as Superintendent October 11, 2005, Gephart has served with FUSD in a variety of capacities including Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, Associate Superintendent of Human Resources and Interim Superintendent.

TCV: What is your focus for the Fremont Unified School District?

Gephart: One of the things I am working on is the development of a Technology Committee that will be able to advise the board on issues relative to technology. I have a community group and staff group working together to draft a structure and mission for that committee so it can provide guidance for the district. We are very close to bringing that set of ideas to the board for their consideration. We hope to do that by February 8.

TCV: Is there a movement to coordinate subject instruction between grade levels?

Gephart: That is one of the things the Technology Committee will be working on - to work on broader perspectives and make recommendations to the district.

TCV: Is this the top priority?

Gephart: I don't know if there is one top priority, rather a group of top priorities. A top priority is the fiscal solvency of the district, eliminating current deficit spending patterns. The reason that is so critical is that when we do get new money to work with, we want to dedicate that to restoring items from previous budget cuts or apply those revenues to high priority programs that have been sitting on the shelf - it could be technology, staff development or any number of things that we cannot do right now due to lack of revenue.

I want to put our house in order fiscally before new money, if available, comes into play. It would be easy for us to wait to balance our budget, but to me, that is a weak position since it doesn't require rethinking how we are currently doing things. I am asking staff to look at what we are doing and why we are doing these things; to reexamine our budget priorities and ask ourselves if this is the way we should be spending our money to meet the needs of our kids.

Another piece that is very high priority is the performance of our kids to meet our yearly progress under 'No Child Left Behind.' We have very high very high-performing schools but there are subgroups in each school that may be underperforming. We do not want to rest on our laurels of how well we are doing overall, but address each subgroup of students. We want all of our students to be our top priority.

This will be the first year of the high school exit exam in which those who do not pass will not be allowed to graduate. The question will be how many students are going to fall into that gap. We will be challenged to examine what we have been doing and not been doing to help those students pass that test. Right now, we have about 200 students who fall into that category. We are doing everything we can to work with those students and their families to pass that test.

TCV: Is there an alternate route for those who do not pass the test?

Gephart: Students can enroll at community college such as Ohlone and take concurrent high school and college courses. They can get a high school diploma by completing course work at the college and that route does not require passage of the high school exit exam. These programs and options are not new, they are already in place.

Students also can get a GED (General Educational Development) through the adult school program. Testing is required for a GED, but they do not have to pass the high school exit exam.

We are not promoting these routes as a means of avoiding the test. We want our students to be able to pass the test.

TCV: Are there any exceptions for passage of the high school exit exam?

Gephart: No. Based on State Superintendent Jack O'Connell's lasted communiquŽ, standards and alternatives have been thoroughly reviewed, taking into account the special needs and issues for both special education students and English language learners. His position is that all adjustments have been made and this is it - the California High School Exit Exam is the standard to get a diploma. However, there is no challenge at this time to the alternatives I mentioned previously.

TCV: What do you think of the initiative to provide universal preschool?

Gephart: I think the concept is great. The logistical aspects of these ideas can drag us down. We have a pretty extensive preschool program in the district through the district and Kidango. I spoke with [Executive Director] Paul [Miller] of Kidango about the initiative and we will be working with him and his staff to make sure that as many kids as possible have access to that program once we have the legislation [scheduled for the ballot June 2006 as the Preschool for All Act].

I don't what the long term benefit will be but the first priority will be children who are part of the student families who attend the lowest performing schools in the district. Most Fremont schools are high performing [and may not be a priority for funding] but Paul is optimistic that there will be funding to put these programs in the district.

TCV: Has the school system undergone a structural change to accommodate 'No Child Left Behind' or other initiatives?

Gephart: We have been doing this since 'No Child Left Behind' was initiated with various intervention programs modified for the greatest impact and success.

TCV: Any thoughts about changes to the basic grade structure of the school system for advanced students or those lagging behind?

Gephart: Not at this time, but we are not opposed to that. We are making good progress, but as new standards are applied to 'No Child Left Behind,' we will find more students pressed to meet that standard. As a result, we do not know what it will all look like in the future. We believe that this [No Child Left Behind] will reach a point where students will be unable to reach the standards established because eventually the goal is to have 100 percent of the students reach 100 percent of the standard. We will see - I want to remain optimistic.

It may be that we need to be creative and think outside of the box, asking what is the best way to educate our students and do we need to alter the traditional model. We are open to exploring all possibilities to ensure that we meet the needs of the kids.

TCV: Is this a 'one size fits all' approach?

We have two different standards being applied - state and federal - and they are not integrated standards. The state is saying you need to pass a high school exit exam. This presents some challenges, but is manageable. The federal government says that all kids are going to reach a 100% threshold in testing, but leaving it up to the individual states to set that standard. California has been way out in front, setting high standards for student achievement.

We will be compared to other states that do not have the same high standards. It will appear that California is not meeting the standard when, in fact, Californians are performing extremely well nationwide. California has done a tremendous job of establishing high standards and integrating our curriculum to testing instruments. I would match our kids with any across the nation.

TCV: Are you optimistic that the state, and in turn schools, have turned a financial corner?

Gephart: No. The reason I say that is the governor's budget proposal is very ambitious and literally spends almost all state reserves. No one thinks that will hold up. I think this is a strategy for the legislature to be forced to make the cuts. They will have to choose which stakeholders they are going to alienate. The state is still deficit-spending and the revenues we have are one-time revenues.

TCV: You have said that a goal is to bring the district out of deficit spending. How are you going to do this given the poor financial status of the state?

Gephart: The district is under a state funding formula (Proposition 98). We have an entitlement to baseline funds for cost-of-living and growth in student enrollment. There are also revenues available from the state to address other things such as deficit reduction or equalization, bringing lower revenue districts closer to higher revenue districts.

Reviewing the budget, you will notice that the governor has proposed some additional funding of both of those areas. If the district were to get those funds, that will erase our deficit spending. However, I do not want to wait for that. I want to take a hard internal look at what we are doing to reassess how we spend our dollars. This will probably result in a series of internal strategies to reduce spending and rely a bit on new state funding. We are going to solve that problem!

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