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January 31, 2006 > Milpitas is a real gem

Milpitas is a real gem

Interview with Karl N. Black, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools, Milpitas

by Kim Mathis

As part of a continuing series of interviews with local school superintendents, TCV asked Karl N. Black, Ed.D. about the Milpitas Unified School District (MUSD). Dr. Black, in his fourth year as superintendent of MUSD, spoke about the challenges facing his district and progress made in fiscal management over the course of his tenure.

TCV: What is your background?

Dr. Black: I in my fourth year as superintendent [of MUSD] and have been in the district for nine years. In Milpitas, I started as a director, became assistant superintendent and then superintendent. I have an earned doctorate from the Fielding Institute of Santa Barbara. My schooling was pretty much in the Santa Clara Valley; I graduated from Mt. Pleasant High School, San Jose City College and San Jose State University.

I taught for 14 years at Elk Grove High School and was Assistant Principal at Santa Teresa High School. For nearly 6 years, I was in the Monterey area as principal at Pacific Grove High School - a beautiful area. This was a small district - less than 2,000 students - where the Assistant Superintendent of Business also ran Maintenance Operations Transportation (MOT) and Educational Services were farmed out to the principals. In a small district, the superintendent does a lot of things. In Pacific Grove, as the high school principal, I was also in charge of the Science Curriculum Committee, Arts Curriculum Committee, ROP (Regional Occupational Program) and principal of the continuation school.

A position opened in Milpitas and what really attracted me was the fact that it was a nice size (less than 10,000 students) district with a diverse student population; over 50 different languages are spoken here.

TCV: Is the district in a period of growth?

Dr. Black: When I first arrived in 1997, we were close to 10,000 students. The district population began to decline and dropped to about 9,200 students. We had lost almost 800 students and all predictions were that our census would continue to drop as prices in the valley continued to rise. The hill ordinance limits building on our hills so land for new homes became scarce. However, recently the Milpitas Redevelopment Agency has been encouraging development around the Great Mall and the transit center and we began to see growth in enrollment. Also, parents who were sending their kids to private schools are bringing them back because they are seeing our high API (Academic Performance Index) scores and school performance. We are now seeing two and three families living together, a new dynamic that is happening throughout the [Santa Clara] valley.

Enrollment is almost 9,800 this year - growth of about 125 students - and will project continued growth. Our prediction is that by 2015 or so, we should be close to 12,000 students.

TCV: In high density residential development around the Great Mall being populated with families?

Dr. Black: This is an unknown. For many years, you could use a formula that predicted four to five students for every 10 single family dwellings. It was estimated that schools would see one student for every 10 apartments or condominiums because families with school age children often did not live in those units. Families might start there but move to single family housing. But there is less land, fewer single family homes and those coming on the market are at such a high price that now more families will live in townhouses and high density housing above such complexes as Santana Row and similar developments. That is what is being built.

Our projections have now increased from one student to 10 condominiums up to three. The below market percentage of these complexes increase the number of families too. In New York, the brownstones traditionally had families living in them, but in California there were many single family homes with big back yards. That is beginning to change, at least in Silicon Valley. Families have to live somewhere. You will see more of them in townhouses and condominiums. The tricky part for us is to do projections for our enrollment.

TCV: Are enrollments in settled neighborhoods declining?

Dr. Black: Yes. It is interesting that we are seeing student growth in the very expensive homes and below market homes. The middle range is where we are showing a loss. This makes sense because people with families are selling homes and moving up to the high priced housing and also, as expected, moving into below market rate homes. Families moving into upper end homes are sending their kids to our schools where in the past, they may have sent their kids to private schools. Some of this may be because the district has recently had many California Distinguished Schools, Schools to Watch and our API scores are going up.

TCV: What is the CAHSEE?

Dr. Black: California High School Exit Exam. It is given the sophomore year of high school and it is math and language arts (English). If you pass it, you are eligible to graduate from high school. If you don't pass it or just pass one section, you must pass the other section. Ultimately, you must pass both sections.

TCV: What is the impact of a mandatory passing grade on the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) to receive a diploma?

Dr. Black: We are in a real high stakes testing time now - for students, teachers and the community. Schools with high API scores will increase property values. Cities are beginning to catch on. It is not just high stakes for the student who needs to pass the test to graduate from high school. Watch housing prices and businesses locating in an area; they are shopping API's.

As far as students are concerned, of course it has a great impact. This is the first year that because of the CAHSEE, some students will not receive a diploma. Every test is high stakes now. STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) is high stakes for API and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) scores [proficiency ratings under No Child Left Behind Act] in the California Standards Test. Everything is ratcheted up right now and everyone is feeling it - students, parents, teachers, and we, here at the district office.

TCV: Has this created a high stress level for everyone and is it worth it?

Dr. Black: We do not mind the bar being raised. I just want to make sure we are providing an all-encompassing school experience as well - that we do not forget music and the arts, physical education and sports; what makes schools great and fun. It cannot just be all academics although they are, of course, extremely important. That is the line you are constantly walking as a school district. It is important that our kids are reading at grade level by the third grade and math scores are high to deal with technology. I believe most superintendents are okay with setting high standards but we want them to be fair.

TCV: A criticism of testing is that teachers are being asked to teach to the test.

Dr. Black: I think that if you teach the standards of the California Standards Test, it is a pretty good curriculum. Teaching the standards effectively should result in passage of the test. Having students just know how to take a test is not what you want.

TCV: If the preschool initiative passes, will this have a significant impact on the progression of students through school and these exams?

Dr. Black: I would like to see all of our kids in school by age three. If the initiative passes, and I think it will, it will be three or four years before it begins. What we see now is a gap at kindergarten -kids who have been in preschool since age three already have two years of a structured learning environment whereas other kids are just walking in the door. They are two years behind. Some children are able to catch up but others do not. Here we are in high school trying to address a gap we think may be happening at age three to five.

In Milpitas we have two child care development centers. About 50% of our incoming kindergartners are in a structured academic environment. We have a unique program called "Raise a Reader," funded by the city at about $20,000 per year. This nationally known curriculum involves a book bag exchange where parents learn how to teach their children at home. We just started it with about 30 families and hope to increase it to 50 - 60 families. It is not a complete preschool experience but the idea is to try and get the children into reading and providing some structure. This is getting books into kids' hands.

TCV: Is there a movement toward more integration of subject matter between grade levels?

Dr. Black: Without a doubt. With the introduction of standards, once you realize, for instance, that students are taking algebra in the seventh and eighth grade, we had to ratchet everything up in the lower grades. We have a benchmarking committee that is setting the benchmarks in the areas of math and writing for each grade level. Through this committee, high school teachers work with middle school teachers who work with elementary teachers; it is a progression.

When you look at the CAHSEE, although students are taking the test as a high school sophomore, many test answers should have been learned in 6th, 7th or 8th grade; natural articulation has to happen. We are looking at the kids in our school system who have not passed the CAHSEE to see how many of those have been with us since the fifth grade. Out of nearly 800 students in our senior class, only 15 kids who have been with us since the fifth grade have not passed that test yet. We are looking at those types of things to see if the articulation has worked.

TCV: What happens when you see a divergence of student performance?

Dr. Black: Because of technology, we can track students now. We can look at the items of the test where they failed and diagnose areas of low skills. After school sessions, tutoring and summer sessions and specialized classes will meet those needs. If you go across this country and look at public education in general, we built, for instance, comprehensive high schools that are probably good for about 90% of the kids. That is not bad, but you have about 10% of the kids who are not going to fit into the system. We have Calaveras Hills, a continuation high school as a resource. Some students work better there working all day with one teacher. We have a number of safety nets for the kids. It truly becomes a partnership between the school, the child and the parent. If any one of those three fails, the student is not going to be successful.

TCV: All districts are under fiscal duress, being asked to do more with less. How is MUSD handling this?

Dr. Black: Over the last three years, I have cut nearly $8 million from the budget. This year will be the first spring that I will not be going to the board with a plan to cut spending. It has been very tough. We have fewer people to do more things and are as lean as we can get. You cut classroom materials so then ask the foundation to more for you. You don't have the money to replace computers, so you go out to businesses to help. In 1997, we had assistant principals at every elementary school; we have none now. We have lost third grade size reduction and ninth grade size reduction. We used to have reading specialists; we don't have them anymore. There used to be a deputy superintendent; now there is none. I oversee adult education and all the bond construction and safety program. We used to have a day custodian and a night custodian at our schools; now we have teams at night. I have asked everyone to take on more responsibilities. Because of these cuts, we have been able to keep our programs alive.

You have to reward your employees; they need cost of living increases and health and welfare expense is going up 12% - 15% a year. These are problems that all school districts in the state of California are facing and you are constantly juggling, but fortunately I have a dedicated administration team, a great board and great teachers and parents who are all working together. We are doing the best we can for our kids.

TCV: How will you add things if more money becomes available?

Dr. Black: Using triage. On my wall, I have a list of cuts that I have made over the past three years. I keep them right next to me so I know what I have cut. If we have more money, we can review these as a group and determine the biggest need. Probably the first to be considered will be third and ninth grade class size reductions, half-time assistant principal positions at the elementary level and custodial; things that affect the kids in the classroom. You always put the kids first. Whatever is closest to the kids is where we want to put our money back.

We are not getting equal funding. School districts that are less than 10 - 15 miles away receive $40 million more than we do for the same size district. I don't want to take a dollar of their money away from them, but we compete for teachers, custodians, bus drivers with less money. I believe our kids deserve just as much as anyone else.

TCV: Has the community pulled together during these difficult fiscal times?

Dr. Black: We have a great relationship with the city. They pay for our DARE program, crossing guards, resource officers, Raise a Reader program and share facilities with us. As I said before, with the high stakes testing, communities are waking up and realizing - although many have always understood this - the advantage of having well educated children in dollars and cents. My hope is that people want to work together because of the kids. This country was built on neighbors working together in tough times whether it was the depression or people coming out here in covered wagons. Lean times are the times that bring people together.

In closing, Milpitas is a real gem. We are seeing with the results of the redevelopment agency midtown plan and growth of the city along with the school district. I have a lot of pride in our school district. Last year, in the entire Santa Clara Valley, there were only two schools to receive Title 1 achievement awards; we had one of them. There were only seven schools in the whole valley to win California Distinguished School and we had two of them. There were only three schools in the state of California to win Schools to Watch; we had one of them. There were only 15 of these in the whole nation. Last year, out of 350 community day schools, our community day school won Best Program in the state. Calaveras Hills is a California Distinguished School for alternative education.

So this little school district is doing very well in these lean times. Our success is not mine. It is due to the support staff, parents, teachers, kids, principals, administration and our board members. We aren't resting on our laurels; we want to close our achievement gap. If anybody can do it, we will!

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