Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Redistricting is on the agenda! The time to act is now.

The OUSD Board will meet on Thursday November 12 at 7 PM. At this meeting, the OUSD staff is scheduled to make their recommendations about redistricting the canyon community to Saddleback Valley Unified School District.

We are urgently looking for community members to speak to this issue at that meeting.

The two people who have been most stalwart in their public support, Dr. Deborah Johnson and Chay Petersen, cannot attend the November 12 meeting. We must have a presence at this very important school board meeting.

At the last meeting, the board members declared that they do not believe that the majority of the canyon residents support redistricting. So we agreed to circulate a petition to show them that the majority actually do support it. Debbie has written a petition that is currently being circulated. Some of you may have signed it at the community celebrations on Halloween. Volunteers are needed to circulate the petition in their neighborhoods.

Please talk to your friends and neighbors. We need people to not only sign the petition, but to write letters and emails in advance of the meeting and to attend the November 12 meeting. We need people to speak - very briefly - to this issue at the meeting.

We need to act to ensure that the needs of the canyon children will be met today - and in the future.

Below is Debbie Johnson's eloquent appeal which details the history and the rationale of this proposal. Read it and be inspired to write a letter of your own to the OUSD Board and Superintendent Drier. Check the sidebar for easy email links and mailing addresses.

September 24, 2009

Members of the school board, Superintendent Drier and members of the community:

In December 2008, we began a journey together. Motivated by the prospect of a new administration at Orange Unified and hopeful of reversing the declining enrollment at our community’s only school, a group of us met with OUSD administrators and outlined a vision for the future. Living in one of the most beautiful spots in southern California, a land where the mountain lions roam freely, chirping birds greet the sun and coyotes cross the roads, we sought to preserve the best of our land by passing on appreciation for it to our children and others.

At the time, our hope was to create The Silverado Environmental Science and Technology School, operated either as a charter or a magnet school within OUSD. Unfortunately, OUSD administrators never responded to our proposal. Instead the budget crisis intensified and discussions began about closing our school. You all know the ups and downs over the next few months. During that time, it became clear that the community didn’t have the funds, resources or skills to launch a charter. Hiring consultants would have cost thousands of dollars and we are not a wealthy community. We managed to raise about $20,000, but that wasn’t enough. Although several schools were initially proposed for closure, the only one actually shuttered was Silverado Elementary.

Closing the school created a tremendous hardship on our community. Established in 1903 when Joseph Holtz sold one acre to the Orange School District for $50, the school served as the site of community fairs, election voting, large-scale meetings and gatherings of local service clubs. Miles from the cities of Orange and (later) Lake Forest, the school provided a central meeting point for children, parents and community members. I used to buy my Christmas trees at the school every year and we all loved the regular fairs. School was where children throughout the far-flung canyons met and made friends.

With the nearest school miles away, families last month struggled with complicated logistics. They wrestled with questions such as: How can I get my son and daughter to school in time? Can my young child handle an hour-long bus ride? What will I do about child care? How early will we have to get up?

As the trucks hauled away the desks, chairs and other supplies…as our teachers moved to new schools or retired…our community began dividing. Students from outside the canyon area who had been attending Silverado went back to their home schools. A number of families organized a carpool and sent their children to Trabuco Elementary in the Saddleback district. Other families began rising hours earlier to get their children ready for a 6:30 a.m. bus pick-up.

Over the past months, the community had gingerly discussed the possibility of re-districting to Saddleback Unified. It was closer—Modjeska Grade Road was already in Saddleback. One community representative contacted Saddleback to ask if they would be interested in taking over the canyon area and how they felt about an environmentally-focused school. The reply was swift—Saddleback was very interested in environmental education (they were already doing it at Trabuco) and they had a vision for opening a K-8 school that served Silverado, Modjeska and Trabuco canyons. With Trabuco facing similar issues to Silverado’s declining enrollment, a school serving all three canyons could solve multiple problems.

I am here today on behalf of the canyon community, which includes Silverado, Modjeska, Williams, Harding, Ladd and Black Star canyons, to respectfully request that the Orange Unified School District transfer the canyon attendance area to the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. Here are our reasons:

1. Geographical Proximity
Schools within Saddleback are significantly closer to almost all canyon homes than those in Orange Unified. From a home near the entrance of Modjeska Canyon, Saddleback’s Portola Hills Elementary School is only 2.76 miles away. The nearest Orange Unified school, Chapman Hills, is 11.58 miles away. Nine miles represents a significant difference. Distances to the nearest Saddleback and Orange Unified elementary schools from various points in the canyons are in the table below:

Canyon Address Saddleback: Portola Hills
Distance/Time Saddleback: Trabuco Elem
Distance/Time Orange: Chapman Hills
Modjeska Entrance 28331 Modjeska Cyn 2.76 (6 mins) 6.05 (13 mins) 11.58 (16 mins)
Mid-Modjeska 28422 Modjeska Cyn 2.85 (6 mins) 6.75 (13 mins) 11.67 (16 mins)
Harding Cyn 17251 Harding Cyn 3.42 (8 mins) 7.31 (15 mins) 12.24 (17 mins)
Williams Canyon 28510 Williams Cyn 4.94 (9 mins) 8.83 (15 mins) 10.5 (15 mins)
Silverado end 31326 Silv Cyn Road 11.61 (22 mins) 15.5 (29 mins) 13.39 (24 mins)
Mid-Silverado 29772 Silv Cyn Road 9.93 (18 mins) 13.82 (24 mins) 11.7 (20 mins)
Black Star Cyn 27912 Baker Cyn Rd 6.92 (11 mins) 10.81 (18 mins) 8.72 (13 mins)

The table demonstrates that the nearest Saddleback elementary school, Portola Hills, is closer than the nearest Orange Unified school, Chapman Hills, to all points in the canyon except the very end of Silverado. From there, the difference between Saddleback and Orange is relatively insignificant—just 1.8 miles or two minutes’ driving time. Please note that times in the above table represent driving directly from one point to another---school bus routes take much longer.

As a result of the canyons’ distance from Orange Unified schools, many students, even those in kindergarten, are now boarding school buses as early as 6:30 a.m.

2. Unacceptably long bus rides for our young children
Educational studies set the maximum recommended busing time for elementary students at 30 minutes. Today canyon children are riding up to 1.5 hours each way, or three hours a day, going to and from school. Once the bad weather begins, these trips will take even longer. Many mornings, it is still dark when the children leave their homes. They wait outside with nothing to protect them against rain, sleet, hail and wind.

The long bus rides raise a number of significant issues:
• Safety is a primary consideration. There are no adults other than the drivers on the buses. Our young children have virtually no supervision.
• Canyon roads are winding and unsafe. Drivers regularly exceed the speed limit. In the early morning, especially January through March, heavy fog often reduces visibility on Santiago Canyon Road to zero.
• Food and drink are not allowed on buses. Many children leave home without breakfast and are hungry all morning.
• The buses have no toilets.
• The buses have no seat belts or car seats.

Because of the early bus pick-up, our children are losing an hour or more of sleep each night. Research has found that daytime sleepiness in children significantly correlates with lower academic achievement, higher absenteeism and reduced motivation in school.

3. Shared Community Characteristics
Recognizing that the canyons’ rural environment and lifestyle represents a unique asset, as long ago as 1974, Orange County developed the Foothill Corridor Policy Plan and community development plans for Silverado-Modjeska and Trabuco. All emphasized retaining the rural character and preserving its uniqueness. In 2001, The Irvine Company made a historic gift of 50,000 acres of public and private lands, much of which adjoins the canyons, for permanent open space. Currently the Irvine Company and the county of Orange are negotiating to transfer more than 20,000 acres near the canyons for a public park. The county also is taking title to the 3,500 acre Limestone Canyon Park across from the school.

Surrounded by open space, the canyon communities exist on a fragile wildlife/urban interface. Since the devastating Santiago Fire in 2007 (which jumped Santiago Canyon Road right near the school), the canyons have drawn together to work for our common good. Right now, the Inter-Canyon League is administering a $250,000 grant to remove hazardous trees and vegetation from private homes in Silverado, Modjeska, Williams and Trabuco canyons. Last weekend we participated in All Canyons Clean-Up, an annual event that brings together hundreds of canyon residents. In a few weeks, for the first time, the canyon directory will include Trabuco residents. Canyon leaders have begun discussing joint community governance; three years ago, residents paid for an initial fiscal analysis exploring the possibility of incorporating Silverado, Modjeska and Trabuco into a single entity called the Saddleback Canyon.

4. Philosophical Compatibility
Our dream was to transform Silverado into a cutting edge, innovative Environmental Science School offering a high quality education to students throughout Orange County. The school would provide a fresh, hands-on learning experience tied to nature and student-driven discovery.

Saddleback is already committed to environmental education. Students from throughout the district regularly visit Trabuco Elementary, where a Field Study Program offers science and nature study experiences aligned to grade-level science standards. The program involves guided trail studies and hands-on activities that increase learning of basic science concepts. To support the program, Trabuco houses a variety of animals and uses trails leading into O’Neill Regional Park.

An environmentally-focused curriculum is tremendously attractive to canyon residents. The community is also deeply committed to the concept of a K-8 school specifically for the canyons.

5. Limited Financial Impact on Orange Unified
Orange Unified’s own demographic experts predict a significant decline over the next seven years in the number of elementary-age students living in the canyons:

K-6 Resident Students
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
69 65.2 56.8 45.9 45.1 41.9 28.2 27.8

Last year the canyons had about 40 students in Orange Unified middle and high schools. Re-districting now would involve a total of about 100 elementary, middle and high school students. Within a few years, the total will decrease to fewer than 50 students.

6. Strong Community Support
In July 2009, 834 canyon residents received an email asking whether they supported re-districting from Orange to Saddleback. Sixty-five residents replied; the overwhelming majority supported the move. On July 15, the Inter-Canyon League organized a community meeting to discuss re-districting. Forty residents attended; all voted in favor of the transfer. Last week we received one letter opposed to the transfer. There is little doubt that re-districting has widespread support.

A few more points:
1. The proposed area to be re-districted does not include the planned development around Irvine Lake.
2. While we hope that our elementary school can re-open, we have received no promises. We are not making this request to get our school back—we are making it because we truly believe that re-districting is in the best interests of our children and our community.
3. While our dream is for an environmental school that attracts children from throughout Orange County, we have received no promises. The community supports the transfer even without the environmental concept.

We have met with the Orange County Superintendent of Education to discuss the transfer process. If the majority of both the Orange and Saddleback Unified governing boards agree, it can be accomplished relatively quickly. If one board does not agree, the request will be submitted to the county superintendent of schools in the form of a petition signed by 25% of the registered voters in the canyon area. The County Committee on School District Organization then will hold a public hearing in each of the affected school districts and an initial study, possibly including an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), would be required. If the County Committee approves the transfer and one of the governing Boards does not agree, an election will be called and voters in an area determined by the Committee will decide.

In summary, I want to tell you a story. A few years ago, I was managing a large program in Nairobi, Kenya. On the property, I had an elementary school; an orphanage for 70 abandoned, neglected and AIDS-affected babies, and a residential center for 100 children with severe disabilities. I ran everything from the U.S., flying over every three to four months.

During the four years that I ran the Center, I had three directors handling daily operations. Each one started the same way—absolutely committed to caring for the children. It wasn’t hard to love these kids. They were so needy. But within a month, sometimes two, the same thing happened. I began hearing less and less about the kids and more and more about the staff. The staff needed this; the staff needed that. Why did this happen, I wondered?

It wasn’t hard to figure out. All day long, staff members were at the director’s door. They told the director about their troubles. They asked for help. They complained about the salaries and about each other. It wasn’t long before each director was worn out by their problems. And where were the kids? Not hanging out at the director’s door. Far from it. They were in their beds or their classrooms. Pretty much doing as they were told. Especially the babies.

Why am I telling you this? Because all day long, you’re surrounded by teachers, administrators, and other professionals. They give you information; they define your options; they prepare your agendas and they write your briefing papers. I know that each of you cares about the kids. But I also know that your caring is channeled within a structure that has its own demands.

We in the canyon are not really a voice at your table. We’re outsiders—literally and figuratively. But we care about our kids just as much as you care about your’s. And we have been doing everything in our power to try to make sure that they’re safe and protected. But their future—and our community’s—lie in your hands.

There is little doubt that canyon residents will vote to support the transfer. You can put that to the test and set in motion the petitions, hearing and special election that will be required if you oppose it. Or you can approve re-districting now and save considerable taxpayer expense and community heartache.

We appreciate Orange Unified’s generosity in approving inter-district transfers this year. It is our hope that your generosity of spirit will continue and that you will approve our re-districting. By doing so, you will give our children a much-needed sense of stability. They have been through a lot this past year.

Thank you.

Deborah Johnson, Ph.D.
President, The Inter-Canyon League
Member, Save Our School Committee

(The photograph featured above is from the county archives. Silverado School, 1903. Left to right: C. Edinger, A. Hughes, Willie Shaw, Rob Shaw, Naomi Ann Alsbach-15years, Ruth Clara Alsbach-13yrs, Mary Elizabeth Alsbach (Liz)-12yrs, Ruby Lola Alsbach-7yrs. Teacher not identified. Donated in 1988 by Mr. Harvey Shaw, Santa Ana.)

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