Star editorial: A culture of continual improvement at St. Helena Unified

Star editorial: A culture of continual improvement at St. Helena Unified

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St. Helena schools have created a culture of continual improvement, and the results are right there in the test scores.

Students in the St. Helena Unified School District meet or exceed standards in English (about 65%) and math (about 50%) at rates that beat the state averages, which are down around 50% for English and 40% for math.

Not impressed? Then compare SHUSD to 16 California districts with similar size and demographics. You’ll see St. Helena either near or at the top in English and math.

Those results are based on test scores from grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. Those are the only grade levels that undergo standardized testing in California, but St. Helena uses other achievement data to identify strengths and weaknesses for individual students in other grades.

When guests tell us they’re doing a good job, we like to see data – and SHUSD delivered.

District officials showed us enough charts and graphs and rattled off enough statistics that we came away enlightened and impressed that educators take the same data-driven management approach as any successful business would. As they say in the business world, if you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it.

Yet we were also inspired that the district doesn’t see students simply as data points to be shifted in a positive direction.

Most of us are familiar with the robust athletic, drama and arts programs that allow students to flex their physical and creative muscles. But officials also talked about pinpointing the academic needs of each student and keeping them engaged in learning.

In fact, as we spoke with school officials last week, they made the statement that the principals knew each student and knew their challenges. High School Principal Ben Scinto was asked if that was true and he said it mostly was, because of small class sizes and, added if he didn’t know each student, surely his staff did.

Besides Scinto, we met with Dr. Marylou Wilson, district superintendent; Chris Heller, chief academic/human resources officer; Mary Allen, director of curriculum and instruction; and Tanya Pearson, elementary school principal.

The district’s Local Control Accountability Plan centers on three goals: engagement, student achievement and conditions of learning. It’s notable that engagement comes first on that list.

Assessing students in a way that transcends their test scores is consistent with the state directive that schools be evaluated according to multiple measures.

Sure, test scores are important, but so are attendance, college and career readiness, the success of English learners, student engagement and school safety.

You can check caschooldashboard.org to judge for yourself how SHUSD is faring. (Use “Saint Helena” to find our scores.) A small sample size makes it hard to draw conclusions about, say, graduation rates from one year to the next, but it’s good to know that data is being collected and analyzed to set new goals and strategies.

Out of about 1,150 students, 20% are classified as English learners, 10% are special education, and 44% are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunches due to their parents’ income and education levels.

The district seems to be in a healthy place. Leadership has been remarkably stable. Teachers are well-paid and – judging from how long they tend to stick around – well-treated. The school board seems engaged and free of any distracting political drama.

The district’s new vision statement talks about providing an “engaging and dynamic learning environment that inspires a passion for learning and prepares every student to adapt and thrive as a responsible citizen in a rapidly changing world.”

Judging from the data, the district is doing a splendid job turning that vision into reality.

The Star editorial board consists of editors David Stoneberg and Sean Scully and community volunteers Norma Ferriz, Christopher Hill, Shannon Kuleto, Bonnie Long, Peter McCrea, Gail Showley and Dave Yewell.

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