Back to school GHS

Maintenance workers are sprucing up Gustine Unified School District campuses in preparation for the Aug. 14 start of a new school year. Don Bedford works at Gustine High on Monday.

GUSTINE - Summer vacation is drawing to a close in the Gustine Unified School District, which will welcome students back to the classroom for the start of a new school year Wednesday, Aug. 14.

Dr. Bryan Ballenger, district superintendent, said he anticipates an opening enrollment of about 1,840 pupils, which is comparable to the ending enrollment of last year. The district will monitor enrollment and make changes as necessary, he added.

Several changes await students, said Ballenger, all with the common goal of boosting achievement.

“We are going to continue to focus on improving our academic performance, whether that is measured by our internal testing or state level testing. We have a focus on improving the academic performance of our students,” said Ballenger.

A number of changes factor into that objective.

The district has restructured its staffing to shift two veteran local teachers from the classroom into new roles as instructional coaches. Donna Torres will be the instructional coach at the elementary level, while Cathy Filippini will be working with middle school and high school teachers.

Ballenger stressed that the change complements rather than replaces the district’s intervention programs and helps teachers embed intervention programs into their classroom.

“We want to intervene early so that we don’t necessarily have to have a pull-out intervention,” said Ballenger.

With 15 new teachers - including a number who are on an intern status - the support of the instructional coaches and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Kim Medeiros will be an important resource, Ballenger added.

They will, however, be a resource available to all teachers and can provide guidance with everything from lesson planning to classroom management.

This will also be the first year that Gustine Unified has fully transitioned to being a 1:1 district - meaning that each pupil will be equipped with a Chromebook device to enable internet-based learning and research. The technology by no means replaces standard classroom education or the critical importance of sound teaching technique, Ballenger emphasizes, but creates the opportunity for “blended” learning.

“That is extremely important, especially at the high school. Being 1:1 and going to a block schedule will allow us to open up more courses to kids. Three courses (at the high school) will actually be taught on line,” Ballenger told Mattos Newspapers. “It allows us to offer courses that we normally wouldn’t be able to offer kids, which helps with college and career readiness.”

Currently, Ballenger said, the Chromebooks are available as classroom sets only district-wide, but high school staff is working to develop a take-home program.

The high school adopted a block schedule for the second semester of last school year, Ballenger said, and will continue that approach - with some modifications based on the initial trial run. The block schedule provides longer instructional sessions and allows students to take eight classes rather than six, Ballenger said.

Math is a specific priority for the district, Ballenger noted. The district is bringing in math trainers from the county office of education to work with local teachers for a total of 20 days during the coming school year.

An administrative change is in store at Gustine Middle School, where Tawnya Coffey officially becomes principal. Coffey moved to the middle school from Gustine Elementary in the middle of last school year as part of an administrative restructuring. While she was technically the assistant principal during that time, Coffey was often the administrator in charge during the latter part of the school year.

Building a strong culture at the middle school is among the district’s goals, Ballenger stressed.

“All of our students are a priority, but I think that at the middle school especially we are trying to create an atmosphere and environment that allows kids to be successful,” he stated. “We think that good things are on the horizon at the middle school.”

The district has also strengthened its commitment to better meeting the social/emotional needs of students by hiring two additional counselors.

“We have added a counselor at the middle school instead of (filling) the assistant principal position there, and we added an elementary counselor who will work three days a week at Gustine Elementary and two days at Romero,” Ballenger told Mattos Newspapers in late June. “Last year we added a psychologist, but we realized that the needs were beyond our two psychologists, especially at the middle school and elementary level.”

Gustine High will continue to have two counselors. One psychologist is assigned to Gustine Elementary and Gustine High, while another works with Romero, GMS and pre-school, Ballenger noted.

Addressing social and emotional issues among students  - and factors in their life which are a barrier to academic success - is critical, Ballenger said.

“We want to focus on the whole child,” he stressed.

The district will also welcome a new food service management firm after bringing back the company Sodexo to assume those responsibilities.

Ballenger said Sodexo will provide a variety of opportunities to improve food service for students, with the goal of eventually shifting away from heat-and-eat prepared foods to made-from-scratch dishes with fresh ingredients.

That will not happen overnight, Ballenger cautioned, as the district must upgrade its facilities and equipment in order to make that transition.