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Changnon says education has improved locally
Tom Changnon, superintendent of Stanislaus County Schools, is retiring.

The state of education has improved in Stanislaus County, the superintendent of county schools told the Ceres City Council last week. Tom Changon made the presentation months before he prepares to leave office. He will be replaced later this year after the Nov. 6 election determines if his successor will be Scott Kuykendall or Shannon Sanford. He offered his “State of Education” as he makes his rounds to the various city councils locally.

He started out describing the challenges of educating a populace of children that looks vastly different than it did 10 to 20 years ago. Since 1980, California is educating 2.2 million more students and “actually built a handful of schools to accommodate all these students.”

“When you talk about schools that are really overcrowded and classrooms that are rundown, it’s because we haven’t kept up with the number of students that have entered into our California school system,” said Changnon.

California has 10,000 schools, of which 187 are in Stanislaus County, he said. He showed the change in demographics from 1980 showing that 54 percent of all students in Stanislaus County are Hispanic. Approximately 85 percent of the Latino population is from English learning families.

“It does present a considerable challenge for educators to make sure they acquire English while at the same time learning how to read, do math, according to the standards that the state has set,” said Changnon.

Closing the so-called achievement gap has been made difficult by the influx of immigrants who do not know the language, he indicated. He said national polls indicate people are most concerned about jobs for them and their children. Competing for those same jobs are other nationalities such as the Japanese and Chinese. He noted that Japanese students attend school an average of 232 days per year; the most days in California is 180 days.

“These are jobs that we want our children to have. We don’t want these jobs necessarily going to other countries. We really need to focus on making sure that our young people are adequately prepared with skills and a sense of purpose in what they want to do,” he said.

Changnon said the old style of teaching has gone by the wayside as the focus becomes technology. But he said many graduates coming out of the school system do not feel prepared for the “shock of, wow, you mean I have to work like 40 hours a week and be there on time and understand how to work collaboratively with other people? ‘It’s like nobody taught me how to do that.’ Well we need to make sure that we do that soft skills that so many of our businesses are really desiring. Young people have no soft skills.”

During his 12 years as superintendent, Changnon said his office has conducted four successful initiatives. The first, “Every Day Counts” stressed attendance which garnered over $3 million in average daily attendance revenue. The second was “Fit for the Future” which was a model for physical fitness. As a result of his role in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s physical fitness challenge, three school districts received $100,000 gyms, said Changnon. The third, “Choose Civility” received the support of 215 business partners which spread the word about being civil. Seven other counties adopted a similar program.

The current initiative is “Destination Graduation” to review what districts are doing to see students through to high school graduation. For five years there were an average of 900 freshmen who started school locally who did not walk across the stage four years later.

“That’s not acceptable because how will those students ever going to think they’re ever going to live the American dream, or have a lifestyle that is equally remote to being what we would like to see in our community,” said the superintendent.

The high school graduation rate in the county jumped from 78 percent to 84 percent in the last five years. By comparison, some inner-city dropout rates are 50 percent, he reported.

“I’m happy to tell you that we are well above the state average now in our county for graduation rates so we are headed in the right direction,” said Changnon.

He told of how he brought Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak – a former classmate of his – to speak at the Gallo Center about how to think “out of the box.” He reported that recently he dispatched two staff members to Philadelphia to explain how the county is making progress on early childhood literacy program. There they picked up for the county the state’s Pacesetter Award. Changnon also touched on the Comeback Kid program to get high school dropouts to return to school. He said the effort has garnered diplomas for 800 dropouts.

“At every one of the graduations there’s not a dry eye in the audience. Our last one we had a 41-year-old mother of three that was the speaker. She said, ‘I came back to school for two reasons. One of them is my family sitting in the front row. How can I tell my three kids that education is important and yet I don’t have a high school diploma myself? Well that’s being hypocritical. I can’t do that. And the second reason is for important for me I want to work and without a high school diploma it had prohibited me and kept me from doing that.’”

He noted how the Stanislaus Office of Education purchased the former Modesto Bee building where full-service vocational training is being offered through a partnership with the VOLT Institute. Trades such as construction, electrical and plumbing are now being taught. Forklift operator certificates are also earned there. Daycare is offered in the building for students, making success even more attainable. He said that 90 percent of the first round of 30 graduates were offered good paying jobs before they were certified in forklift operation.

SCOE is ready to launch its latest initiative, Cradle to Career “that encompasses all of our community members” including business partners.

“We want to focus on young students before they even get to kindergarten. That’s where the gap begins.”

He said only 31 percent of young kids are assessed as being ready for kindergarten.

“That’s a problem because how can they be reading at grade level by third grade? We have a lot of catching up to do and that catching up has to do with getting books into the homes of these young people, helping parents to understand how to play and read and spend time with their children so they are truly ready for kindergarten.”