Despite the challenges of rising costs and declining resources, the Orcutt Union School District is poised to "move forward in a new direction," Superintendent Deborah Blow said Wednesday in her annual State of the District address.
Blow spoke to parents, community leaders and employees about the district's accomplishments, potential challenges and new goals for the coming school year at the breakfast gathering in the Lakeview Junior High School gymnasium.
"I'm really excited with where our district is right now," the superintendent said after her speech. "We've spent several years laying the foundation and have positioned ourselves to start moving forward in a new direction."
At a time when multiple California school districts have experienced declining student enrollment and a growing number of teacher vacancies, Blow said Orcutt Union's strong educational programs and outpouring of community support have insulated it from mirroring statewide trends.
"The programs we offer bring in students from outside the district, protecting us from declining enrollment," Blow said, explaining that students and parents are drawn to the district by its promise of a quality education through their traditional, charter and independent study programs. District enrollment increased by 15 percent over the last decade, with 5,300 students currently attending one of the district's eight traditional schools or two charter campuses.
"We attract a lot of students into our [charter] and other schools, as well, because they feel that they are going to get a good education," she said.
Central to an Orcutt education is a curriculum that emphasizes "whole child" learning and cultivation of 21st century skills — a departure from the "Three Rs" (reading, writing and arithmetic) previously employed in school.
"[Education] is no longer about completing worksheets and working in isolation," Blow said. "It's not about memorizing facts. It's about using the information you have and applying it to solve real-world problems."
While academics are core to any educational program, Orcutt's curriculum emphasizes communication, critical thinking, collaboration and creativity as well as social and emotional support, visual and performing arts, wellness and physical education. Every school includes a makerspace — a collaborative area for students to explore and learn — and students in first through sixth grade receive 30 minutes of classroom music and 60 minutes of PE from credentialed instructors per week.
"We want our students to be successful in academics but, also, want them to be good people and have many opportunities," Blow said.
Construction projects and infrastructure improvements will start to shape up, funded largely by Measure G, the $60 million modernization and improvement bond approved by voters in 2016. The first phase of a long-awaited school fencing project, designed to improve student safety, is set to begin later this year.
"The plans are being prepared for that and we're hoping to start construction at Alice Shaw this summer," Blow said. "That will be our prototype while we begin to draw plans for the other schools. You'll start seeing things in the summer [before] we continue at our elementary and secondary schools."
Rising operational costs, stemming from climbing retirement contributions, salary schedule advancement and an increase in the cost of benefits, will pose a challenge to the district's financial standing. Though the district is projected to receive additional funding during the next budget cycle, long-term costs will begin to outpace the revenue.
"It's going to be an ongoing challenge because our expenses are exceeding the resources we receive in the district," Blow said. "We have to be mindful that there are costs that are continuing to rise quicker than the money we're receiving."