Area school districts are gearing up to open classroom doors again next week -- searching for ways to do more with less as the state continues to slash funding to education.
Yet in face of a gloomy California budget, positive news still remains.
In the Mountain Area, a happy story is the new Oakhurst Elementary School campus on School Road (427), a $12 million project that's been three years in the making. On Monday, Aug. 20, its new classrooms will host teachers and students.
A champion of the project, Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary School District Superintendent Glenn Reid -- who has made more trips to Sacramento then he'd like to remember to help secure construction funding -- is overjoyed to welcome the class of 2012-2013 to the new Oakhurst Elementary campus.
"What a great place for teachers, and especially for kids, to learn," Reid said. "It's exciting for the community and should be a source of pride. It's a beautiful, beautiful school now."
All of the old buildings, at least 50 years old and in poor condition, were bulldozed this summer except for the old cafeteria, which is now being used to store teaching materials, Reid said.
The school year is planned to kick-off with at least three of the six new classroom buildings occupied, which include three classrooms each. Other completed construction includes a new school office, library and computer lab, restrooms, offices, sprinkler system, some new playground equipment, new parking lot, widened road in front of OES, and a block safety wall between the road and the school. The school's new multi-purpose room was completed last year.
Other happenings at Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary
Kirk Huckabone, principal for Ahwahnee's Wasuma Elementary School, will not be returning this school year -- accepting a position as director of a small private school in Santa Clarita. Reid, who previously served as the school's principal for seven years before, will start off the school year as both district superintendent and Wasuma's principal.
"It's a loss for us -- we certainly enjoyed having him here for the five years we have had him, but he has a chance to grow and we want to encourage that," Reid said. "I'm excited to go back to Wasuma and be close to kids again ... We'll make a decision down the road (about a school principal) but right now I just want to get us out to a good start ... I'll be there when buses come and leave and at afternoon recesses and lunch and in and out of classrooms."
Plans are still underway for a new gymnasium at Wasuma Elementary School, with a million sitting in the piggy bank for its construction from the state, Reid said.
Music instruction at the Bass Lake district will continue through a new collaborative effort with Yosemite High School, where district students will join high school students. District music teacher Shirley Lay has been offered a part-time position to help district students in the beginning band class at YHS, where a total of three music instructors are planned to be available to assist students, Reid said.
Due to state cuts, the district is opting not to participate in the Mountain Area sports league this year, but there are plans to do some game days throughout the year, Reid said.
The Bass Lake district hired three new teachers this year, a new secretary at Oakhurst Elementary, and a handful of new classified employees.
Although state cuts have been hard, Reid said there's still nothing like the excitement of starting a new school year.
"We have the opportunity every year to start over again," he said, adding that the first day of school feels like Christmas.
"Right now my spine is tingling thinking about it," he added with a laugh. "We have a great team of folks working here. They care about our kids and our community and work hard."
Yosemite Unified School District installed new metal roofing on three buildings at Yosemite High School this summer -- replacing the last of the school's wooden shingles. A new solar power project, which could cover all of the district's electrical costs, is also being explored, with contractor bids to be received next month.
"The project is federally funded, and it will not have a negative impact on the school's budget," said new Superintendent Jim Sargent. "The hopes would be you could recover savings right away ... The school board will consider the bids in October and make the decision then if it's cost-effective to go forward."
The district is also excited to announce Yosemite High School teacher Rusty Oetinger is on a teacher-exchange in China teaching this year. Yosemite High is also launching a new "Badger Academy" program, a mandatory class for freshman to help transition into high school.
Sargent, formerly superintendent of Caruthers Unified School District, said he's excited about joining the district and is impresed by the quality and the number of extra-curricular and curricular programs at Yosemite High.
"One of the things that I'm really focusing on now is some longer-range planning," Sargent said. "Trying to plan going forward to maintain the programs we have, and to do that, we have to plan carefully and promote the cooperation we have with the community and our feeder schools and keep those relationships strong ... Hopefully we're at a place where our enrollment is becoming stable again -- smaller but stable. And that will help us plan."
Still, with continued state cuts, it's becoming more of a challenge to keep things the way they used to be.
"These extra co-curricular and extra-curricular programs will stay this year, but the long-term, it's really hard to tell," Sargent said."The state budget is outside the school district's control. The school district is still going to give the best education they can for students to go to a university and into the work place, and you might lose some of those other things in the process which are really enriching and helpful for kids."
Sargent said he is excited the state will be implementing a new "common core" approach to teaching and testing within the next few years.
"It will be replacing a lot of the current California standards," he said. "What is exciting is the common core is about the learning and making learning more application-oriented, and I think that is fantastic .... the current standards and current assessments are very knowledge-based ... common core is designed to test a lot more of what the students can do with the information."
Chawanakee Unified School District has two new big additions -- a planned career technical education building and a small culinary arts school in North Fork.
Construction for the career technical education school at Minarets High School is planned to begin next month, funded by a $1.1 million donation from Ponderosa Telephone and a $1 million loan from the company.
The new building will allow students to get involved in things like ag mechanics and welding, along with newer fields, like three-dimensional modeling and fabrication, said new Superintendent Bob Nelson.
The district also recently announced that it will open a small school for culinary arts in North Fork next month, where students will alternate instruction between normal instruction and culinary arts training, Nelson said.
"It's paid for through necessary small school funding, so it's not a drain on the general fund and will pay for itself," he said.
Nelson, former human resources administrator for Fresno Unified School District, said he's excited to join Chawanakee.
"While I previously worked in Fresno, I've been living in Yosemite Lakes Park," Nelson said. "Now every day, when I get to Road 200 and turn left, it's like I died and went to heaven."
He's working to better open the lines of communication between all of the district's schools for collaboration, and to further Chawanakee's unique approach to education, he said.
"In many ways Chawanakee Unified is like a counter-culture district," Nelson said. "In most places in the state, on any given date, everyone is on the same page of the same lesson ... We are still incredibly accountable to make sure those standards are being taught, but the "how" of how that's being taught is still very open to teacher freedom... Academic freedom is in scarce supply ... the more unique and varied opportunities the better, because you never know what's going to help each kid, but that's also hard to do in limited financial times."
While Chawanakee's vision continues, if the November tax initiative for education doesn't pass, they will likely face a reduction in school days, Nelson said. This year the district also has more grade combination classes and larger class sizes than before, some up to 29 students, he said.
However, the district was able to hire several new staff members this year, and is about 50 students larger district-wide, he said.