Monday, December 30, 2013

Kudos to USDA's Carolee Bull

Carolee T. Bull, USDA researcher and mentor extraordinaire, received the Secretary of Agriculture’s Honor Award, the highest award given by the Secretary.

Bull received the award for outstanding mentorship and "cultivation" of students in the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) disciplines.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the award on December 11 at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. The Secretary’s Honor Award is the “highest award in agriculture for service to the Nation.”

Bull works at the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Crop Improvement and Protection Research Unit in Salinas. ARS is USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency. Here's one story I wrote about her work.

Bull’s program is designed to inspire students—from kindergarten through the university level—about agricultural science in general, with an emphasis on plant pathology. Bull worked in tandem with Hartnell College and California State University Monterey Bay, to develop a successful program for identifying promising underrepresented minority and women high school and college students and mentoring them to become among the most well-prepared and sought-after graduate students in agricultural research.

Six of Bull’s former undergraduate students are now in graduate programs in plant pathology. Three of these Salinas natives are National Science Fellows in Ph.D. programs and one is also a Borlaug Fellow. Bull multiplies her outreach efforts by instilling in her students the need to give back and reach out to other members of the community.

Based on her experience with underrepresented minority students, Bull developed and presented a series of mentorship workshops (“How to Mentor Yourself” and “Mentoring Up and Down the Ladder of Success”) at national and international scientific conferences, to American Phytopathological Society members, and to university departments and institutes.

One of Bull's goals is “to make the Salinas Valley as well known for producing scientists as it is for producing lettuce.” Sounds like she's way on her way for doing it.

Congratulations, Dr. Bull! We've known you rock for years!

Of Alisal texting and traipsing among crop circles

Happy almost new year! Allow me to take a small break from reporting on the exciting world of Crop Circles to bring up some interesting commentary on a story I've reported on previously.

I decided to bring it up because it's the talk among Alisal observers: how Trustee Meredith Ibarra seems to receive her marching orders from brother Jose Ibarra.

For those of you who follow the Alisal, you may recall a heated meeting a couple of weeks ago when Trustee Ibarra kept interrupting the meeting, presumably to prevent several actions to take place. The meeting on Dec. 18 was postponed for the next day, when the actions were actually approved.

Several people noted how Meredith Ibarra kept looking at her iPad, and also how her brother Jose was texting constantly during the meeting. There's not way to prove who they're texting, but you know how it goes. Speculation is rampant that brother Jose is cyber whispering in his little sister's ear what to ask and what to say. This video shows Ibarra texting frenetically -- to the point that he misses questions from his boss, Superintendent John Ramirez. And Meredith Ibarra glued to her iPad.

Who knows what really goes on, but one thing's for certain. New board president Maricela Cruz could not make Trustee Ibarra stick to the meeting, so making her put her iPad away is going to be next to impossible.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and all that stuff

I'll be on vacation until Dec. 30 -- so no posts until then, peeps.

But I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for allowing me to be a part of this community. It's truly an honor, and I feel blessed.

Have a wonderful and safe Christmas, holiday, whatever you celebrate. Enjoy the privilege of living in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Scuttlebutt, keep your eyes and ears open for me. I expect a full report when I return.

More on the Oasis Charter saga

Well, it turns out I did not have the complete story about the Oasis Charter when I published it's not in danger of closing.

As it usually happens, there's a lot more going on.

As part of their planning process, Principal Juanita Perea is proposing a couple of changes. Either to try to give the charter an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (the now so fashionable STEM) or leave the school as is. For the charter to go STEM, it would need a lab but there's not enough room in the building, so the school would have to give up its 7th and 8th grade to make room for the lab. And that's what has parents up in arms.

Perea told me over the phone that including the 7th and 8th grades in the STEM conversion would require a lot of money and a bigger building, a possibility that does not seem feasible at this time.

But the school could remain status quo, she said.

Parents are very upset because they have not been given adequate information, they say. They also say the information has been changing, which makes it unreliable.

Some also don't like what they describe as Perea's disrespectful attitude towards them. She shuns off their suggestions without even exploring them, Horace Ingraham told me. 

Ingraham is the father of a 7th grader, a girl who has thrived at Oasis, and he's very concerned he won't find a similar school for his daughter if the school decides to end its 8th grade.

A preliminary decision is expected to be made at the charter's board meeting scheduled for Jan. 22.

Or not. Stay tuned.

MPUSD meets the COSCA group

For those of you interested in how the superintendent search is going to go, you should plan to attend today's special board meeting. It's at 5:30 p.m. at the usual place (Instructional Materials Center at Canyon del Rey).

Trustees are going to discuss with the COSCA group -- the consulting firm hired to conduct the superintendent search -- specifics on how the search will go. A particular interest of mine -- and I'm sorry I won't be able to make it, I'm officially on vacation as soon as I post "publish" in this blog -- is whether the trustees will choose to have public forums for the candidates.

It's an idea that's been floated around -- actually, I may have been the first one to propose it.  Have the top three candidates come out and be "interviewed" by the community at a forum.

Trustees have discussed this and other options to get as much community input as possible before picking the next top administrator. Another idea that's been circulating is to have community committees, sworn to secrecy, interview the candidates.

Whatever it is, I'd love to know. If you attend the meeting, do let me know. Scuttlebutt, you know how to reach me! ;)

Monday, December 16, 2013

Oasis Charter School in Salinas doing well

As you can probably imagine, my good friend Scuttlebutt sometimes likes to branch out and bring me news from beyond the Monterey Peninsula.

Always alert, Scuttlebutt heard Oasis Charter School in Salinas was in danger of closing.

So I made the required and responsible calls. And turns out, news of the charter's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Oasis Principal Juanita Perea told me the school's doing great. The $2 million a year school's is financially healthy, they're offering music, art, computers, Spanish, and drama. The board just met to draft their strategic plan and to gear up to request a renewal for their five-year charter permit -- which they'll do in 2015.

"We're enhancing our programs, we're bringing AVID training summer so everyone's trained. We just bought musical instruments. We would not be doing that if we were considering shutting down."

The charter's located at a shopping center in Salinas where the school has a 15 year lease -- with 10 more years to go, so space is not an issue.

Perea was wondering where this news could be coming from, and the only idea that occurred to her was that the school has not yet received a federal grant she's expecting to help cover rent. Funny though, the feds gave Oasis their allotment for the school year 13-14 , but have not yet sent the money for the 12-13 school year. That's the feds for you.

In the meantime, Perea had to dip into the school's reserves to cover the rent. 

I wish the federal governmen would pay us what they owe us," she said.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Alisal, MPC, and MPUSD

Ah, so many stories, so little time...

A brief taste of potential good stories.

ALISAL: Three new board members were sworn in at the Alisal Union School District this week, and boy, are they going to make changes soon. Their agenda for Wednesday's special board meeting includes dismissing at least five people who were hired during the Castañeda regime. These soon-to-be-unemployed people include relatives or friends of the Ibarra clan. Union leaders had complained they had displaced union members who'd worked for the district for decades.

Two previously dismissed employees are being re-hired. 

MPC: At a time when perhaps more transparency is needed -- given impending budget cuts -- student journalists of the MPC Pipeline are crying foul because the Associated Students of the Monterey Peninsula College cut its funding. MPC student council president Chris Marshall told me the cuts had nothing to do with MPC Pipeline reporting on his scuffle with Eric Foster.

This ongoing saga is worth at least an entire blog post and perhaps a full blown article in the print edition, since the number of newspaper publications has shrunk considerably in the last few years, and MPC Pipeline is the first paper I see come out recently. That and The Galleon of Monterey High. Story idea for the new year, for sure.

MPUSD: Joanna Greenshields was not the only person blown away by MPUSD trustees saying no to a $5 million cost overrun. I've been marveled by the fact that trustees get sort of "trapped" into positions they can't back out of, and I was wondering how long it would take for them to stop going down dead end roads.

The Digital Schools contract is such an example. They were warned by the Monterey County Office of Education not to try to go its separate way, but the trustees voted for "fiscal independency" anyway. Regardless, it was too late. By then, they had already approved -- unanimously -- a five year, half-a-million contract they could only use if they were fiscally independent. After Monterey County officials deemed MPUSD unable to become fiscally independent, it became obvious they would not be able to use the half-million dollars software they had already committed to buying.

The board seemed a lot more cautious on Monday, perhaps they've learned a lesson or two. Like Jon Hill told me: "This is a board that has learned they don't have to do what they don't want to do."

Which is sometimes more important than doing what you want to do.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

UnChained: for the love of dogs and at-risk youth

Do you love dogs and young people? Here's a chance to volunteer for a nifty organization that brings together a mission to help homeless dogs and at-risk youth.
UnChained, Inc. matches dogs from local shelters and rescue organizations with at-risk youth. Using positive-reinforcement training, the kids learn to train the dogs. The teens learn positive communication with each other, mastery of a skill, impulse-control and future orientation.

In turn, the dogs learn good manners, basic skills and confidence which increases their chances of a successful adoption.

UnChained is asking volunteers who love dogs, kids and have some dog handling experience. Time commitment: Beginning January 2014, 1 or 2 days per week for 8 weeks, 2 school quarters total. 

The organization's winter programs begin January.  Volunteers needed in  Monterey and Santa Cruz counties are Youth Team Leader, Dog Chauffeur and Dog Foster Family. To apply, contact Melissa Wolf, Executive Director at (831) 818-8738 or Click here for more information.

Educational world abuzz about PISA tests: US students remain stagnant

Educators and pundits all over the United States are abuzz about the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment (cuddly known as PISA) which scores 15-year-old students in 65 countries in math, reading, science and other topics. The students are chosen at random, and the tests are unique because they're not tied to any curriculum. In other words, it's what children really know and how they can apply their knowledge to the real world.

For more information about the test, click here.

The United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading. The rankings have not budged much in a decade. 

Students in Shanghai-China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea scored the highest in all three subjects. Switzerland and the Netherland also ranked near the top.

The results have already prompted a wave of commentaries from education analysts and lobbyists. We must spend more in early childhood education if the United States is going to move forward, some say. Others praise the advent of the Common Core Standards as a possible way for the United States to break out of the pack and move up in the educational ladder.

I'd like to point to a nifty graph I found from Rutgers Professor Bruce Baker, who concludes that, given the level of poverty in the United States, we're actually not doing that badly. You can find the graph here

But Baker's graph also reminded me of a recent column by Castroville teacher and Herald Columnist Paul Karrer. In his column, Karrer takes issue with a New York Times writer Frank Bruni, who says students in the United States are coddled and that's the reason why they perform poorly compared to other countries. Bruni says the Common Core Standards will mean nothing if students are not challenged to do more.

Karrer responds with the realities of being in a classroom and teaching children with a myriad of problems that affect their learning: broken homes, medical conditions, you name it. Education happens best when children live in environments conductive to learning. And if they come to school with a hungry stomach or worried about whether their families will have a place to live next month, chances are their minds will not be ready to do math.

About one fifth of children in the United States live below 50 percent of median income. Only Turkey, Chile and Mexico have higher share of children living in poverty among ranked countries. Ironically, the United States is the sixth largest economy in the world, based on per capita income. But that income is not being used to reach everyone -- didn't lawmakers just last week cut foodstamps program? Half of the people who receive foodstamps are children, by the way.

People in positions of power refuse to invest in human capital, and as long as investment remains stagnant, education pundits should not expect U.S. students to improve achievement in international rankings, no matter how many educational reforms we undergo.