When Tam Trong left home for school each day, she left her parents’ world behind.

They were boat people, Vietnamese refugees who fled South Vietnam. They finally settled in Newbury Park when Tam was an infant. Educated in the public school system, she quickly surpassed her parents’ limited grasp of English. When she needed parent-teacher meetings, they did the best they could, usually just a handshake. Tam did well in high school and wanted to go to college at Cal State University, Northridge. Eventually she needed someone to meet with college counselors as her advocate, an adult who knew about her and could give her advice. For the last two years she had worked after school, cleaning and cooking for a lawyer in Thousand Oaks. With nowhere else to turn, she asked him to be her spokesman.

“My parents wanted to support me, but I couldn’t tell them. It would have broken their hearts to know they couldn’t go — they just weren’t up to it,” Trong said. “I told Polly (a Cambodian student who also worked for the lawyer) and he did the same thing for her. I don’t think she told her parents either,” she said.

“That (story) is a great example of what we are trying to change,” said Ventura County Unified School District Superintendent Stan Mantooth.  “We want to get input from the English-learning community and our poorer populations, to talk to them about what they feel is important and what they need.”

Mantooth is describing just one aspect of sweeping changes in the structure of the Ventura County Unified School District — changes that have been mandated by Assembly Bill 97. The school funding bill was proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown and passed by the state Senate in January. While the legislation created some angry debate, it passed easily. Brown’s idea was to invest in California’s future by changing how schools are funded. The biggest change was a promise to direct more money to the neediest students. It was seen as an opportunity to correct historical inequities by giving more money to students who needed the most support. Each school district can decide how best to spend the money.


Fourth graders at Hollow Hills Fundamental School in Simi Valley during a holiday program.

“The governor’s concept of local control is that we are able to write our own script as long as we’re serving those kids. It might be more technology or reducing class size. It could take the form of additional educational material, also targeted teacher development to make the teacher more effective in those specific groups. The local school boards will make those decisions. There is an accountability plan that spells out how we are going to spend the money and help those students realize better achievement,” Mantooth said.

The budget provides about $70 billion statewide over the next three years. For K-12 schools the funding will increase by $3,400 per student. More money will be given to districts that have a higher percentage of disadvantaged kids. Those three categories are English language learners, low-income students and foster youth.

Mantooth explains the breakdown. “If you have 20 percent or more of students of poverty, or English language learners you get additional money. If your proportion is 55 percent of those students, you get an additional pot of money that is called a concentration fund. Those are the neediest students that we are to target our funds toward. We’re going to lift all boats. Fillmore might approach 90 percent of students who are in the neediest category. They get the most money available, but it has to be used for those specific students according to the new rules and regulations just approved,” he said.

Within Ventura County Unified, there are 20 districts. About half will be eligible for extra funding.

“It’s really an interesting mix because the Oxnard plain, Camarillo, Santa Paula, you will see very high numbers (of disadvantaged students). In the east county, Conejo Valley, Oak Park and Pleasant Valley, that’s going to be a different story. It is a tale of two cities scenario … the haves and have nots,” Mantooth said.

School districts eligible for the most funding with the highest percentages of disadvantaged students are:

Santa Paula, 85 percent; Hueneme, 84 percent; Rio, 84 percent; Fillmore, 83 percent; Oxnard,  82 percent; Ocean View, 80 percent; Briggs, 72 percent; Oxnard Union, 66 percent; Somis, 65 percent;  and Mupu, 56 percent.

The lowest percentages of disadvantaged students are in Oak Park at 9 percent; Santa Clara, 21 percent; and Conejo Valley, 26 percent. There has been concern that funding in these more affluent districts will be seriously cut by the new allocations. While the results are not conclusive, Mantooth said he is confident there will be no hardships.

The funding will be spent to improve very specific areas. The school climate is evaluated with attention to attendance and dropout rates, and students’ healthcare will be improved.  Transportation issues will be addressed along with school safety. There will be attention directed at parental involvement, with meetings and town halls set up between now and May. Classroom instruction will also be changed as student achievement and testing goes under the microscope. New class materials like iPads will be added and a new approach to curriculums with Common Core standards introduced. Also more counseling and teacher training will take place.

“My associate superintendent has three boys, and one of them is gifted. He took the test for the first time and he didn’t pass it. He took the test a second time and improved measurably. Took it at third time and scored in the 90th percentile. So we have to be doing the rehearsal bit so the kids get used to the format and getting kids and their teacher to understand that,” Mantooth said.

There is also an extra 10.5 percent of the funding given to grades kindergarten to third grade to continue class size reduction. About 20 to 24 to one is the standard. Of course these decisions are made outside the classroom. From inside the classroom, veteran Ventura County teacher Jock Scott has another perspective.

“When I started teaching 35 years ago, the fourth grade writing test was that you had to write a paragraph … an introductory statement, three supporting sentences and a concluding sentence. That’s something they now expect second graders to do. When I started teaching, kindergarteners spent a lot of time learning to share and to play and move around a lot. Now teachers are expected to teach them to have beginning reading skills and write at least a sentence. Your average teacher kind of knows what kids need, but they end up spending a lot of time being told by somebody not in the classroom what kids need, and then they’ve got to figure out how to do that,” Scott said, who now works for the school district as a home school teacher.

“I just talked to another teacher who was frustrated. She told me that Bill Gates is telling her she needs to use more computers and Sacramento is telling her she needs to change her teaching, and she wanted to know where she was going to find the time to do all that,” Scott said.

“It works with the really enthusiastic, bright teachers, the ones in their 20s. But for most of the others, they get overwhelmed. The teacher retraining is the issue; it’s adequate at best. I think it’s going to be very difficult for parents because they are not going to recognize the work that comes home. It’s great to get all the information, but you have to know how to think.  Computers don’t teach others how to think; I believe people teach others how to think. We need to translate more wisdom and less technology,” Scott said.

Sue Moore works as a hairdresser in Thousand Oaks. She put three children through school there and now has a young grandchild. “We put her in preschool before kindergarten. It was three days a week and not cheap. Then she went to kindergarten and everything was supposed to be fine. I eventually found out that she was failing. I mean, how can you fail kindergarten? Anyway we agreed to get her a tutor for the summer so she could get into first grade. How can a 5-year-old be under that much pressure? I couldn’t believe how different it is now,” Moore said.

Supervisor Mantooth acknowledges Sue Moore’s concerns. He said he must find a balance between what students are comfortable with and what a more sophisticated society demands, including new ways of testing.

Associate Superintendent Dr. Valerie Chrisman is in charge of the new type of testing. It’s called Smarter Balance and she describes it as our first step into the 21st century. She said testing is just one of the eight areas that will be assessed to see how well the program is working.

“We are accessing different types of learning styles and a deeper kind of learning, instead of just multiple choice or memorization. Smarter Balance testing makes the students actually create something. They have to apply geometry to create a plan for a garden.

Chrisman explains that what’s important is assessing the student’s ability to actually apply the knowledge. The computerized tests will analyze the answer to a question and decide what question to ask next.

 “Some students will get a more difficult question and some will get a question rephrased in a less complex way for students who need more language support. It makes students less bystanders and more intimately involved with their education. The teacher becomes more of a facilitator than a lecturer,” Chrisman said.

No one disagrees that school has become more sophisticated. The Common Core standards are a new way of teaching that is supposed to help. But disadvantaged students might need more help. Lynn Okun is a therapist in Ventura who has seen the casualties of foster youth.

 “I am an art therapist and I have worked with youth in the foster care system for the last 20 years. My job is to help them process emotions that translate to the classroom. They may need support to feel comfortable raising their hands in class and say, I don’t understand.”

Okun understands that there are different ways of learning. Often, children who have been neglected or traumatized have brains that are not functioning in the same way as they would had they been raised in families that were less emotionally stressful.

“A lot of these children will enter school and not be able to focus, to really take in the material in the same way. They may not be the happiest of kids, so it’s valuable to engage them in activities and ways of learning that are enjoyable, to provide opportunities for success,” Okun said.

The Ventura County Superintendent’s Office is hoping for success and staff members are going into high gear. Chrisman said it’s a very compressed timeline. “We have the rest of the winter and the spring. There is a template provided by the state to guide the plans. One of the most critical components is parent engagement. Over the course of the next two months you are going to see school districts holding a number of public forums and soliciting feedback in a variety of ways … even through social media. We want to hear from people about what they feel is important and what they need. Also how parents can be better equipped to help their kids. In June the final budget is adopted.”

The overall change in California’s education formula is going to take a long time to fully implement. The State Board of Education gives it eight years. Rules for controlling the money are constantly changing and it may look different by then. The proof will be in assessments and how well they can be evaluated. It’s considered a broad experiment that shifts the responsibility of education to a local level never seen here before.

“Sometimes when you’re on the middle of something you can’t really see clearly. It’s like we’ve shaken up a jar of water and sand and it hasn’t settled yet,” Mantooth said. “This year and next year are field tests; in 2016 it goes live.”