Irene B. West Elementary School Principal Mechale Murphy sits in her campus office before classes start.
Irene B. West Elementary School Principal Mechale Murphy sits in her campus office before classes start. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

Mechale Murphy is one of those principals students consider “cool.”

She is tall and beautiful, and greets her pint-size students with a smile and handshake just like celebrities greet their fans.

Murphy is in charge of West Elementary, a suburban school nestled among cookie-cutter homes near Sacramento. It is one of 61 schools in Elk Grove Unified, the fifth-largest district in the state.

Murphy said being an elementary school principal is “one of the best jobs,” and this year she has another reason to smile: She did not have to lay off any teachers.

Last year, she had no idea how many teachers would keep their jobs after getting pink slips.

“I can’t put it into words … how it feels not to have to think about (layoffs),” she said. “When you have 34 teachers laid off, and you only have a staff of 52, it is hard to do the things you need to do for kids.”

Students at West Elementary are also relieved.

“It’s really painful for someone who is our favorite teacher to go,” said 11-year-old Kevin Ly. Last year he had to say goodbye to his fifth-grade teacher.

Much of the teacher turnover stress is beginning to fade in Elk Grove Unified and in many school districts. Proposition 30, approved by voters last fall, is helping deliver $2.6 billion to schools this academic year.

Prop. 30 also tosses out the old funding formulas, and brings in a completely new way for the state to hand out money to schools.

“Everybody wins, but some districts win more than others,” said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education.

All districts will see an increase in their base funding level, but districts with low-income students, foster kids and English-language learners will receive even more money than the average district.

This approach also gives districts the freedom to spend the new money any way they want, but they must produce academic results.

“Essentially, there is a new philosophy (in the state),” Kirst said.

In Elk Grove Unified, district officials are considering bringing back freshman sports, summer school and adult education.

Superintendent Steven Ladd also wants to use the Prop. 30 funding to help Elk Grove carry out new Common Core standards.

These are tougher national standards aimed at teaching students more analytical skills. The standards call for students to use high-tech gadgets to do assignments and take tests.

“The new curriculums coming out … are Web-based that give opportunity for parents and students 24/7 access to go online,” Ladd said.

However, the technology to support Common Core standards is going to require a lot of money. Ladd said his district can’t agree yet on which technology to invest in. Some of the options include computers that can do high-end graphics, tablets and other hand-held devices.

“I think it’s going to be all of the above,” Ladd said. “I think everybody is looking to understand (the district’s technology needs) right now.”

Elk Grove Unified also plans to spend a big chunk of the money on training, so teachers can use the technology to carry out their lesson plans.

Preparing for Common Core is actually a big concern with teachers across the state. Elk Grove teacher Etoyia Roberts said she is not a “tech-savvy” person, and does not feel confident to tackle the technological requirements of the new standards.

“I personally would like more training,” Roberts said. “For my students, they may not see certain lessons online because I don’t have the equipment or the confidence to show them that.”

It is going to take a lot of confidence to get this new way of teaching off the ground by next year. Many educators say now that, instead of worrying about their jobs, they are worried about how they’re going to get their students to learn the new standards.

  • Larry Teixeira

    A word of caution to educators reading this article. The author states, “This approach also gives districts the freedom to spend the new money any way they want, but they must produce academic results.” This isn’t correct. Legislation implementing the state budget gives the responsibility of developing regulations on the use of the “supplemental” funds to the State Board of Education. The SBE isn’t expected to have final regs ready until January. School districts can’t assume at this point that the SBE will give them the flexibility to use the money any way they want.

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