By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer– For the first time in a few years, Sierra Sands Unified School District (SSUSD) is hosting its traditional beginning of the school year events. “These are events we are looking forward to that are not altered like they have been the last couple of years,” says Dr. David Ostash, Superintendent of SSUSD. It kicks off on Monday, August 1, “We have our new teacher orientation at the Kerr McGee Center where we’ll be feeding our new teachers breakfast and giving them all the tricks of the trade and getting them basically on board.”
The rest of the week includes a Teacher Optional Work Day on Tuesday, Professional Development Days on Wednesday and Thursday “where teachers throughout the district will be receiving training that’s relevant to their level or school site.” Friday morning is special with the traditional All Hands meeting at the Kerr McGee Center with light refreshments at 7:30 am and the program at 8 am. “That’s a fun meeting where I and some of my teammates introduce the new staff to everyone and give some highlights of where we’ve been, establish priorities and essentially share a vision of where we’re going.” Friday is a Mandatory Work Day.
At the time of this writing there are no pandemic restrictions. “We always pay attention to the guidance that we get from the county and the state,” Ostash says, “and we just do it, but as of right now, we’re not aware of any restrictions, so we don’t have restrictions.
“Some things are not changing. We’re not changing the start times. There was a new bill that passed in the California legislature that requires secondary schools to start no earlier than certain times in the morning. But there is a rural exemption that exists and our board passed a resolution back in the early part of this year that declares us rural for that purpose. And so we’re not changing our start time.”
At the beginning of each school year, Ostash likes to share with the community the priorities set forth by the state and synthesize what it means for SSUSD. “Right now there’s a definite focus on what we call in our world SEL, Social Emotional Learning. We’re seeing additional funding that the legislature is committing to school districts and county offices of education to be sure that there are supports integrated in the academic programs that support the social-emotional learning of students.
“What does that mean? Well, it means a lot of different things. But it’s important because for one person SEL might mean one thing and for another person SEL might mean another. One person might say, ‘Mental health comes to mind’ and someone else might say, ‘Student citizenship or behavior comes to mind.’ According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve personal and collective goals.”
Even before SEL was set as a standard, SSUSD has been proactive in enhancing the welfare of its students. “There’s a number of things that we do in our district that are not required, but we have gone out and found the funding for and implemented.” says Ostash. ‘’For example, we received a grant back in 2013 to 2016. And we found a way to sustain this where we actually enhanced counseling services at elementary school levels. There’s no ed code that requires a counselor to be in elementary schools. If you want to have counselors in elementary schools, you have to find the funding. We’ve been able to do that.”
In addition, SSUSD follows guidelines for deciding where to spend supplement funding and a lot of it is in counseling and mental health services. At their last board meeting they approved a contract with a company called Care Solace who acts as a liaison to facilitate mental health services and ease the burdens of appointment setting, insurance approval, locating services.
“A year ago, we approved adding a licensed clinical social worker an LCSW. We approved that along with many other school districts in the state and the nation. We have not been able to get an LCSW to even apply for the job. There’s just such a high demand for those jobs.”
Plans for upgrades to facilities and new construction continue. At Faller Elementary school, “the entire school is having updated air conditioning installed that feature enhanced filtration for staff and student safety and sensors that monitor the CO2 level in classrooms and maintain a healthy level of oxygen at all times so that staff/student health is assured, not to mention optimizing the learning environment.
“As of now, there is no plan to close Monroe. We are reviewing and analyzing where we have been. The non-passage of Measure C has an impact on our plans. We’ll have to retool and reconsider what we’re going to do in the future. We will continue to be strategic, but also keep everything in balance. You plan and do the best you possibly can, but at the end of the day, you always keep at the forefront of your mind: What is best for the students this year? For our sixth graders and our seventh graders and our eighth graders at Monroe, that’s the only time they’ll be in sixth grade or seventh grade or eighth grade. Meaning sometimes you be as efficient as you can, but you’re still going to invest the money so that all of our students have an excellent opportunity.
“One of the things we identified was at the gym at Monroe it would be beneficial to refinish the floor. The wooden floor needs to be sanded down and refurbished. We’re looking at some bids to possibly get the interior of the gym painted to update and improve the gym. We’re looking at things that we had postponed doing or that cost money.”
The District is in the process of writing a grant for Pierce Elementary School. “It’s an 80% grant from the Department of Defense, just like we received for Richmond (we’ll be breaking ground soon in the coming months.) It’s the same 80% grant that we were able to build Murray Middle School and modernize Burroughs High School. Now we are applying for a grant for Pierce. We don’t know what that looks like yet because we’re early in that process. But it could be a whole new build. Or it could be a mixture of some new building and full modernization.”