District Takes Frugal Approach to Revamping Science

By Peter West — August 05, 1992 4 min read
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Eager to join the national effort to improve science teaching, the Goleta Union Elementary School District here is gearing up to revitalize its science program to reflect cutting-edge instructional strategies in an era of diminished resources.

As envisioned by officials here, the district is on the verge of a major staff-development effort in which mentor teachers will guide their peers in developing an inquiry-based, cross-disciplinary, technology-based science program that they hope will be every bit as ambitious as a reform being undertaken by the much larger San Francisco district, 400 miles to the north.

“We’ve been looking at science as a way of telling a story, and we want to tell it well,’' said Ida Rickborn, the assistant superintendent for instructional services for the 4,000-student, K-6 Goleta district.

“We want to stress the connections between science and other areas of the curriculum, because we don’t see them as distinct areas of study,’' she said.

Unfortunately, the visionary changes that Ms. Rickborn and other school officials here hope to see implemented are far from becoming a reality.

Unlike the large San Francisco reform project, which is using community grants to leverage federal funding and is drawing on the expertise of nationally renowned local institutions, the Goleta district is operating on a razor-thin fiscal margin.

Officials estimate that it will cost $140,000 need to check figure-pw over the next three years to develop a critical mass of teachers trained in the new approach.

That kind of money, Ms. Rickborn said, will be extremely difficult to find in the district’s $17-million annual budget.

“I would love to have the kind of resources that San Francisco has [to effect reform],’' Ms. Rickborn said. “But there are just a lot of demands right now on a budget that is very, very tight.’'

Predictions Fall Short

Compared with many other districts in economically distressed California, the Goleta district is “still in relatively solid fiscal shape,’' David C. Chapman, the president of the board of trustees, said.

Still, he said, the current budget “doesn’t leave a lot of discretionary funds.’' Eighty percent of the district’s budget goes to pay teachers’ salaries.

“Facilities maintenance has been deferred for years and years,’' Mr. Chapman added.

The fiscal realities of today stand in stark contrast to the district’s more affluent past.

When Ms. Rickborn began teaching for Goleta 30 years ago, the predictions for the community’s growth and expansion were as rosy as the California climate that was drawing so many newcomers to this coastal area roughly 90 miles north of Los Angeles.

Basing their projections on the growth boom the area then was experiencing, planners believed that the district would need to build one elementary school a year, for a total of 40, by the turn of the century.

Now, with a longstanding moratorium on new water connections owing to California’s lengthy drought and other economic factors, new construction is at a standstill and the district is retrenching.

Ms. Rickborn, in fact, met with a reporter in office space that was carved out of what had been her first classroom three decades ago.

The district now consists of just eight schools, one-fifth the number projected in the early 1960’s.

And the price of local housing is such that few young families can afford to move into the area.

“A $250,000 house is considered a ‘fixer-upper,’'' Ms. Rickborn noted.

In short, a variety of conditions have conspired to keep households with young children from settling in the area, adding to enrollments, and lending their support to the reform effort.

‘Resurgent Interest’

Even though the expected population boom never happened, the Goleta district serves some 4,000 children of a technologically literate and sophisticated population of workers employed by such enterprises as the Delco electronics division of General Motors and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Even so, Ms. Rickborn said, until the state adopted a new framework for science in the late 1980’s, science instruction received short shrift in the general curriculum.

The new framework has sparked a “resurgent interest’’ in the community in producing scientifically literate students, she said.

A team of mentor teachers is guiding the reform effort with the help of university officials. The team is developing units centered on the physical and earth sciences to spearhead the reform, because, Ms. Rickborn said, “if [the teachers] can teach those subjects, biology and the other sciences will seem relatively easy.’'

Some elements of the new approach already are in place in some schools, most notably the Isla Vista elementary school near the university campus.

The success of the program there, in a school that has a large and multicultural student body, so impressed U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander that he praised the effort during a recent luncheon address to the National Press Club in Washington.

The reforms are supported by parents, the local business community, and several university scientists, but the fate of the changes lies with the local school board. It will meet next month to approve the district’s annual budget.

While most board members seem to support the new direction, Mr. Chapman cautioned that the board may have little fiscal leeway, particularly in a year when the state is covering its debts with I.O.U.'s

If financial support for the reforms is not forthcoming from the school board, Ms. Rickborn said, “then we’ll find another path to make sure it happens.’'

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A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as District Takes Frugal Approach to Revamping Science


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