Dr. Karen Valdes, assistant superintendent for Student Services in the Hemet Unified School District, described her role on the State Board of Education during the “State of District” conference last week.
Photo by JP Crumrine

On Thursday, Oct. 4, Hemet Unified School District Superintendent Christi Barrett provided her second “State of District” to stakeholders from throughout HUSD.

Over the next five years, Barrett sees more changes bringing improvement to the district from the foundation being built in the past two years. HUSD encompasses nearly 650 square miles, but Barrett wants HUSD to be more than simply the “default school district” for this area. She wants it to be a premier district, which parents want their children to attend and where students want to be in order to learn skills for a productive adult lifetime.

“I want them to want to be here,” she stated to the room. “We want to be part of the community and to make a difference. People leave the community when the educational system is not sound.”

The path to becoming premier is not smooth nor uncluttered. Barrett and her staff recognize that more than 80 percent of the students are from low-income families, 13 percent are English learners and chronic absenteeism is at 18 percent.

“It is not for us to predetermine which students go to college. We will be prepared to give all students whatever they need to graduate, ready for college or a career,” she promised.

Barrett is intent on changing HUSD’s role and its commitment to the community. Pursuant to the recent changes in the state funding laws, every school district prepares a Local Control Accountability Plan.

She agrees that local control is necessary because “it gives us autonomy.”

Barrett is not simply relying on this mandated process to propel HUSD forward. She regularly meets with staff, conducts staff meetings on sites, visits at least one school a week, and attends many meetings with parent groups and organizations in the community.

For example, HUSD now has 20 agreements with social service and health groups throughout the district. This reflects HUSD’s perspective that learning depends upon social environment as much as it depends upon a teacher and a blackboard.

For example, one of HUSD’s strategies is to “create a system to close achievement gaps by providing support to students whose academic and social emotional needs are not met in the core program.”

Rather than simply suspending students as a punishment, which decreases their learning opportunities, in 2017-18, the district experimented with a program at Tahquitz High School. Instead of suspension and removal, these students were provided with more social and emotional support. Not only did they have to acknowledge the consequence, but there was emphasis on the effect on their friends and other students.

“The school found that their suspensions decreased, attendance increased and the majority of students that attended this class for behavioral issues did not re-offend,” according to the staff.

This program will be implemented at all of HUSD’s secondary and middle schools this year, Barrett announced.

Connecting and supporting the community has lead to a “Career Technical Education” program that encompasses 27 different pathways — not simply agriculture and building trades, but medical technology, robotics, animation, health services, hospitality and more.

While graduation rates are one indicator of a district’s achievement, Barrett and her staff know that these are influenced by family and social settings as much as educational context.

Consequently, they want to monitor attendance, suspensions and PSAT assessments, and complement these data with student and parent surveys.

To become premier, HUSD staff knows they must understand and promote the behavior that excels; they also recognize that they must identify the behaviors that don’t belong in a premier district and reduce them.

The program was presented at the HUSD boardroom, which was filled. With nearly 20 tables, there was only one HUSD staff at each table. The attendees spanned the community from law enforcement to health services, the food industry, media and more.