Education / Schools

Aromas-San Juan schools undertake week-long probe into design and curriculum

Educational designer David Jakes works with students, faculty and administrators.
David Jakes at the ASJUSD Town Hall. Photo by Robert Eliason.
David Jakes at the ASJUSD Town Hall. Photo by Robert Eliason.

As the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District waits for a final report on the seismic fitness of San Juan Elementary to determine whether the school will have to be moved further from the earthquake fault that runs behind it, interim Superintendent Barb Dill-Varga has begun planning for the worst while hoping for the best. 

The uncertainty has become a chance to reassess how to make the school function better for students. Starting on Jan. 9 and continuing through the week, Dill-Varga and educational designer David Jakes engaged the students and the community in a search for solutions.

“The questions about rehabilitating or rebuilding the school prompted us to stop and think about whichever path we take,” Dill-Varga said. “We want to have an intelligent approach that supports teaching and learning. People here told me it’d been a long time since we took a breath and talked about what we believe about teaching and learning that will support all kids. And shouldn’t we have that conversation?”

Jakes started by traveling to the Aromas School, Anzar High School, and San Juan Elementary in turn, with a 7:15 a.m. welcoming meeting at Anzar High School and ending at 7 p.m. after a Community Schools Foundation meeting.

The schedule for Jan. 10 at San Juan Elementary was typical for all three schools. Starting at 8 a.m., Jakes met with principal Ethan Stokes, took a tour of the school with Stokes, followed by a separate tour with two teachers, observed classes as they were taught, then met with teachers, individually and in small groups, and with parents. The day concluded with an administrative team meeting that ended at 5:15 p.m. at the district office.

“I was coming at it from the standpoint of ‘we’re going to have this new school,’ but a lot of the questions he was asking were about the groundwork for our core values,” Stocks said. “What is our mission? What is our vision as a school? And he approached it in a way that I definitely found exciting.”

Stokes said there was an immediate need for such a conversation about the school’s future.

“It seems to me that the prospect of having to rebuild or move the school and rebuild it is a daunting thing,” he said. “But the chance to recraft it as we are rebuilding it is actually pretty interesting.”

The process was opened to the community at a well-attended evening town hall meeting on Jan. 12 at Anzar Library. Dill-Varga said she had received around 60 RSVPs for the meeting and was surprised when over 90 people attended.

“It was an opportunity to hear from a diverse group of people,” Dill-Varga said. “There were current and former parents, there were business owners, there were curious people off the street. I invited town leaders because I wanted that kind of diversity. I wanted to avoid conflict down the road because of people who may think their voices were not heard.”

Jakes split the participants into nine groups and then asked each group to sort out various priorities and ideas, decide what were the most critical, and then present them to the other groups for discussion.

“We look for patterns and trends in the data and then we continue to ask questions,” Jakes said. “We look for the things that are of the greatest interest and meaning and always have the data we gathered, which is a repository of ideas for us to rely on. Then we take the data back to the community and ask, ‘did we get it right? Is this reflective of what you said?’”

Dill-Varga said that it is important to bring in someone from the outside to facilitate this kind of conversation.

“It can lead you in many directions,” Dill Varga said. “It can be as simple as ‘these ideas are important and we’re going to hand them to the architects,’ or it can lead you into a full-blown revisiting of our mission and vision, looking at our curriculum, behaviors, and practices as well as designing spaces. I think we’re someplace in between those two things.”

The study is costing $15,000 and was paid for out of the district’s discretionary funds. Dill-Varga said she expected to receive a final report in about a month.


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.