School is back in session at Pleasanton Unified School District this week, and as thousands of students get ready for another year of homework and tests, many in the community are wondering about the status of upcoming bond measure projects, school curriculum and changes around the world that might affect student learning such as artificial intelligence.
The Weekly recently sat down with PUSD Superintendent David Haglund for a one-on-one discussion about everything from the recently completed Measure I1 bond projects that occurred over the summer, the upcoming Measure I bond project design deliberations, student behavior and discipline, updates on specific programs like special education, and teacher retention and turnover rates.
"This is an exciting time for the Pleasanton Unified School District," Haglund said.
Past and upcoming projects
In 2016, Pleasanton voters approved the $270 million Measure I1 general obligation bond, which has since helped PUSD address school safety upgrades, deteriorating facilities and updated classroom technology and infrastructure.
Seven years later, students now have a completely rebuilt Lydiksen Elementary School, and new science classroom buildings at Amador Valley and Foothill high schools and Hart Middle School, which are now completed, according to Haglund.
Over the summer, the district finished up some of the final roofing, HVAC repair and replacements and painting at schools like Donlon and Hearst elementary. Just recently, construction was also completed for Foothill's second career technical education (CTE) building.
Foothill's first CTE building -- which included new parking, walkways, fencing and landscaping too -- consists of three engineering classrooms, two computer labs and two science classrooms where students practice with things like flight simulators, cybersecurity programs and much more.
That first building was already completed last year but the second building, which used matching Measure I1 funds along with a state grant to help fund it, will now be used to store things like 3D printers, laser cutters and other equipment that students use.
As far as upcoming projects under the most recently passed Measure I, the $395 million bond issuance Pleasanton voters approved last November, Haglund said that most of that work is still in the design phases and that the district will be focusing on getting as much community input on those projects starting in the fall.
Some of the first things the district would like to start with are what they called "quickstart projects", such as moving the long-running Horizon Early Education Center and STEAM Preschool program to Harvest Park Middle School and replacing all of the middle schools fields in Pleasanton with artificial turf.
Haglund re-emphasized that it's important to district staff and their architects that they get as much public engagement and input as possible so that the stakeholders -- teachers, staff, students and parents -- all have a say in how these projects will look like.
And the same goes for the bigger projects in Measure I such as the construction of new Amador and Foothill gyms and performance arts centers and the newly reimagined Village High School, which is planned for demolition to make way for an entirely new educational options center.
"We talked about that -- when we showed the schematics during the campaign period -- that these were just conceptual designs," Haglund said. "We wanted to work with the stakeholders and the sites for the turnout to be the final design product."
Right now, he said the district has been reaching out to school sites and staff who work at the facilities for input and for the gyms and the performing arts centers they plan on bringing in teachers and families next.
As for Village, he said the plan is to begin moving students out of classrooms located at the top of the hill, to areas on the bottom where the district offices are currently located on the Bernal property.
He said the move will coincide with the district beginning its transition into its new, two-building district offices, which are located at 5758 and 5794 West Las Positas Blvd.
Haglund said district administrators and staff will begin moving to the new offices on Aug. 17 so that students and teachers can start moving into those empty spaces at the bottom of the hill in September and out of what Haglund called "unsafe facilities".
"They're working on a phasing process. So the first phase is getting the students and teachers out of the buildings on the hill and into the district office building and the lower level where special education and adult education are currently located," Haglund said.
He added that during that time, Village staff and administrators will continue to work with architects to come up with some initial designs for the new building.
Haglund also said that the Pleasanton Virtual Academy, which is currently located in the building at the very top of the hill, will move down into where currently, the purchasing and technology department is on the corner of Abbie and First streets.
He reiterated that all of the Measure I projects still need to be brought to the community for input and until that happens, there are no set timelines as to when we might see some of these Measure I projects come to fruition.
"We wanted to give conceptual understandings to the community so they could see what it was they were investing in," Haglund said. "But we also wanted to make sure that we weren't pushing things down the local stakeholders throats. They need to be involved."
School curriculum and grading
As the new academic year begins, many districts, including Dublin Unified School District, have been kicking around the idea of equitable grading practices, or as Haglund likes to call it "grading for mastery".
And while Dublin recently decided to drop the idea of moving toward that type of curriculum, Haglund said that it has been nice to see cohorts of Pleasanton teachers starting to use that type of teaching and grading and telling their colleagues about the benefits it has been having on their students.
Haglund pointed out one major distinction: PUSD has no control over how a teacher grades and that the district will not be forcing teachers to practice this form of instruction at all.
With that said, as someone who has used that style of teaching in his past, Haglund lauded the idea of grading for mastery because it shouldn't be about giving every student in a classroom the same assignment and simply giving them a grade based on that performance.
He argued it should be about getting students to master the material through intervention and support so that both the student who already understands the subject can be challenged and the student who doesn't understand the material at all can catch up.
While Haglund said PUSD isn't forcing its teachers to teach that way and isn't really tracking the teachers that do, with more teachers and students praising those grading practices he sees that becoming a norm in the future.
"I think in the community, sometimes people hear the word equity, and they immediately think it's about dumbing down curriculum ... That's not what it is," Haglund said. "It's trying to move teachers off of this one-size-fits-all to having this huge toolkit that they can leverage to support each child in their classroom, as opposed to having a lesson that they give to all children in the classroom."
One of those tools that Haglund said could be valuable in the coming years is artificial intelligence (AI).
With the quickly increasing technology becoming available and popularized, Haglund said it's important for PUSD staff and teachers to realize that AI isn't going away -- which means they have to adapt and learn how to utilize it in the classroom.
"There's some teachers that are scared to death that kids are just going to start turning in stuff that's been generated by the computer. Well, No. 1, kids have been doing that for a long time, right," he said, pointing to Google being used for years to plagiarize.
That's why he said that educators must now try to find out ways to leverage AI as a tool rather than try to block students from using it all together.
"There's a lot of cool things that you can do as a teacher, utilizing those artificial intelligence engines," he said. "You can ask the engine to create an outline ... so (students) can see what an outline looks like."
He said once students know what the outline looks like, they can start doing the work to fill in that outline and actually get to writing whatever paper they want. He said being able to see what the outline looks could now help students spend less time scratching their heads wondering what the outline should look like in the first place.
He said as far as AI in PUSD, the district can't go into every single phone or laptop and prevent students from using the technology, which is why some teachers are already beginning to embrace the technology.
"It's about structuring the instruction around the tool, so that you're not playing a game with the kids where you're saying 'don't do this'," Haglund said.
As far as other areas in the district's curriculum, Haglund pointed to the special education department and how he is already seeing improvements with the relationship between the department's staff and parents, which he said have not always been great.
"The proof of the improvements in that group is the reduction in due process complaints," he said. "When I first got here, there was this opposition from the district office to the parent community where they were stopping help from being provided. At least that was the opinion of the parents at the time."
But he said since Jeni Rickard, director of special education, and Kari Straface, assistant director of special education, got on the team, they were able to sit down with parents and work through things so that the students can get the help they need.
However, one of the areas that he still wants to see expanded is making the preschool programs be more inclusive so that kids with learning disabilities cannot only receive the help they need at an early age, but they can do it without being taken out of a traditional classroom.
"I'm hoping that as we get better at the inclusive preschool and that inclusive practice works itself into the elementary school grades, we'll start to see kids and families that come to terms with the issues earlier and move kids out of special education designation as much as possible as they go through the years because kids that are in special education classes don't need to be in special education classes in large measures, they need to have special education services," the superintendent said.
Student behavior and discipline
On Jan. 19, the PUSD community was shocked when parents shared a video on social media showing a girl, later determined to be a Pleasanton Middle School student, punching and stomping on the head of another student in front of the Pleasanton Public Library.
What came after was several meetings, both at the city level and the school board level, where parents expressed their outrage over what they said has been a longstanding problem of fighting and bullying at the PMS, and even some of the other middle schools.
And while the district addressed those comments during a joint city and district meeting in April, Haglund doubled down in saying that the district is committed to helping students, not just simply expelling them and giving up on them after they make a mistake.
"Look, you got a 12-year-old girl who did something incredibly stupid," Haglund said. "Does that 12-year-old girl deserve to go to college? Does she have an opportunity to learn anything in the next six years in order to get a great college education and get a job? Shouldn't she have that opportunity?"
He said that while the pandemic did have a lot to do with stunting social growth of many students due to the fact they weren't able to learn how to deal with emotions or being around other people in person, he said what the parents did in sharing that video on social media, rather than going directly to the district, was not the appropriate form of action.
"Instead you, the parent, chose to bully the girl digitally online in such a way that it will live forever, so that anytime a college recruiter searches it, they'll find it, or an employer searches it, they'll find it," Haglund said. "That was an adult bullying a 12-year-old. And not one adult, it was a bunch of adults bullying a 12-year-old, as opposed to making sure that the 12-year-old got the help that they needed at the school site."
While Haglund did say that teachers and administrators will need to do everything they can to start repairing the damage the pandemic had in terms of social growth in students, he said it's going to take everyone in the community to show the children what it means to be a respectful member of the community.
"Is it the teachers' responsibility? No. Do they have work to do or do they have a role to play in that work? Absolutely," Haglund said. "Is it my fault? That I caused that to happen? I don't think so. Do I have responsibility for addressing the issue with our kids and with our families? Absolutely I do."
"Same thing with the members of the community," he added. "When you see something out there that's being pushed around that No. 1, you don't know is true, and No. 2, you haven't attempted at all to try to find out information outside of reading something on social media, knock that off. Ask the questions, make the phone calls, engage with people and try to be a part of the solution instead of just a part of the problem."
Teacher, staff turnover
Over the last year, the community has seen principals, administrators and teachers leave for other districts.
The PUSD Board of Trustees recently appointed two new principals — one for Pleasanton Middle School and one for Walnut Grove Elementary School — at its June 22 board meeting.
The Dublin Unified Board of Trustees also recently appointed Michael Williams, the former Amador principal before moving to the PUSD district office, as their director of human resources on May 23.
And while many might see these changes as a sign of a large surge of staff leaving the district, Haglund said that they haven't seen a greater number of teachers leave.
"Every year, we look at a retention rate or a turnover rate of about 5%, and this year it's the same," he said.
However, he did point to Valley View Elementary School, which he said recently lost a number of teachers.
"That's because there was a district nearby that was recruiting them and offering them money that we couldn't offer them in terms of stipends and whatnot, because we don't have an agreement with the association to provide stipends," Haglund said, explaining that PUSD doesn't have an agreement with the Association of Pleasanton Teachers to offer teachers extra pay for bilingual certification programs.
"That's not part of our contract, so we're not allowed to do it even if we wanted to," Haglund said.
And even though he said that cohort of teachers leaving the school didn't affect the overall retention rate, he still hopes to eventually improve the relationship between the district and the teachers union so that hopefully in the future they can offer those stipends, better benefits and overall better compensation for district employees.
"There's a lot of people that are frustrated because this district doesn't have benefits," Haglund said. "We have $5,000, toward benefits for our certificated staff, which is our teachers. We had to wrestle in order to get that."
"We're trying to wrestle now to get another $5,000 to take it to that full single Kaiser coverage, but that's negotiated so it's not something that we can just do," he added. "Trust me, if I could just do it -- utilize dollars that I have, and then negotiate the balance -- I would do it in a heartbeat, but I can't because that violates the negotiations process that the district has agreed to."
He said that in order to get to that point in negotiations, both PUSD and the APT need to talk and have more conversations in order to build trust. He also said it's about following through with the things each party says they are going to do.
"As in any relationship, trust goes both ways. And so it's not about one side learning how to trust the other side; it's about the players at the table, developing a communicative relationship so that they have trust with each other," Haglund said. "It's not about the district trusting APT or APT trusting the district. It's about the individuals that are on that bargaining team on either side of the table, developing productive relationships."