Located on the outskirts of central Sacramento, minutes from the state Capitol, the Natomas Unified School District is part of the capital city, but has more a suburban than urban feel, with modern subdivisions and shopping malls dominating the landscape along the Interstate 5 corridor.
The district was established in the 1950s with a single elementary school, but the local population exploded with a wave of residential development in the 1990s and early 2000s, before the federal government imposed a building moratorium in 2008 because of concerns over flooding.
The district now operates 14 schools (eight elementary, three middle schools and three high schools) and has an enrollment of 9,503 students, a figure that does not include students enrolled in five independent charter schools. Enrollment grew by 300 students this year, the first such increase in several years. The district’s data-rich website cites a 2009 study by the New York Times that characterized the district as the “second most diverse in the nation,” and the district includes a reference to this diversity designation in its recruiting materials for potential new hires.
About 16 percent of Natomas’ students are English learners, more than half of all students come from poor families and just over 70 students live in foster care. Just over 62 percent of the district’s students fall into one or more of the three “high needs” categories – low-income, English learners or foster children – identified as a priority in the state’s new funding law.
The district has struggled financially in recent years, but passage of the tax increases for education included in Proposition 30 and increased state funding in this year’s state budget, including the additional funds the district will receive as a result of the Local Control Funding Formula, have bolstered the district’s bottom line.
In March, the state removed Natomas from the state’s “watch list” of local educational agencies that face potential financial problems. (A year ago, the district received a “qualified certification” from the state, which meant it might not be able to meet its financial obligations during the 2014-15 school year. A year later, at its latest board meeting on March 13, 2014, that qualification was removed, and the district could certify that “its financial condition is positive.” That means that the district will be able to meet its financial obligations in the current and two subsequent school years.)
The district’s $73.8 million budget for fiscal 2014-15 anticipates a $7.5 million reserve—a safety cushion that Natomas Superintendent Chris Evans, who came to the district in June 2012 from Fresno Unified, where he was an associate superintendent, said he is determined to preserve. At least some of the turnaround can be attributed to additional funds the district is receiving, and will receive, as a result of the Local Control Funding Formula.
The district has recently launched a number of ambitious classroom initiatives, including establishing International Baccalaureate programs at three schools, offering full-day kindergarten and reducing class sizes in some elementary grades. Natomas also invested $623,000 to purchase 2,100 Chromebooks in anticipation of computerized assessments that are being field tested this spring as part of the transition to new Common Core State Standards.
Superintendent Evans said the leaders of the Natomas Unified School District “took a gamble” and launched an aggressive outreach campaign last August to engage parents and community members in the LCFF – well before the State Board of Education settled on the specific requirements for implementing the school funding formula.
The district didn’t wait for the official go-ahead before reaching out to parents, students, classified staff and teachers to get their take on problems facing students, suggestions for reform and recommendations for how best to invest LCFF grants on new or expanded services to English learners, poor students and children in foster care.
Natomas leaders worked nights and weekends for months on a wide-ranging outreach campaign – a list of all the components of this effort, district LCFF and PowerPoint presentations and supporting documents, student demographic and achievement data are posted on the district website.
Between November and March, Natomas collected and analyzed more than 3,000 comments from more than 1,000 individuals – received at community forums, online and by phone. Staff organized comments into 10 main issue areas and posted almost all of them online.
Administrators and school board members met with parents and English learner advisory committees; polled teachers and members of the classified staff by phone, using online surveys and at open forums; and paid classified staff to conduct a targeted telephone survey aimed at reaching 500 parents of the students identified under LCFF for special support. Staff interviewed 20 foster students one-on-one and hosted small discussion groups with the remainder of the district’s students living in foster care. “I think we talked to nearly every one of our foster students to ask what they needed from school,” Evans said.
Natomas leaders met with parents who participate in CORE – a district-sponsored “parent university,” and convened small “Student Voices” discussion groups and video sessions to gather student perspectives.
At its March 26 meeting, the school board is scheduled to finalize and adopt five draft goals for the district’s Local Control and Accountability Plan that are based on the information collected during this exhaustive effort. These LCAP goals must address all eight state-established LCFF priorities. Evans said the district purposely set broad goals on the advice of LCFF experts from the Sacramento County Office of Education. Natomas’ LCAP goals are listed below:
1. Increase student success in English Language Arts, math, science, and literacy
2. Prepare students to be college and career ready
3. Engage parents and families to support student success in school
4. Create safe and welcoming learning environments where students are connected to their schools
5. Recruit, hire, train and retain high-quality staff who are committed, collaborative, caring and exemplary
Evans said he’s eager to move to the next stage of the LCAP process, during which the school board and administrators – in close consultation with advisory committees and the public – will decide on strategies to support these priorities. Those discussions are scheduled to take place in April and May, with final LCAP approval due in June.
For the latest district budget projections, see 2013-14 Second Interim and LCFF Update, March 12, 2014