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The Year of the School: A Madera Tribune editorial project

Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune James Madison Elementary, where two new instructional initiatives are underway.


What Madera Unified Schools are doing right

Dual Language Instruction and Career Technical Education raise optimism

Part 2 of a series

Just as a significant move toward professionalism has characterized Madera Unified’s school board, so have those charged with implementing the district’s educational programs put Madera’s classrooms on the move. Sheryl Sisil, Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services for MUSD, points to two developments that illustrate reasons for optimism in the district as it embraces the future with confidence.

With pride she points to the Dual Language Instruction (DLI) program at Madison School and the Career Technical Education (CTE) programs at the high schools. Both, she says, are flagships of excellence that portend well for Madera Unified.

The DLI program is designed to make local students biliterate — proficient in two languages — English and Spanish. It began at Madison last year with the kindergarten classes and moved this year to include the first grade classes.

The program will expand by one grade level each year until the school’s curriculum is completely biliterate. Sisil says the district is laying plans to include other schools in the DLI program. All indications are that Madera Unified is on the cutting edge of a movement that has all the earmarks of a game changer in English-Language Arts education.

The other program that has Sisil exuding confidence in Madera Unified’s future is its Career Technical Education offering. “It will be like moving from the outhouse to a penthouse,” says the Assistant Superintendent as the district prepares to promote a new way for students to prepare for the work-a-day world.

According to Sisil, the focus will be building pathways for students that prepare them for a career, whether that preparation be college, community college, technical schools, or on-the-job-training.

Sisil maintains that career pathways involve transforming middle school and high school electives so that they blend with the core academic classes. It also means that in Madera they will be aligned to the local job market, which includes health career, advanced manufacturing, agriculture, and public safety jobs.

As exciting as the DLI and CTE programs are for Sisil, however, she is not unmindful of the hurdles facing the district.

Administrators have been burning the midnight oil in an attempt to recover from the stifling effects of California’s so-called “academic accountability program.”

The decade-long testing system, which robbed teachers of creativity and forced them to work in tandem to reach the lowest common denominator in their classrooms, has been laid to rest.

With that and the appointment of Todd Lile as school superintendent and the elevation of Sisil to the head of Educational Services, along with some common sense thinking on the part of the state, change has come to Madera Unified.

Recognizing the poverty of the old Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program, the state created something it said was “smarter and balanced,” the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System, which was established in 2014.

With the freedom the new assessment provided, Sisil set out to recapture “what was great from the past in MUSD.” Passionate teaching and hands-on student learning have become watchwords. The Almond Blossom Festival has been revived, as have district-wide trips to the Madera County Historical Society Museum and the Madera County Library.

Fourth graders will soon be visiting the newly named Ed Gwartney Center for California History at James Monroe School, and kids will continue to run their fingers through the sand at the Fossil Discovery Center near Fairmead.

At the same time, Sisil and her coterie of curriculum leaders continue to address the state’s assessment of the district’s academic achievement. “MUSD recognizes its challenges,” says Sisil, “and the district has thrown itself in the midst of working to improve student performance on the state testing program. A look at the three-year-old system bears her out.

In 2016, 44 percent of Madera Unified’s students failed to meet the state’s expectations in English/language arts. Three years later, that percentage had dropped to 38 percent.

By the same token, in math the failing number declined from 53 percent in 2016 to 48 percent in 2018.

Looking at the recent testing from the top end also shows that Madera Unified is on the move. The results for English in 2016 showed 25 percent in the top two tiers. In 2018, that number had grown to 33 percent.

Although the numbers weren’t as high in math, the improvement has been significant. In 2016, 16 percent were ranked in the top two tiers. In 2018, that number had increased to 23 percent.

Sisil credits the district’s efforts to create a well-designed curriculum and to align it with the state standards as reasons for improvements in test scores. She also points to the high expectations that have been established in the classrooms. According to Sisil, the district is working hard to make sure that “teachers connect with kids,” and that they “demonstrate a strong mastery of their subject matter.”

Time will tell how well placed is the optimism that currently pervades Madera Unified. Nevertheless, it does exist, and there appears to be good reason for it.


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