Schools in recovery, planning for future

2020 Vision: Education

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Schools in recovery, planning for futureWhile the quakes caused millions in structural and content damage for local schools, officials took the opportunity to assess not only the destruction, but also the underlying needs revealed during the shake-up.

“The earthquakes definitely highlighted how well our facilities performed in the new and modernized areas, which validated the work that we’ve done,” said Dr. David Ostash, superintendent of Sierra Sands Unified School District.

“Some of the needs we have identified were not necessarily caused by the earthquakes, but I would say that many of them were revealed during our assessments.”

Paramount among those is the continued need for investment in older schools that have not undergone modernization. In 2006, SSUSD passed Measure A, which generated some $100 million in funds to upgrade campuses. Since then, the district has built a brand-new middle-school campus, completely overhauled a high school and is in line for a new Richmond Elementary School site, thanks in part to federal and state funding.

“We have been very fortunate, particularly with the DOD grants that provided 80-percent funding for new construction. That relieved a lot of the economic pressure, since our community was spared that burden, but the other side of the coin is that our other schools have in some case decades of deferred maintenance,” said Ostash.

One of the next steps for district officials is to reach out and identify priorities for school improvements, then determine the threshold for support.

“After we have heard from our families and stakeholders, we plan to go to our voters in November 2020 for a reasonable ask.”

The good news is that Sierra Sands has completed Phase 1 of earthquake recovery, Ostash said. “There is an exigent and non-exigent phase,”he said, explaining that the highly bureaucratically prescribed process breaks down repairs into what is seen as most critical. The needs considered less essential, including the damages that closed the Parker Performing Arts Center, have just begun to be assessed.

The good news is that, although federal and state funding will fund only about 75 percent of the repairs directly caused by the earthquakes, the district is exploring creative avenues to fund other improvements during the reconstruction.

“The earthquake created challenges for Sierra Sands on many fronts,” said Ostash. “One aspect we’ve began to examine more closely is the body of research called ‘trauma-informed care.’”

The practice, applied in health care and other services as well, creates coordinated, deliberate professional development that helps identify students and employees experiencing trauma so that additional support can be extended.

“That trauma can be anything that impacts a person’s sense of safety and emotional well-being. The causes can be acute, triggered by an incident like the earthquakes; or continuing, like living in poverty or abusive conditions,” said Ostash.

“These layers of trauma in our students, and in some cases even in our employees, can cause individuals to build up barriers that impact their behavior or their ability to learn.

“We must equip our staff with hands-on tools for being able to deal with these challenges in the classroom, but we also want to build up our resources as a district, whether that looks like additional counselors or a better referral process.”

Ostash said he believes it’s also important for the district to continue working with other local agencies that improve housing, health care, economic vitality and quality of life. “All of these are important to having a thriving community.

“But from my perspective, education is the primary interface most people experience when it comes to government services. Public education is also the great equalizer and arguably the agency that does the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” he said.

“I take that responsibility very seriously. We want to continue to improve our facilities, but also to make sure that the programs we are providing offer the quality of education our students and their families deserve.”

Pictured: SSUSD Superintendent Dr. David Ostash

Story First Published: 2020-01-03