Valley students to see some changes at their schools

The calendar may say summer, but school is back in session -- or soon will be.

Fresno Unified and Madera Unified students resume classes today. Visalia Unified will begin Thursday and Clovis Unified will begin school in a week.

One of the first districts to welcome students back was Central Unified School District in Fresno. The district's 14,500 students returned to classrooms Aug. 11.

Nearly all Valley school districts are asking parents to be on the lookout for pertussis, more commonly referred to as whooping cough. Symptoms include severe coughing spasms that can last for weeks. School and health officials are requesting that parents make sure their child's immunizations are current.

California has reported 2,174 cases through July 27, a sixfold increase from the 349 cases reported through the same period last year. Seven infants have died of the disease this year.

Other things to look out for in some school districts are increased class sizes -- both Fresno and Central unified school districts will have more students in elementary classes after budget cuts eliminated some teaching positions.

Fresno Unified

Some Fresno Unified students will arrive on campuses in new buses powered by compressed natural gas. Thirty buses were paid for with a $5 million grant from the California Air Resources Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The buses are less polluting and will reduce fuel costs.

At Duncan Polytechnical High School in central Fresno, a pilot preschool program launches today to better prepare neighborhood children for kindergarten.

Meal time will see a few changes, too. New breakfast and lunch items include yogurt with peaches and granola, and oven-baked curly fries, part of the district's effort to increase meal options and offer more healthy items.

Teachers and administrators will be using a new computer program called ATLAS, which stands for Achievement, Technology, Learning and Assessment System.

The program was developed by the district and Microsoft, and will be phased in to replace the PowerSchool and mainframe systems for tracking enrollment, scheduling, attendance and grades for the district's 73,000 students. Parents will be able to access the new system.

Other changes will be more visible: 13 elementary schools will be undergoing modernization, as will Tioga Middle School and Bullard High School. The upgrades are funded by Measure K bond money.

And there will be some new faces in charge at 19 schools. The principals were either promoted, transferred or hired at the schools.

-- Tracy Correa

Central Unified

The growing Central Unified School District, with schools located mostly west of Highway 99, has launched a new effort that uses student data to improve classroom instruction -- and, ultimately, student performance in class and on state assessment tests.

Superintendent Michael Berg said that although the district has used data in the past, this new effort is designed to spot trends that help explain why a class or group of students is struggling with specific subjects or skills.

Students might not notice the new instructional effort, but they will likely notice the renovations at Roosevelt, Teague and McKinley elementary schools. Central High School West Campus also was renovated.

And the district's alternative education school -- Pathway Community Day School -- has a new home. It is now at Nielsen and Teilman avenues in a building that is being leased from the Fresno County Office of Education.

The new building is four times the size of the old one with extra space for the district's professional development and other programs. The renovation and upgrade costs are covered by Measure B, the district's bond measure.

On a related note, Berg said the new Glacier Point Middle School on the northwest corner of Ashlan and Bryan avenues is about 70% complete. The new school is scheduled to open next school year and is part of the K-12 Koligian Educational Complex.

Central also has a new principal this year: Robyn Miller takes over at Harvest Elementary School.

-- Tracy Correa

Clovis Unified

It was 50 years ago when seven school districts with about 5,000 students joined forces to form Clovis Unified School District.

The school district will celebrate its golden anniversary during its back-to-school general session for employees Thursday at Selland Arena.

The district also is working on scheduling a community event in early 2011 that will be for anyone who has had an affiliation with the district -- a student, parent, employee -- and will commemorate the district's 50th year.

Today, the K-12 district is one of California's 20 largest, with about 38,000 students and an annual general fund budget of just under $200 million. By contrast, the budget 50 years ago was $3 million, said Kelly Avants, district spokeswoman.

A hardcover book detailing the district's history also has gone to press and will sell for about $25, she said. It is set for release by the end of October.

"The book is our effort to capture the stories and unique history of each of our schools and trace the roots of where our schools have come from," Avants said.

-- Marc Benjamin

Madera Unified

A year ago, high school athletes in Madera had to share a small, outdated pool if they wanted to play on the swim team or water polo team. That's changing.

Using funding from a school bond that passed in 2006, Madera Unified School District built a new pool at Madera South High School in 2009 and is constructing another pool at Madera High School that is scheduled to open up later this year.

The teams from both high schools used to share an old L-shaped pool at Madera High that was smaller than the pools at most other high schools in the region. The old pool was shallow enough that water polo athletes could stand in the pool -- something not allowed in the sport.

"It changed the game a little bit," said Madera High School Athletic Director Shane Riddle. "When other teams came to us, they felt a little crowded. It was a home-field advantage for us, but it worked against us when we went away."

The new pools, he said, "will equal the playing field."

Also, with only one pool, students from one high school must wait to start practice until the other high school's team finishes. That interrupts studying time for many student-athletes. Riddle said.

The new Madera High School pool will open in November or December, just in time for the swim season.

"It'll be a huge addition," Riddle said.

-- Chris Collins

Visalia Unified

A charter school for high school students who want agricultural careers opens this week in Visalia.

Students enrolled at Visalia Technical Education Center -- started by Visalia Unified School District using state money for charter startups -- will be simultaneously enrolled at College of the Sequoias.

In fact, the COS farm in Visalia is the campus.

The tie-in with the college and the ag emphasis appear to make this charter school unique in California education, said Principal Victoria Porter.

Seniors will graduate with both a high school diploma and a certificate in either veterinary technology or food science technology. The latter program has two tracks: dairy processing or crop management.

Porter said she expects all of the students will be going to COS or a four-year college or into jobs following graduation.

Nurseries, dairies and citrus organizations are glad, she said: "The employers are saying, 'It's about time.' "

For the first year, only sophomores are being accepted. Sixty-three have signed up, but there is room for 70.

Classes include high school English, math, science and history, plus college classes such as Introduction to Agricultural Industry and Introduction to Veterinary Technology.

-- Lewis Griswold

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