By Angela Rodriguez
Less than a third of students in Gonzales Unified School District met the standards for English Language Arts in 2018, according to the Smarter Balanced Test Results. And while experts in education circles debate endlessly who should be held accountable for academic achievement — is it the students and their backgrounds, the teachers, or the administrators? — some students in Gonzales have very strong opinions about the topic.
Carolina Reyes, an incoming junior at Gonzales High, said she does not feel positively towards the teachers of Gonzales Unified School District. “After a few years, you begin to lose hope with the amount of progress GUSD has had with the teachers at the schools,¨ she said.
Reyes, who has attended Gonzales schools most of her life, said she does not feel supported by most teachers at her school. “My academics have been affected by not being taught sufficiently across the time period (the teachers) are given” she said. However, Reyes is willing to have an open mind and hopes that the teachers can improve with better tools and more training.
Yvette Irving, superintendent of Gonzales Unified, said that teachers in the district are working towards improvement. The school district is currently investing in teacher development programs. Sitting in her district office, Irving was emphatic when she said, “the most important interaction, in terms of a student´s growth, is the interaction with the students and their teachers.” Teachers go through rigorous procedures to ensure that students are completely safe and fit for the job, she said.
Another student at Gonzales High, Nitza Jimenez, an incoming sophomore, agrees with Reyes. She says she respects the teachers but yearns for improvement. Jimenez said she has had several teachers throughout her time with the district who she felt were aggressive. She said she understands when teachers have their personal issues, but she wishes that they wouldn’t unload them on students.
She said, “as a result of certain teachers’ actions, the environment of the class can feel stifling, and instead of paying attention to what I have to learn, I count the minutes until I can run from class.” Jimenez said she wants to feel excited about coming to class because she enjoys learning, but right now, she doesn’t feel comfortable in that environment.
Not all students feel this way. Cindy Aguilar, Gonzales High graduate of 2019 and incoming freshman at UC Berkeley, said that she has always felt supported by her teachers. The “majority of my teachers encouraged me and consistently assured me that there was nothing I couldn’t accomplish,” she said via email. She speculates that it must have been her assiduous nature which inspired teachers to support her, but she was supported nonetheless.
“Relationship-building is, in my opinion, an important foundation that ensures students walk into a familiar and comfortable learning environment,” she said.
Aguilar said that she is constantly using tools in college that she learned from her high school teachers. She understands that there are students with different experiences than her own and knows there are a lot of things students cannot control. “However, as students, we can control our personal work ethic and how we seek additional resources,” she said.
It is not only in English that students in Gonzales have been struggling to meet California standards. According to the 2018 Smarter Balanced test results for grades 3-11, 85 percent of students did not meet the Math standards. Is this the result of “poor teaching?” According to Irving, “it is a combination of a lot of things, not one single factor. Not all teachers had the materials to be teaching common core standards.”
Throughout her seven years at La Gloria Elementary in Gonzales, Vennessa Robinson became an esteemed teacher. Robinson left in 2018, during a turbulent time in the district ́s history which ended with the departure of the superintendent. She said she believes that educators have a responsibility and a duty to students. A teacher has the ability to influence their students and should be accountable for their growth, Robinson said.
During an email interview, she was very passionate about the obligation of a teacher, but also about the obligations of those in charge. “If leadership prides itself on academic test scores only, they impose that mentality on their educators,” she wrote. “If leadership prides itself on having happy, healthy, critically thinking and empathetic students and staff, that culture will be spread throughout,” she said.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in closing the achievement gap is a shortage of teachers and trouble with keeping them with the district, administrators said. “One of the things we haven’t talked about is the cost of living for a teacher,” Irving said. According to some real estate analysis websites, Gonzales’ cost of living is higher than the national average due to high home prices. The median home price is $403,300, according to Zillow. Because of this, most of the teachers in the district live in other cities and find the commute difficult, which is why it could be more appealing to take up another job closer to home.
‘We are working on it,” Gonzales Union Board President Sonia Jaramillo said in an interview. ¨Slowly but surely, we are making progress.¨
Jaramillo knows that improvement takes time, but she would like the community to know that district officials are making progress and are doing their best to see results. ¨We are trying to provide the resources that students need … I want to make sure that our students succeed and are ready to make decisions.¨
She said she urges students to speak out and inform the faculty whenever they feel something must be changed. She encourages students to request meetings with the teachers who they have trouble with, to request meetings with the principal, to have honest conversations, to overall involve themselves. Jaramillo said she firmly believes that students’ voices should be heard.
¨We need the students to speak out, to involve themselves. I am not in those classrooms every day, you are. I need you to speak out so we can do our jobs,” she said.
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