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Schools’ Leader Exudes Optimism for 2012

Betsy Jenkins

Despite dire economic news on the state and national level, Betsy Jenkins begins her 10th year on the Laguna Beach school board and her second term as president with an upbeat attitude due to the district’s stability.

Since she and her colleagues have set a fiscally conservative policy of building reserves in the event of an economic downturn, the current doldrums have required some belt-tightening but none of the morale sapping teacher layoffs or cuts in instruction seen elsewhere.

But more than fiscal soundness fuels Jenkins’ positive outlook. She boasts of “an unprecedented level of effective educational strategies” within the district.

When she was last board president five years ago, the district was still weathering a difficult transition among the top administrators and the staff showed signs of divisiveness. “Today, all of that is behind us,” she said. “Our current principals and district leadership team are incredibly hard working and effective leaders.”

A 32-year Laguna Beach resident, Jenkins has an intimate understanding of the role played by local community groups and organizations, and noted that the district draws “enrichment and inspiration” from their ongoing partnerships with many of them, including School Power, the Boys and Girls Club, Rotary, American Association of University Women, and the Sister Cities Association, to name a few.

Going forward, she hopes “to increase the involvement of the community in our schools and make each citizen feel proud of one of the premier school districts in the country.”

While how to measure the effectiveness of instructors dominates the national debate on educational practices, Laguna already benefits from a different approach to assessing student achievement and the efficacy of teachers, not just once a year, but on an ongoing basis.

Value-added teacher evaluations, which attempt to gauge teachers’ effectiveness at raising their students’ standardized test scores, were introduced nationwide as an objective tool to supplement the common practice of dispatching administrators to classrooms for a performance evaluation. There is little consensus on which formula can most accurately isolate the teacher’s influence on test scores from other factors that affect student performance.

School officials in Houston, for example, tried out a test-score based system of measuring performance to determine teacher bonuses and then tossed it out after a year due to heated opposition. They are going back to the drawing board.

The value-added approach should ideally provide teachers with feedback that will ultimately improve their teaching, said Nancy Hubbell, Laguna’s assistant superintendent of instructional services. Laguna accomplishes that goal, but differently, she said. Teachers and administrators use standardized tests, as well as benchmark assessments given throughout the year, so that teachers can improve their own students’ outcomes, can collaborate to help each other improve across grade levels and departments, and can effectively tweak programs in response to students’ needs in real time, she said.

Distress elsewhere has ensured Laguna receives a large pool of applicants for each new hire, allowing the district to pick the cream of the crop, Jenkins pointed out.

While Jenkins expects challenges in the months ahead, she pledges to maintain a focus on the district’s core goals and values. “Our job is to ensure a high quality education for our students,” she said, and promised the board will “continue to examine our practices and use valid and reliable research to inform our efforts.”

“As much as I enjoyed serving as our board president last year, I look forward to the year ahead under Betsy’s proven board leadership, supported by our outstanding superintendent and other professional leaders,” said past president Theresa O’Hare.

Hubbell agreed that the district is fortunate to have Jenkins at the helm as well as four other board members “who are so knowledgeable and connected to everything that happens in the district.”

O’Hare also mentioned another role Jenkins, and her husband Gary, will soon fill. Recognizing their contributions to the school district and community for many years, she noted that “Betsy and Gary Jenkins are the well deserving recipients of the Laguna Beach Citizens of the Year award at this year’s Patriots Day Parade.”

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