Santa Monica High School students. State test scores continue to rise for district students, exceeding the California statewide average by more than 1,000 points. Students are also taking more challenging courses at the high schools where more than 1,177 have enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement course during their four-year career. (photo by Byron Kennerly)

SM LIBRARY — The good news is Santa Monica and Malibu students continue to excel in the classroom, posting high marks on state tests and winning national academic awards.

But the bad news is the school district that boasts these achievements is expected to take a significant hit from the state economic crisis, hurting its ability to continue providing the current level of services to students.

Among the praises and academic accolades of student success stories during the State of Our Schools presentation on Monday was a somber reminder that the district’s finances are expected to take a turn for the worse in the coming months as officials anticipate cuts from Sacramento.

State of Our Schools, which was sponsored by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, Community for Excellent Public Schools and the Santa Monica-Malibu Council of PTAs, was a kick-off to Public Schools Week when all campuses will be opened to the community. Held at the Santa Monica Public Library, the event featured presentations by Dr. Stephen Carroll, a RAND expert on the economy, Interim Superintendent Tim Cuneo, and a panel featuring Santa Monica High School students, teachers and counselors.

The Samohi gospel choir started the evening with a performance.

The district could face as much as $12 million in cuts over the next 18 months, which could result in larger class sizes. While revenues from local parcel tax measures fund approximately 23 percent of the district’s budget, much of the remaining revenues come from state and federal sources.

“You can see how dependent (we are) when the state budget is floundering,” Cuneo, who is expected to be appointed the permanent superintendent on Thursday, said.

The impact of the recession on students is also becoming apparent as the number of applications for the federal free and reduced lunch program increases. More students are visiting school nurses or social services to receive medical attention because their parents have lost their jobs, Cuneo said. There has also been an increase in the number of former private school students enrolling in the district.

While the district is expected to take a financial hit, the effect should be buffered by a rainy day fund for economic uncertainties, which is estimated to have roughly $6 million. The fund is part of a healthy $21 million reserve that the district has been building.

With an enrollment of 11,565 students, the district receives about $6,208 from the state and federal governments for each student, which is about $700 less than the national average. Another $2,412 per student comes in from local parcel tax revenues.

Despite the economic troubles that loom for the district, officials had much to celebrate — student achievement.

State test scores continue to rise for students, exceeding the California statewide average by more than 1,000 points. Students are also taking more challenging courses at the high schools where more than 1,177 have enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement course during their four-year career.

High school students are also taking courses at Santa Monica College to get a head start on their post-secondary education. Approximately 712 students enrolled in at least one course over the summer with about 85 percent of them receiving passing grades, most of which were As.

District officials acknowledge that more needs to be done to close the achievement gap.

“You have my commitment we will continue to target and work with students to make sure they move up and are as successful as the rest of our student body,” Cuneo said.

Education and the community

The quality of public education could play heavily into property values.

Carroll, who analyzed various studies on education, spoke of how a solid school district can have a positive impact on the community, making it a more desirable place to live and therefore increasing the price to buy a home in the city.

One research suggested that a one percent increase in average math and reading scores could lead to a 0.5 to 1 percent jump in property values, he said.

“It isn’t only people who have kids who are willing to pay more, but people who don’t have kids are willing to pay more because high quality schools reflect higher quality communities,” he said. “Everyone one of you who lives in a house in Santa Monica enjoy higher housing values because of the quality of the schools.”

Education has also been connected to better health and lower disease rates. Those who went through a higher quality school are also less likely to engage in self-destructive activities such as drug and alcohol abuse.

Better education also leads to higher earning power and spending, which in turn boosts business property values, Carroll said.

Life at Samohi

Vanessa Carvajal’s first experience at Samohi was the same as many freshman when they begin high school.

“I just wanted to hide in the corner and read a book,” Carvajal, now a senior, said.

She was among eight students and teachers who talked about their impressions of the high school, some speaking about how working with mentally and physically disadvantaged peers had changed their perspective on life, others crediting sports with improving their work ethic.

The students all praised Samohi’s house system in which all pupils are assigned to one of six “houses” where they have a support system consisting of a principal and counselors.

“The house system gives you one-on-one connection with your counselor,” said Jennifer Chyu.

The teachers spoke about the joy of working with their students.

Gilda de la Cruz teaches Latin American literature and is also the coordinator for the AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — program, preparing students, many of whom are minorities and come from lower-income families, for college. The AVID class of 2008 achieved a 100 percent acceptance rate to four-year universities.

“It’s pretty inspiring for me,” she said. “They have the ability and they can do better.”

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