Auto shop at Santa Monica High School. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

When she started high school, Ariana Lopez couldn’t envision giving a presentation in an English class, let alone being on stage in front of hundreds of people.

Her involvement in the Regional Occupational Program’s (ROP) dance class helped her out of her shell.

“Dance was my escape, my therapy, my safe zone,” she said.

For the recent alumna, as well as for scores of students in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the ROP courses have provided technical skills and career development training that they don’t receive in traditional academic classes.

But the program is once again on the chopping block, a reality that drew students, teachers, parents and alumni to the school board’s Jan. 20 meeting to voice support and urge officials to continue financing the supplemental courses.

The school board is scheduled to discuss the matter at its Thursday meeting in Malibu, but major cutbacks appear imminent.

“It is the opinion of this Board of Education that it has become necessary to reduce or discontinue particular kinds of services in the District’s ROP program,” reads a resolution that could be approved.

Concerns arose when the county education office, which handles ROP funding for a consortium of districts, notified officials several weeks ago that it would exercise its Local Control Funding Formula options and retain the funds.

“Districts then have to decide to pick up these programs in their own general funds,” ROP director Rebel Harrison said. “But it becomes a financial challenge (for the districts) to assume costs that were not included in the budget.”

Harrison said it’s possible that funding could be extracted from other sources and that ROP courses could be offered as general career technical education classes. The ROP budget of roughly $900,000 per year covers 14 instructors, six of whom are full-time employees, as well as two support staff, a counselor and equipment.

It’s also conceivable that teachers could be rehired using non-ROP money, Harrison said, but state law stipulates that teachers who face potential layoffs must be alerted no later than March 15.

“Let’s come up with a plan where teachers will stay in (career technical education) or get their full credential so we don’t have to lose people who have built this program with their hearts and souls,” said Sarah Braff, president of the local Classroom Teachers Association. “For us to lose any of that would be unconscionable.”

There are more than 850 high school students in the district who are involved in ROP, which offers classes in dance, theater, photography and digital design as well as in business management, automotive technology and retail marketing.

ROP is one of several programs in the district aiming to provide vocational opportunities for students. Others include the Project Lead The Way engineering pathway at Samohi and LA HI-TECH, an information and communication technology consortium rooted in partnerships with area community colleges.

“Our goal is that all students have the opportunity to explore career options while enrolling in rigorous college prep coursework,” said Terry Deloria, the SMMUSD assistant superintendent for educational services.

School board members heard an outpouring of passionate testimony from ROP supporters at their Jan. 20 meeting even though the program’s future was not on the agenda.

Joan Krenick, Samohi’s PTSA president, acknowledged the financial strains but advocated for making room for the program in the district budget.

“I know it’s complex and I know we don’t have tons of money lying around,” she said, “but I’d like to urge the board to attach specific dollars to these programs.”

Patti Braun, president emeritus of the district PTA council, said she’s received numerous anecdotal emails from students and parents about the program.

“These are the classes that get them out of bed, that gave them a new love of business, that gave them a wonderful space to create art, that launched them into a career they hadn’t thought of,” she said.

Teachers said the interaction in their classes blur social, academic and economic lines, promoting diversity and camaraderie.

“I have kids connecting with each other for a cause,” dance instructor Nate Hodges said. “These classes encourage kids to know each other the way it would be in a workplace.”

Catherine Handelman, a kindergarten teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, is not directly involved with ROP but said she recognizes the value of such a program just by observing her classroom.

“As I get to know the children, I see their unique and special gifts,” she said. “Some of those unique and special gifts are not always academic – they’re artistic, they’re musical. The ROP program is so important for all children.”

Lopez, the recent alumna, didn’t pursue dance as a career path. But she said she gained valuable skills in Hodges’ class.

“I work in a clothing store,” she said, “and I still use things that he taught me today.”

Contact Jeff Goodman by phone at 310-573-8351, via email at jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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