Here in the Scotts Valley Unified School District nerve center, the no-nonsense rural appeal of the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountain environment is evident, as is the laid-back ambiance of Santa Cruz County.
A block in Superintendent Tanya Krause’s office reads “it is/WHAT IT IS.” Beside it hangs a painting of a lone tree amidst a lavender field. Next to this is a panorama of a dreamy, but rugged, section of coastline.
With back-to-school just around the corner, Krause is rolling out a series of new programs, welcoming new staff and launching innovative training workshops.
She seeks to maintain SVUSD status as one of the top-performing in the region while tackling diversity and bullying issues head-on.
During the pandemic, the district saw its enrollment drop by about 200 students. But recently, that’s begun to reverse, thanks to the rebirth of its childcare program and the addition of “transitional” kindergarten.
Brook Knoll Elementary now has around 475 students, up from 430 last year. And Vine Hill Elementary is now sitting around 540, up from 520 last year.
Meanwhile, in the prestigious Niche 2022 national school survey, Scotts Valley continued to maintain its impressive track record. It was rated the 95th best school district in California (out of 438) and the second best in Santa Cruz County—only behind Santa Cruz City High School District.
But a recent report from educational consultant Inclusion Counts found many parents here feel the educational environment isn’t the friendliest for students of color or who are part of other minority groups; and that showed up on the rating website’s analysis, too.
Niche gave SVUSD an A- overall rating, but handed down a C+ grade in diversity. (In comparison, San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District at least got a B- in Diversity).
Scotts Valley is a district where families boast a median household income of $103,783 (nationally it’s $64,994); fewer than 10% of students qualify to receive free or reduced lunch.
But Krause says there are myriad changes coming down the pipe—starting at the top—and says these will lead to an improvement in the school’s culture.
“I am beyond ecstatic that not only am I onboarding a new administrative assistant, I’m also onboarding a new director of students services, a new director of special education and a director of human resources,” she said. “This is the first time in the history of the district that we have dedicated a director position for student service-related programs and needs, separate from—and in addition to—a director of special education.”
Krause says this will allow staff to tend to the mental and emotional health of students more carefully.
Recently, SVUSD has been under fire from parents who are troubled by cultural winds of change.
In the past year it had to fend off threats of about five lawsuits relating to curriculum. These concerns were not only over the teaching of LGBTQ+ materials, but also related indirectly to issues of race.
The flashpoint issue of “critical race theory” was cited as a worry among some raising the prospect of civil action, although no lawsuits have been filed to date.
“Initial reaction to concerns about CRT were definitely brought to me,” Krause said. “After meeting with some of these families, they felt better and didn’t follow through with their initial threats.”
Sometimes, fears are based on a kernel of truth, but are calmed when people learn the reality of the situation, she says.
For example, in one incident, an English teacher at the high school gave a “Check Your Privilege!” assignment. “You do not need to submit this form, but rather use the selections to think about your own life experiences and how they may translate into privilege,” it read. The list started with “I am white,” followed by “I have never been discriminated against because of my skin color,” then “I have never been the only person of my race in a room.”
It continued to hit other hot-button topics with statements like “I have never been told I would ‘burn in hell’ for my sexual orientation,” “I still identify as the gender I was born in,” and “I have never been homeless.”
When some parents found out, they were up in arms. But Krause clarified this lesson wasn’t a reflection of a top-down embrace of left-wing ideology at SVUSD and certainly wasn’t part of the official curriculum.
“That was actually an assignment of a new teacher that came from the New Teacher Project,” she said, referring to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing-accredited program operated by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. “So, for those community members that believe it is solely a Scotts Valley Unified School District focus, that is not entirely true.”
Krause says she explains to parents that SVUSD is seeking to ensure pupils feel accepted as part of the school community, not attempting to parrot progressive talking points. Although she admits not everyone has been appeased.
“There’s still some pockets of questions and concerns about the direction the district is going,” she said. “We are not providing or encouraging CRT.”
While Krause says SVUSD is embracing the fact that Scotts Valley is a different place now than it was even just a decade ago, she says she’s also committed to making sure the district takes the time to get things right.
“There are some members of our parent community that feel like some conversations about certain topics should be only held at home,” she said. “We have been very careful that textbooks and supplemental instructional materials are standards-aligned.”
Inclusion into Action
Earlier this year, Krause informed parents the district would be making “diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging” a main focus area.
This followed a challenging school year at the high school, as a freshman named Mateo Deihl died by suicide. His mom, Regina, said he had been bullied at school largely because he was Latino.
But it was also a year that featured a massively successful multicultural fair where students got to watch performers representing countries from around the world drum, sing and dance and collected “stamps” in mock passport booklets.
A major takeaway from the Inclusion Counts report was that many parents aren’t confident in the district’s commitment to following through.
Krause says SVUSD is getting serious about fixing bullying problems, including by introducing a new discipline policy.
“We will have a greater emphasis on responses to hate speech for students,” she said Monday. “We spent a big chunk of time with our leadership team on Friday talking about making sure students are really clear at the beginning of the year about what the expectations are.”
According to Krause, these situations tend to crop up before or after class and can fly under staff’s radar. So, the District has started training yard duty workers, campus security and support employees on how to identify and deal with these scenarios.
The district knows that the social media world is another arena where this abuse has been rearing its ugly head, and Krause emphasizes they’re working to reduce bullying there too, where possible.
“While it’s oftentimes occurring outside of the school hours, the school is expected to respond to those types of situations,” she said. “So, a piece of what we’re going to be doing is partnering with an outside trainer to provide parent training.”
Because, after all, these issues are much bigger than the district, she adds.
“This is not just a school district focus, but a change in our community; and in our state—and in our nation,” she said. “And we’re hoping that our parent community will support and partner with us as we move with a greater focus in this direction.”
Last week, Regina Deihl urged Krause to put time constraints on its new discipline policy.
She says her son’s complaints were unresolved for half a year and only went away with remote learning. Deihl told the Press Banner that explicit deadlines for investigations protect both the person making the accusation and the student suspected of causing the problem.
But Krause is pushing back against such time limits. She says sometimes evidence of behavioral problems doesn’t surface immediately, and baking such limits into a discipline policy could allow students deserving of punishment to get off scot-free.