Superintendent discusses technical skills in annual report on Merced County schools

Sophomore Kelsi Kamesch, right, performs a livestock evaluation with the assistance from senior Amanda Skidmore at Atwater High School on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.
Sophomore Kelsi Kamesch, right, performs a livestock evaluation with the assistance from senior Amanda Skidmore at Atwater High School on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016.

Strong backgrounds in both academic and technical skills will be needed for graduating students to be successful in future careers, the Merced County superintendent of schools reported Thursday.

Outgoing Superintendent Steve Gomes’ gave his annual Report on Our Schools on Thursday to a crowd of several hundred people at Yosemite Church in Merced.

The document presented at the event provides general updates on education finances and policy from the state level and new testing methods and Merced students’ scores.

The report came about a week after Gomes announced he will retire two years before his term is up. At the county board’s regular meeting last week, Gomes said he hopes to have a transition plan ready for the March meeting.

The Merced County Office of Education is the umbrella organization that oversees more than 20 school districts in the county that serve more than 57,000 students ranging from transitional kindergarten to 12th grade.

Gomes’ report focused on career technical education and how it applies to students’ college and career readiness. He explained that though vocational skills in the past primarily focused on students not planning to attend college, in today’s economy and job market students need literacy, math and technology skills to compete for a high-paying occupation.

“It is a disservice to place students in a course of study that focuses only on vocational skills or academic subjects,” Gomes said in the report. “We must recognize the value and importance of focusing on both vocational and academic skills.”

Gomes, who was an agriculture teacher for more than 20 years, said one of his first jobs was in welding.

Examples of CTE pathways and courses in Merced County include agriculture, business, engineering, child development, arts, information and communication technologies, sales and health.

The California Department of Education considers CTE a program of study that involves a sequence of courses taken over time that combines academic knowledge with occupational knowledge to provide students with a pathway to higher education and careers. In 2014, the state made available $250 million to help school districts set up career pathways, meant to form relationships with local businesses, create work-based programs and integrate academic learning.

Danielle Diele, a 2014 graduate of Golden Valley High School, spoke about how Future Farmers of America and CTE played a role in her success. She is serving as FFA state reporter during a year break from attending California State University, San Luis Obispo.

“Common Core Standards – those are nothing new to career technical education,” Diele said. “Career technical education has always valued the ideas of critical thinking, problem solving and the learn-by-doing model.”

MCOE offers more than 90 CTE classes in 32 program areas, the report said. Merced County high schools offer 71 CTE courses that also are approved by the University of California as an elective or fine arts credit. Additionally, nearly 80 courses are in line with 36 courses at Merced College, and high school students can test out of the Merced College course and earn college credit. Additionally, 480 business partners participate in CTE by speaking to classes, judging or interviewing projects, hosting field trips, donating to CTE teachers and providing externship opportunities.

Gomes also noted in the report that Merced County Schools are receiving more state money than in the past, due in part to Proposition 30, passed by voters in 2012.

“Merced County school districts have seen a combined increase of more than $80 million” since the last school year, the report says.

Since 2009, funding for county schools has increased by about $200 million, the report shows.

The increase in funding also is linked to a boost in enrollment. This school year, enrollment rose by about 400 students countywide.

In the report, Gomes linked the state’s former and lower funding of schools to lower test scores in the county. In the 2014-15 school year, districts in the state for the first time tested students using the California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance, which replaced the STAR tests. In Merced County, 35 percent of students met or exceeded grade-level standards in English language arts, and 21 percent met or exceeded standards in math.

Gomes said those numbers are “not acceptable.” But he also noted that the scores can’t be compared with previous years, new scores can be made, and the 2014-15 results are considered a starting point and baseline.

“Parents and the public need to understand the challenge with which the county’s educators are tasked,” he said in the report. “It is a challenge educators accept every day because they know that, over time, the new standards will improve students’ college and career readiness.”