High-achieving superintendent wants same for school district
For Jim Tarwater, the workday begins by slapping high-fives with students.
One student walking into the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School lugged a bag of corn chips in a plastic bag. It caught Tarwater’s attention.
“Is that your lunch? Holy mackerel,” he said.
The principal of the magnet school and superintendent of Lake Tahoe Unified School District is finishing his first year in both jobs. And, with a school board vote Tuesday night, he thankfully relinquished his partial role as chief financial officer. But he’ll still have his hand covering the work of assistant superintendent in charge of curriculum.
Like an athlete of many talents, Tarwater filled different roles when the administrative posts opened from departures or were left open because of cost savings.
The man of many duties but only one distinguishable laugh is attributed in guiding the district – recently marred by a failed parcel tax, two school closures and its high school athletic programs in jeopardy of being scrapped – into calmer waters.
Wendy David, president of the district’s school board, said the 2006-07 school year was one of the best during her nine-year stretch on the board.
“It was probably a year that was very, very focused on what our kids need academically,” she said. “And after years of focusing on declining enrollment (issues), that was a nice change.”
Out of a 10-hour day, Tarwater spends his first two at the magnet school each morning, touring the classrooms and talking to staff. The event itself is short of a miracle: The site, Meyers Elementary School, along with Al Tahoe Elementary, was closed at the beginning of last school year because of budget cuts.
Both campuses have been reincarnated. Al Tahoe houses the Boys and Girls Club of Lake Tahoe and will be the location of alternative education programs next school year.
And the crowd of old-guard Meyers Elementary parents who enrolled their children at the magnet school are once-again happy.
“It’s like the old days,” said parent Carry Loomis.
Beside the magnet school, other new additions this school year have been a prekindergarten program for young students called “Preppie K,” attendance incentives including a new car for a high school student and influx of technology hardware and software designed to help students grasp core concepts.
“It’s refreshing to have a superintendent that has a proactive attitude,” said teacher Carol Murdock, president of the South Tahoe Educators Association. “He proposes things and sees them through.”
At the start of a Tuesday board meeting, David announced the rehire of 12 teachers
Next school year class-size reduction, which limits the number of students to 20 per classroom and is already at the first and second grades, will be at the kindergarten and third-grade levels. The program, funded in the first grade by the Lake Tahoe Educational Foundation with minimal impact on the general fund for the other grades, was abolished when the school closures occurred.
The return of small class sizes provoked the need for more instructors. At the start of a Tuesday board meeting, David announced the rehire of 12 teachers
The implementation of full-day kindergarten, the first time it will be at all elementary schools, has stoked interest. Tarwater said about 300 students are already enrolled for kindergarten, beating his expectation and last year’s number of 286.
The renaissance, however, is not in full swing. Projections for declining enrollment have the district hemorrhaging more than 600 students in the next three years.
Scores on standardized tests at Bijou Elementary, South Tahoe Middle School and Sierra House Elementary are a concern, especially at Bijou and the middle school which are both in “program improvement” status and could face state assistance if scores do not sufficiently increase.
Tarwater repeatedly speaks of restoring educational rigor and setting the bar high while not forgetting to assist underachievers with attention and software such as Read 180.
“We’re child advocates,” he said. “If nothing else that’s what we need to stand for.”
State officials toured the two schools and by accounts came away impressed with the program modifications and additions.
David noted the district must focus on the growing number of students designated as learning English as their second language.
“There will always be incredible challenges in public education,” she said.
The year has also been good to Tarwater on the legal front. A lawsuit was settled and dropped that named him as a defendant during his time as superintendent of Ocean View School District – a post he held for 12 years – claiming he did not sufficiently settle a rumor that a principal had exchanged sexual favors for school funding.
In addition, a lawsuit brought on the by the teachers union charging Lake Tahoe Unified did not adequately provide benefits to two long-term substitutes was ruled in the district’s favor last month.
Tarwater said legal matters are involved in his job.
“It’s just how life is,” he said. “It’s very litigious.”
For the summer, Tarwater plans to spend a week in his former stomping grounds at Huntington Beach and hang with the family.
Chris Campion will likely agree with the prescription for rest. Campion, a concerned parent who helps head a committee overlooking the district’s funding, is concerned Tarwater could suffer burnout from overworking.
“He is so good with coming up with innovative, entrepreneurial ideas to address the financial stability (of the district) that we want to keep him as long as we can,” Campion said.
While the district has improved, Campion says concerns still linger about the health of the district much like a doctor assessing a hospital patient.
“Well, let’s put it this way: The patient is stabilized but he’s till on the operating table and could go either way depending on factors out of our control,” Campion said.