Community members, Woodlake Unified still at odds after second TK-5 school decision

Woodlake Unified School District Laura Gonzalez remains firm on her decision to create a second TK-5 school site in the district despite concerns within the community

WOODLAKE – Plans to restructure Woodlake’s elementary schools have had parents and residents of the small town riled up for weeks. 

The idea to shift F.J. White school, currently transitional kindergarten (TK) through second grade, and Castle Rock school, currently third through fifth grades, into two TK-5 schools was introduced to the school board by superintendent Laura Gonzalez in January. Since then, community members have spoken at school board meetings, taken to social media and started local petitions in opposition to the split. 

For many, the issue lies in tradition. 

“By the time our students are in 2nd grade, they are ready to make the transition to our community rite of passage. They are so excited to move on,” said Terri Gutierrez, an F.J. White kindergarten teacher, at a school board meeting on Feb. 9. 

Woodlake’s students have always started elementary school at F.J. White and ended it at Castle Rock. Woodlake and Farmersville are the only school districts in Tulare County that still split their elementary schools into two different grade ranges, after Exeter’s elementary schools made the switch to K-5 in 2012 and Lindsay Unified converted all of their elementary schools and middle school campuses to K-8 schools in 2011. 

Gonzalez said the proposed plans for the changes are informed by research and her experience working as an instructional consultant for the Tulare County Office of Education and the State Department of Education.

“I worked with those school districts and saw them build up and invest in their teaching staff,” Gonzalez said of Exeter and Lindsay’s elementary school restructuring. “I saw it firsthand, the good that came.”

According to Gonzalez, moving away from a split elementary school system to K-5 schools will benefit students in terms of continuity, improved facilities and the ability to form longer relationships and connections at one school instead of two. This, Gonzalez said, is the main factor in deciding to move forward with the split—despite the common belief among Woodlake residents that the change was brought forth due to an increase in the town’s population.

“I know that that’s the popular sentiment,” Gonzalez said. “But no, it has everything to do with the research citing that continuity in programs, longer relationships and being at one school for a longer period of time does make a positive impact.”

Members of the Facebook group “What’s Happening Woodlake?” took to the page to share their opinions—so much so that the group’s administrator paused all posting and commenting abilities indefinitely. One member of the group, Christian Campillo, created a petition for Woodlake residents to sign in opposition to the split. So far, it has 506 signatures. 

An official survey sent out by Woodlake Unified on Jan. 19 showed a more even split in opinions, with 109 votes in favor of the shift and 107 opposed.

Gonzalez said that many of the people who have spoken out against the change don’t have any children enrolled at Woodlake schools.

“I was not expecting for people who don’t have children in the schools to have an opinion,” Gonzalez said.

Of the parents she did speak to, Gonzalez said many of them expressed excitement at the plans, since they’d soon have to drop off and pick up their elementary-aged children from one campus instead of two. Laurel Venegas, whose son attends Lulu Blair Kress preschool, a state preschool run by Woodlake Unified, feels differently.

“It’s a hassle for them to switch schools. It aggravates me because I’ll have to drive to a different school now,” said Venegas.

Venegas said she is also concerned about bullying becoming more of an issue after the split, a concern voiced by several Woodlake parents and teachers since the changes were proposed. 

“All of a sudden when they merged it was, oh, you go to the ghetto school. And we were of course treated differently because we didn’t have nicer equipment,” Venegas said of a similar change that occurred while she was an elementary school student in South Carolina. 

Gonzalez, standing true to the research, says studies show that bullying is attributed to school culture and not to students of different age ranges being at one school. 

“Bullying is attributed to school culture, not the TK-5 grades on one campus,” Gonzalez said at the Feb. 9 meeting. “There are TK-8 campuses all over the county.”

The district has a ways to go before any change can be implemented. Gonzalez said some next steps include hiring a new elementary school principal and reaching out to architects regarding new facility needs at the two schools. If it is determined that the budget needed to make the changes exceeds the district’s means, they will not move forward.

“My biggest thing out of all this is they did not listen to the parents,” Venegas said. “They did not listen to the teachers. They didn’t listen to their own community that were and are highly against it.”

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