VUSD seizes opportunity for student learning expansions

Visalia Unified School District looks into bringing students more opportunities from outside sources in athletics, arts and STEM to ensure future student success

VISALIA – Visalia Unified School District is getting the jump on providing elementary students with some creative learning opportunities to ensure their success as they make their way into future endeavors.

Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) is working to get new projects in their schools through the Expanded Learning Opportunity Program (ELO-P), which was recently established by the state for the 2021-22 fiscal year. With an additional $25 million in funding through ELO-P, the district is looking to form partnerships with outside organizations like Elevo, AIMS and Arts Visalia to provide students with additional learning services in athletics, arts and science, technology, engineering and math. 

The district’s board members got a first look at the potential partnerships at their Oct. 11 board meeting. The item will be brought back to the next meeting for consideration and board approval on Oct. 25.

The item was presented to the board by Andy Di Meo, assistant superintendent for VUSD educational services, with a focus on the type of projects ELO-P could bring to Visalia schools through these partnerships. Di Meo said ELO-P has four teams, an athletics team, a career and technical education (STEM) team, a science, technology, engineering and math team and a visual and performing arts team. To assist the teams’ mission of ensuring students are receiving the most amount of benefits they can form ELO-P, staff recommends using program funding to establish agreements between the three campaigns.

“We haven’t done anything like this before,” Di Meo said. “This [program] is something brand new, so we’re thinking outside the box in very creative ways to get our kids excited about taking on these opportunities.”

According to Di Meo, once the agreements with the three campaigns are established, the new projects will kick off next semester in the spring and start off with after school programs. The district will also start intercessions over breaks, like winter break and even summer break, for students who are not interested in staying home for those long periods of time.

Elevo is a performance management platform that uses a curriculum of physically active games and sports to engage students in social and emotional services, according to the Elevo website. The platform’s potential agreement with VUSD will provide students with athletic activities, with Elevo providing the necessary equipment, staff support and taking charge of program implementation. Additionally, the platform will train one member of VUSD staff for every three Elevo coaches provided to school sites.

AIMS is a campaign that started in the Central Valley at Fresno Pacific University and provides hands-on learning opportunities for STEM education. According to the AIMS website, the organization is a nonprofit that supports students with imaginative, creative, human-centered and socially-informed approaches to learning mathematics and science, as well as culturally-relevant practices transformative to the Valley. The staff report stated that VUSD’s agreement with AIMS could provide schools with the development of STEM study units and learning materials for educators to teach students with.

“I did go to AIMS workshops at Fresno Pacific and it’s amazing,” board member Walta Gamoian said. “It is kind of for middle school and under, but I really adopted it for high school biology. It’s a wonderful program.”

The district’s contract with Arts Visalia, a nonprofit community arts center residing in downtown Visalia, will provide kids in kindergarten through sixth grade with unique art classes. Di Meo said the art center will bring staff, talents and materials to Visalia school sites and teach students fun and engaging lessons through the arts.

According to Di Meo, the established law for ELO-P states that once a robust program through ELO-P is sparked in elementary grades, the district can proceed to add programs to middle schools and eventually high schools. He said VUSD is at the point where they are beginning to create programs for middle and high schools groups, with a few different programs already starting at the middle school level.

Although the funding to bring these partnerships to Visalia schools will cost the district a pretty penny, Di Meo reminded the board that the district has $25 million of state funds to spend on program services for students. Including the costs for the three campaigns along with other student services like after-school program supplies, field trip costs, library media technologies and others, the district would spend approximately $6.3 million on those services for the school year.

“The state of California gave us money for a reason, because they recognize our kids have a need and, financially, we don’t want our students to be held back because of a few dollars,” Di Meo said. “Well, we have a lot of dollars.”

Despite the high costs for this operation, there was no pushback from board of education members, who were all supportive of the proposal and eager to see it return at the next school board meeting.

Di Meo said ELO-P kicked off with VUSD in July, where the program’s department gave students grades kindergarten through fifth, who were enrolled in a summer program, an in-class interest survey. Starting Aug. 5, the district put together teams consisting of elementary school principals, district experts, community and parent partners and ELO-P team members. The teams met every other Friday for the past few months to finalize details for after school programs, work on implementing guides and handbooks, complete ELO-P plans for each team and construct an overall plan for the district’s future with ELO-P operations.

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