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Monday, May 23, 2005 | A 13-year-old girl whose mother regularly shot her up with heroin. A 15-year-old boy living on the streets who was “befriended” by pedophiles. A 14-year-old girl living in a ramshackle motel room who worked every day to clothe and feed her two younger brothers and her seriously ill father.

Few parents realize the extent of the role the San Diego County Office of Education plays in their children’s lives, says San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Rudy Castruita. “If there were not a county board of education, it would have to be invented,” he said.

SDCOE provides a wide range of services for the 500,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12th who attend the county’s 600 public schools. Of the county’s 42 school districts, there are 24 elementary districts, six high school districts, and 12 unified (K-12) districts. San Diego County represents the second-largest county in the state in student population, behind Los Angeles.

With a $533 million budget for fiscal year 2004-2005, SDCOE offers programs to assist the county’s school districts that Castruita said were found by a grand jury in 1998 to “save our districts $54 million each year.”

SDCOE acts as an interface between these districts and the state and federal governments on legislative and legal issues and has legal responsibility for the fiscal oversight and financial stability of all county school district budgets. “We approve all budgets, and we take that job very, very seriously,” Castruita said.

SDCOE also provides districts with consortiums and committees to address common needs that allow the county to exert more clout in Sacramento, and acts as a clearinghouse to help districts save money by pooling resources.

The Special Education Legal Alliance, for example, was established several months ago as a collaborative effort among school districts to support systemic legal change in special education. SDCOE also has a consortium for health benefits for teachers that serves the county’s 85,000 teachers, said Castruita. And a legal consortium, established in 1998, provides districts with attorneys for all their legal needs who charge no more than $150 per hour, he said.

SDCOE also assists school districts with curriculum development, instructional materials review, teacher credentialing, professional development and teacher training; tries to identify future trends in education; pays special attention to small school districts; and promotes confidence in public education.

Nearly 100 separate programs exist – from adult education to youth development, and everything alphabetically in between – plus 12 superintendent committees, including the First 5 Commission, Legal Services Council, Small School Districts and the Achievement Gap Task Force which has 12 county superintendents as members.

Peggy Lynch, superintendent of the 11,700-student San Dieguito Union High School District in the north coastal region of the county, said the county office of education “helps us in a lot of ways,” citing the Achievement Gap Task Force and staff development as particularly valuable services SDCOE provides. “I’ve worked before with several different counties, and this one is excellent.”

Lynch said SDCOE was particularly helpful to school districts during the 2003 wildfires when schools were forced to close, by working as a liaison between the districts and the state to secure per-pupil funding during the emergency.

Although educators are familiar with SDCOE services, most parents have limited direct contact with programs at the county office of education, with one notable exception: sixth-grade camp.

Nearly all San Diego school districts participate in SDCOE’s Outdoor Education Program, which offers sixth-grade students an outdoor educational experience in the mountains near Cuyamaca or Palomar that lasts for five days. This, for many kids, is their first time away from home for an extended period.

As well as self-reliance and independence, sixth-grade camp also teaches life science (biology and botany), earth science (geology, meteorology and astronomy), outdoor skills and Native American lore, recreational activities and crafts.

Direct help for at-risk children

“We offer county-wide programs for a lot of kids no one pays attention to,” Castruita said. Such programs include juvenile court school, migrant education, special education, drug and alcohol prevention, Regional Occupational Training vocational schools, the Hope Infant Program for handicapped infants, and schools for homeless, foster and at-risk kids such as the Monarch School on Cedar Street.

“Most people don’t know about us primarily because we are a step removed,” said SDCOE Communications Officer Jim Esterbrooks. “The only kids we are directly responsible for are kids in court schools.” This can total up to 3,000 kids at one time, he said.

These kids are often victims, pregnant teens, homeless, criminals, those awaiting trial, or students deemed unfit or expelled from traditional schools for weapons or drugs violations. The classes, usually middle or high school level, are held in different settings, Esterbrooks said, including jails and storefronts.

“While we have them, some experience quite a bit of growth,” he said. “The idea is to transition them back into traditional schools. It’s always a triumph when some graduate and go on to college.”

The Monarch School, founded in 1988, serves about 100 kids ages 7 to 18 and provides an accredited education while caring for the basic needs of its homeless, abused or at-risk students. The upbringing and history of some students, horrifying and tragic in many cases, highlight the need for public agencies to provide care and hope for all children, Esterbrooks said.

The County Board of Education

“But there’s no controversy,” Watkins said. “He’s doing a good job and runs a good ship. He meets the customer demands of all 42 school districts and of his own school services. Great things are happening.”

Castruita, 60, is an ardent advocate of public education and a recent critic of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest budget, which the superintendent says will cost San Diego County schools $213 million in lost revenue this coming fiscal year. At a news conference in February, he called the governor’s proposal “disastrous for public schools” and claimed it would result in a loss of $57 million for the San Diego Unified School District, $14 million for the Poway Unified School District, and $6 million for the San Dieguito Union High School District.

Hired by SDCOE in 1994, Castruita grew up in Southern California, earned his doctorate degree in educational administration from the University of Southern California in 1983, and worked previously as the Santa Ana Unified School District superintendent for six years.

A priority for Castruita is to infuse technology throughout the curriculum and make all students technology literate. “This would change the face of public education today,” he said. He also wants to see the elimination of the achievement gap and equal access to educational opportunities for all children, regardless of where they live, their backgrounds or family income levels.

Castruita believes educators need to focus more on kids who aren’t succeeding, and should support home schooling, charter schools, magnet schools, vocational training and other alternative learning environments. “We need to do more for these kids, and public education is the key,” he said. “Take a look at vocational programs. Not everyone is going to college.” He strongly disapproves of President George W. Bush’s proposal to cut funding for vocational training.

In 20 years, Castruita said he foresees more schooling options, “because the public believes that education is not doing a very good job, although I disagree.”

The SDCOE Web site is a comprehensive resource center for students, parents and educators. It includes data on the five board members and the areas of the county they represent, a list of all school districts and contact information, attendance boundaries, charter schools, school profiles and more.

The County Board of Education meets every second Wednesday of the month at the San Diego County Office of Education at 6401 Linda Vista Road.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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