Winters JUSD responds to Grand Jury findings

Photo by Crystal Apilado/Winters Express

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The Winters Joint Unified School District (Winters JUSD) 2021-22 Yolo Grand Jury response is complete, with officials partially agreeing with two recommendations and altogether rejecting one.

Acting Superintendent Phoebe Girimonte reviewed the district’s response in full at the Aug. 18 Board of Trustees meeting, asking school board officials to approve the comeback to the “investigation prompted by citizen allegations that the district is not providing the legally required services to struggling students,” according to the Yolo County Grand Jury.

The two official allegations, according to the report, were “the district’s published materials for parents/guardians describing the steps necessary to obtain legally mandated services for a disabled child and classroom accommodations or special education services” and “the success of the third through fifth grade English Language Arts program at creating a literate student body.”

Winters JUSD was required to give two responses to the May 9 findings report and recommendations within 90 days, one from the acting superintendent and one from the board. Girimonte informed the board they had the opportunity to agree with the interim superintendent’s response to create a draft of their own and respond within the 90-day timeline. The board unanimously voted to join the answer.

“I appreciate the diligence that went into this,” Board Clerk Joedy Michael said. “You remained objective and put ownership where it needed to be and in the areas that we need to see improvement.”

Girimonte led by explaining the purpose of a grand jury investigation is to prioritize transparency, accountability, and outcomes.

“I share that priority,” she said. “I think while intentions are clearly important as a school district, our responsibility to students and families in our community is to have measurable outcomes that demonstrate growth and improvement.”

Girimonte only partially agreed with the first finding. According to her, the Director of Special Education and Student Services Jenny Pinedo, and then Superintendent Diana Jiménez with the Yolo Grand Jury in April and May “to provide evidence work is being done on the local level” to communicate effectively with the parents of special education students.

Girimonte informed Trustees that the school district has since made available a new resource that is published in all of the individual education plans for special education students and is also available in hard copy at each school site and online.

“I think it also warrants to note that this type of handbook is not mandated by statute; it is a proactive way of making sure families recognize what resources are available to them, and that is really a shared priority,” she said.

Board President Carrie Green commended Girimonte and staff for their hard work on the new handbook and response.

“I would like to give you a huge kudos for that,” she said. “I know that a lot of time has gone into responding and crafting a very thoughtful, deliberate responses to the recommendations and findings,” Green said.

Girimonte also partially agreed with Finding Two regarding third through fifth-grade student literacy at Shirley Rominger Intermediate. She explained in detail that the Yolo Grand Jury based its recommendation on the 2018 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), which was not timely.

“We have just been in receipt of the 2022 CAASPP, and that data will be shown on the governance calendar in September,” Girimonte said.

She explained due to the pandemic, district officials canceled testing for the CAASPP in March of 2020, wanting to use sparse virtual instruction time to focus on learning rather than test prep.

“We have historically seen that we do have challenges surrounding illiteracy, and in particular, we serve a population with about 30 percent English learners, who by definition will not achieve proficiency on a reading assessment because they are still developing fluency,” Girimonte said, adding the median percent progress toward typical grade-level growth in reading was 135 percent.

Rominger is still a high-growth school, according to Girimonte, who said school outcomes show that 46 percent of students are reading on or above grade level, and 27 percent are approaching grade level in reading.

Girimonte provided numbers to disagree with the third grand jury finding regarding the district’s inability to clarify, in publicly available data, the percentage of students who are underperforming in literacy skills. Along with providing dates from up to 13 meetings between June 2020 to June 2020, Girimonte also included news stories from Winters Express covering data scores, focus plans, and distance learning.

“We feel it is an accurate and thoughtful response to the grand jury,” Girimonte said. “We appreciate their commitment to accountability and share that same priority.”

Trustee Michael agreed.

“We all took this pretty seriously, and I think the way you framed it out corrects some misrepresentation while highlighting some real improvement,” Michael said, adding now there is a different district landscape and priorities. “We will continue to fight for student access and achievement.”

Trustee Everardo Zaragoza commended the school district’s proactive approach.

“I am proud that the things that the jury called out, we were already working on, and it was not something that we are doing because of the grand jury,” Zaragoza said.

The response and Girimonte’s Aug. 19 letter to Judge Daniel Wolk officially end the school district investigation.

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