Brett McFadden, superintendent of the Nevada Joint Union High School District, is in charge of most local kids’ high school experience. The district he heads oversees the area’s two “big” comprehensive high schools: Nevada Union (NU) and Bear River. It also includes the competitive Ghidotti Early College High School, which requires an application and winning lottery spot to get in; North Point Academy for students doing independent study; the Adult School and Silver Springs continuation school. High schools everywhere suffered extreme challenges in the pandemic, and Nevada Joint Union was no different. But our local district was already grappling with some serious questions even before COVID came into the picture. We sat down with McFadden to talk about the challenges and hear about what the coming school year might bring.
What will school look like this fall?
There are a number of questions with the Delta variant, but right now I’m optimistic. We are coming back in-person. No more hybrid model like last year, where we were doing in-person and then simultaneously the teacher was also providing instruction to students that were participating in our distance-learning program. That really burnt out teachers.
What if parents are still worried their kids are going to get COVID?
California mandate requires that all staff and students wear masks. The state says you have to offer an independent study model, and we do offer that through our program at North Point Academy. Emails just went out to parents asking if they intend to send their kids to in-person school, or do independent study. We have spots for 130 students at Northpoint, and we can go up to 150 or 155 if need be.
Do you think the state will begin requiring students to get the COVID vaccine, the way they do with measles and other vaccines, in order to attend public school?
I don’t think the governor is going to make any more waves or any more trouble for himself when there’s a recall going on. So I do not believe that the state will come out with a vaccination requirement.
What other changes will there be at your schools this year?
I’m very excited to say that we’re finally making changes to our bell schedule. Previously, we were on a six-period-a-day schedule. Now we’re moving to something called a four-by-eight schedule. The way it works is that on Monday, you have all eight of your classes, but only for 35 minutes each. Then on Tuesday through Friday, you’ll have four of your classes for 81 minutes, and then the next day your other four, and it will switch off like that. It allows you to do a deeper dive. So say for instance you’re in an automotive class, you can take on a project like, “Okay let’s take apart the engine.” You couldn’t do that in our previous 50 minute classes.
That sounds like a big bonus for electives.
Yes. We were losing students to Colfax, to Placer, or even down in Marysville or Lincoln because they offered a wide array of options to their students. We have great electives — visual and performing arts, agriculture, career technical education. Athletics have also been a big part of this [district’s] culture. The new bell schedule allows us to maximize our electives and options that we have for students.
I hear that Nevada Union High School has declining enrollment. Is that true, and if so, why?
[We’ve] faced 18 years of consecutive declining enrollment. Over the past 25 years, the demographics of the county have changed. We have one of the highest percentages of retired folks of any county. There are also certain elements of industry that are no longer here, like lumber, for instance. And then during the Great Recession, we had a lot of folks that would be called middle to upper middle class — contractors, plumbers, painters and such — who would live up here and commute down to Sacramento or Placerville to do the work. Suddenly they lost their homes and moved away, and have not returned. So, we are close to 60 percent smaller than we were in the 1990s.
Did charter schools like Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning (SAEL) and Ghidotti cause Nevada Union High School to take a hit?
I think there’s at least 300 or 350 students that if SAEL wasn’t there, they’d have to come here. And that’s certainly nothing to shake a stick at, but I don’t think charter schools explain the majority of the overall decline in students. The overall decline in students was economic and demographic, not necessarily the proliferation of charter schools.
I hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, NU is too big of a school; I don’t want my kid to get lost there.’ Or ‘NU’s too traditional — jocks and cheerleaders.’ Do you have conversations about — how can we rebrand the school to attract a wider demographic?
Okay, very much. I was hired specifically for that and one of the big things was: We need to market this district. We’ve expanded our programs — you can take four years of dance at both of our comprehensive [high] schools. We have some of the best visual and performing arts programs. We still have choir and band. So regardless of what you’re into, we have something to offer you.
What else are you proud of?
One of my main goals is to increase awareness and action with regards to equity and racism. We’re doing a two to three year curriculum review right now to address inherent bias. We also reduced our suspension and expulsion rates dramatically — we used to have the worst in Northern California after Oroville, and now we have one of the lowest.
As a district, what did you learn during the pandemic that was positive?
Like any public agency, we typically move at geologic speed. You get caught in a way of doing things, and it’s, frankly, a rut. One thing that we learned is that we can pivot on a dime, and we can do it a dozen times. It’s not good: It’s horrible, it’s time-consuming, and it takes an enormous amount of energy. But we can survive. And we can come out ahead.