Much new, including principal at Two Rock

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Of all the school districts in the Petaluma area, the single-school Two Rock Union School District is the most unique. It is a community school whose community changes every two to four years.

The school doesn’t move, but its students, the majority from the nearby Coast Guard training facility, rotate every two to four years.

This school year, 41 percent of the students are new. But that is only the tip of the new iceberg at Two Rock.

The changes start at the top, where former Casa Grande High School administrator Betha MacClain replaces Toni Beal as superintendent/principal.

But, there is more. The entire front-office staff is new, including a new office manager, new chief business officer, new bilingual secretary and new facilities manager.

There are also three new teachers at a school where there are 10 teachers total.

“In many ways we are creating a new school,” MacClain noted.

That new school serves 168 students in transitional kindergarten through sixth-grade. Those students come not only from the Coast Guard facility, but also from nearby dairies. It is not unusual to find a student new to the school from Alaska seated at a table next to a student moving in from San Diego.

Not only are students from the neighboring dairies, many are from families of farmhands who come to Two Rock with limited English language skills, requiring an emphasis be placed on ESL classes.

In addition, with a very small tax base because so many of the district’s families live on the military base, Two Rock has to rely on grants for much of its funding.

Fortunately, there are many government grants available to help with the education of military families.

One major grant received last year is a $250,000, 5-year grant from the Department of Defense Education Activity program. Two Rock was one of 30 schools in the United States selected to receive the grant which is being used to support the development of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program at the school. In addition to the development of a STEM lab, the grant provides for field trips, career fairs, and the development of flexible learning environments for students.

The STEM grant is the second $250,000, 5-year Department of Defense Educational Activity grant awarded to Two Rock. The first grant was awarded in August 2016, and provides comprehensive counseling and reading intervention programs focused on addressing the needs of military students.

STEM education is high on MacClain’s priority list, and conversion of a classroom into a full STEM lab with a 3-D Printer, Laser Printer and many other high-tech tools are planned to help students learn to thrive in today’s high-tech world.

MacClain noted that it is challenging enough for teachers to learn how to handle the new technology, but they face the additional challenge of working with students who come from districts with differing educational systems.

There also is the challenge of preparing students for what happens after Two Rock when there is uncertainty with where and what educational system they will face as they move on. “One of our big concerns is that the students be ready for their next school,” MacClain explains.

Being ready means not just knowing the basics of education, and how to use the new technology. It also means knowing social skills in a rapidly changing world.

Two Rock is using a new program created by St. Joseph Hospital called “Fit4Life” that is designed to help students with things like nutrition, social and emotional learning and other life skills.

The principal explains that with so much student turnover, teachers don’t have the benefit of having built relationships with students or their parents.

MacClain and her dedicated staff have help in turning such a diverse student body into a community school from a strong parent group, many experienced in frequent moves. “We have a dedicated parent association,” she pointed out. “Military parents are very devoted to their kids.”

While MacClain has a strong belief in the importance of a STEM education, she also believes in educating the whole child with an emphasis on her own love of art.

“I consider myself first an artist and then an educator,” she explained. “We really need to develop the whole student. Art and social-emotional learning are important. We need to create a school that fits the 21st century needs of education.”

She admits it is a learning experience. “Sometimes it feels like I’m flying a plane and building it at the same time,” she said.

But she isn’t in the airplane alone.

“I have a very dedicated staff,” she said. “We are all learning together.”

What it all comes down to is the students.

“I’m on the playground every day,” MacClain said. “It gives me a sense of what it is all about. An opportunity to connect with the kids is the best part of my day.”

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