By Dr. César Morales, Ventura County Superintendent of Schools
Ventura County’s new school year kicked off on August 8 in Oak Park, the first local school district to welcome students to class for 2023-2024. By the end of the month, all 20 Ventura County school districts, serving about 125,000 students, will have started their new year.
As we begin our second post-COVID school year, local educators are continuing to grapple with the pandemic’s aftermath. Rates of chronic absenteeism at Ventura County schools aren’t as severe as in other parts of the state, but they’re still above pre-pandemic levels. And we continue to see a troubling number of students who are dealing with emotional trauma that impacts their ability to thrive socially and academically.
Ventura County school leaders have been working diligently to respond to these issues. They’re doing everything they can to treat students with compassion, provide support, and make schools inviting and welcoming places to be. But the reality is that we can’t do it alone. Ensuring the well-being of our students must be a priority for the entire community. Local government agencies, nonprofit organizations and businesses all have roles to play to help schools with their mission to serve students.
I’m happy to report that some of these partnerships are already in place and making a difference. Over the summer, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors allocated more than $2 million to expand student wellness centers. Wellness centers are already up and running at most Ventura County high schools, providing support and referrals to students who are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. The new funding will allow the Ventura County Office of Education (VCOE) and Ventura County Behavioral Health to open wellness centers at several middle schools to reach even younger students.
Last May, the County Opioid Abuse Suppression Taskforce presented an inaugural youth summit to inform students about the dangers of fentanyl and other opioids. Called Real Talk: Fake Pills, 100% Danger, it featured an eye-opening video that showed the terrible impacts of these illicit drugs on actual students and their families.
And throughout the last school year, the Ventura County Schools Self-Funding Authority and VCOE held a series of workshops that directly addressed the scourge of school shootings that continue to be a national crisis. Every Ventura County school district and nearly all of our local law enforcement agencies participated in the seminars which included strategic advice from the US Secret Service. Thanks to these trainings, which will continue this year, Ventura County schools are better prepared than most to prevent an active assailant event and to respond effectively should one occur.
We must also never lose sight of the fact that our public schools have a duty and an obligation to serve students from all types of backgrounds and to prepare them for the world as it actually is. While some states are making their schools less hospitable to LGBTQ+ students and limiting the teaching of uncomfortable truths from our history, that’s not the case in Ventura County. We’re fortunate to live in a state that embraces diversity and confronts the mistakes of the past in order to build a more just and equitable future for everyone.
One other change that’s looming large over the new school year is the growing impact of artificial intelligence on all aspects of our lives. This rapidly evolving technology is already affecting the way students study and teachers teach. While the downsides of AI are real, it also holds tremendous promise as a tool for learning. My office is actively working to help local schools make the most of the changes that AI is inevitably bringing to the classroom. By showing students how to leverage AI’s power, they will be better prepared for a job market where writing, research and even computer programming are increasingly being automated.
It’s often said that change is the only constant, and that’s certainly true for the students heading back to school this August. I encourage everyone to do their part to help Ventura County’s students adapt and prosper in our changing world. With the guidance and support of dedicated educators, involved parents and a caring community, I have no doubt that they will be ready to face the challenges that lie ahead.
This column was published in the Ventura County Star on August 20, 2023