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Sunnyside schools have been on the grow since superintendent's arrival 10 years ago

The Sunnyside School District has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. That's according to Superintendent Rick Cole, who took the district helm in 1999.

"When I started, we didn't have the WASL as a graduation requirement and state standardized test," Cole said. "The education reform has caused us to change the way we do our work in our schools."

WASL testing is just one of many changes. Another is the fact that the budget has nearly doubled, from $34 million in 1999 to almost $60 million today. But then, student enrollment has increased tremendously, too.

"A majority of the increase is in the cost of living adjustments for the teachers and the enrollment," explained Cole, adding that in 1999 there were 4,875 students in the district. Today, there's more than 6,000.

In the past 10 years, voters have approved three levies, each for four years.

"I attribute the passing of the levies to the district's ability to communicate about the high rate of levy equalization funds our district receives," he said.

"In order to get the levy equalization, you have to pass the local levy," he said.

In the 1999-2000 school year, there were no levies and no levy equalization dollars collected, but the district had a bond debt of approximately $1.50 per $1,000 of property valuation in Sunnyside, he said.

"At that time, we were paying off Pioneer (Elementary School) bonds," said Cole. "Now the local levy is about $1.4 million and the state gives us nearly $5 million in equalization funds."

Cole added, "Besides the three levies, we have run two bonds for the building of new schools."

The most recently approved bond for $11.4 million will modernize the high school and allow for additions at Sun Valley Elementary School. "We anticipate this latest bond generating about $45 million in projects."

What's interesting is that when Cole took on the job as superintendent, the Sunnyside School District had a 35-year history of no levies. Cole noted that meant no levy equalization from the state.

Also in the past 10 years, two bonds have failed, both had to do with the district's athletic facilities.

One challenge the district continues to face is young children's academic readiness when they enter kindergarten and first grade. That's always been an issue, Cole said. Many come from impoverished and or mono-lingual Spanish speaking homes.

"When I look back about 15 years, the population in Sunnyside was about 50 percent (Hispanic) and 50 percent (Caucasian). Now we are at about 80 percent Latino and 20 percent Caucasian."

He said children entering the school system facing those two challenges aren't often ready for school.

This year, Sun Valley Elementary School was devoted to teaching only kindergarten students.

"We're very proud of (that)," Cole said. "It seems to work well in getting kids ready."

During Cole's 10-year tenure in Sunnyside he has worked with several different school board directors. Only two remain who were serving when Cole was hired, Lorenzo Garza and Joanne Kilian.

"The original school board was more interested in the operational side of our work," Cole said. "This second board is much more focused on finding out what we have to do in our practices as educators to get our kids to a 100 percent success level."

He added, "The growth and involvement of the board has been incredible." In fact, he said, it was recently named the best school board in the state.

"The old board was a very good board, very instrumental in setting and making decisions about how we would collect only one tax."

One thing that makes him proud as he reflects is the fact that because of voter support, the school district has "one of the best bus fleets (in the state). It's completely modernized. We buy three busses a year, so that's 30 busses (that have been acquired in 10 years)."

Another change Cole has seen in the last 10 years is with athletics at the high school. "It used to be a 2A, now it's 3A and almost a 4A school."

Other changes include the employment of more staff members. In the 10 years Cole has been here it has grown from 13 principals to 18, there used to be 253 teachers and now there's 360, there were 66 para-educators, now there's 160.

The high school used to have three or four advanced placement classes, now there are 12 to 14. And, said Cole, "We've grown from 30 students taking AP to over 130."

The total number of full-time staff members in the district has grown from about 480 to nearly 690, as well.

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