JOSHUA TREE — “We are having a great day with our new teacher, Miss Jones!” A brightly dressed first-grader chatted happily with her friends while lunching on pizza at Joshua Tree Elementary School Monday. The girls agreed they liked school, although one was slightly disappointed her mom hadn’t been able to give her bat-wing ponytails like the cartoon character Vampirina for the first day.
Across Morongo Unified School District, 8,039 children started school Monday, according to the business services office.
The day started with free breakfast for all students, thanks to a federal program MUSD can take part in because nearly three-fourths of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Morongo Basin-wide, schools served 1,988 breakfasts and 5,964 lunches Monday — 9.8 percent more breakfasts and 2.7 percent more lunches than on the first day in 2018, said Janet Barth, director of nutritional services.
Schools also offer students bagged suppers this year. Monday, 733 kids took home the meals, with turkey and cheese “anytimers,” which are kind of like Lunchables, along with mango smoothies, veggies and milk.
“We try to make it something they can grab and go,” Barth explained.
The bagged suppers were just the tip of the iceberg for new services at MUSD, according to Superintendent Tom Baumgarten.
The school district hired 62 credentialed faculty and administrators for this year, with new principals and teachers starting across the Basin.
For ninth-graders, the new “Focus on 9!” program was designed to help freshmen and their families make a successful bridge to high school socially, academically and emotionally.
Data across the country, including the Morongo Basin, indicates that ninth-graders are the most likely students to get disengaged from school, suffer from poor self-esteem and poor attendance and even eventually drop out.
Staff have been training over the summer to form connections with students and help them thrive, Baumgarten said.
Career and technical education courses are also expanding — and they are available for both adults and teenagers.
“There’s a lot that we’re offering,” Baumgarten said. “I really want the adults in the area to take advantage of it as well. It’s an untapped resource that economically can make a good impact on the community.”
At the Academy of College and Career Excellence, around 250 adults and kids are taking free career training courses at the campus in the Town Center Mall in Yucca Valley and around 70 more are training at the former Monument high school in Twentynine Palms.
“We’re also doing some online courses,” Baumgarten added.
Other changes are high-tech but invisible: Schools have been equipped with stronger wireless access and individual classrooms have more network access.
The school district has more plans for the future: participating in a food-sharing program so unused food goes to local food banks and partnering with the Sheriff’s Department and district attorney to start a youth court as an alternative to suspension.
“I see a school district as being more than just a school district,” Baumgarten said.
“It’s not just people in a school who need us, it’s the people in the community.”