Monterey County School System, Explained: Demographic Change, COVID Among Challenges County Faces

Monterey County was a pioneer in establishing public education in California

PUBLISHED FEB 17, 2022 4:35 P.M.
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The first public school in California was in Monterey County.

The first public school in California was in Monterey County.   McGhiever / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

The year was 1822 when an already worldly and well-traveled 24-year-old named William Hartnell arrived in Monterey County, via South America. Born in Lancashire, England, and educated in Bremen, Germany, Hartnell picked up Spanish as a bookkeeping clerk with John Begg & Co., an English trading company doing business in Chile. The job paid Hartnell 100 pounds per year—about $18,000 today.

When Hartnell learned about the opportunities available in the north trading in bovine products such as rawhide and tallow, he headed to Alta California, which was then a Mexican colony. Taking the name Don Guillermo Arnel, Hartnell renounced his British citizenship in 1830 and became a Mexican citizen—a move that opened up new business opportunities.

But his real passion was education. He had 19 kids (12 of whom survived to adulthood) with his wife, Maria Teresa de la Guerra. They even adopted five additional kids. It was a power-marriage for Hartnell in more ways than that one. Maria Teresa was the daughter of Don San José de la Guerra, the wealthiest man in Santa Barbara.

When being a rancher wasn’t generating the fortune he’d hoped it would, Hartnell wrote to his father-in-law and asked, “What must I do to make a killing?” Don San José advised him to follow his heart—become a teacher.

Hartnell Opens First ‘Public’ School in Alta California

Hartnell felt inspired. And he believed Monterey was the best place to open his new school, which became the first “public” school in Alta California. That is, the first school not affiliated with a Catholic mission and open to anyone who could afford the $200 per year fee.

Hartnell’s school, sadly, was a financial bust. But his role as a pioneer in California education was immortalized when his name was affixed in 1948 to the former Salinas Junior College, which remains Hartnell College to this day.

It wasn’t until 1849 that California established a statewide public school system, including a requirement for public schools in Article IX of the first state Constitution (the territory would become an official state the following year) at the constitutional convention held in Monterey’s then newly constructed Colton Hall (pictured above). That same building, which today houses a historical museum as well as Monterey’s Community Development Department, housed the first school in the new public school system from 1849 to 1851, and became a school again from 1873 to 1896

Demographic Change Alters County Schools

Hartnell moved his short-lived but groundbreaking school from his home in Monterey to Rancho El Alisal, the land granted him by the Mexican government—just outside of what today is the city of Salinas. Today, the Alisal Union School District is the third-largest of Monterey County’s 24 school districts, with 8,750 students, according to numbers from the county’s Office of Education.

With more than 77,300 total public school students in the county, Salinas Union High School District stands as the county’s largest, with 16,257 students among its 12 schools. Monterey Peninsula Unified School District is next with 10,526, but the county also has five districts with fewer than 100 students, all the way down to Graves School District with just 42 in its one K-8 elementary school, which opened in 1980.

The demographic makeup of school districts in the county can vary widely as well. The Salinas Union High School District has a median household income of about $65,000, and the composition of its student population is overwhelmingly Latinx, at 75 percent, according to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) numbers. Only 17 percent of students in the district are classified as white, and 1 percent as Black with 5 percent Asian.

Monterey Peninsula Unified, on the other hand, is almost half white, at 47 percent, and less than one-third Latinx with 30 percent. Eleven percent of students in the district are categorized as Asian and 5 percent as Black. The median household income there stood at $72,666, per NCES figures.

Then there’s Alisal Union, nearer to William Hartnell’s old property, where 90 percent of the district’s students are Latinx, with only 5 percent white, 4 percent Asian and 1 percent Black. The district sees a median household income of under $61,000.

In 2017, the Monterey County Weekly analyzed demographic data from the county’s schools and found a troubling trend. Schools were “re-segregating.”

“White populations are aging faster in comparison to other ethnic groups, in part because their adult children no longer live in the area,” the Weekly found. “Many African-American families have left for other regions; and the Latino population continues to increase across the board.”

The aging of the white population has led to another problem for MPUSD—enrollments are declining so sharply that schools may have to close. In June of 2021, the district’s board of trustees approved a plan to shut down three of the 23 schools there. Highland, Colton, and Foothill elementary schools were targeted for closing by the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

Districts Deal With COVID Pandemic

The 24 districts come under the oversight of the Monterey County Office of Education, which in turn is governed by a seven-member board of trustees, each elected to four-year terms, with each trustee representing a specific geographic district and running for election in that district.

At the top of the county’s education system is Dr. Deneen Guss, who was elected county school superintendent in 2018 and will come up for reelection in 2022. Prior to her election, Guss served 23 years as an administrator in the Monterey school system—and 10 years as a teacher before that. She was deputy superintendent in Monterey for six years before running for, and winning, the office of superintendent herself. 

For a first-term superintendent, Guss saw her share of unprecedented issues. Her term was just a year old when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing schools to close down and students stuck with attending classes remotely. The county was able to get students back into classrooms for the start of the 2021-2022 school year, but even that effort has seen some serious bumps in the road.

Guss told a local TV station that from October of 2021 to January of 2022, the Salinas City Elementary School District alone had required about 350 substitute teachers to fill in for teachers who missed work due to COVID infections. And in January, a teacher in Carmel High School had to be suspended due to violations of an indoor mask policy.

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