Giving Up Is Not An Option: Program Confronts Suicide With Students

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In Simi Valley this year alone about 50 teens will try to take their own life.

Two will succeed.

That’s a statistic that no one wants to experience in reality.

We know that our teens today face many formidable challenges and even the most stable family can find itself with a child who suffers so much they consider the ultimate action–taking their own life.

That’s why the Simi Valley Police Department and Student Support Services in the Simi Valley Unified School District have organized Suicide Prevention assemblies for all middle and high schools in the District.

The assemblies began last month at Valley View Middle School and continued this week at Hillside Middle School. Next week is Sinaloa Middle School’s turn and all of the high schools will have their assemblies scheduled after the Winter Break.

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Det. Dan Swanson of the SVPD investigates homicides. At Hillside on Thursday, Swanson delivered the same powerful message of turning despair into hope as class after class came to the cafeteria to hear his presentation.

“Let’s be blunt,” he told Chris Kuske’s and Matt Kingsbury’s 8th graders. “If you kill yourself, you just die. The consequence is that you will leave a blast radius in your family and friends and community and you won’t even know.”

The fix, he said, it to talk about your problems, even those too big to see an end to.

“Nobody ever fixes a problem in a secret society,” he said.

His message was aimed at kids who might have or might be considering suicide, as well as their friends who may know about someone who is thinking about suicide, or who show any of the warning signs.

When it came to the potential for someone to take their own life, he urged friends to not worry about breaking confidences or making someone mad. The bigger issue is to get help, and fast.

“Better a mad friend than a dead friend,” he said. “Don’t ever worry about giving up a friendship; worry about saving a life. Life comes first.”

Everyone has value, Swanson said, no matter what they’ve heard. People can be mean and life is difficult, but these are not excuses to give up trying, especially when it comes to getting help.

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“Getting help is brave,” he said.

Swanson also talked about self-harming–cutting and other behaviors. He showed graphic pictures of someone’s arm and another person’s thigh that were both permanently scarred by cutting.

“It fixes absolutely nothing,” he said. “Remember that you control your pain. Transferring it to another part of your body is not helping it.”

Students were encouraged to stay behind after each session and talk with a counselor or Swanson if they wished. Principal Jerry Block also had counselors in the school’s library during lunch on the days of the presentation so that students who were hesitant to approach counselors in front of their friends would have a more private option.

Block said about five students came the first day. And each session saw a handful of students stay behind to speak to someone.

Many of the kids were crying as they listened to Swanson speak. Some held hands with friends. All seemed to take the message seriously.

Swanson provided each student with a card to keep in a pocket or wallet. On it were many area resources that any student can reach out to get help, whether they know someone who us suffering or if they are suffering themselves.

“There are people out there who care,” he said. “Don’t you dare give up on yourself!”

Help.

 

Parents Get Set Up for Piloting iPads

School children using digital tablet outside

Over the next few weeks, about 600 parents and guardians will return to school to help launch the Simi Valley Unified School District’s iPad Pilot Program, which is part of the bigger SVUSD Technology Plan that has brought major changes to Simi’s classrooms during the last two years.

In its second year, the iPads only spent about six weeks in the classrooms last school year, said Reina Bejerano, program coordinator for technology at the District. But that was enough to get the teachers, parents and kids involved with the program excited about what they were doing.

“I was happy to see how excited the kids were, and how engaged and excited the parents were,” she said. “It created a level of excitement in the classroom you don’t usually see.”

There are 23 teachers participating in the pilot program that covers 16 elementary schools and Hillside Middle School. The teachers span from kindergarten to sixth grade and two of the teachers have Special Education classes. Each teacher’s class will receive an Apple TV, iPads for each student and supporting equipment (power strips, chargers, etc…).

In turn, the teachers have been given guidance and suggestions for how to use the iPads, but no mandates. Bejerano said that the point of the pilot is to see how these devices will enhance learning and how easy it is for the teachers–many of whom had no prior iPad experience–to adapt to them.

“Each teacher and each principal set their own visions and goals that were particular to their schools about what they wanted to accomplish with the iPads,” she said.

One teacher set three goals for the iPads’ use in her classroom. They would be used as learning tools (through apps and the Internet); they would help instill independent practices to increase knowledge; and they would serve as a means to differentiate instruction, meaning that lessons and practice work could be tailored to each child’s needs and abilities.

There are many kinds of apps available through the iPad that help supplement classroom experiences, including some already familiar to the teachers and students, like EveryDay Math and Accelerated Reader. Others apps help with classroom management, test-taking, instant quizzes and presentations. Then there are the websites, like Khan Academy, which provides bite-sized video tutorials on specific standards. (How to multiply fractions is one example.)

Throughout the year, Bejerano will regularly visit classrooms to see how the iPads are used and also to offer additional monthly training to the teachers.

So why are the parents coming to school? The way Apple sets up the iPads, each student must have an account with Apple exclusive to the school (existing accounts won’t work for this). To do this, Bejerano and her team are hosting tech nights at each school to guide parents through the set-up process. This also gives parents a chance to ask any questions about the iPads and their use.

Last year’s parents were at first skeptical about the iPads and had many questions about expectations and access. But, at the end of the school year, every iPad was returned in good working order and parents overwhelmingly told the teachers the iPads helped their children learn better.

Internet access with the iPads is only through WiFi. Every Simi campus received improved WiFi over the last year and most of the iPads will remain in the classrooms. Bejerano said that the teachers and principals have been given the option of having students take the devices home with them. Most seemed hesitant to do this, but Bejerano believes that as teachers and students become more adept at using the devices, more will go home with the students.

What parents do need to understand about the iPads is that when they are used at school, the District’s Internet filters are in place and students are restricted from accessing questionable Internet sites and content. But, when the iPads or any other Internet accessing device are home, those restrictions are no longer in place. Students receive training in digital citizenship at the start of the school year, but parents must be vigilant about how their children are using the Internet, Bejerano said.

It’s not just iPads that are being piloted. ChromeBooks are also in use at every grade level throughout Simi’s schools. But, Bejerano said, the ChromeBooks were simpler to set up and use and they’re also kept solely in the classroom.

At the end of the school year, Bejerano and others involved in the District’s technology programs, will evaluate the pilot programs and use the information gleaned from the effort to help guide the District into the next phase of technology expansion.

 

 

 

It’s a Sticky Situation But Somebody’s Gotta Do It!

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How many rolls of duct tape does it take to adhere your principal to the wall?

About 19, if you’re Aldo Calcagno.

As principal of Arroyo Elementary School, Calcagno was asked if he would help inspire the students by becoming the reward for the PTA membership drive. If the students brought in at least 200 PTA members, Calcagno agreed to be taped to the wall.

“I tried to offer even more of an incentive by telling them they could tape me to the wall upside down if they doubled the membership goal,” he said.

He figured it would be hard enough for the kids to meet the goal since last year, the membership drive only brought in 82 people. But his students had other ideas.

Teacher Jennifer Johnston watched as her students cheered and chanted while Calcagno was secured to the wall, one strip at a time.

“The kids are really excited,” said the 5th/6th grade teacher. “I think he’s a really good sport. Based on last year, we didn’t think they’d reach (the goal).”

PTA President Jennifer Wade found the idea to tape the principal to a wall in a PTA magazine. It took five adults, including Wade, to tape Calcagno up in under an hour.

Tony Karch, principal of White Oak Elementary School, looked on as his friend slowly found himself locked into place. There might have been just a dash of worry in Karch’s eyes.

“I was in a dunking tank about a week ago, but that’s nowhere near as crazy as this,” he said.

Artistic Bonding: Parents Share Class with Students

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Margarita and Nicolas Torres look at the charcoal still life drawing he worked on in Susan Selvaggio’s art class at Sinaloa Middle School Tuesday.

Nicolas Torres really likes art.

The 7th grader from Sinaloa Middle School said that drawing is his favorite part of Susan Selvaggio’s art class.

The love of art is something he shares with his mom, Margarita Torres. And it’s the reason why she came to visit his art class this week, at Selvaggio’s invitation.

“He likes art very much,” Margarita Torres said. “I wanted to see the teacher. And I miss school.”

Sitting next to each other, mother and son each worked on their own still life charcoal drawing of the arrangement sitting in the middle of the classroom. They stopped often to compare work and share a smile.

Each year, Selvaggio invites parents to join a class or two with their children.

“I started it a few years ago because I was so impressed by what the kids were doing that I didn’t want to be the only one watching,” she said. “And the kids get so excited about having their parents come.”

On Monday, a handful of parents came to class. Parents had the choice of attending one of several scheduled times.

Jeanette Daghestanian (left), is helped with a drawing technique by daughter Olivia Daghestanian as friend Maggie Sidway looks on.
Jeanette Daghestanian (left), is helped with a drawing technique by daughter Olivia Daghestanian as friend Maggie Sidway looks on.

Jeanette Daghestanian is an old-pro at Selvaggio’s art class. With two older sons now attending Royal High School, Daghestanian has visited art before. With daughter Olivia, she got to come once more.

“I’m involved with the school and I wanted to come and do art with her,” she said. “I came here with my son and I loved it. And I wanted to be here with her.”

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While the students sketch and draw, Selvaggio dims the lights so the focal light is on the still life arrangement. There is a cow’s skull, a couple of pots and vases and branches. Students focused on one or two objects in their drawings.

Selvaggio stops the class near the end to demonstrate techniques for how to draw the branches. The rolling-stop motion of the pencil creates breaks in the drawn line that help “build” the branches in a realistic way. Around the class, the students and parents sit fascinated by her demo.

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Isabel Lawrence and her mom, Dana, take their art very seriously. Both said art was a favorite class for them. Working side-by-side, Dana Lawrence said her daughter is crazy about art and this opportunity was too much fun to pass up.

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Selvaggio walks around the room, offering tips and encouragement to students and parents. Nicholas calls her over to check on his progress.

“First, let me tell you mom how happy I am to have you in my class,” she said to Margarita Torres. “He’s a wonderful students and talented too!”

Drop. Cover. Hold On. The Great California Shake Out At Our Schools

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On Thursday morning, the loudspeaker at Katherine Elementary School airs a recorded message telling the staff and students that an earthquake drill has begun.

With the sounds of shaking and crashing in the background, the voice asks everyone to, “Drop, cover and hold on.”

Part of the Great California Shakeout, the earthquake drill was repeated at every campus in Simi Valley, and is one of several types of emergency drills staff and students routinely conduct during the school year.

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Drills are an essential part of campus safety. The more prepared and practiced the school community is during a simulated emergency, the better they will navigate a real crisis, which could include brush fires, earthquakes, criminal activity requiring a campus lock down and other scenarios.

Every Simi campus has an Emergency Operations Plan and every staff member undergoes regular training in the plan’s procedures. The complete plans are housed in the schools’ offices in binders, and each classroom has a flip chart for immediate emergency procedures.

“Every adult is on this campus for them and their safety,” said teacher Lynette LeBlanc as she looked at her Katherine Elementary third-graders during Thursday’s drill.

Besides regular drills, each school has a seatrain, a secure storage area where all emergency supplies are kept. These supplies are inventoried at least annually. Many elementary schools also prepare go-bags for their younger students, which will have drinks, snacks and comfort items. At some schools, parents are given the option to pay a small amount of money at the beginning of the year for the students’ go-bags. Others give parents the option of putting together a go-bag with a specific list of items. At some schools, the PTA supplements the cost of the go-bags when parents can’t afford them.

Even though the middle and high schools accommodate many more students, they also stock a two-to-three day supply of water and rations.

All emergencies are monitored and coordinated with the district office. The district’s senior staff collaborates with emergency service agencies (police, sheriff, fire) during emergencies, and maintain emergency communications systems. Regular training through FEMA and other agencies is required and the district holds drills, too.

One of the biggest concerns for parents during an emergency is getting to their children at a school site. It’s important to remember that a school’s staff will do everything possible to protect their students. Here are some tips for handling a crisis during school hours:

  • PLEASE REMAIN CALM! Every staff member at every campus regularly trains in emergency procedures for numerous scenarios. They will do everything possible to keep your child(ren) safe, and they are prepared and equipped to stay on the campus for several days if needed.
  • PLEASE DON’T CALL THE SCHOOL. The phone lines need to be kept open for emergency calls. In some types of emergencies, like earthquakes, phones lines are often “shut down” in order to ease emergency communications. The district’s website, simivalleyusd.org, will post emergency information on its home page for all of the schools. The local media will also be updated with status changes. The city of Simi Valley maintains an emergency radio station, 530 AM, where damage reports and updates are reported. Please also know that students will be asked to turn off their cells phones until the principal or lead administrator at the school sites advise otherwise. As soon as it is safe, students will be able to contact parents through text messages or calls.
  • PLEASE DON’T IMMEDIATELY DRIVE TO THE SCHOOL. The extra traffic can impede the ability of emergency vehicles to get to the school, and, in certain types of emergencies, can place you in danger. Please stay at home or at work until you are given instructions from the school.
  • REMEMBER THAT YOUR CHILD(REN) WILL ONLY BE RELEASED TO THE ADULTS YOU LISTED ON YOUR EMERGENCY CONTACT LIST! It’s important to update this information through Aeries each year. Whoever comes to the school to remove your child(ren) will be asked for identification and will have to sign the child out. Never take your child from the school without signing out with the staff member in charge! School staff are constantly counting heads to make sure they have all of their students with them.

As of this year, all students in Simi Valley schools are required to have their information updated through Aeries, the districtwide computer system for managing student information and grades. At the beginning of the school year, parents were asked to log on to Aeries to complete the permission forms and Acceptable Use Policy for tech devices, to update insurance and medical information, and to designate emergency contacts for each student.

The medical and emergency contact people are especially important to have updated each year in case there is a crisis event. Each school site has staff on-hand to help any parent or guardian who might have trouble using Aeries, or who doesn’t have access to the Internet. Having each student’s information in Aeries allows faster access to a student’s information during an emergency. It’s that important.

The district is currently revising its Parent Emergency Information pamphlet and will soon release it to school sites and post it on the district’s website and school websites.

The Game of the Season: Simi vs. Royal

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The City Championship pitting Simi Valley High School and Royal High School was held on Friday night at the Simi Valley High School Stadium.

This annual fun-filled grudge match culminated a week of campus spirit events at both schools. Royal hosted its “Beat Simi Week” with each day dedicated to a theme. Monday was “Beat Simi In Our Sleep,” AKA Pajama Day. Tuesday was “Royal’s At the Top of the Food Chain,” and students dressed as animals.

Simi’s equivalent was the “Simi Valley versus Royal Week,” and included “Simi Super Heroes Day” and “They Wish They Were Pioneers Day.”

Come Friday night, both schools were charged through with spirit. Simi’s stadium held masses of maroon and gold Pioneers almost completely filling the home side bleachers. Royal’s green and gold Highlanders came complete with green and gold tights and tons of grease paint. Signs lined the home side with good-natured insults aimed at the visiting Highlanders. The Highlanders came prepared with their own signs proclaiming “Royal Valley” and other jabs.

Oh, and there was a football game. A really good football game. While the score stayed close through most of the quarters, Simi seemed to have an edge on Royal, proven by the nail-bitten fourth quarter’s final turn-over, which led Simi to a 14-10 win, its first over Royal since 2011.

We’re posting a link here to an exceptionally made student video featuring highlights from the game. PLEASE NOTE that this was produced by Alex Martinez, a senior at Simi Valley High School, so it’s just a little one-sided. But, it’s so well done that we just had to show it off. If any Royal students know of a similar video produced from their perspective, email Jake Finch at jake.finch@simivalleyusd.org and we’ll share the love.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=RhApjrYfeMU&app=desktop

And we’d like to say a special “thank you” to all of our sponsors for the game, and especially to Simi Valley Hospital, which now offers free concussion screenings for all of our players.

 

We Need to Know: What Do YOU Want in a New Superintendent?

Multi-ethinic arms outstretched to ask questions.

With the retirement of longtime superintendent, Dr. Kathryn Scroggin, the Simi Valley Unified School District is searching for a new superintendent. At a special board meeting last Tuesday, the SVUSD Board of Trustees instructed a survey to be developed and sent out to all possible stakeholders in the district. The purpose of this survey is to help identify the most pressing issues facing our district, along with what YOU feel are the most important traits and needs to consider in a new district superintendent.

The link below will take you to the survey. Please take a few minutes to answer the survey and make your voice heard. The submissions are anonymous; we will not know who sent them. The information given will be compiled and presented to the Board of Trustees to help them with the search.

SUPERINTENDENT NEEDS SURVEY

If you don’t want to miss any news published here about Simi Valley schools, please sign up for email notifications in the upper right hand area of this page. We usually post District news one to three times a week. Any questions or article ideas? Contact Jake Finch at jake.finch@simivalleyusd.org. Also follow us by “liking” our Facebook page, or on Twitter. 

Hillside Middle School: New Programs Come Together in Harmony

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School’s been in session more than a month, and students at Hillside Middle School are settled into classes. But things aren’t looking, or feeling, exactly the same as they did last year around the campus.

Music, always a prominent part of Hillside’s culture, has expanded to include the sounds of piano keys and string instruments. PE uniforms now include leotards as dance has been instituted at the school. The technology courses have grown to offer web design, programming and digital photography. Drama class brings with it the promise of a refurbished stage for future performances.

And then there are the students, more of them, drawn to the new programs and promise of preferred enrollment at Santa Susana High School, Simi’s well-known arts and technology magnet school. Altogether, the school’s enrollment has increased to 805 students this year. That’s 108 students more than last year, 20 of whom transferred into the district from other districts and others who have returned to Simi Valley Unified from private schools and home-schools.

It’s not just the classes that are new to Hillside. Principal Jerry Block left the ocean breezes of Malibu High School to usher in Hillside’s STEAM program. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art and math and helps define the school’s expanded focus.

It was the lure of the new programs that tempted Block to Simi Valley, he said.

“I’ve always believed in authentic hands-on education for kids,” he said. “I think kids learn best when they are passionate about their classes and can apply what they know. I knew Simi was looking at doing some innovative things, and this is closer to home for me.”

The programs at Hillside were inspired by the successful programs found at Santa Susana High School. With this partnership in place, students at Hillside will have preferred enrollment at Santa Susana High School. Staff at both campuses collaborate to ensure that the middle schoolers are well-prepared for the unique offerings at the high school.

Dr. Jason Peplinski, assistant superintendent of educational services, said that similar partnerships are being developed between Valley View Middle School/Simi Valley High School and Sinaloa Middle School/Royal High School in the near future.

“There are already developing partnerships with the STEM initiative between Valley View and Simi Valley High,” he said. Simi Valley High School has the Medical Health Careers Academy along with other specialized courses in health, science and technology.

At Royal High School, the Jr. ROTC, Ronald Reagan Citizen Scholar Institute and the newly formed International Baccalaureate programs all have the potential to form a middle school partnership with Sinaloa Middle School.

Hillside’s program changes answered the greater demand from parents for middle school opportunities, and Block said that this year’s changes are just the start. Other opportunities being developed include three-day science camps, a robotics club and expanded science courses. He said all of this has generated a lot of enthusiasm among students and staff.

“Staff keeps coming up with great ideas,” Block said. “They’re very anxious to see the programs grow.”

 

 

SVUSD Seeks New Bond Oversight Committee Members

Crestview Elementary School's Computer Lab was the one of the first elementary computers labs upgraded and completed through Measure C4 bond funds. Since last year, every school's computers and labs have been upgraded, thanks to Measure C4. This is just one small example of the bond's success in our schools.
Crestview Elementary School’s Computer Lab was the one of the first elementary computers labs upgraded and completed through Measure C4 bond funds. Since last year, every school’s computers and labs have been upgraded, thanks to Measure C4. This is just one small example of the bond’s success in our schools.

The Simi Valley Unified School District is seeking new members for the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, which oversees the District’s bond expenditures.

In 2004, the community passed the $145-milllion Measure C4 general obligation bond to repair and upgrade facilities and technology needs throughout the District. Since its passage, the District’s facilities have undergone dramatic and needed repairs and renovations affecting every school site in the District. Technology upgrades have also been implemented district-wide. While most of the bond work has been completed, there remain some projects that have yet to be started, or completed.

Under California law, an oversight committee must be in place to monitor the expenditures, provide accountability and report to the community on the progress of bond projects.

The ICOC is required to include in its members people active in a business organization, senior citizen organization and taxpayer organization. It must also include parents of Simi Valley students, one of who is active in a school site council or the PTA/PTSA. Other people not meeting these criteria may also be on the ICOC.

New appointees will replace those members whose terms have expired. Each member serves at least a two-term and can serve for a maximum of two consecutive terms.

The new courtyard (shown under construction over the summer) on the Sinaloa Middle School campus enables better access for Special Education students using the surrounding classrooms. This is another example of a Measure C4-funded project that has improved our schools.
The new courtyard (shown under construction over the summer) on the Sinaloa Middle School campus enables better access for Special Education students using the surrounding classrooms. This is another example of a Measure C4-funded project that has improved our schools.

Membership applications are available online at www.simivalleyusd.org or through the link HERE. The deadline for applications is Nov. 1. Phone calls can be directed to Anthony Joseph, Bond Manager, at (805) 306-4500, extension 4461.

Life’s A Carnival for Simi’s Special Ed Students

Matthew Slaby, 6, enjoying one of the rides at the Simi Valley Days Carnival Special Children's Day.
Matthew Slaby, 6, enjoying one of the rides at the Simi Valley Days Carnival Special Children’s Day on Thursday.

Matthew Slaby couldn’t decide between the blue cotton candy or the pink cotton candy.

So he ended up with both, and a sugar rainbow around his mouth.

The wheelchair-bound first-grader from Santa Susana Elementary School was one of about 400 students from the Simi Valley Unified School District to attend Special Children’s Day at the Simi Valley Days carnival.

Held Thursday morning on the parking lot at the Simi Valley Mall, the carnival opened for several hours only for the special education students of all levels. Hundreds of volunteers came together to support this event, said Shari Schultz. Schultz, a member of the Simi Valley Days committee, has organized this event for many years. Each year the number of children participating grows.

“It’s kind of wonderful,” she said.

Diana Mata, (left) and Aracely Sosa, both 12 and 6th-graders at Santa Susana Elementary School enjoying their carnival day.
Diana Mata, (left) and Aracely Sosa, both 12 and 6th-graders at Santa Susana Elementary School enjoying their carnival day.

Every part of this event was a gift to the students. No student paid for anything–rides, food or transportation. Entertainers and ride operators offered their fun for free. Food was donated. Transportation–school buses and modified buses to accommodate wheelchairs–was paid for by a single donor. Bank of America sent about 350 volunteers to help teachers and program aides with the children. The Dylan Gregory Hatch Foundation also brought volunteers to help.l

Balloon artist enters the Artist was tired but smiling by the end of the event in the early afternoon.

“It’s the least I can do for these kids and teachers and parents,” she said.

Lorena Soto (left) and her niece, Katrina Martinez, 9, enjoying the last few minutes of the Special Children's Day at the Simi Valley Days Carnival.
Lorena Soto (left) and her niece, Katrina Martinez, 9, enjoying the last few minutes of the Special Children’s Day at the Simi Valley Days Carnival.

Many of the families of these children would not be able to afford a day at the carnival with their kids, said Santa Susana Elementary School teacher Nancy Lachman.

“It’s the economics in the home. These families have lots of struggles,” she said.

Lorena Soto brought her niece, Katrina Martinez to the carnival with Katrina’s fifth-grade class. She said that they would not have been able to spend the money to bring her niece to the carnival otherwise.

It’s not just about the money. Many of the children need extra time to get onto rides, especially those who use wheelchairs or with visual impairments. Because the carnival time during this event is dedicated only to the special education children, the ride operators and aides are able to take more time to work with the children to settle them into the rides. Special accommodations can be made for those needing it where this would not be possible when the carnival is overflowing with crowds.

For Dylan Lira, 10, the cotton candy was fun, but his favorite part of the day, he said, was, “hanging out with the B of A people.”

The Simi Valley Days Carnival opened Thursday afternoon to the general public and will run through Sunday. Tomorrow morning (Saturday) the Simi Valley Days Parade will be held. For more information, go to simivalleydays.org.

If you don’t want to miss any news published here about Simi Valley schools, please sign up for email notifications in the upper right hand area of this page. We usually post District news one to three times a week. Any questions or article ideas? Contact Jake Finch at jake.finch@simivalleyusd.org. Also follow us by “liking” our Facebook page, or on Twitter. 

Saying goodbye at the end of a fun day. The Special Children's Day at the Simi Valley Days Carnival is an annual event that's free to the special education students in the Simi Valley Unified School District.
Saying goodbye at the end of a fun day. The Special Children’s Day at the Simi Valley Days Carnival is an annual event that’s free to the special education students in the Simi Valley Unified School District.