(page 1 of 5)Recess! Dee Lyon’s second-graders flew to the treeless inner-city school playground like birds landing on a prison exercise yard. One child held back. A tall African-American girl whose guarded eyes looked older than her years, Cielo* towered over her younger classmates, embarrassed by her age, ashamed of her secret. While the younger kids shook out their yah-yahs on the first day of school, Cielo approached her new teacher.
“Mrs. Lyon,” she whispered, shamefaced. “Did you know I did first grade two times?”
Lyon’s heart contracted. Cielo’s previous teachers had warned of the child’s frequent absences, family problems and poor concentration. After three years of schooling, the last spent in an “open classroom,” Cielo was still reading at a kindergarten level. But to Lyon, she seemed paradoxically mature and intelligent, streetwise and illiterate. Lyon looked into the girl’s deep brown eyes. “Cielo, we’re not going to worry. This year is going to be a good year.”
“But I’m not smart!” Cielo cried, eyes welling up. “I can’t read.”
It was September 2000, a tumultuous year in Superintendent Alan Bersin’s campaign to advance San Diego city schools to the vanguard of urban school reform in America. In 1998, Bersin and New York education maven Anthony Alvarado dynamited the cracked foundations of the school district and rushed to construct a new system based on reading, writing and mathematics. Their revolutionary and explosive reforms were later formalized in a plan called the Blueprint for Student Success. The Blueprint provoked a storm of protests, led by teachers’ union president Marc Knapp. Thousands of teachers, especially the veterans, resented being told they didn’t know what they were doing and being forced to participate in “re-education camps.”
Cielo’s classmates had started kindergarten in September 1998, the first year of Bersin’s administration. They were the first class to be taught to read and write according to strategies later outlined in the Blueprint. These “Blueprint babies” were now entering second grade.
This is the story of the reforms through the eyes of one student, Cielo; her second-grade teacher, Dee Lyon; and Angela Bass, principal of Encanto Elementary School. Encanto is a microcosm of the battle for school reform in San Diego city schools—itself a bellwether of the future of school reform in urban districts across America.