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Our Schools in Crisis

Unified is a strange word to describe the city of San Diego’s Unified School District—160 schools, ranging from shabby to state of the art. And all of them—or almost all—have some of the least-desirable academic records in the country. In a recent test by the National Association of Educational Progress, California trailed the nation, tying with Louisiana for the lowest scores in reading and math. And San Diego, if we look at other national testing, is not far from the state average.

However, for better or worse, we do have variety. Within the same cluster of East San Diego neighborhood schools there’s homey John Adams Elementary, twice winner of the California Distinguished School Award—not a fancy school but a friendly, comfortable one that emphasizes parent involvement. Then there’s 50-year-old Wilson Middle School, with 75 percent of its students speaking a language other than English at home. They learn in the midst of peeling paint, cracked linoleum and broken furniture. A short distance away, there’s Hoover High with its college-campus look, its fully equipped science labs, its shining health clinic. In what way these schools are unified is hard to see—except that they’re controlled by the same five school board members and the same 500 administrators, many of whom occupy the vast district headquarters on Normal Street.

Consider 10-year-old Daniel Brady, an A student at John Adams, as he guides visitors around his school’s modest playgrounds, sprawling two-story buildings and new cottage annexes. Daniel is clearly proud of his school, especially the library. He takes books, one a week, from the nonfiction section because, he says, he likes to read things “that are true.” The visitors comment on the good behavior of the children. “They like the teachers, and they want to hear what the teachers say,” Daniel explains, “so they can learn and do well that year and be a good kid.”

The tour passes a first-grade class returning to the classroom. Daniel’s little sister, black braids dancing on her head, is excited to see her brother leading visitors through the school. She wiggles out of line, lingers in the doorway.

Daniel is not eager to transfer into sixth grade at Wilson next year. Dubbed Wilson Academy of International Studies—but fancy in name only—it has crowded rooms with bad lighting and sagging floors. In Daniel’s current classroom there are six computers; the children take turns. He’s heard there’s only one computer per room at Wilson.

Mary Louise Martin, the new and dynamic young principal of Wilson, has been given the challenge of bringing this troubled old facility up to standards. “This school would not be allowed to exist in La Jolla,” she says. “These kids are poor—98 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. They represent 32 languages—Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong, Spanish. We keep $300 in clothes in a back room for kids to borrow whose uniforms aren’t clean or ready that day. Or who can’t afford them.”

Martin bemoans the lack of instructional materials, of money for capital improvements. “I don’t want to take money that should be used for computers and books to paint the school. I shouldn’t be asked to do that.”

And nearby, under construction, there’s the Monroe Clark School, scheduled to open next fall—with all the bells and whistles of modern technology.

With such inequities, how can the crisis in our “unified” schools be tackled on a united front, much less solved? The San Diego Chamber of Commerce, frustrated by years of roundtable discussions that Mel Katz says have led nowhere, wants to start at the top.

“We need a strong board of education willing to make changes,” declares Katz, a former chamber president. The chamber is particularly troubled by the low scores San Diego students have been making on national tests, with fifth- and seventh-graders below the 50th percentile and high-school seniors trailing as well.

“Our children are graduating from San Diego Unified high schools unable to read or write,” Katz charges. “The business community and the community in general have been too silent too long about what’s going on in education. We’re not going to be silent anymore.”

Part of the problem is clearly financial, a residual effect of Proposition 13, the widely backed proposition that almost 20 years ago reduced property taxes—a traditional source of school funding. Among the states, California is now 42nd in spending per student and 40th in percentage of high-school pupils who graduate. Katz, who runs the job-placement firm Manpower, encounters entry-level job seekers who can’t even fill out an application.

Meanwhile, state universities are mandated to accept any high-school graduate with a 2.0 average who has met subject requirements and qualifies on Scholastic Aptitude Tests or American College Test scores. The universities find that 70 percent of these college freshmen need remedial training in language and math. The community college system bears the brunt of providing these corrective classes for the state universities, a situation not much appreciated by community college personnel.

“One would think students coming out of high school would have the skills for college-level work,” says Augie Gallego, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District. “Our mission is to teach occupational and technical skills. And we have a large population of returning heads-of-households with a valid need for brush-up.” He doesn’t need a flood of university freshmen requiring remedial work. “We’ve allowed this problem to fester, and now we have a crisis. Everybody wants to do something right away.”

What the Chamber of Commerce is doing is raising $100,000 to back three of its chosen candidates for the school board elections this month: Ed Lopez, Frances O’Neill Zimmerman and Ron Ottinger. “We interviewed the candidates, looked into their records and picked the ones whose philosophy most closely matched our platform,” says Katz. The platform, or manifesto, as spelled out by the Chamber of Commerce, specifies, in essence:

 Absolute zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol, weapons and harassment.

 Clearly defined standards and understandable measurements of results. Has the student progressed at least one grade level in each subject area this year?

 Evaluate teachers, principals and senior administrators yearly. Demote principals and senior administrators who do not achieve.

 Shift significant budget decisions to the school sites.

 Every child, to be promoted, must demonstrate grade-level competence.

 Train principals and vice principals to do their jobs.

Katz points out that in the past 12 years, not one principal in the district has been fired. And only one has been demoted. “There are something like 160 principals,” he notes. “Tell me one company in the business world that operates like that.”

Reformers charge that, at present, weak principals are simply moved to other schools, “to where the less-picky parents are—meaning families who move a lot, non-homeowners,” says former school board member Kay Davis, executive director of San Diego’s Business Roundtable for Education. “They wouldn’t dare move them to the stable communities. They’d be eaten alive.”

Teachers are equally protected. In a recent report by George Flanagan, former executive director of human resource services for the district, out of approximately 7,000 teachers, only about 25 were rated unsatisfactory or needing improvement. “Statistically, that’s impossible!” exclaims Davis.

The reform movement demands two things: accountability and evaluation. “The district’s process for evaluating everything from student achievement to employee performance is unclear, insufficient or nonexistent,” the Business Roundtable charges.

“[Reform] is in our selfish interest,” admits Davis. “We’re up front about that. The reputation of a city rides on the back of its urban schools. A 2.0 is a C average. If you shut up and attend and don’t cause trouble, you can get a C. But most employers won’t be happy with that. With such a low minimum, kids can’t function in the world of work.”

This year, ninth-graders are being notified they won’t graduate unless, within four years, they bring their core grades up to 2.0. Seniors have only one year, as the rule takes effect in 1997. (The 2.0 standard is up from 1.5—a figure that now begins to look ridiculous.)

Davis criticizes what she calls “grade inflation.” “A B in English—that’s a 3.0—means nothing if you’re not reading full books. Are they just filling in blanks, doing true-false? If they can’t spell, can’t read, they have no way of competing. We need more academic rigor. We’ve loved the kids a little too much.”

MANY OF THE Chamber’s CRITERIA are much like the goals of dedicated principals and teachers the district over. But they face formidable obstacles: large classes, lack of money (in Sacramento, universities do better than K-12 when state funds are parceled out), language barriers. To say nothing of the disintegration of family involvement in schools that have lost their neighborhood focus through busing. All these problems exist on a citywide level. But a proactive principal can make a difference.

Take Jay Tarvin, who recently retired from La Jolla High School. Twelve years ago he began to question the state-mandated methods of instruction that were not working well. He calls those methods “the Pony Express system of management—you get on one horse and ride it until it no longer runs. But you don’t get rid of it. It just stays and eats. We have a whole number of programs that no one does anything about, that have become institutionalized.”

Tarvin would like to weed out the defunct programs and substitute more effective ones. Needless to say, he has not been a favorite at the district office. Davis comments in a recent San Diego Union-Tribune interview, “Tarvin drives everybody nuts” —school board, superintendent, teachers. “But that’s exactly what you need to have a high-performing school.”

Tarvin’s targets have been teacher unions, ethnic advocacy groups and school-based social welfare programs—all of which he feels divert attention from academics. He advocates accountability—clearly defined standards—in every direction. “Each teacher should have a written syllabus. The kids should know ahead of time the schedule, the homework, when assignments are due. Ninety percent of their frustration and anxiety would be gone if the students knew what behavior was acceptable and what was not.

“Adolescence is a time for testing boundaries,” Tarvin says. “If they push against walls of rubber, or walls that keep moving, or are told to do ‘whatever makes you feel good,’ we end up with directionless kids. Penalties should be written in and enforced. This would bring consistency at a time when kids’ lives are most inconsistent. They deserve better than a sliding scale of values. You can’t just say ‘It’s okay this time, but don’t do it again.’”

Not only does the modern principal have to be in touch with the students, he or she needs to be aware of the parent population and get moms and dads involved. He or she also needs to secure monies that might be available—grants, gifts-in-kind, contributions from community businesses. Rare is the individual with all those administrative and financial skills who is also a real human being, who knows each student, who can motivate the teachers, who can give his or her school a special identity.

“Principals succeeding today are putting themselves at high accountability,” observes Katz. “A motivated principal recruits great teachers. Bad teachers aren’t going to work for a person like that. There’s too much pressure.”

Ninety-two percent of La Jolla High School graduates go on to two- or four- year colleges. Yes, Tarvin ran a school in an affluent neighborhood—but 40 percent of the kids were ethnic minorities, 28 percent bused in from other neighborhoods. How did he achieve that remarkable record with such a heterogeneous student population?

“We were not immune to drugs, violence, graffiti. I took a 9-millimeter gun off a kid,” Tarvin says. “But we paid a whole lot of attention to small problems. And we dealt with kids as if they were emerging adults. A 15-year-old can choose to study. He can find a quiet place, even in a noisy home. A 9-year-old—yes, you might need to isolate him, to help him find a quiet place. But these kids choose to get on those buses at 5:30 in the morning. They believe that by just getting on that bus, they’re better. They believe their school is different. They sign four honor codes of behavior. At La Jolla High, this is a civilized society.”

At inner-city Hoover High School, a civilized society has been constructed too, but under entirely different circumstances. Located in an area of poverty, Hoover has 97 percent minority students. But it’s headed by an outstanding principal, Doris Alvarez, named California Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“We’re different from La Jolla,” she says. “This area is a dropping-off place for all new immigrants. They come, live with relatives and maybe get jobs later in other parts of the city. But we get them first. With limited English, they need to be brought up to the level of a native speaker.” Alvarez’ philosophy is to provide personalization as a key to succeeding academically.

One method is mixing the “block period”—two hours with a teacher qualified in two subjects—with traditional shorter periods. “In ninth and tenth grades, this means a student is with two teachers for four hours a day—teachers who get to know him or her—to integrate subjects, make them see the connections,” Alvarez explains. “And there’s evidence it’s working in terms of writing. They are using their minds.”

Her goal at the moment is to separate the student body into three career strands (School of Communication and Business Arts, School of Design and Engineering Technology, School of Health and Human Resources) and eventually make each strand self-contained.

At Hoover, social agencies take up residence on the spot. “Instead of sitting in their city offices, they’re here on campus,” says Alvarez. But they’re not paid out of education funds. In the same way, the new health clinic—with medical care provided by Children’s Hospital—is independently funded. “Social-service needs are critical for our students,” says Alvarez, “unlike in La Jolla, where the parents probably have medical insurance and take care of these needs themselves.”

SAT scores tell their own story. La Jolla High easily outpaced all other district high schools in 1995, achieving a mean score of 1040 (combined verbal and math) against other San Diego high schools, which ranged down to 656. San Diego seniors on the whole experienced a 7-point drop from the previous year on the verbal portion of the SAT and a 3-point decline on the math. This compares to a 5-point increase nationally on the verbal and a 3-point increase on the math.

Younger students are routinely tested in grades five and seven. The Abbreviated Stanford Achievement Test scores are similarly disheartening. Again, a La Jolla school —Muirlands—leads the list of seventh grades tested. Interestingly, the Community Home Education Program, with one-on-one training in the home, is a close second. Others score only half as well.

Yet there is some good news. The high-school dropout rate in San Diego decreased to 3.6 percent in 1994-95, down from 4.3 percent the previous year. And many claim test scores don’t tell the whole story but only indicate how well a student does during a 45-minute test. The results are affected by language fluency, “test savvy” and testing conditions; they don’t give an overall picture of student achievement and success, some argue.

In addition to giving grades, many San Diego schools use the portfolio system, with a student depositing in a portfolio his best and worst work during any given period. In this way, progress can be noted—and parents who might be puzzled over the exact meaning of grades can actually see a portfolio of their child’s work.

“All students enter with the same potential to learn,” says Ed Lopez, the chamber-backed candidate for school board from District E, which he describes as a “solid working- and middle-class community, multilingual, with many African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Filipinos and whites. But early on, in about the third grade, gaps appear—and if exacerbated, continue through the 12th grade.” Money is needed, as well as new books and a meaningful use of computers—“not just doodle or play,” he adds. “If we challenge, they will respond.”

Among the city’s 132,000 students, 17 percent are African-American, 19 percent are Asian, 34 percent are Hispanic and 30 percent are white. At the moment, the minority record is dismal. Scores for San Diego African-American students at the seventh-grade level have fallen so far that only 26 percent test above the national median. For math, it’s not much better—30 percent.

Yet there is wealth in this city. And if the business reputation of a city rides on the back of its local schools, something is clearly amiss.

“It’s a rich state,” says Marc Knapp, president of the San Diego Teachers Association. ”But funding is always going to be an issue. Here we are, the home of Silicon Valley, and we have fewer [classroom] computers than any state in the union. If you walk into most elementary classrooms, the chairs, the desks, the paper, the textbooks are purchased by the district. Everything else belongs to the teacher.”

Knapp, who taught sixth grade, and his wife, who teaches first grade, figured that in one year they spent $8,000 of their own money on extras for use in the classroom. “I don’t begrudge it, especially when you see the kids’ appreciation,” he says.

When Knapp taught, he had children in his class who spoke eight different languages (even Afghan) and followed four major religions. “The good news was diversity. The bad news: It made teaching more difficult. I’d put teachers today up against any of 25 years ago. They’re much better, but they’re just dealing with more things.

“Those teachers,” asserts Knapp, “they’re pretty brave to be out there. Teachers are pretty darn tough. And when they’re not appreciated, not respected, their morale does go down.” He feels the strike last February marked a turning point. “I think we’ve hit the low. People are now making a conscious decision to work cooperatively on what’s good for the kids.”

A “shelter” (limited-English) chemistry class at Hoover High School has 44 students. Says Ossie Batista, its energetic teacher, as he divides them into groups to study the components of water: “I like ’em all. But not all together! In two classes? Beautiful!”

But they won’t be separated into two classes—at least not in the foreseeable future.

Candidate Frances Zimmerman of District A, a Harvard graduate, came here from the Midwest and was shocked by the size of the classes. “Teachers are geniuses who manage under those circumstances,” she says. She’s encouraged by the state edict to reduce grades one through three to 20 students per teacher, although only grades one and two are on the books for this year.

“People think the smaller classes are completely funded by the state,” observes Knapp. “But they’re underfunded. If we get $650 for every student, it costs $725 [per student] to hire new teachers and build portable classrooms. San Diego Unified is going into its own pocket for $8 million a year.”

Currently, the district is building 70 portable, modular classrooms—at $80,000 a unit—to be ready in February. Meanwhile, classes meet in lounges, on auditorium stages, in closets—wherever they can find room to sit.

But reduction of class size is worth it, all agree. At least it’s a first step. Ron Ottinger, a current board member up for reelection in District D, recalls that six years ago, then-Superintendent Tom Payzant tried to initiate similar reforms. They’ve been a long time coming.

“It’s been partly a board issue, partly a leadership issue, partly gaining union cooperation—and finally, getting the public behind the movement,” Ottinger says. He hopes electing a majority on the board who share the same goals will give reform more clout.

Have the ongoing problems been Superintendent Bertha Pendleton’s fault? Comments Katz, “Bertha is a classy lady. And if she’d had a solid majority [on the school board], you would have seen Bertha doing these same things.”

“What’s been missing is a real focus on outcomes,” says Knapp.

Katz summarizes: “It’s academics. It’s basics. It’s standards. It’s measurements. And not just words."

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