California District Makes Choice Initiative Centerpiece of Plan To Reinvigorate Schools

December 13, 1989 9 min read

By William Snider

Richmond, Calif.--As superintendent of schools in Montclair, N.J., in the 1970’s, and later in Raleigh, N.C., Walter Marks became a fan of magnet schools as a means of encouraging parents to voluntarily enroll their children in desegregated schools.

Long before the current debate on parental choice, Mr. Marks wondered whether the magnet-school concept could be used as the centerpiece of a districtwide reform program.

“I saw what happened with those magnet schools,” he said recently, “and I always felt that, if every school could be a magnet school, it would really do something for education. I always wanted to do choice for educational reasons.”

Board members here, recognizing that their district was falling further behind amid a statewide push for better schools, were receptive to new ideas.

So they lured Mr. Marks from what he called a “comfortable” life as superintendent of a much smaller district in Texas to this mid-size industrial town by offering him his dream: a chance to reinvigorate a troubled urban district through parental choice.

The result has been one of the nation’s most unusual and wide-ranging urban school-reform initiatives, according to U.S. Education Department officials and others familiar with the plan.

Advocates of parental choice often cite the district as a prime model of the concept, and last month, it served as host for the federal agency’s fifth and final regional strategy meeting on the topic.

Indeed, Mr. Marks is on the verge of realizing his dream only two and a half years after his arrival--all but 2 of the district’s 47 schools are open to all students in the district.

But the rapid changes have also drawn fire from some parents and teachers, particularly union leaders, who are critical of the “top down” implementation strategy.

“You have to be impressed by what [Mr. Marks] has done,” said Ernie Ciarrocchi, executive director of United Teachers of Richmond, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “It’s how he’s done it that’s a problem.”

‘In the Doldrums’

In 1987, when Mr. Marks was hired, the Richmond Unified School District was “in the doldrums, way below expectation levels in performance,” said Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction.

“The district was ready; it knew it had to do something,” he said.

The state chief said the district’s average scores on statewide achievement tests “have come up smartly in the last couple years.”

“They’re moving in the right direction,” Mr. Honig said, “but they’re still below state averages.”

Noting that 40 to 50 other districts in the state have also achieved similar substantial gains, Mr. Honig said he was not prepared to endorse Richmond’s reform plan.

“I think it’s a good experiment,” he said. “I could argue about the specifics, whether they’re just trendy, but it’s really too early to tell yet.”

Richmond, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, is best known as the site of a major oil refinery owned and operated by Chevron. The city itself faces many of the urban problems that also plague other Bay Area cities, but the school district also serves several nearby middle-class communities.

The result is a broad mix of students. Of the 30,000 students enrolled last year, 37 percent were black; 33 percent, white; 13 percent, Hispanic; 11 percent, Asian and Pacific American; and 5 percent, Filipinos, Alaska Natives, and Native Americans.

Although the district’s entire reform effort is labeled “A System for Choice,” Mr. Marks is quick to point out that “we’re not just talking about choice, we’re talking about revamping the whole thing.”

“It’s not just telling parents, ‘You go pick a school,”’ he added. “That is not going to help us in education.”

The choice process has been laid on top of a restructured system that included a redesign of the curriculum and a concerted staff-development effort, school officials said.

The district has also attempted to reduce its dropout rate by creating several programs targeted to the specific needs of at-risk students, and high suspension rates were ad4dressed through the use of in-school suspension programs.

The use of computers and other advanced-technology tools is also an important part of the district’s efforts, said Mr. Marks, who believes “the ultimate choice plan” would include a telephone modem linking every home in the district to a wide array of educational programming.

A Philosophical Difference

Richmond’s choice initiative differs from other choice plans in that it is designed to give parents a choice based on differing educational philosophies, rather than simply on the perceived quality of schools.

At the elementary level, for example, the district’s schools now offer a choice of four major philosophies, including:

Gifted and Talented, in which all students take 200 minutes of core classes each day from a single teacher, and also take three electives from different teachers.

Unlike traditional gifted-and-talented programs, the 11 gifted-and-talented elementary schools in Richmond do not screen students for ability; instead, they attempt to develop the gifts and talents of each student.

Futures Studies, in which students supplement the core curriculum with an overall theme related to the future, such as the environment or societal trends.

The schools include a “futures center,” with an array of technology and media, and a foreign-language component, and they employ a variety of teaching methods, including the inquiry, problem-solving, and cooperative-learning approaches.

Classical Studies, in which students are exposed to a liberal-arts education based on the educational philosophy embodied in Mortimer J. Adler’s The Paideia Proposal.

Classical Studies students learn through the traditional lecture approach, as well as through coaching and seminars, and spend time each day focusing on ethical and interpersonal behavior.

International, in which students focus on the technological, cultural, and communications systems that define and influence world societies.

Designed to provide a diverse student body with an appreciation of other peoples and cultures, the International schools make wide use of cul8tural exchanges and schoolwide and interschool projects and activities.

Parents of elementary-age children may also choose three other types of schools--Montessori, whole language, and university lab, which is operated in collaboration with local colleges and universities.

Thus far, only 4,100 of the district’s 31,000 students have transferred to other schools under the choice program, school officials said, and most of the transfers have occurred at the secondary level.

“Our model does not encourage tremendous movement at the elementary level,” the superintendent said. “Our aim is to make all the schools good schools.”

Lack of Input?

The most vocal opponents of the district’s choice initiative are teachers’ union leaders, who say the top-down implementation of the plan has hurt staff morale at some schools.

“Teachers would have felt a lot better” if they had been consulted about such decisions as the type and location of new programs, said Mr. Ciarrocchi of the teachers’ union.

But, Mr. Marks insisted, such decisions were properly made by the board because the district needed to ensure that the different programs were accessible to all students and would work together to promote racial balance in the schools.

“This empowerment stuff is a bunch of crap,” he said. “What we’ve done is, we’ve empowered people that are not the practitioners in the business. The only people who don’t have any power left are the administrators.”

“You would not ask a hospital administrator to perform open-heart surgery,” he added, “and you would not ask a doctor to balance a hospital’s budget.”

The four models adopted by the district are “my babies,” he said, chosen because “they really do restructure education the most. They change the organization of the school day, and change the curriculum totally.”

If teachers were choosing the programs to implement in their own school, he said, “they would all choose classical studies, because it is the most traditional. Well, we already know that traditional programs haven’t worked.”

Central to the new models, Mr. Marks said, is his belief that “self-contained classrooms don’t work.”

“That sacred cow has got to go,” he added.

“What happens when you have to associate 180 days a year with somebody you don’t like, and they don’t like you?” he asked. “What this model says is, ‘Let’s begin to match the personalities of kids with the personalities of teachers,’ and maybe they’ll find one or two that they like.”

Many teachers have complained that the proliferation of electives at the elementary level has seriously undercut the amount of time available to teach core subjects.

As a result, the district and the teachers’ union agreed in a new contract this fall to reduce the maximum number of electives for elementary students from three to two.

Mr. Ciarrocchi said the program is working best in schools where the principals are responsive to teachers’ concerns, but that, in some schools, teachers believe the changes have harmed existing successful programs.

“If teachers and parents had been allowed greater participation in the process,” he said, “I’m sure they would have created a noble system for choice, and they would have felt a lot better about it.”

“It might have taken another year or so,” he conceded, “but the delay would not have caused irreparable harm.”

Further, one local naacp leader, Matthew M. Barnes, said, “The system for choice does not provide some key ingredients to make it work for the minority community.”

For instance, he said, the district does not provide free transportation for elementary students, limiting the number of choices for those unable to provide their own transportation.

Mr. Marks said the district has tried to address such concerns by ensuring that each of the four major models are available within walking distance of each city neighborhood.

New money from government and business grants has helped make the district’s choice plan possible.

During the current year, for example, district officials have brought in roughly $10 million in new funding for the district, with the vast majority--almost $8 million--coming from a state program designed to promote voluntary desegregation efforts.

The grants have allowed the district to free up general revenues for a 16 percent increase in teachers’ salaries over two years, and have underwritten the capital improvements needed to implement the specialty programs.

A majority of the community seems satisfied with the early signs of progress seen under the new plan, and voted in November to return two incumbents to the school board.

They also, however, elected a former superintendent and current critic of the plan, Woodrow W. Snodgrass, to the board.

He said some of his concerns have already been addressed. “It’s too soon to tell” what, if any, changes will be needed, he said. “It may take three, four, or five years to tell what is working and what isn’t.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 1989 edition of Education Week as California District Makes Choice Initiative Centerpiece of Plan To Reinvigorate Schools