Rapid Growth, Racial Diversity Prompted Changes

March 08, 1989 5 min read

Thomas W. Payzant

San Diego--The venture into restructuring here began in the summer of 1986, when Superintendent of Schools Thomas W. Payzant appointed a “Schools of the Future Commission,” composed primarily of noneducators, to do some long-range planning for the district.

The task of the 17-member group was to develop a new mission for the San Diego schools, based on the area’s changing population and its future economic needs.

San Diego is located within one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. Its school system is expected to add another 45,000 students by the year 2000.

Already, the majority of those students are nonwhite: predominantly Hispanic, Indochinese, and black. Approximately one-third of Hispanic and Asian students are enrolled in bilingual-education programs. An estimated 26 percent of high-school students who enter the 9th grade drop out before graduation.

The commission concluded that the economic vitality of the city depended on the school system’s ability to serve all of its students well, not just those who were white and middle-class.

To do so, it argued, the district had to undertake a “fundamental restructuring” of the schools.

In particular, it proposed the creation of a pilot “Schools of the Future” program that would enable individual schools to experiment with innovative ideas for improving student learning.

The report was released in June 1987. Its general recommendations were approved by the school board that fall and developed in detail by the superintendent, who established an “Innovation and Change Leadership Group” to oversee the project.

Last fall, the school district and the San Diego Teachers Association reached agreement on a new collective-bargaining contract, in which they promised to work together to restructure the schools. And the Matsushita Foundation offered to contribute consulting and technical assistance to the effort.

Compared with other districts, where schools have gone through a formal application procedure in order to qualify for restructuring, the process here has been “much more ambiguous and scary,” says Mr. Payzant.

Following an initial series of workshops, the district held an intensive, four-day training session for interested schools. Two-thirds of a school’s faculty had to agree they wanted to participate in order to send a team to the meeting.

Representatives from 25 schools attended the workshop and other schools have since become involved in the restructuring initiative.

But to date, they have not had to go through any selection process or provide any written plans.

When and if schools need waivers from existing rules and policies, they must present a brief written proposal to the Innovation and Change Leadership Group, which recommends approval to the superintendent, school board, or teachers’ union.

Other than that, the primary8means of knowing what the schools are doing is through their interaction with the central office.

Although restructured schools are given a great deal of leeway, they must continue to meet a number of broad district guidelines.

For example, schools must support the district’s general goals and policies. And they must not violate the teachers’ contract or existing rules and regulations without a waiver.

In addition, schools must make any proposed changes within their existing budget; avoid activities that negatively affect other schools; provide shared decisionmaking at the school site; and engage in a detailed planning procedure.

Throughout that process, schools are expected to work closely with their area superintendents and with appropriate central-office staff members.

Surprisingly, schools have been able to take a number of innovative steps so far without needing waivers.

Linda Vista Elementary School, for instance, has completely redesigned its curriculum. In the morning, students are grouped by language proficiency, rather than age or grade level. During that time, every child receives social-studies instruction in his or her first language. They also receive intensive instruction in the basic skills.

In the afternoon, children in grades 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6 work within heterogeneous groups of mixed language ability, gender, and ethnic background.

This time period is devoted to special subjects, through which children rotate every three weeks, including science and music, physical education, and art.

Afternoon classes may have as many as 35 or 40 students and several teachers. In the morning, classes are small--a reduction the school achieved, in part, by hiring part-time teachers and placing bilingual-education and Chapter 1 teachers within the regular classroom.

To help determine whether waivers were needed for the program, the area superintendent, Eloiza Cisneros, convened an unusual meeting at the school that brought together some 30 central-office administrators from different divisions.

“They went back and forth over areas where they thought that waivers might be needed,” recalls Ronald L. Ottinger, a planning assistant in the division of planning, research, and evaluation. “For the first time, there were central-office people saying to each other: ‘Well, do you really need a waiver to do that?”’

The school’s principal, Adel Nadeau, suggests that leadership has been central to the success of Linda Vista’s experience. “From the beginning, teachers knew that my agenda was kids,” she says.

Woodrow Wilson Middle School is an unusual exception to San Diego’s restructuring process. The school was asked to participate in order to convert from a regular to a magnet school, and it was given additional funds to do so.

Next fall, it will open a magnet program, developed by teachers, that emphasizes international studies and cross-cultural understanding. In addition, the faculty has decided to divide the school into three smaller “houses,” so that students can develop more personal relationships with teachers. Students and their siblings will remain in the same house for three years.

Mission Bay High School also hopes to reorganize its teachers and students into houses to reduce anonymity. And teachers are considering the use of a modified block schedule that would enable some classes to meet for extended periods of time.

They are also trying to develop a plan to ease the transition to high school for 9th-grade students, since many drop out during that year.

“There has never been so much dialogue on the staff about positive changes,” says Barbara E. Thomas, principal of the school.--lo

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 1989 edition of Education Week as Rapid Growth, Racial Diversity Prompted Changes