San Diego Parent Leaders Make Preemptive Partnership

By Michele Molnar — March 07, 2013 5 min read
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Parent leaders in San Diego were taken aback when the San Diego Unified School District board named a new superintendent within 24 hours of current superintendent Bill Kowba’s announcement on Feb. 26 that he would retire this year.

Their issue was not who was chosen—Cindy Marten, a principal who has turned around struggling Central Elementary, seems to be a popular choice. Rather, they took issue with the fact that they had been shut out of the selection process.

After the abrupt news of the superintendent decision, Amy Redding, a parent volunteer who chairs the District Advisory Committee for Title I, acted quickly herself. She gathered San Diego’s leading parent forces and called a press conference on March 5 to announce a partnership between Marten, who will become the new superintendent on July 1, and parent stakeholders. “Since we are a board-recognized group, they [San Diego Unified personnel] were kind enough to set up the press conference,” explains Redding.

The purpose of the partnership is to advance “academic success and educational enrichment for the children of San Diego Unified,” according to Redding. It’s preemptive because Marten is still almost four months from taking office.

Marten agreed to meet with the parent leaders in July when she takes the helm to explore common goals.

Incoming Superintendent’s View

“The parents are the heart of the community. We do the work together,” Marten said in a phone interview today. “Parents are key. When Amy called this press conference, I was completely humbled. It took me 10 years to build trust and gain the investment in having a local quality school. It doesn’t have to take 10 years,” she said. “Amy put that network right at my fingertips, ready to press ‘Go.’ It’s tapping into a natural resource, and the natural resources are the ones that are more sustainable.”

Marten is uncomfortable with the frequent references to Central Elementary being defined as a “turnaround school.”
“That term has national implications for corporate America coming in and turning around a school. Outsiders. I don’t believe in the paradigm that ‘somebody outside is going to save you.’ I don’t think we even need to be saved. The district’s mission is a quality school in every neighborhood; I believe that what we need is right in our backyard.”

In that way, Marten uses “The Wizard of Oz” as a metaphor for how she views making an impact on schools. “The solution is local. It’s the parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, philanthropies, and agencies close to home. Whatever is in your own backyard. The most precious resource is children and the family, and what we’re doing inside of school,” she said.

“There’s no superhero in my efforts at Central, no big ego involved. Whatever I do here has to be sustainable, replicable and scalable. Every decision I’ve made, I ask, ' Is this going to be sustainable if the money comes or the money goes? Is it scalable?’ The work I’ve done at Central, I want to make it something anybody can do. We saved ourselves. We do that together as a family.”

The Parents’ View

In her remarks at the press conference, Redding said, “The first time I met Cindy Marten was at a Title I Tiger Team meeting about two years ago. At this meeting, she was introduced to me by another parent leader as the next superintendent of San Diego Unified, or at least she should be. Now, over the years, I have seen why this parent leader said that to me.”

Redding complimented Marten for “the passionate way she fights for the students at her school,” and the fact that she builds academic programs based on proven, data-driven techniques. “I have seen her gently build parent leadership and then allow it to develop without interference,” Redding said from a prepared statement at the press conference.

“We want to be part of your team. We want to be some of the people you turn to for advice,” Redding continued. “We want to offer you the parent perspective on the issues that affect the education of our children. ... We are looking forward to serving with you to advance the interests of the children.”

Katie Anderson, a parent who co-chairs the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) District Advisory Committee, said today in a phone interview that she was encouraged by the selection of Marten “because they chose someone who is a woman—that was refreshing—as well as someone who had turned a school around, and had to work with all the stakeholders to make that happen.”

“She’s very focused on not having any excuses. You work hard, and there are no excuses. I’m hoping she’ll bring that to the higher level of district-wide leadership,” said Anderson, admiring Marten’s work at the 850-student Central Elementary, where nearly 100 percent of the students are on free and reduced-price lunch, and 75 percent are English language learners.

For the GATE population, Anderson will be looking to Marten to hold principals accountable for the education of the students at this end of the ability spectrum. “The focus of the country is on closing the achievement gap. Oftentimes that excludes the learners at the top. They are left waffling and waiting for the rest of the group to catch up. It’s important to note that we have 25,000 gifted children; 60 percent are non-white and 25 percent are not proficient in English, math or both,” Anderson explained.

“For us, we need to have each individual site held accountable for serving the higher-ability students as well as the struggling students that are at, or below, basic. Right now, we don’t have principal buy-in. They are not evaluated on how they serve gifted students, so it’s not on the radar. We would like that to be part of the evaluation rubric,” Anderson said.

From parent leaders for special education, to parent representatives of cluster schools, from PTA to parents representing English-language learners, the San Diego parent group stands unified in letting the new superintendent know, “We’re watching,” said Anderson.

This post was updated March 8 to include comments from Cindy Marten, who has been selected to be the new superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, and currently is principal of Central Elementary School in that district.

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.