Dollars Don't Mean Success in Calif. District

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Sausalito, Calif.

The Bayside/Martin Luther King Elementary School would seem to have it all.

It's in California's fourth-highest-spending elementary school district and sits on a 13-acre wooded site in picturesque Sausalito. Its computer lab hums with new equipment. The library resembles a two-story chalet.

What's more, in the 1995-96 school year, the tiny, 260-student Sausalito district that includes the school spent $12,100 per student, compared with $4,977 per pupil statewide. And its pupil-teacher ratio was 12-to-1, compared with 29-to-1 across California.

But those numbers don't add up to an academic paradise. district could be doing a lot more with its abundant resources to educate its students, as well as attract the hundreds of local children now opting for private schools.

"The parents of this community want two things: rigorous curriculum and a safe environment," Shirley A. Thornton told a recent visitor. A former deputy state superintendent for specialized programs, Ms. Thornton has been discussed as a potential replacement superintendent.

"If it can't be done here, it can't be done," she added.

The Sausalito system has been plagued by low academic achievement, discipline problems, and an almost-annual turnover in leadership: Bayside has had five principals in six years.

White parents from artsy and upscale Sausalito have all but given up on sending their children to either of the district's two elementary schools. And the ratio between black and white students, which was evenly split six years ago, shifted to 76 percent black--84 percent for all minorities--last year.

Despite some signs of positive change this fall, the district's board and superintendent continue to be targeted by a recall effort in which Ms. Thornton is a leader. Early next year, district officials hope to unveil a new plan for improving the schools.

Conflicting Forces

The Sausalito School District serves the disparate neighboring towns of Sausalito and Marin City. Both communities grew along with the World War II shipbuilding industry once located on San Francisco Bay.

Today, Sausalito's well-to-do, mostly white, and liberal-minded 7,240 residents live along a hill overlooking the bay.

The average family income is $107,000, and the median price of a house is $500,000. Most of the district's funds come from local property taxes.

Marin City sits on the north side of Highway 101, which divides the towns. The majority of Marin City's 3,000 residents are African American. One-third of the residents live in low-income housing on a hill that also looks over the bay. The average income there is about $7,500, and unemployment hovers around 30 percent. A sprawling new housing development and retail mall are bringing new middle-income residents to the community, however.

But the highway is not all that divides these two communities.

Only about 40 students from Sausalito attend the public schools. At least 200 Sausalito children are thought to be enrolled in private schools. Most Sausalito public school students are from Marin City.

"You have to realize that these [Sausalito] families have been going to private schools for a long time and don't want to go to public schools," said Gracie Grove, a Sausalito school board member since 1981.

White flight became more obvious after three nearby military bases closed in the early 1990s, forcing the departure of many white families from the school district.

But not everyone here agrees that the exit of white students, as well as an increasing number of departing black students, is irreversible.

"If this school pushed higher academics, people would knock down the door to get here," said Jeanne Gibbs, a newly appointed school board trustee and a leader of the recall effort, called Project Homecoming. Despite calling for their ouster, Ms. Gibbs was picked in November by the district's three incumbent board members to fill one of two vacancies created by recent board resignations. "You wouldn't see them running away."

Barry A. Kaufman, the dean of the school of education at Dominican College in nearby San Rafael, said that minority students who go through Sausalito schools are not adequately challenged. "It's treated like a plantation system," he said. "There's no effort to create a high-achieving instructional environment."

Academic Woes

Sausalito's K-8 students, who attend the Bayside/Martin Luther King School and the smaller, 60-student North Bay School, post scores on standardized tests below their counterparts in surrounding Marin County. And those scores are reflected in the achievement of Sausalito students when they advance to nearby Tamalpais High School.

A breakdown of this fall's freshman grades showed that 72 percent of Sausalito district graduates earned a grade point average below 2.0, vs. 18 percent for all of the school's 255 freshman. None of the former Sausalito students earned a GPA above 3.0 this fall.

"They're coming to our school without the same academic preparation as other children," said Frank Gold, the principal of Tamalpais High.

Sausalito school officials defend the district's performance, pointing out that most of their students come from poor, single-parent families, and are at risk of academic failure. Forty-four percent of the district's students receive special education services.

"We know that in districts with socioeconomic levels that we have, we score the same or higher," Sausalito Superintendent William J. Redman said.

But the problems go deeper than student backgrounds, according to two school-board-commissioned audits conducted this fall. A four-member audit team concluded that the Sausalito district and the communities it serves were "in a state of crisis" over basic educational issues. They found that the district failed to address its changing demographics, and that efforts to raise student achievement were not focused.

"Articulation and coordination of curriculum are weak in the district," the report said. "Staff development policy was effectively designed, but implementation has been inconsistent."

In addition, teachers were distracted and demoralized by student disruptions--there were 166 behavior-related suspensions in the 1996-97 school year--and did not get clear directions for instruction from the district, the team added.

Mr. Redman said that the auditors did their job by finding the shortcomings in the system.

The district hopes to release a plan of action by January.

Hope Ahead?

In spite of the critical audits and general turmoil surrounding Sausalito's schools, they still have their supporters.

Andrea Leslie lives with her husband and two children in a 37-foot sailboat along Sausalito's waterfront. The co-director of the Bayside PTA, Ms. Leslie said that her son, Scott, is getting a good education. "At first I was worried because other parents said, 'Don't send your kids to that school,' " she recalled. "The joke is that the real public school is Saint Hilary's [Catholic] School."

She gives Bayside teachers high marks for caring and working individually with students. But she admits that staff turnover and discipline problems created chaos last year.

And the recall drive took a toll. "I could just feel the parents pulling away," she said. Recall organizers have until next month to collect enough signatures to force a recall election of the three board members whom they are targeting.

But things are improving this year, Ms. Leslie said late last month, thanks to first-year Principal Philip Shepard.

"The morale was terrible here, absolutely terrible," said Mr. Shepard, who is a New York native. "I had a staff ready for change."

Since his arrival this fall, he has pretested students in core subjects, required teachers to give him weekly lesson plans, surveyed parents, and drafted a new, academically focused mission statement for the school.

"I think expectations of students are getting higher this year," said Juanita Gaskins, Bayside's principal from 1972 to 1992 and a volunteer at the school. "I think you'll see a big difference in the district."

But even Mr. Shepard realizes that he has a long way to go.

Fewer than 10 parents attended fall PTA meetings. And during a recent school tour, Mr. Shepherd left classrooms generally pleased, but not without commenting on boring walls, teacher-centered discussions, and a lack of positive reinforcement of students.

"There had been a lot of squabbling here about the background of students," he added. "Baloney. In the real world, you have to think about production. ... These kids need to be challenged."

That is exactly right, added Stephanie Williams, who is a Marin City mother of four school-age boys. Only she is not sure that Sausalito is the school system to get the job done.

Ms. Williams said that she was blessed when a local philanthropist offered to pay her 7th-grade son's private school tuition last year so that he could leave Bayside School. "I was afraid he wasn't getting the education he needed to be prepared for high school," she said.

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