Peer-Coaching Plan Approved in San Diego

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San Diego Superintendent Alan D. Bersin and the local teachers' union reached agreement last week on a plan that will put trainers of teachers in most of the district's schools.

Alan D. Bersin

It was a solution to a problem that had bedeviled the district for months, solved just in time for the trainers to make it into the schools during the coming year. But the compromise almost certainly does not spell an end to the union's growing discontent with a schools chief who is bent on rapid reform.

For months, the question of who should pick the trainers was a bone of contention between the district and the San Diego Education Association, which represents the city's 8,000 teachers. Early this month, about 2,000 teachers rallied outside district headquarters, protesting a "top down" management style and urging the school board to favor the union's plan for selecting the trainers.

Anthony Alvarado

Under a proposal advanced by Mr. Bersin and Anthony Alvarado, the district's chief academic officer, teachers would have become eligible for the peer-coaching job only after passing a special course approved by the district. Union officials wanted selection more squarely in the hands of local school councils, which include faculty, staff members, and parents.

In the end, the district basically accepted the union's position after some safeguards of coach quality were added to the selection process.

The issue had become emblematic of the struggle between the union and the take-charge Mr. Bersin, who stepped down as the chief federal prosecutor in San Diego 10 months ago to take the top post in the 137,000-student district. ("San Diego's New Chief an Unlikely Pick," March 18, 1998.)

The selection of Mr. Bersin as one of the few noneducators to run a big-city district and his hiring of Mr. Alvarado, a nationally known former New York City administrator, have made San Diego one of the most closely watched districts in the country.

The two men have made the teacher coaches a pivotal part of a broad improvement plan that has also included creation of a three-hour "literacy block" for reading and writing in elementary schools and downsizing the central administration. That effort is expected to yield an annual savings of $8.5 million in an operating budget that next year will approach $900 million.

Mr. Alvarado, who headed New York City's Community School District 2 for 12 years before coming to San Diego last July and had earlier served as chancellor of the citywide system, brought with him a reputation for raising reading test scores among minority children.

He and others link the improvement to a relentless focus on teacher development.

Plan B

But union officials in San Diego say changes are being forced on teachers, who feel shut out of the planning.

"It's a very top-down, disrespectful management style, which does not honor the expertise of teachers," Marc W. Knapp, the president of the National Education Association affiliate, asserted in an interview before the agreement. "Teachers turned out [at the rally] because of disrespect."

The conflict drew the attention of high-level community leaders, who worry that school reform in the city will founder. After the union declared an impasse with the district last month, the president of San Diego State University, Stephen Weber, volunteered to mediate the deadlock.

In the negotiations that followed, the university's school of education offered to oversee the design of a peer-coach certification program and to independently certify its graduates. That offer came as a response to complaints by union officials that teachers approved for the jobs by the district's new Institute for Learning, the academic arm of the administration headed by Mr. Alvarado, would not have credibility as coaches.

Instead, union leaders said, the teachers would be viewed as evaluators and critics sent by the administration.

Meanwhile, district officials had prepared for unilateral action. They had said that if they couldn't reach a compromise with the union, which by law is needed to create a new job category, they would hire trainers under another name.

To that end, the school board in a 3-2 vote last month approved a plan to add 85 "curriculum resource" teachers, who would train teachers to help students with subpar reading skills.

Teachers said the hires would be a violation of their contract.

Deteriorating Relations

Almost from the beginning, the Bersin-Alvarado team has rankled teachers and union officials. While Mr. Bersin and some civic leaders assert that there's no time to lose in turning around underachieving schools, Mr. Knapp and many teachers say the furious pace has mainly served to alienate them.

"It was culture shock," the union president said. "Teachers walked in the first day, especially the elementary teachers, and were told, 'Throw out everything you've done before. This is the way we're doing it,' with no explanation or understanding."

Mr. Knapp says the largely collaborative relationship built with former Superintendent Bertha O. Pendleton in the wake of a week-long 1996 strike over pay is disappearing.

Richard M. Daniels, the head of communications for the district, said that the top leaders believe they have been cooperative, but that Mr. Bersin must act on a "mandate from the community to improve student achievement" or lose community support.

The school board president, Edward Lopez, agreed. "At a certain point," he said, the question becomes "at what point do you push on even if you don't have agreement?"

Many inside and outside the system sympathize with the teachers, but agree that the time for action has come. People are "anxious and uneasy," said Debra A. Rinehart, the president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs. "But I think possibly we don't have a moment to lose."

John W. Johnson, the president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Urban League, also called for swift reform, and said minority children may have the most to gain. "I strongly feel that [Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado] have the right to be able to put in their own plans," he said, "without watering them down because of some other element, such as the union."

Despite the burdens imposed by the changes, some educators interviewed last week support the direction the district is taking. "I'm overwhelmed," said Elaine Arm, the principal of Central Elementary School, "and I'm still saying we're going in the right direction."

Vol. 18, Issue 36, Page 3

Published in Print: May 19, 1999, as Peer-Coaching Plan Approved in San Diego
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