School & District Management

‘Blueprint’ for San Diego Schools Draws Mixed Reactions

By Catherine Gewertz — April 26, 2000 5 min read
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A plan recently adopted for the San Diego schools that will overhaul the curriculum, lay off hundreds of classroom assistants, and swell the summer school ranks is creating waves of mixed reaction.

The package of measures is the brainchild of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, a former federal prosecutor who had pledged to raise lagging student achievement when he took office a year and a half ago. His “Blueprint for Student Success” has won the endorsement of some prominent educators, but it has also prompted such ardent opposition that 3,000 people swamped the school board office, some carrying pickets and shouting, when the board met to approve it last month.

But Mr. Bersin stands by his plan. “For the first time, we will have a systemic and systematic approach to providing students and teachers with the supports they need to make enhanced student achievement more routinely the outcome in our district,” he said in a recent interview.

The plan hinges on “prevention, intervention, and retention” measures designed to improve performance in the 141,000-student district, where a third of the students drop out of high school and fewer than half read and do math at national norms for their grade levels.

The program, which is being phased in over the next few years, features a curriculum heavily focused on literacy and mathematics, with concentrated blocks of study in those areas. Students needing improvement would take expanded blocks of study and before- or after-school or summer programs, depending on their grade and performance levels. Those who need still more help will be retained in smaller, accelerated classes.

‘Focus Schools’

A critical aspect of Mr. Bersin’s plan is greatly expanded professional training for teachers, through workshops and summer institutes as well as the hiring of “peer coaches” who will work with them at their schools.

First grade classrooms will be “enhanced” with $5,000 worth of additional materials. “Focus schools,” in which a large majority of students have performed poorly, will receive additional teaching and financial help, parent-involvement and preschool programs, and 24 more days in the school year.

The plan, which will cost $49 million in its first year, will be paid for largely by allocating money from the federal Title I program, which serves disadvantaged students, and state aid the district receives as a result of a 1977 desegregation order.

Until now, individual schools have decided how to use their Title I funds, but under Mr. Bersin’s plan, they will be allowed to control only 20 percent or less of that money. The rest will be reallocated to blueprint programs.

Opposition to the plan has come from many sources, including a districtwide parent advisory group that has filed a formal complaint with the district. The group contends, among other charges, that the plan is an improper use of Title I aid. Jo Anne Sawyer Knoll, the general counsel for the school district, said she would investigate the complaint and work with the parents’ group in an attempt to resolve their differences.

Loss of Aides a Concern

Mr. Bersin’s plan has drawn the praise of California Secretary of Education Gary K. Hart, who hailed its “relentless attention to literacy and math skills” and said that “school districts throughout California can benefit from the pioneering work” in San Diego. And some local leaders, frustrated with the decades of academic struggle in the seaside city, where six in 10 students qualify for federal free or reduced-price meals, support it enthusiastically as well.

John Johnson, the president of the San Diego Urban League, served on the committee that helped direct the spending of court-ordered desegregation funds. He said he was deeply disappointed that the integration efforts didn’t result in higher achievement for minority students, who make up nearly two-thirds of the district’s enrollment. He welcomes a proposal to use those funds differently.

“This is reform that is needed in the worst way,” Mr. Johnson said. “We need to break the mold and do things differently, and Mr. Bersin has demonstrated the courage and persistence needed to do that.”

He dismissed criticism of the plan from the local teachers’ union. “They are just protecting their turf,” Mr. Johnson maintained.

But many teachers worry about the loss of 600 of the district’s 2,800 classroom aides. Tom Syage, a 2nd grade teacher at Ocean Beach Elementary School, said the time when he has a classroom aide will be reduced from 90 minutes a day, five days a week, to one hour a week. He said it’s ironic that a plan that trumpets enhanced teaching will take away a resource that enables teachers to better tend to their students. “My kids just won’t get as much attention,” he said.

Bart Chadwick, whose 3rd grade daughter attends Ocean Beach Elementary, worries that the reduced amount of Title I money available for the school’s use will force it to cut back the time of its counselor, nurse, and librarian and eliminate a remedial-reading program. “I think we’re giving up a whole lot and not getting much back,” he said.

‘So Much Passion’

J.M. Tarvin, a retired principal and the executive director of the San Diego Administrators Association, believes the blueprint does not include satisfactory self-evaluation methods, and that it is too vague. He also worries that the program’s use of Title I money might not survive scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education. “What if it turns out to be a $50 million mistake?” he asked.

Others, such as Marc Knapp, the president of the 8,000-member San Diego Education Association, have expressed concern that forcing lower-achieving students into concentrated blocks of math and literacy study will only drive up the dropout rate.

Mr. Bersin disagrees. “When a school district sees 30 percent of its students leave between 9th and 12th grade, working to enhance the gateway skills that permit them to access knowledge can hardly be criticized from the standpoint that it will lead to dropout students,” he said.

Pilot tests of those two-hour study blocks this year showed that in the first six months of the school year, 6th graders improved more than 11/2 levels, and 9th graders improved nearly a grade level on diagnostic tests, Mr. Bersin said.

Brenda Gibson, whose two children attend Grant Elementary School in the middle-class neighborhood of Mission Hills and who serves on the school’s governance committee, said she was sad that her children will lose instructional aides. But she said she was willing to accept the loss as a trade-off for other advantages that will come with it, such as an after-school tutorial program.

She added, however, that she was skeptical about whether sufficient mechanisms were in place to evaluate the blueprint and its curriculum. But she welcomed what she said was a long-overdue focus on achievement, the courage to take on the “big-time commitment” of systemic change, and a reinvigoration of the public dialogue.

“Things have been stagnant too long,” Ms. Gibson said. “I like the fact that it’s generated so much passion.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2000 edition of Education Week as ‘Blueprint’ for San Diego Schools Draws Mixed Reactions


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