School & District Management

In San Diego, Pace Is Quick Under Bersin

By Bess Keller — August 04, 1999 8 min read
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As soon as politeness permits, Alan D. Bersin leaves his adult escorts and bends over to a 2nd grader.

“Read some,” the San Diego superintendent urges the little girl gently and then addresses her in Spanish, which he speaks fluently.

Fingering the soft pages of the well-worn book on her desk, the child complies in accented English.

In between such spot checks here at Euclid Elementary School in the rundown heart of the city, Mr. Bersin shakes hands with teachers and greets parents in the parking lot. He also expresses opinions on compensatory-education money, fragmented reading instruction, bilingual education, and the wisdom of something called “an integrated learning community.”

For someone who came to education only a year ago, the Yale-trained lawyer and former federal prosecutor for the southernmost district of California has a lot to say. And while he visibly reins himself in to listen, nobody needs to tell him where he is going.

“If student achievement is not the star by which we navigate,” he warned in an interview here, “the adults now involved in public education will lose the franchise.”

Wanted: Educator

To help him put achievement at the top of the agenda, the 52-year-old Mr. Bersin--who was a corporate litigator before his five years as a U.S. attorney--hired Anthony J. Alvarado from the New York City schools, where he had won national acclaim for his success with students from poor and minority families. As the San Diego Unified School District’s chancellor of instruction, Mr. Alvarado calls the educational shots while Mr. Bersin runs the system.

Policymakers are closely watching the arrangement. Not only is San Diego, with 139,000 students and an annual budget of more than $867 million, one the largest districts to put a noneducator at the helm; Mr. Bersin, in turn, has given broad power to Mr. Alvarado.

If the two can raise achievement across the board while closing the gap between white and minority students, they will make history in a town that, more than most, reflects the future ethnic makeup of the nation.

Just over a year since they began their jobs, it’s too soon to gauge their success. By many accounts, their bold moves have kept the hopes of civic leaders, influential business people, and parents high. But the two men have also alienated the powerful teachers’ union and angered some principals--groups that must play key roles in any improvement efforts.

“Our folks really believe they have been treated shabbily,” Marc Knapp, the president of the San Diego Education Association, said last week. ''All we’ve heard is, ‘You have to fix the teachers,’ ” he added, “and ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ ”

Some observers say that damage could undo the promise of some of the district administration’s primary reforms, such as an ambitious program of teacher training.

As for each other, the pair seem to have forged a close working relationship.

“We complement each other very well,” Mr. Bersin said last month. “There’s been personal and professional bonding.”

‘Charge!’

For his part, Mr. Alvarado praised the superintendent’s ability to build the community support that will allow reform to take root. And he added that he’s glad to leave the politics and the management to Mr. Bersin. The partnership has also allowed the 57-year-old Mr. Alvarado to work in San Diego three days a week and commute from New York City, where his family lives.

In some ways, the men are a study in contrasts. Mr. Alvarado often responds to questions by squeezing his eyes shut, as if relishing the chance to think. And even so vehement a critic of the administration as Mr. Knapp recognizes the educator’s appeal as a leader. “Tony’s the kind of guy, if he says ‘Charge!’ you want to go over the hill with him.”

Mr. Bersin, on the other hand, gives the impression of efficiency. And his sharp eyes are fixed on the prize.

“When Alan comes in with a job to do,” said Stephen L. Weber, the president of San Diego State University, “Alan gets to work doing it. He’s a very impressive, focused person.”

Running Start

Mr. Bersin immersed himself in education months before he took over from retiring Superintendent Bertha O. Pendleton last July. He consulted with policymakers and education experts, including professors at Harvard University, his undergraduate alma mater, and in June 1998 announced Mr. Alvarado’s appointment along with a reorganization of the district.

The overhaul centered on a new Institute for Learning to be run by Mr. Alvarado, and it eliminated assistant superintendents in favor of “instructional leaders” who would focus on the quality of teaching. Under the plan, most operational decisions are made by principals.

By the start of the school year, Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado had declared literacy the district’s top priority and mandated a three-hour “literacy block” for reading and writing in elementary schools. Principals at all levels were told to spend two hours a day in classrooms helping teachers improve their methods.

In the fall, Mr. Bersin also decreed that every elementary school would offer all-day kindergarten. It’s an issue close to his heart. When school opens in September, one of Mr. Bersin’s daughters will attend kindergarten in the San Diego public school where her sister will be a 2nd grader.

New Facilities

Some money for the extra classroom space required by the kindergartens will come from the $1.51 billion school bond issue that 78 percent of the district’s voters approved in November, the second largest in California history. Many credit Mr. Bersin with the pulling off such a victory in a conservative city, even though a judge ruled that at one point the district’s information campaign appeared to cross the line into advocacy.

Responding to a school board directive to cut at least 5 percent from central-office costs, the superintendent responded by axing 13 percent from the administrative budget by combining departments and eliminating 100 positions. The $8.3 million savings, he said, would be funneled to the schools to pay for teaching coaches, who would provide the sustained staff development that became the hallmark of Mr. Alvarado’s reforms as the superintendent of New York City’s Community District 2.

Meanwhile, a giant rift opened between the administration and the local teachers’ union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, over how the coaches would be chosen. Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado complained that the union’s plan didn’t provide enough quality control.

The union contended that the administration’s plan would produce stooges. In May, the trouble came to a head as hundreds of teachers staged a protest outside a school board meeting.

The decision in June to remove 13 principals and two vice principals from their jobs on the grounds that they lacked “leadership capacity” soured even more employees. Many said the administrators were unnecessarily humiliated by the public way in which the firings were handled.

Full Speed Ahead

John de Beck, one of Mr. Bersin’s two regular critics on the five-member school board, voted with the majority on both the removals and the central-office reductions. But he believes the administration has engendered angry feelings that will be hard to live down.

“This whole year has seemed to be a kind of brinkmanship,” he said. “We’re in a big rush to make our mark, and we’re taking a legalistic approach rather than a team-building one.”

But what to some appears a rush, others--inside the system and out--take as rightful urgency. One veteran central-office administrator described a “willingness to move” that was absent under several previous superintendents.

Hayes Mizell, the director of the student-achievement program of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City, has been dealing with the San Diego schools for years. He watched with admiration as Mr. Bersin lost a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation in May rather than swerve from his commitment to literacy.

A grant from Mr. Mizell’s own foundation for improving middle schools languished for months until it moved up on the district’s priority list.

“It’s very rare that you find a school system with that much resolve,” Mr. Mizell said. “And it’s very unusual to find someone who comes in and moves as rapidly and deeply as he and his administration have.”

Julie Latta, a San Diego parent, has mixed feelings. She knows the year took a toll on her son’s elementary school. “There was a lot of talk this year that we can’t do this or that because the teachers are overwhelmed,” she said. Still, she added admiringly, lawyer Bersin is “getting things done quicker than any educator I’ve ever seen.”

Workshops Galore

During a lunch break at one of Mr. Alvarado’s workshops this summer, 3rd grade teachers Terry Beddoes and Donna Gonzalez affirmed that the school year they finished in June was unusually stressful. “We could have used more support from the Institute [for Learning],” Ms. Beddoes said over the remains of her sack lunch. “And [Mr. Bersin] hasn’t been very positive about teachers.”

But the pair had nothing but praise for the week-long workshop they were just completing at Nye Elementary School, part of a training effort that will touch perhaps two-thirds of San Diego’s 8,000 teachers this summer.

In the fall, some 100 of the district’s 174 schools are expected to have teacher coaches in residence, and workshops for principals will be added to those for teachers.

Mr. Alvarado knows that much depends on staff development. It was the keystone of his New York reforms, and no less critical here.

“In order for accountability to have meaning and actually work,” he said, “you need massive support for people.”

What some here would add, though, is that support must be accompanied by diplomacy and consensus-building.

“What neither Tony nor Alan are good at is the softer side of bringing people along with them,” said Mr. Weber of San Diego State, who successfully mediated the dispute over teacher coaches. “And that’s a fundamental part of the issue.”

Mr. de Beck, the school board member, agreed, and added that, “for Alan and Tony, this year is probably more important than last.”

Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the August 04, 1999 edition of Education Week as In San Diego, Pace Is Quick Under Bersin


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