School & District Management

Sacramento Mayor’s Legacy: Improved Schools

By Alan Richard — February 02, 2000 10 min read
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Two months before his death, Mayor Joe Serna stood behind a thin wooden lectern at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School here, and told the crowd gathered that the transformation of Sacramento’s schools was something rare and precious.

“All of us had collectively turned our backs on the schools,” the mayor said in the August speech, recalling how observers had seen bullet holes in glass doorways, graffiti on walls, and restrooms that didn’t work. “Hopefully, those days are gone.”

Many in California’s capital city of 369,000 credit Mr. Serna, who died of cancer Nov. 7, for pushing changes that now have more children reading at earlier ages, more school buildings scheduled for repair, and more politicians and parents backing an urban school system that was once considered a total loss.

In the past year, the 52,000-student district’s test scores in elementary-age reading and math have shown dramatic increases that would be the envy of any school system. A focused, determined school board, with a majority of members who were backed and supported by Mayor Serna, has ended the bickering and deadlock that plagued the district’s governance for years. The public has shown renewed confidence and interest in the schools by passing, in October, the district’s first bond measure for school repairs in more than 20 years.

And, despite some criticism of how the changes are being carried out, Sacramento is being looked at nationwide as a model of urban school success.

Before entering politics, Mr. Serna had taught government at Sacramento State University for more than 20 years, served in the Peace Corps, and worked with the United Farm Workers, many of whom shared his Latino heritage.

“He was my friend for more than a quarter of a century,” said Phil Angelides, California’s state treasurer and a longtime ally of Mr. Serna’s in the Democratic Party. “He was a good man ... particularly for people who didn’t have champions,” Mr. Angelides said.

New Type of Takeover

When the mayor turned his attention to Sacramento’s schools, he looked to Mr. Angelides for help, asking him to co-chair the Mayor’s Commission on Education and the City’s Future. The group’s charge was to document the schools’ problems and recommend solutions.

“We knew from the outset it was bad,” Mr. Angelides recalled. “We were horrified how bad it was.”

When the school board had little reaction to the commission’s 1996 report about a lack of accountability and deplorable building conditions, Mr. Serna became more fiercely devoted to changing the system.

He asked Mr. Angelides and the commission to interview school board candidates, choose the best ones, and help them get elected. All four of the commission’s choices won seats on the eight-member board in November 1996.

In choosing to influence school politics directly through the elected school board, Sacramento offers a contrast to recent upheavals in urban districts like Chicago and Detroit, where legislation was needed to hand control of the schools to the mayor. “Serna’s strategy deserves a lot of attention because it’s the one applicable to most school districts in America,” said Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University and an expert on urban school governance. “He chose not to go for seeking power directly, but run a slate of school board members. Any mayor can do that.”

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan has followed a similar approach in his efforts to shape policy in the 700,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.

Discovering New Leaders

As a result, Mr. Kirst added, Sacramento “has gone from a district that was viewed as one of the most troubled in California to one of the most closely watched districts in terms of emulating its strategy and imitating its results.”

Before Richard Jennings ran for the school board, he had made the tough decision to remove his two children from Sacramento’s public schools after watching them struggle academically and form friendships with children who lived more streetwise lives. “I thought I was losing my kids,” he said.

It was a hard comment on the city’s schools, where both of his wife’s parents had worked as teachers. But Mr. Jennings, the head of a nonprofit group, was later persuaded by his minister to run for the board.

The four new board members on the mayor’s slate quickly joined forces with two others who had long opposed the policies of the old board. One of those already on the board was Michelle Masoner, who knew the district’s problems firsthand as a former special education teacher. “The class that I taught, the science book we used said man will one day land on the moon. This was in 1982,” she said.

Into the Classroom

One of the board’s first challenges was to choose a new superintendent. Their choice, surprising to some, was an internal candidate.

Jim Sweeney, a former education professor at Iowa State University and at Valdosta State University in Georgia, came to Sacramento as a deputy superintendent in 1994.

When the board hired Mr. Sweeney as superintendent in October 1997, he insisted on having no buyout clause, which surprised many local observers.

“That really sent a strong message to our people,” said Linda Carey, who has been the secretary to six different superintendents in the 1990s. “We needed to know the person at the helm was going to be with us for a while.”

Working with the new board, Mr. Sweeney, who is 62, quickly identified one of the district’s most pressing academic problems—reading and mathematics performance in the elementary grades—and came up with a plan to deal with it.

In years past, Sacramento classrooms used a hodgepodge of reading materials that varied in quality and effectiveness.

Nearly half the city’s children were routinely scoring in the lowest 30 percent in the nation on the reading and math portions of the Stanford Achievement Test-9th edition.

Two years ago, a $1.5 million grant from the Los Altos, Calif.-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation helped Sacramento adopt Open Court, a “scripted,” phonics-based reading program. Pupils in grades 1-6 began spending between two and three hours a day on reading. At the same time, the district adopted a highly structured math program by Saxon Publishers Inc. that is taught at least an hour a day in the elementary grades.

And while some critics say the gains are coming at the expense of science and the arts, supporters of the district’s new direction say the numbers speak for themselves.

Last fall, the average math and English scores rose in all but four of the city’s 60 elementary schools over the previous year’s scores. The average gains were triple the state average in reading, and double the state average in math. Several schools saw their scores rise nearly 50 percent, and even normally high-achieving schools saw scores rise substantially.

And the schools are using the test results not as ends in themselves, but as a way to learn more about what can help their students.

At John Cabrillo Elementary School, Principal Al Rogers has a folder for each of his 426 students, so he can check their academic strengths and weaknesses in a moment’s glance. Other principals have charts hanging on their walls showing how different classes and grades are doing.

“The parents have been hungry for a way to move this school forward and we’re willing to do it,” said Mr. Rogers.

The data—organized by a new $150,000 district computer system—allow the superintendent to know the level of success for every teacher and principal.

“Instead of pointing fingers at teachers, it’s more, ‘Here’s what the data says—what can we do about it?’ ” said Bill Ellerbee, a former custodian and teacher who is one of the district’s two assistant superintendents for elementary schools.

Sandy Patterson, the mother of two young boys and a volunteer at John Cabrillo Elementary, said she’s feeling more confident about the schools. “I think it’s really moving in the right direction,” she said, a sentiment reflected in the district’s 1,200 new students this school year, the first enrollment increase in five years. The public also showed newfound confidence in October by approving a $195 million bond referendum.

Principal Kathy Kingsbury’s school hasn’t yet seen the kind of test-score increases some of her neighboring schools have seen. But she’s hoping that could change, since the Packard Humanities Institute chose her K-5 school last summer for $3.5 million in renovations and instructional training.

Pushing Too Hard?

Ms. Kingsbury hopes the extra resources and the example of other schools’ improvements will help her children at Pacific School, which enrolls some of the city’s poorest children.

“We have too many examples of where it does happen to say it can’t happen here,” she said.

Though many signs point to improvement, just about everyone here agrees the district still has a long way to go.

After years of tumultuous labor relations exploded into two strikes during the 1980s, recent years have seen calmer times. But the situation could change again this year, said Mr. Sweeney, who describes current talks with the teachers’ union as “tentative and fragile.”

Many of the recent successes are a result of teachers’ hard work, union leaders say, and that makes them worthy of substantially better pay and benefits.

“The teachers aren’t experiencing personally any credit in the change for our district,” said Tom Rogers, the president of the 3,000-member Sacramento City Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

High school teachers especially are feeling pressure, as the superintendent’s attention has now shifted from the elementary schools to the lackluster performance of the upper grades.

The district shouldn’t criticize teachers for what the district hasn’t done to improve schools, said Emanuel Villarreal, a senior negotiator for the union. “More than I’ve ever felt in 30 years,” he said, is “a pervasive sense that teachers are not as valued as they have been in the past.”

Not all teachers here completely agree with the union’s position. But even those who are less critical admit weariness at times. “There is a panicky sort of feeling,” said Karen Thomas, a 1st grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School on the city’s east side. “The pressure on achievement is unrelenting.”

She and other teachers say the superintendent’s site visits and obvious dedication to the district’s goals are encouraging.

And, Ms. Thomas and others say, it’s hard to argue “when you see [students] pick up any book by the end of the 1st grade and just confidently read it. We like the progress, the curriculum. We think it works.”

Dying Wish

The contract negotiations loom, however, as a potentially significant threat to what the Sacramento schools have begun to accomplish. A return of rancor between the administration and the union—let alone a strike—could halt the momentum behind the district’s recent success.

Labor strife “would be the biggest tragedy you could imagine to destroy what we have in this district,” said Conal Lindsay, the district’s labor negotiator, who has already begun salary negotiations on a new contract to replace the one that ends in June 2001.

Much of what hasn’t happened yet in the Sacramento schools centers on education for older students, along with preschool-age children. Superintendent Sweeney wants to expand preschool to about 15,000 more of the city’s 4-year-olds.

He also wants to focus more on high schools. Teachers need more training, attainable goals, and ways to form closer bonds with students, he argues. “We don’t have that, and most high schools don’t,” Mr. Sweeney said. “It isn’t the teachers’ fault at all. It’s all of our faults. We’ve let it happen.”

But both local and national observers agree that what’s been done already has been no small task. As the catalyst for the changes, Mayor Serna seemed to burst with pride during his last days.

In that brief speech in August, when he helped announce the vastly improved test scores, his voice broke as he sensed his calling was complete.

“I am a teacher,” Mr. Serna started. “Teaching is still my first love. I understand what it looks like and feels like when a child learns right before you. When that happens, something really good is happening.”

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

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Sacramento Mayor’s Legacy: Improved Schools


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