The highest-performing high school in the San Diego district has been granted a charter school’s freedom to decide how to teach its students—without converting to charter status.
All five members of the San Diego school board voted this month in favor of an arrangement that gives the 1,550-student La Jolla High School power to determine its own instructional methods and academic programs. In exchange, the high school dropped its bid to become a charter school and break away from the district completely.
“There’s been a long-standing desire on the part of teachers at this school to exercise greater control over what is taught and how,” said Principal Dana K. Shelburne, adding that parents also lobbied for the special status. “This arrangement will give us complete instructional autonomy. It’s like a charter school without the headaches of running the thing.”
The alternative to charter status, called a “pilot school,” was offered to La Jolla High by San Diego Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, whose centralized approach to academic programming has rankled some administrators and teachers.
Now, after nearly four years at the helm of the 140,000-student school district, Mr. Bersin, who served previously as the U.S. attorney in San Diego, is signaling a willingness to extend flexibility to schools that prove themselves.
To be eligible for pilot status, schools must at least achieve a score of 800 out of a possible 1,000 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, a measure based on standardized-test scores. The district is considering adding other performance measures to the equation as well.
“We are working to develop a new district accountability system that is based on and will be consistent with state standards, and will provide varying levels of autonomy to schools that meet and sustain high academic achievement targets,” Mr. Bersin said in a recent “state of the district” speech.
“The basic message is that schools that are successful in serving children ... will be allowed defined flexibility in how they get the job done, so long as the rate of achievement continues to rise,” he said in his speech. “This will not only give flexibility to successful schools, but will also allow the district to sharpen focus on making dramatic achievement gains in schools that have further to go.”
A Flagship School
At the heart of La Jolla High School’s drive for independence was a basic disagreement over who should decide what is taught in the classroom, and how.
As the faculty at the only school in the San Diego district to score above California’s benchmark for academic success, La Jolla High teachers strongly believed they had earned the right to determine their own curriculum and instructional methods, Mr. Shelburne said.
But for the district’s low-performing students, Mr. Bersin had other plans.
In 2000, the district adopted a proposal by the superintendent to overhaul the curriculum by placing students in need of academic improvement in expanded blocks of study for mathematics and literacy. Called the “Blueprint for Success,” the plan also shifted control over much of the system’s federal Title I funding for children of low-income families from the school level to the district. (“‘Blueprint’ for San Diego Schools Draws Mixed Reactions,” April 26, 2000.) Mr. Shelburne said the district’s new, top-down approach to learning prompted La Jolla to begin the process of converting to a charter school.
But school board President Ronald L. Ottinger argues that La Jolla’s academic standing meant that the school was only marginally affected by the Blueprint for Success.
“They got additional resources under that plan that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and it affected very few of their students,” Mr. Ottinger said. “So how much of this was about the blueprint, and how much was about the approach and the superintendent himself, is not clear to me.”
To head off losing the district’s star school, Mr. Bersin offered La Jolla High a middle ground: So long as the school maintains its strong overall academic rating and continues to improve outcomes for struggling students, it will enjoy freedom from the academic policies of the central office while remaining operationally and financially connected to the district.
La Jolla’s faculty and staff accepted the offer, and the San Diego board ratified it on April 9.
But despite the unanimous vote by the board, at least one member warned that such special treatment for a school fortunate enough to serve a high-income, well-educated community could threaten to balkanize the district.
“The problem is that La Jolla is the Cadillac school of the district in terms of socioeconomics,” said board member John DeBeck. “If the school district’s academic [policy] is flawed enough that the jewel of the district wants to withdraw, maybe we should offer the same instructional autonomy to all schools.”
But the superintendent shrugged off such suggestions.
“This is a conflict that existed long before I arrived,” Mr. Bersin said in an interview last week. “La Jolla has always been a flagship school without much of a fleet in its wake. From my point of view, this is a suitable resolution to a generation-long controversy.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 24, 2002 edition of Education Week as San Diego High School Granted Special Status