In San Diego, Principals’ Focus Is Teaching and Learning

By Mark Stricherz — November 28, 2001 8 min read
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It’s a few days before Halloween, and the 1st graders in Lori Cotterell’s class here are pinning slips of paper with words like “vampire” and “monster” to a large drawing of a pumpkin. The aim of the lesson is to build students’ vocabularies, preparing each of them to write an essay a little later.

Also in class today is the principal of Miramar Ranch Elementary School. But Timothy Asfazadour isn’t impressed with what he sees. “They weren’t doing writing,” he says. “She should know better.”

Mr. Asfazadour and all his fellow principals in the San Diego school district are required to spend at least two hours a day in classrooms, evaluating instruction. Only then, district leaders argue, will the administrators know whether students are learning, a teacher’s lesson plans are strong, and the material is age- appropriate.

Anthony J. Alvarado, the chancellor of instruction for the 142,300-student district, has pushed hard for “distributed leadership,” with the goal of bringing principals and teachers together around a common view of good instruction.

At the least, they are talking about teaching and learning, as Ms. Cotterell did later with her principal. She explained that 1st graders write better when they can see words illustrated. Mr. Asfazadour conceded that pupils can learn that way, but he noted that the district prefers that they plunge directly into writing.

For the plan to work, Mr. Alvarado believes, principals need continual training. Since arriving here in 1999 to serve with Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, a former federal prosecutor who handles the business end of things, he has reorganized the administration to fulfill that vision.

The district’s ranks are now filled with instructional coaches. Nine area superintendents became “instructional leaders” focused on teaching and learning; teachers’ aides were replaced with 200 peer coaches; and all principals were required to spend a day and a half each month at training sessions.

San Diego’s efforts come as many districts seek to transform principals from building managers into master teachers. And the push is likely to grow once Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is expected to press school leaders even more to raise student test scores. What distinguishes San Diego is the extent to which Mr. Alvarado and Mr. Bersin have worked toward that goal.

Making Teaching Public

“In the past, a teacher goes to the classroom and closes the door. I think what San Diego schools are asking is that the practice of teaching be made public,” said Lea A. Hubbard, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who is part of a 13-member team studying the improvement efforts at six schools.

“There’s been a whole beefing up at the top level,” she said, “and they don’t just rely on professional development during the summer, but the whole year. I’ve never seen something like this before.”

Mr. Alvarado’s plan, “The Blueprint for Student Success,” was unveiled in the spring of 2000. It calls for elementary students to devote three hours a day to reading and writing, an hour to mathematics, and the remainder to other subjects.

Changes at the high schools are being phased in more slowly, Mr. Alvarado acknowledges. All 9th graders were required to take a two-hour literacy block last school year, a year later than the three-hour requirement in the elementary schools. But all high schools next year will have literacy and math coaches to help principals monitor instruction, Mr. Alvarado said.

Stiffer course requirements are also in the works. Next school year, for example, all secondary students will be required to take three years of science.

Overseeing the plan’s implementation is the district’s Leadership Academy, located around the corner from Mr. Alvarado’s office. The joint effort, financed by the district, the University of San Diego, and several foundations, has a large task.

The academy runs professional development for the instructional leaders, trains two mentor principals who help with instruction and operations, and prepares 10 to 20 aspiring principals each year.

“This is about teaching teachers,” said the academy’s director, Elaine Fink. “When teachers come out of education school, they generally don’t know the best strategies on how students learn.”

The instructional leaders act as area superintendents overseeing regions of the district, but their title and duties were changed to reflect the focus on instruction rather than operations.

Ann Van Sickle, a former San Diego principal, has been an instructional leader since 1999. While some of her time is spent on operations— making sure that principals’ requests to fix computers are honored, for example— she said she spends at least 12 hours every week at schools, meeting with their principals, gauging the status of instruction and professional development, and visiting classrooms.

While observing instruction, she said, “we ask teachers to implement teaching strategies that are research-based, and not the way they’ve always done it.”

The instructional leaders also run the district’s mandatory monthly training sessions for the system’s 182 principals.

Overall, Mr. Alvarado estimates, the district, which has a current budget of $1.01 billion, has redirected $60 million to $85 million toward teaching and learning since 1999.

Monthly Training

The training session last month was held at the San Diego Convention Center, a cavernous building hulking between downtown and San Diego Bay. The focus was how to make sure that teachers teach reading effectively.

In one of the rooms, 36 principals were watching a video showing a 4th grader named Miguel laboring to read The Stone Fox, about a 10-year-old boy who enters a dog sled race. Linda L. Trifon, a newly hired district instructional leader, doubles as his teacher. “If the child didn’t give me the right answer, I know that’s a problem. It’s so important to know the book,” Ms. Trifon told the principals, “because you know what’s going on.”

In this case, Ms. Trifon said, the boy was assigned a book that was too difficult for him to read. “Make no mistake. You’re not just wasting time if a wrong book is assigned to a child,” she said. “You’re doing damage.”

Judy Tenorio, the principal at Curie Elementary School, said that while some of the training sessions have not been well-planned, many “really relate back to your school. We’ve worked at teaching low-achieving kids. Now, teachers are held more accountable.”

Aside from aiming to raise students’ test scores, the monthly training sessions have a more immediate goal: to prepare principals to spend at least two hours a day in classrooms.

Principals are told that their weekly meetings with staff members must be about instruction, so that expectations for teachers are clear. Communication on everyday issues such as broken copiers or wayward bus drivers is usually done in writing.

Teachers at Encanto Elementary School, a K-5 school of 1,100 pupils, most of whom are Hispanic, have noticed the change. The school stretches over four city blocks in a neighborhood scattered with a handful of liquor-and-taco stands and mongrel dogs sleeping on dirt lawns.

Kim D. Tatman, 29, who teaches 3rd grade, said she didn’t like the old evaluation process. “Principals would come in only three or four times a year,” she said. “One was the formal evaluation, but the others were the principal just popping in. I didn’t really feel they could evaluate me.”

Nicole Lippert, 26, said she also welcomed being evaluated more regularly by Principal Angela Bass, a kindly, soft-spoken woman who occasionally draws a flock of 1st and 2nd grade girls seeking to hug her. One day when Ms. Bass dropped by, Ms. Lippert was sitting at a table with two underperforming 1st grade girls, reading a book about caterpillars to them. While the teacher is viewed as one of the school’s best, Ms. Bass said she could do better.

“I would ask the students if they really understood the book,” the principal said after observing the class. “She asked them, but she wasn’t explicit.”

Ms. Lippert said later that she would defer to Ms. Bass, since “this is only my second year of teaching.”

Even though most teachers at the school favor the instructional changes, the extra time that principals like Ms. Bass spend in the classroom has its costs.

More time on the job is one of them. Principals say they are working an extra hour or two each day to keep up. J.M. Tarvin, the executive director of the 435-member Administrative Association of San Diego, also views the changes as eroding principals’ power.

While he agrees that principals should be instructional leaders, Mr. Tarvin noted that “good principals have always spent time in the classrooms.”

“The district is saying it’s ‘my way or the highway,’ ” he contended. Principals should make more decisions independently, rather than having always to implement district rules, he said.

Some educators here also say that not all principals are cut out to be instructional leaders.

“Clearly, it depends on the principal,” said Cheryl A. Hibbeln, the chairwoman of the English department at Linda Vista High School. When the school’s previous principal visited classrooms, she said, his recommendations about improving instruction “didn’t make sense.”

Also of concern to administrators is the rate at which principals in San Diego have been dismissed under Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado. One-third of all principalships have turned over since the fall of 1999, including those who retired or transferred voluntarily.

The San Diego Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association that represents the city’s 8,300 teachers, also has been sharply critical of the changes. Last June, the union announced the results of a poll showing that 93 percent of the 5,600 respondents lacked confidence in the district administration. The union complains that the district is imposing a single model of instruction on teachers and dictating how the school day should be spent.

For his part, Mr. Alvarado isn’t rattled by the critics. “This job isn’t a sinecure,” Mr. Alvarado said of the principalship. “It’s not just awarded.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as In San Diego, Principals’ Focus Is Teaching and Learning


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