August 3, 2001

San Diego Unified Pulls Fast One On Sherman Heights Community

By Yvette tenBerge

Martha "Patty" Medina, 38, sits in a sun-filled room at the Sherman Heights Community Center and describes what her life was like just four years ago. Her silver-ringed fingers move through the air gracefully, punctuating her words as she describes her world as a victim of domestic violence. After 16 years of an abusive marriage, the last two of which had been spent entirely within the walls of her home, this mother of two prayed for God to free her from her prison. The key to her cell arrived on her doorstep the next morning in the form of a flier.

Ms. Medina recalls her initial fear at the thought of leaving her home to take part in the free programs offered by Cola-borativo SABER, an initiative that, over the past eight years, has created a deeply rooted system of social support, health education and wellness promotion for Sherman Heights children and families.

Patty Medina

"The first time I came here, I was offered help and received it right away.  I was terrified to leave my home, but SABER was always pulling me from my house to attend one program or another. It was a lifesaver for me to know that there were people who wanted to help me, and who could help me," says Ms. Medina, placing heavy emphasis on the role that Georgia Malcolm, the Director of SABER and the Educational Psychologist at Sherman Elementary, played in her recovery.

As is the case with many of the women and children whom Ms. Malcolm and SABER have helped, Ms. Medina went from receiving assistance, to participating in training courses so that she could help others as she had been helped. Her progress has been nothing short of miraculous. This woman who once could not cross her own doorstep has now completed two years of a computer degree program at City College, is a paid coordinator for English as a Second Language courses offered at the community center and volunteers her time to a number of other programs.

"SABER showed me what I needed to do for myself and for my children. I have undergone all of these changes because they offered me their support, and they showed me that I was intelligent enough to be able to be independent and improve my family's situation," says Ms. Medina, who describes the role that Georgia Malcolm and SABER have also played in the lives of thousands of other community members and Sherman Elementary students. "SABER also helped me with therapy for my son. As I started changing, my children started changing with me."

Parents show their support for SABER and other programs that have been taken from the community center.

Relationship Between

SABER and Sherman


It is rare to find a community organization and a school that are as entwined as SABER and Sherman Elementary School. According to parents, community members and teachers, the arms of this "octopus called SABER" are diverse and far-reaching. Located on campus, its network of programs has effectively helped those suffering from learning disabilities, illiteracy, drug addiction, homelessness, psychological distress and financial problems. While these social issues affect many communities within San Diego County, Sherman Elementary students and families face a disproportionately high percentage of them.

Of the estimated 1,000 students at Sherman Elementary, 89 percent are Latino. As many of their students are new to the United States, 79 percent of Sherman's Latino students are classified as Limited English Proficient. This language barrier leaves these youth struggling to adapt to an alien culture where it is only too easy to get left behind. The area is well known for its high juvenile crime rate, gang and drug dealing activities, and the drop out rate is nearly 27 percent. Ninety-nine percent of Sherman's students qualify to receive free breakfast and lunch, and the majority of the homeless shelters in downtown San Diego feed directly into the school.

Patrick Fulke, an English teacher at Sherman Elementary since 1989, recalls the atmosphere at Sherman nearly a decade ago when Ms. Malcolm brought the SABER program onto the scene. "About eight years ago, when many of us at Sherman Elementary were about to give up hope, Georgia Malcolm and the SABER Colaborativo Program came to our rescue. They saw the tremendous challenges and obstacles both the school and the community were facing. Their programs were carefully designed, and dedicated, trained personnel were put in place to address all facets of the problems facing Sherman Elementary and the Sherman Heights Community," says Mr. Fulke. "Our program, SABER, has positively changed a whole community."

Although Ms. Malcolm's voice is calm, her eyes reveal the storm as she recalls the energy involved in starting SABER. Carefully and respectfully, she contacted the majority of the non-profit organizations within the community in hopes of forming a solid, effective community alliance. For the next eight years, SABER would thrive and grow thanks to its ability to create highly successful, grant-winning program models.

"From the very beginning, before there ever was any grant money, we brought resources to the table. One organization had this and one had that. Then we had to decide what we wanted to build for the future. Eight years later we have become a very strong group. We share space, grant writing, resources and transportation. Anything you can think of, we share," says Ms. Malcolm. She explains that SABER's grass-roots model places parents and community members at the helm, and admits that a large part of their success came from their ability to tap into "one of the major assets" of the Sherman community, the "Latina power."

Alejandra Bautista,15, was one of many students protesting district-mandated cuts.

SABER Pushed Out As New Principal Arrives On Scene

Despite these tremendous accomplishments, employees of SABER and members of the community whom they have helped to strengthen have watched in horror and disbelief as a new principal, Valerie Voss, was brought into their school and as the grant money originally awarded to support programs like SABER was "redirected" by the San Diego Unified School District without any explanation or warning.

SABER employees and community members claim that things changed drastically
when Ms. Voss, a non-Spanish speaker who was previously a principal in Scripps Ranch, was hired to head Sherman. Although optimistic in the beginning, parents soon realized that Ms. Voss was not interested in learning about their community or in allowing them to actively participate in decision-making as they had in the past.

Laura Norris is a Co-Chair of the School Site Council, a Coordinator for a number of SABER programs and a mother of three children who attend Sherman. "When [Ms. Voss] first arrived, I was happy. Some cosmetic changes were going on in the school, and we received new materials. She seemed very nice, and she used to always ask me for help. Every time she asked me for anything, I was there. Each time we invited her to our programs, she was never there," says Ms. Norris, who admits that she feels as if Ms. Voss tossed her aside once she no longer needed her. She remembers one particular exchange vividly. "I will never forget when she told me, `School is for learning; we are not social workers.'"

As time progressed, changes around Sherman became less and less cosmetic and more and more threatening to the foundation that Ms. Malcolm and the Sherman Heights community had painstakingly lain.

In March 2000, the district hired Valerie Nash, a professional grant writer, to submit three Even Start grants. The Even Start website states that the mission of this federally funded program is to "support family-centered educational programs that involve parents and children in a cooperative effort to help parents become full partners in the education of their children."

Following the directions of the principals of Sherman, Balboa and Chavez Elementary Schools, Ms. Nash approached Ms. Malcolm and asked her to write one of the Even Start grants. Ms. Malcolm agreed, with the understanding that SABER would be a partner in the grant, and that nearly one third of the money ($90,000 per year) would go directly toward training and expansion of their program. Two and a half weeks later, Ms. Malcolm and Robyn Prime, SABER's Project Manager, handed Ms. Nash completed copies of all major portions of their Even Start grant, as well as a detailed budget. Ms. Nash collaborated on several small sections of the grant and completed the rest of the District's required processing.

Ms. Malcolm recalls Ms. Nash's appreciation for SABER's timely work, and her
comment that she would never have been able to complete the third grant had they not taken over. In August 2000, the results were in. The Even Start grant written by Ms. Malcolm and SABER had been awarded $240,000 in funding each year for four years. The other two district grants had been rejected.

District Appropriates

SABER Grant Money

According to Ms. Malcolm, SABER was not directly informed of their award. "When the awards were made by the state in August, SABER was not notified one way or the other. We had to call numerous people in order to confirm that we had won the grant. As time went on, it became apparent that none of the other organizations listed as original partners on this grant ­ San Diego City Schools Pre-School Department, San Diego READS, Adult Literacy ­ had been informed of SABER's involvement," says Ms. Malcolm. The district's handling of the situation only worsened.

After meetings with various district employees and Scott Himelstein, Chairman of the district-supported, non-profit organization San Diego READS, Ms. Malcolm realized that the district was planning to take SABER's grant money and use it to fund other programs.

"We were informed at a meeting with Candace Mendoza [the district contact person for the Even Start grant], that Scott Himelstein was in charge of the grant and that `Alan [Bersin] wanted him to have this grant.' We were also told that the reason this grant was funded was because San Diego READS was on the application and that Mr. Himelstein had political connections at the state level," says Ms. Malcolm. "Basically, they did not believe that our project supported literacy development as San Diego READS does."

This reaction not only puzzles those at SABER, it makes them wonder if anyone other than the state department has even bothered to read their grant. As required, the "Cola-borativo SABER Even Start Program" is dedicated to providing high-quality, intensive, family-centered instructional projects that integrate adult, early childhood and parenting education. Their program also includes a "Children's Institute of Early Learning" program, a mentor program for three to five year-olds that is based on the proven and respected Bowdoin Method.

Although over a year has passed since SABER was awarded the Even Start money, they have yet to receive straight answers from the district. Gloria Guzman-Walker, a consultant for the California Department of Education, heads the Even Start Family Literacy Project.

"Even Start is a competitive process. In order to qualify, there needs to be a partnership with a school district and a community-based organization. The applications are then reviewed by a panel of trained readers," says Ms. Guzman-Walker, who confirms that San Diego's SABER program was indeed awarded. She then adds that SDUSD submitted a "change in program design" sometime in January 2001. She explains that a district must notify the state of major changes that occur within the awarded programs and that they need to justify these changes. The change that SDUSD submitted requested that they be allowed to "go with" another non-profit organization. Rather than work with SABER, they asked to work with San Diego READS.

Although a matter of public record, requests to see this letter were denied by both the state and the school district.

In April 1999, Superintendent Alan Bersin challenged San Diegans to join an "unprecedented community-wide campaign for San Diego City Schools." Over the next two years, San Diego READS would begin an initiative to put "thousands of new books in school libraries" and "train a team of volunteer reading tutors" to help local students improve their reading skills. Mr. Himelstein sums up the district's decision to switch non-profit organizations.

"SABER was going to use Even Start money for SABER. We - myself, the district and some principals - felt that a better model was the one we were proposing. This includes one coordinator at each site, and it includes all four components mandated by federal law," says Mr. Himelstein. He stands by the district's view that the "grant actually goes to the district, and it is for the district to determine how best to implement the funds."

Mr. Himelstein is quick to cut to the point. "The bottom line is that it is the principal's decision. It is up to her to decide what she would like to see at her school, and up to her to decide what programs will best serve the children and the parents."

This is indicative of what seems to be a trend with Mr. Bersin and the SDUSD. The district has taken to replacing principals and key administrative figures who know the communities whom they represent and who act with those communities best interests in mind. In their place, the district substitutes personnel who are outsiders to the communities in which they work, and who will act according to the district's agenda without exception.

What is not clear is why the district, who deemed SABER to be so ineffective, would replace it with programs that in many cases copy exactly what SABER has done ­ right down to offering the same classes at the same times. One difference seems to be that San Diego Reads and Early Link, a district program that has taken the place of SABER's proposed project, uses outside personnel and does not rely heavily on community members.

For those whom SABER has served, what is clear is that the program is not only effective, educating the entire community ­ both adult and child ­ but that it is also affectionate. SABER found a way to allow a community to learn to heal itself. It is an initiative grown not from the business driven desire to see test scores rise, but from a love of learning and personal growth.

Ms. Medina shakes her head at the direction that Ms. Voss has chosen to lead their school. She compares her attitude toward the community to someone "giving a lollipop to a child and telling them to calm down and stop bothering them." She also laments the idea that the district would choose to downsize a program despite the community's desire to celebrate and expand it.

"How does the district think that an outsider can make the necessary changes in our community? Believe me, it takes a lot to gain people's trust. Losing programs like SABER means a lot to the people who have already gone through the programs, and it will mean a lot to the people who will need their help in the future," says Ms. Medina, hammering in SABER's belief that a child does not check his problems at the classroom door. "My children and I are where we are today because SABER gave me a base from which to start. I will be grateful to them for my entire life."

Return to the Frontpage