By Michael Klam
Education is politics. On Jan. 27, Alan Bersin agreed to step down as superintendent of San Diego City Schools. Bersin, a former “Border Czar” with no previous education experience, was the force majeure behind a seven-year education reform that would result in sharp divisions at school sites, in the community and on the school board.
Bersin’s autocratic management style and relentless pursuit of the Blueprint for Student Success kept teachers, parents and students outside the decision-making process and gave administrators unparalleled sway and jurisdiction in site governance.
While Bersin’s Blueprint had been praised by some for raising test scores and increasing staff instructional development through high-priced consultancy, others contended that the reform alienated teachers and parents and brought morale in San Diego City Schools to an all-time low.
However, the district is now in a state of flux. Three new board members Luis Acle, president, Sheila Jackson and Mitz Lee have begun disassembling the parts of the reform that did not work, while retaining the successes. The new board has placed emphasis on reorganizing the former top-down approach at school sites, and is now going back to shared decision-making among parents, teachers and administrators.
San Diego City Schools Board member Jackson acknowledges that now is the time for change. “It’s a transitional period. Before, principals said, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ Now, parents and teachers are, and rightfully so, part of the discussion. Administrators will be held accountable to bring in parents and teachers,” said Jackson.
The Collective Negotiations Contract between the Board of Education SDCS and the San Diego Education Association states clearly that the “quality of decision-making is best when the process is closest to and includes all stakeholders on site governance teams, which should include parents, community representatives, administrators, certificated staff members, classified staff members, and when appropriate, students.”
This past school year, a small group of parents raised concerns about the state of Samuel F.B. Morse High in Southeast San Diego and its administration. Bernadette Rollins, a parent, School Site Council member and 22-year resident of the Morse High community, wrote in a letter, “The community and parents do not feel welcome at Morse. This appears to be due mainly to the policy and practices of the current administration.” Rollins continued, “There are no parents connected to the school governance. The meetings are held at 2:30 in the afternoon every other Monday, not making it accessible to the parents or the community, and it is commingled with other organizational meetings. Governance meetings are supposed to be held solely for governance, and without parent involvement, there is no governance.”
Rocio Weiss, the principal at Morse High, acknowledged that parent participation in site decision-making is one of the school’s greatest challenges. “As students move through the grade levels, the level of parent participation decreases. Last year we had a newsletter, multiple forums. We sent mailers home. We sent fliers. We used the auto-dialer,” said Weiss. She conceded that Morse has struggled to get parents to commit to site governance. When asked how she would keep the lines of communication open, Weiss explained, “I’m going to continue to do what I have been doing. Already I’ve scheduled parent forums.”
Weiss explained that Morse High lost 14 support employees due to budget cuts. “We are willing to meet the challenges with fewer and fewer resources,” she said. Weiss asserted that the opportunity is there to bring in more parents, and “the challenge is to achieve critical mass.”
Weiss also stated that she would be more than happy to accommodate parents if they need to meet later than 2:30 p.m.
Rollins’ complaint went further: “During the parent/community forums the administration is evasive when asked direct questions by parents, students and community members regarding the state of the school,” Rollins said. “The principal is generally not accessible or on campus in the morning. Throughout the day she is difficult to locate.”
John Phillips, another vocal parent at Morse High, believes that Weiss has alienated the community. “She’s not open and gets irate. Teachers fear reprisal. Parents don’t show up,” he said.
When asked about open communication at Morse, Weiss said, “Principals are very busy people. I always answer phone calls. My door is always open.”
Phillips also voiced concerns about Principal Weiss’ emphasis on Small Learning Communities (SLCs), which focus instruction on specific themes. He’s worried that Morse students will not be afforded the same opportunities as students who attend high schools north of Interstate 8 to study medical sciences, computer sciences and business.
Regarding SLCs, Weiss said, “The current structure doesn’t serve young adults well.” All high schools around the nation are changing. “Parents need to be at the table and have the opportunity to explore all the options,” she said.
But not everyone in the community agrees with the parent complaints. “She is an outstanding administrator, extremely persistent and intelligent. She is a very perceptive individual. She is a pro-student administrator,” said Morse High teacher Tony Valencia.
”Not everybody is going to be received well by everybody,” he said. “Jesus wasn’t received well by everybody. John Kennedy wasn’t received well by everybody. Our president is having the same issue. There will be a certain number of people who will be against you. That’s the nature of being a leader.”
Weiss said that’s an area she’s been working on. “I’ve only been here for two years. All principals work on having an optimal environment where teachers feel respected and invested and involved in decision-making.”
”There are a growing number of teachers that understand the need to change and are willing to become more knowledgeable about alternative structures and instructional strategies. Change is not an easy process and it’s a long-term endeavor. A growing number of teachers are coming forward to collaborate,” said Weiss.
According to Weiss, Valencia took it upon himself to rally support on her behalf. Four pages of parent signatures were also collected in her support.
Valencia is an active member of the U.S.-Mexico Foundation. On July 11, SDCS Board member Jackson received a letter from the foundation, mentioning a “conspiracy by a very limited number of individuals from the Samuel F.B. Morse High School community with ulterior motives to remove Rocio Weiss as principal.” The letter also referred to an article about racial skirmishes and racial tensions in Los Angeles schools.
Phillips, the parent, said, “This has never been about race. Race has never been mentioned by myself or anyone else I know of. The concern has always been support to the community, students and the teachers at Morse.”
Rollins agreed. “This is not a racial issue. It’s about leadership quality. We would like to see the administrator embrace the community and all the activities at the school,” she said.
Both parents and administrator said they want to focus on the issues of student success. Testing, accreditation and curriculum are all areas that need to be addressed mutually by the adults in the learning community.
All parties agreed that the students of Morse High deserve the best teaching and the best possible opportunities. The district is moving in the direction of cooperation and collaboration.
San Diego City Schools has a new board and a new superintendent, Carl Cohn. He is the former superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District. During his tenure, Long Beach Unified made dramatic improvements in student performance, attendance and behavior.
A former teacher and counselor, Cohn is said to have the kind of political savvy required to create coalitions and foster agreements in the complex arena of urban education. Perhaps this bodes well for the students of Morse High.
The pendulum is swinging. San Diego City Schools is changing. All signs indicate that the board and the new superintendent will bring parents and teachers back to the table to share their concerns, their ideas and their expertise. Administrators will be held accountable for finding ways to bring the community into the discussion.
”All of our schools are good schools and we welcome parent involvement and teacher involvement. We should be open to people asking questions,” said board member Jackson.