By Yvette tenBerge
It is 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 11, and San Carlos residents have gathered at the home of a retired district teacher to learn more about Dr. Robert J. Cornelius, one of four candidates vying for San Diego City Schools'(SDCS) District B seat. Within moments, this calm, education expert has developed a relationship with his audience unlike any developed by other candidates. Those present find themselves not listening to him as someone running for office, but as a professor outlining the history of education.
Dr. Cornelius, 58, maintains a straight face through questions like, "But have you had any experience working with boards?" (Answer: "Yes, 25 years worth") but cannot help but crack a smile when he unveils a catchy phrase to sum up his take on a major area in which the "Blueprint for Student Success," the district's aggressive reform plan, has always fallen short.
"The Blueprint should energize, not traumatize," says Dr. Cornelius, referring to the effect that the Blueprint has had on thousands of the district's teachers. "If teachers are asked to join the party, they will do anything for the kids; if they are left out, there is no way any reform plan is going to work."
At the Tuesday, February 12 board meeting, The American Institutes for Research (AIR) presented the results of the first independent study of the Blueprint. The Palo Alto firm was paid $375,000 per year to interview 2,257 teachers, 165 principals, 192 teaching coaches and 32 math specialists at 16 randomly chosen schools within the district.
Dr. Cornelius, the only candidate present at the board meeting, listened while busily taking notes all over the thick, eight-chapter study. The marks that he was making served more to confirm long-held opinions about the Blueprint, than to highlight new facts.
Researchers at AIR stated that it was "much too early" in the implementation of the program to come to conclusions regarding its "success or lack thereof." It also confirmed that the central goals of the Blueprint are not clear to many teachers, and that the majority of teachers are seriously overwhelmed by the pace of the implementation of the Blueprint. Once again, the district was reminded that without the support of its teachers and parents, even the best of school reform initiatives could fail.
In a January interview, Dr. Cornelius discussed each of these topics, as well as others not mentioned in the study. "No reform has ever been effective unless there is collaboration and buy-in from the teachers and principals at each school. Reform can't be handled by displacement of all of the other good things that are going on," said Dr. Cornelius, citing the physics program at La Jolla High School as an example of a "good thing" that should have remained untouched. "If it isn't broken, don't try and fix it."
For the past two years, Dr. Cornelius has been a professor at San Diego's Alliant International University (formerly United States International University). His career in education, though, began more than 28 years ago as a teacher in a junior high school classroom. After receiving his doctorate in School Administration, Business/Finance from the University of Southern California in 1979, Dr. Cornelius went on to serve as a Financial Analyst for Fresno Unified School District, a Business Administrator for SDCS, an Assistant Superintendent of Business Services for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, Saddleback Valley Unified School District and Poway Unified School District, as well as a Deputy Superintendent of Administrative Services at Inglewood Unified School District.
Although the San Diego community is in a panic over the "circus" that is the SDCS board, Mr. Cornelius explains that the climate is not unlike that of most school boards. "I have often figured that boards are never any better than the administration that supports them," says Dr. Cornelius. He envisions the school board as a circle hovering over a pyramid, which he uses to symbolize the operating foundation of the education system. "The craziness that is going on with the board is not unusual, but what is dangerous is that it is causing a fracture in the pyramid. That has got to stop."
Other than his exceptional knowledge of and experience in education, the most unusual aspect of Dr. Cornelius' candidacy is his complete lack of a campaign. His financial records at the Registrar of Voters list no contributions, and it confirms that he has spent $70 of his own money on the purchase a campaign mailbox. (After today, records will be available showing roughly $2,000 in contributions from friends and neighbors.)
When asked about this, Dr. Cornelius confirms that he has encountered a lot of surprised reactions from voters. "I had one woman come up to me and say, `But, you don't have a glossy flier.' My candidacy is about the only grassroots approach out there. Most people I have talked to suggest that it's unreasonable to spend a lot of money when your competitors are able to amass hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of support," says Dr. Cornelius, who has opted, instead, to rely on people in the neighborhood to help get the word out. "I am not running for an election, but applying for a job."
When asked to describe Dr. Cornelius, words like "calm" and even "unexciting" pop out of the mouths of past and present colleagues, yet so do words like "strong," "stable" and "knowledgeable." Denise Ouellette, 37, is a resident of Scripps Ranch whose children attend Marshall Middle School and Miramar Ranch Academy School. She has known Dr. Cornelius for a few months and participated in many discussions with him before he made the decision to run for the District B seat.
"I liked Bob from the start, but I acquainted myself with all the candidates and their stances before deciding to support him. I think that his life would be a lot easier if he did not run for the school board, but he realizes he has talents uniquely suited to immediately improving San Diego Unified," says Ms. Ouellette, who believes that his motives are the "kids and the teachers."
Although many districts have hired Dr. Cornelius to "clean-up" their troubled budgets, both the Chamber of Commerce and the teacher's union passed him by for endorsements. He mentions that the Chamber may have been threatened by his expertise in this area, and the teachers union states that they passed him up because he was an "administrator." Ms. Ouellette, though, is all in favor of electing someone with experience in education.
"Bob has a strong background in school finance, and I believe that his knowledge of the system would be invaluable in getting this district on strong financial footing. He has a willingness to share his knowledge, and he believes that the constituency of the district deserves to know how money is allocated," says Ms. Ouellette. "There are those who are leery of having an `education insider' elected, but I say we've experienced enough `'education outsiders.'"
John Steele, 56, has been the Assistant Superintendent for Business Services for Vista Unified School District for the past three years. He met Dr. Cornelius when he served as Assistant Superintendent for Business Services at Saddleback Valley Unified 15 years ago.
"Bob will bring a strong, stable influence to the school board. He is knowledgeable in all aspects of education and understands both the teaching side and the business side," says Mr. Steele. "Instead of focusing on the political aspects of the board, he will look at the whole thing and do what's right for the kids."
Dr. Cornelius lists a number of positive things that our district should be celebrating, such as graduation rates and the number of kids going on to college. He acknowledges that the system is not working for a "good number" of students and categorizes the dilemma as finding a way to "accelerate those who are achieving and resolve the problems of those students who are not keeping up."
He offers a variety of suggestions on how this can be achieved. "We need to consider more research and development in learning theory, we need to consider teaching in the evenings, on weekends and potentially going to double shifts of teaching. We need to consider issues of how students are grouped and supported, and we need to use technology to accelerate learning," says Dr. Cornelius. "Nobody is trying to focus on what the child needs to be successful, and if we do not solve it pretty soon there will be a revolution on the part of parents."
As for issues concerning minority children and bilingual education, Dr. Cornelius states that an effective school movement that puts an emphasis on the principal's coordination with staff and that focuses on learning problems has been proven to enhance student achievement.
"Having been an educator and a teacher in minority schools, I know we have to be more sensitive to the issues of language and culture. I have never met a parent in a minority community who does not want their child to succeed," says Dr. Cornelius, who believes that children should be moved into English as "fast as possible." "The minority community thinks that these things are being done to them and not for them, and the only way to solve this equation is to require and request their participation."
After sharing views such as: "The biggest blueprint in the San Diego Unified School District is its billion dollar operating budget," and "This district has two superintendents: one who doesn't know anything about education and one who thinks he knows everything about education," Dr. Cornelius leaves his "students" with one more bit of information before ending his lesson. "The only thing worse than reform is doing it poorly, because it takes years to get out of it."