January 10, 2003

Commentary

Is San Diego City Schools Capable of Respecting its Constituents?

By Ernie McCray

Recently I enjoyed the honor of serving over a hundred enthusiastic students from Johnson Elementary in Emerald Hills as their Principal-for-a-Day. Their parents had kept them out of school as a protest against a school system that had treated their community with incomprehensible disrespect and disdain. Because of  my involvement in this act of civil disobedience I was invited to share my thoughts about San Diego City Schools on the Roger Hedgecock Show and on These Days on KPBS radio.

I explained to listeners that the Johnson Elementary community was fed up with: going without the textbooks they want for their children; tolerating a situation where there aren’t enough permanent certified teachers available for their children; waiting patiently for services like extended day reading and math programs that they are due; and accepting a Blueprint of Success that has caused their test scores to decline when they had been rising steadily.

A cartoonist would portray the Johnson Elementary community with fire in their eyes and veins popping out of their necks while their school board representative, Ed Lopez, says as he did on These Days: “I sat down with them at the end of last school year.” Like serious problems can be dealt with and solved in a meeting every year or so. His statement proves just how out of touch the system is with the communities it’s supposed to be serving.

Mr. Lopez goes on to say: “We dropped the ball on this one.” Dropped the ball? They didn’t even go out for the pass. Sadly, San Diego City Schools, as it has illustrated over and over again, ad nauseam, unashamedly, doesn’t care one iota about what parents have to say.

Tom Mitchell, a spokesperson for the district, shared something during the hour that highlighted the district’s poor relationships with parents even more. He talked about how principals need training on how to work with parents. What? In my way of thinking any educator who can’t relate to parents innately, human to human, should seriously consider another profession. 

How much training does it take to say to a parent, “Hello, how ya doing?” and listen carefully to the reply? How much training does it take, to give a parent a warm handshake or a hug and sit down with him or her to ponder a concern? How much training does it take to take parents seriously, to try to give them what they want, within reason, and when it can’t be done how much training does it take to level with them and seek a solution that comes closest to solving the problem?  

My guess, based on my experience with the district’s leadership, is that any training they have in mind would be focused on how to tell a mom or dad “No” while appearing to be concerned.

The school district is of the opinion that Johnson parents were using their children as pawns. I wholeheartedly disagree with this assessment because I had the pleasure of playing a part, along with other community leaders, in setting the tone for the protest as far as the children were concerned.

After the children walked the several blocks from their school to the classrooms that were organized for them at the Greater Life Baptist Church, chanting their wants and needs before the television cameras and radio microphones, I addressed them in an assembly designed to respect them as the freedom fighters they are.

I expressed to them how teary eyed they caused me to be, how hopeful they made an old 60’s activist feel. I wanted them to know and understand, through a poem I wrote to them that, since their school system allows no real meaningful input from their community, that school system is, in a word, Un-American, and what they were doing “gave voice to the way citizens in a democracy should conduct themselves if they truly are to become free, if our country is truly the land of liberty.”

Helping children understand their world, in a spirit of love, makes their educational experiences relevant to their lives. But nothing could be more relevant and important to them than seeing their school system respect their parents’ ideas and desires.

A task force is being formed to work towards improving the learning environment at Johnson Elementary but, based on all I’ve seen, I have to ask: Are the leaders of San Diego City Schools capable of working cooperatively and respectfully with parents and other members of a school community? We shall see.

Ernie McCray is a retired principal with San Diego City Schools.

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