July 13, 2001

San Diego Adopts a "Rigorous" College Prep Physics Program Using Textbook Dollars for Skateboards and Bathroom Scales

From the Office of John de Beck
San Diego School District Board Member

In a move reminding observers of the Defense Department expenditures for toilet seats, San Diego City Schools bought $377,309 worth of instructional supplies to support a "rigorous" high school physics program that has enriched one publisher to the tune of nearly $3 million. Anthony Alvarado, the school district's imported educational guru from New York and the Chancellor of San Diego's Institute for Learning, said when he recommended the course to the board, "The course fully meets the University of California admission requirements for physics."

"If it does, then Classic Comics will meet their English Literature requirements!" chided Board of Education Member John de Beck, who adamantly opposed the proposal.

On April 24, in a span of less than three weeks, the San Diego Board of Education adopted the course which all high school freshmen will be required to take. Unrevealed at the time of the vote, the instructional supplies for the course included about 40 skateboards for each school, and such "scientific" equipment as brooms, bathroom scales, traffic cones, air pucks and safety goggles.

Ironically, the school district had worked for years to get a city ordinance passed that prohibits skateboards on school grounds. It states that, "No person shall ride on any skateboard, roller-blade, or similar-type device on any property owned by any school district that has a policy prohibiting such use and which displays a sign at the main entrance to the (school) property. (Municipal code 84.12)" The District policy is posted at every district school.

The instructional supplies for each science department for this one class exceeds the entire expenditure for all other high school science classes combined, according to district science department chairpersons. One award-winning science teacher at La Jolla High, Martin Teachworth, whose students regularly sweep local, state and national science fairs, stated that teachers were never consulted or allowed to review the course prior to its adoption by a 3-2 vote by the Board of Education.

Bud Hamilton, a veteran high school science teacher at Point Loma High said, "We don't have enough money for microscopes or high-tech science instruments, but we can spend valuable instructional dollars for brooms, skateboards and bathroom scales. What about precision scales, laser measuring instruments, hard-to-get specimens or expensive chemicals so that kids can do complex and challenging experiments?"

Board Member John de Beck, who was one of the two board members to vote against adopting Active Physics said, "The entire program is `funny book' science! The board was never presented any information about the need to buy skateboards, nor were the high school science teachers given copies of the textbooks before we acted. When I forced the issue and got the books two days before the vote, I publicly stated that this work was too easy, and maybe appropriate for middle school or upper elementary kids. Only Fran Zimmerman believed me!"

The first time that de Beck heard of the skateboards was weeks after the adoption vote, when he received a query from a concerned citizen who wanted to know why the district was buying skateboards without getting appropriate safety equipment. "I hate being blind-sided and told about stupid district decisions by my community," he remarked. The query set him off on another study of the entire program. "I was against it when it passed, but was willing to accept the majority vote... until I found out how much information was withheld from the board at the time of the adoption. This information omission is unacceptable staff behavior, and they will not hear the end of it. We wasted millions on this course, and now we will have all kinds of damage control and disingenuous explanations and finger pointing. I'll bet they even say the order for the skateboards was an error, even though it is included in Active Physics kits throughout the country!"

According to estimates taken from staff reports, the total cost of the course adoption exceeds $3 million, including staff training.

Numerous community members agree that this was a bad decision, and even the local newspaper (The San Diego Union-Tribune) which has repeatedly sided with Superintendent Bersin, urged caution about adopting the course in an unprecedented editorial.

In the days following the brouhaha over the skateboards, District Science Specialist, Kim Bess, was in full damage control mode after one high school refused to accept the skateboards. Nearly one month after the materials were received, she issued a cover-up memo directing school principals to make sure that the skateboards were to be used only by teachers to demonstrate Newton's Third Law of Motion. Upon hearing this, one teacher exclaimed, "Wow, now I know where to go this summer for staff training. I can join my son at the skateboard park! But what do I do with the other 39 skateboards?"

Marc Knapp, president of the local teacher's union said, "In San Diego, reform is an apple pie issue, and three votes are assured for anything with that label as long as Superintendent Alan Bersin recommends it. When you hire people who have never done the job they are supervising, you really can't expect them to make good educational decisions," said Mr. Knapp. "We have people with Ph.D's and advanced degrees in science being told what and how to teach by lawyers, politicians and self-proclaimed curriculum experts who aren't qualified, and don't have as much science education as most of our teachers do!"

Ron Ottinger, a supporter of all of the Superintendent's recommendations including the science class and the materials, continued his support and declared the course to be "just what was needed to bring kids up to the demands of the 21st century."

Board Member Frances O'Neil Zimmerman, who voted no on the adoption said, "The real tragedy is that the kids are being hurt, and resources are being wasted. We should be listening to the teachers... they know how to deliver high quality instruction! Something in San Diego City Schools has to change, and soon!"

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