July 20, 2001

Educational Programs Sacrificed At the Altar: SDUSD Makes Way for Blueprint

By Yvette tenBerge

It is summer, but all is far from peaceful within the walls of the San Diego Unified School District. The noise is becoming deafening; however, the majority of the shouting comes not from the small group of students who still remain on campuses, but from the growing mob of community members concerned with the direction in the which Superintendent Alan Bersin and his Chancellor of Instruction, Anthony Alvarado, are leading their children.
Sherman Heights community members line up to question
Sherman Elementary principal, Valerie Voss.

It is 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday, July 18, and the auditorium at Sherman Elementary School on 24th Street is packed with parents. Over 200 community members and their children have gathered to listen as Sherman's principal, Valerie Voss, attempts to convince them that the district has not, and will not, be cutting programs like SABER, an initiative that, for the past eight years, has created a "wellness system of social support, health education and promotion for Sherman children and families."

To one side stands a large, white bulletin board. Oversized letters cut from pink construction paper spell the words "Questions" and "Preguntas" across its top. Those in attendance have been instructed to pencil their concerns on slips of pink, yellow and blue paper and attach them to the board, before making their way to their chairs.

To an outsider, this kindergarten style of classroom management might seem like a reasonable way to organize a meeting where there are more questions than there are people. Ask any of the parents present, though, and they will tell you that it is just another way for Ms. Voss to "control" the crowd, and to "prevent dialogue."

The parents here have gathered to protest a number of recent changes that were made without their consent. They rail against the lack of collaboration between Ms. Voss, the community and the teachers, against the rumored removal of valued programs, and against recent mandates, such as the decision to remove the school's computer lab. Tackling that issue, Ms. Voss tells the attentive crowd that the teachers, themselves, voted to replace the computer lab instructors with physical education instructors. The crowd comes alive with muttered disbelief.

Olivia Rodriguez, a 30 year-old mother of two, raises her hand and takes the microphone from the flustered translator. "Actually, the teachers are the ones asking the parents to come and fight for the computer class," says Ms. Rodriguez, who smiles politely at Ms. Voss before sitting down. A roar of hoots, claps and words of support fills the room.

While the academic issues currently effecting Sherman Heights Elementary might seem small, they are indicative of much larger, and much more widespread issues effecting parents and teachers throughout the district. The cost of implementing and maintaining Mr. Bersin's literacy-based Blueprint for Student Success consumes more and more of the district budget with each passing year. It is not coincidental, then, that parents and teachers are seeing more and more programs downsized or shut down each year, as well.

Sherman Heights employees confirm that, in their school, alone, close to $2 million in grant money has already been appropriated from programs like SABER and "6 to 6", an initiative that offers before and after school programming in areas of academic literacy, cultural arts and science enrichment. To date, $960,000 has been "redirected" from the Even Start Grant which is specifically given to fund programs like SABER; as much as $585,000 has been appropriated from a 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, and all of the $100,000 used to fund the 6 to 6 program for the year has been taken. While all the money taken from this school will be used in educational programs, there is no guarantee that it will stay at Sherman Elementary.

Trustee John deBeck, who has been a member of the school board since 1990, sums up the reason that programs such as these are diminishing or disappearing all together. "My take on all of this is that the district is so desperate for money for the Blueprint, that they will do anything to switch dollars from where they were intended. This is why we have conflicts with the community advisory committees and other people who want the money to go where it was intended," says Mr. deBeck. "Robbing programs to support the Blueprint is a mandate."

According to the 2001-2002 Final Budget, dated June 26, 2001, the expenses for the Blueprint for Student Success will total $98,011,356. This is $36 million more than the final 2000-2001 budget of $61, 969,740. While the massive cost increase would be hard to swallow even in the best of times, the Blueprint price tag seems even more outrageous given that the effectiveness of the program has yet to be evaluated by an independent, outside source.

To this end, the district has hired an outside monitoring firm, the American Institute of Research (AIR), to access the efficacy of the Blueprint; however, this company only issues their findings in three-year cycles. This year, 2001, marks the end of the second year of monitoring; therefore, the first progress report will not be submitted to the board for at least another twelve months. 

Whereas AIR constitutes a system of external monitoring, the Academic Achievement Council (AAC), a district-funded group established in 1998 to "close the achievement gap," is responsible for monitoring the system internally. While the list of "national experts" appointed to the AAC by Mr. Bersin and Mr. Alvarado has come over the years to include more locals than outside sources, few can shake the feeling that the Council has been little more than an excuse for high-paid east coast consultants to receive an all-expense paid San Diego vacation. Mr. deBeck estimates the cost for the three meetings held annually to have been in the range of $150,000 per year.

Trustee Frances O' Neill Zimmerman, a board member since 1996, offers her thoughts on the purpose of the Academic Achievement Council. "The first year it was weighted with hotshot consultants who flew in from out of town. They have disappeared, and the council now includes modest representation from formally independent, local watchdog committees, such as the Community Budget Advisory Committee, the Equity and Student Placement Committee and people representing the visual and performing arts. The effect of this has been to mute the independent voices of these various local groups. The Academic Achievement Council now seems to me to be a front for legitimizing whatever it is that Bersin, Alvarado and the three board rubber stamps decide they want to do. They do nothing but ratify their own presence, and they barely ever raise a question of significance," says Ms. Zimmerman. "Now we have an Academic Achievement Council that white washes Alvarado and Bersin's ideas, and one that has co-opted the influence of formally independent local advisory groups."

For the first two years of its existence, the AAC failed to keep minutes for any of it's meetings. This leaves the bulk of the Council's dealings eternally shrouded in darkness. Scrutiny of the minutes from the AAC's May 4, 2001 meeting, though, confirms Ms. Zimmerman's assessment. In language reminiscent of the heavy-handed district press releases, the AAC minutes seem to do little more than pat the proponents of the Blueprint on the back.

The minutes of that meeting indicate that one of the attendees was Jonathan Freedman, an author whose current project is to chronicle the "great educational reform" occurring in San Diego. After what reads to be much self-congratulation, it was necessary for one person present to make a special request to "refocus the purpose of this group to specifically concentrate on academic achievement and student performance."

External and internal monitoring aside, perhaps the best way to access the efficacy of the Blueprint program is to examine district performance on the STAR Stanford-9 and California Standards Tests. The Stanford-9 test results compare a student's performance in reading, mathematics, language and spelling with the performance of other students across the nation. The California Standards Test reflects a child's mastery of the material necessary to pass the high school exit exams and receive a high school diploma. It is based on recently approved California state standards.

Dr. Jack Tierney, the County of Education's Evaluations Manager, is one of the people responsible for releasing the STAR data. Although he has received the 2001 scores for 27 of the 42 school districts in San Diego County, larger districts like San Diego Unified will have to wait until August 15 for their results to be posted. Past tests, though, do show an upward trend.

SAT-9 scores have shown improvements ranging from one to 18 percentage points, depending on the grade. "I think that the SAT-9 scores were quite good for 1998, and they have improved each year. My opinion is that the San Diego Unified School District has always been one of the best urban school districts in the country," says Dr. Tierney, whose own children graduated from the district in 1991 and 1993. Dr. Tierney admits he knows little about the Blueprint, a program whose effects weren't felt until after 1998.

Although steadily rising test scores are undoubtedly promising, many await the 2001 state standards test scores with anticipation. Rather than measure their children against students nation-wide, these parents are more intent on making sure that their children have a strong education that will take them successfully through high school and land them in the lap of the university of their choice.

Ms. Zimmerman speaks to the Blueprint from this angle and addresses what may be a more true definition of education. "The scores are in fact, rising. In a very narrow view of what constitutes education, we can look at these scores. But is that what education is all about? Is it worth adopting such an unbalanced and astronomically expensive program? Our job is to look at the nature of the education that is being offered to our students."

This sharpens the case of those against the Blueprint. While the Blueprint may eventually prove to heighten the skills of students in the areas of literacy and basic mathematics, this focus remains narrow. Its small gains will only come from heavy loss in an entire spectrum of other programs and courses of study. In this light, the issue becomes not what will happen with the Blueprint program, but what will never happen with it.

While the district anxiously awaits the test results that it will receive in August, thousands of other parents and teachers await other news. They listen not for word of the Blueprint, but for word concerning SABER, 6 to 6, and numerous other programs just like them.

All attempts to communicate with Superintendent Bersin, Chancellor Alvarado or the DISTRICT COMMUNICATIONS OFFICE were denied.

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