By Yvette tenBerge
The parents, teachers and community
members who have attended the San Diego Unified School District
board meetings over the past three years have had to develop a
tolerance for disrespect.
It is Tuesday, May 22nd, and a crowd is gathering for the district's biweekly board meeting at 4100 Normal Street. Although many concerned parents have taken time off from work simply to observe the proceedings, a large number of them have made the trip especially to speak out on issues that affect their children.
Cedearee Barnett, the Parent/Teacher/Student Association President for Morse High School rushes in to take a seat near the front of the auditorium. Sweat beads on her brow as she unbuttons her jean jacket and takes her carefully prepared, five-minute speech from her purse. Sue Braun, the board president, calls her name, and Ms. Barnett approaches the podium to address what has become a common theme among many who have dealings with this system: outrage over District Superintendent Alan Bersin.
Although the specific reasons are varied, the underlying theme is constant. Ms. Barnett's speech addresses her anger at a recent enrollment cap put on Morse High School that will cause children to be bussed to other schools. Although very few disagree that Morse, which currently serves 3,152 students, is overcrowded, Ms. Barnett's primary complaint is that, once again, Mr. Bersin, Chancellor Anthony Alvarado and the school board majority have made a monumental decision without either the knowledge or the consent of parents and teachers.
"My daughter will be a senior next year, and I do not want to see her getting up at 5:00 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. to take a bus. Parents are having a hard enough time communicating with this school system without having to travel outside of their area," says Ms. Barnett, whose voice trembles with passion as she addresses a blank-faced Mr. Bersin. "My daughter is not going to go where you send her; she goes where Ms. Barnett sends her."
The audience erupts into a thunderous applause which sends board members scrambling into action. Vice-President Ron Ottinger rushes to Mr. Bersin's defense; Board Member Ed Lopez hashes out a moral lecture, and Ms. Braun proceeds to chastise the "unruly" crowd. Although Board Members John de Beck and Frances Zimmerman are in agreement with Ms. Barnett, they exchange frustrated glances. They are as powerless against the board majority as the parents and teachers.
Although some San Diegans are familiar with the top-down way in which the district has been run since Mr. Bersin was hired in 1998, the media has taken pains to downplay the seriousness of a situation that now affects an estimated 143,000 students, 7,635 teachers and certificated staff and 390 administrators.
Mr. Bersin, a former U.S. attorney with no previous experience in education, was hired as the San Diego Unified School District Superintendent after an unusually secretive interview process. Mr. Bersin then hired Mr. Alvarado, a former elementary school district superintendent from New York City, and allowed him to wield his ideas on education almost without check. For his own part, Mr. Bersin began reorganizing the district bureaucracy, firing proven administrators and realigning budgets to conform with his stated mission of improving "student achievement by supporting teaching and learning in the classroom."
Teachers and parents, though, have
felt anything but supported. For the most part, they have felt
ignored. Despite the protests of thousands of parents and the
resignation, firing or early retirement of over 1,000 district
teachers and administrators, Mr. Bersin continues to run his administration
with a deaf ear. Most recently, he has implemented a literacy-based
"Blueprint for Success" reform plan, instituted a plan
that could eventually discontinue all high school elective courses,
purchased textbooks that have been rejected by the California
State Board of Education and instated a ninth grade "Active
Physics" course, which many describe as "watered-down
Theresa Creber, mother of three and Chairperson for the District Advisory Committee (DAC) on Compensatory Education, explains the frustration experienced by educators and parents in the district. "It was never about the Blueprint or the strategies. It was always that the parents, the community and the teachers were left out of the process to develop the Blueprint," says Ms. Creber, who explains that the reform plan targets the lowest performing students in the district, but impacts every student. Thus far, it consists of a daily, two or three hour literacy block, but will be expanded to include one hour of mathematics and the aforementioned physics course.
This is not to say, though, that the reform plan, itself, is necessarily a good one. Ms. Creber continues, "If the public were to read the Blueprint, [they would find] that it does not mention any standards, any textbooks or any curriculum. It is just a document that raises more questions than answers."
Illegal Appropriation of Title 1 Funds
Whether current education practices are valid, though, is still only one of a number of concerns about Mr. Bersin. Ms. Creber and the DAC just emerged from a 14-month long battle waged against the Superintendent for illegally appropriating $62 million in Title 1 funds to run his $100 million reform program. Freeing up these funds required firing some 600 full and part-time teaching assistants and dismantling educational programs that Mr. Bersin deemed ineffective.
Under the law, Title 1 funds are meant to supplement a school's regular budget to pay for programs that help disadvantaged students. Money from Title 1 cannot be used for programs that should be funded by regular state or local education funds. According to state investigators, though, the district used Title 1 funds at some schools to pay for programs that should have been paid for out of the district's regular budget. As a result, some schools with a high percentage of disadvantaged students were receiving no more money than schools in affluent areas.
Despite the fact that a 53-page report dated May 25 notified Mr. Bersin that his administration "did not comply with federal and state statutes and regulations" in that they "failed to meet the specific requirements regarding parent consultation in policy involvement, shared responsibilities for high student performance, and building capacity for involvement," Mr. Bersin claimed that the state findings were a "massive vindication of the Blueprint."
Hiding Truth About the Blueprint
According to Ms. Creber, Mr. Bersin's "display of public relations camouflage" is nothing new. "I was at a press release meeting at Hoover High on Wednesday [May 30th], and Mr. Bersin put up math charts to show how much our children have improved. He was taking credit for this even though he has done nothing for mathematics. The literacy test scores he put up were representative of the English-fluent students only," says Ms. Creber, shaking her head in disbelief. "And he did this even though Spanish speaking students make up 37 percent of our [district's] population."
Carla Castille, a language specialist and an elementary teacher for over 31 years in the district, retired after her first year working under Mr. Bersin. She recounts the changes that occurred upon Mr. Bersin's arrival. "From day one, Mr. Bersin came in with intimidation. The feeling throughout the district was that we had not been successful, that we had not been teaching correctly," says Ms. Castille, describing the drop in teacher morale. "At every staff meeting I went to, someone would tell me to teach something different, but there was no curriculum provided and nobody came to train the staff."
According to the Blueprint, elementary school teachers are expected to insert a three hour literacy block into their teaching day without a curriculum for that block. They are still responsible for covering regular subjects such as math, social studies, health, science and music although specific time is not allotted for this. Ms. Castille vividly remembers her frantic attempts to do so. "[The teachers] knew that we were still responsible for the SAT 9 scores, so that first year, we would push to fit in all of these subjects. My fellow teachers now say that it is almost impossible to teach the full child anymore," says Ms. Castille, sharing the information she receives from teachers who still work within the district. "What all experienced teachers know is that you cannot meet the needs of every child by using this `one-size fits all' approach."
Aside from the dictatorial power structure, the illegal funding practices and the dysfunctional educational theories, what truly bothers most parents, teachers and administrators are Mr. Bersin's frequent misrepresentations. Mr. Bersin assured worried parents and teachers that GATE/Seminar, Special Education and elementary instrumental music programs "would not be affected by the Blueprint" and that their funding would "not be reduced as a result of the Blueprint." He promised that students who are achieving at or above grade level would have continued, full access to electives and that the students who would be spending additional time in Blueprint courses would also have access to electives. Despite pledging this, Mr. Bersin's plan will likely eliminate all high school electives within a few years. As of next year, wood shop and home economics will be gone.
Tom Felder (his name has been changed at his request out of fear of retribution) is an award-winning high school instructor who has worked within the district for over 25 years. His classroom is filled with dune buggy parts, engine blocks, electrical devices and an old motor cycle. Plastic trophies of various sizes decorate his shelves and certificates awarded for excellence in brakes, arc welding, gas welding and auto body line the counter tops. Within a year's time, though, the electives that garnered these awards and created today's mechanics, electricians, plumbers and carpenters, will be gone.
"Students learn in many, many ways. We will lose the majority of our students if we try to fit them into Mr. Bersin's `Harvard School of Thinking.' All kids should be given the opportunity to find their niche, and every kid should be given the chance to be successful," says Mr. Felder, who recounts numerous stories of children whom many labeled "slow" or "hopeless," but who found their strengths in his classes. "I feel that these kids are our future, and I am doing everything in my power to make these kids into the best they can be. I am telling you, Mr. Bersin's way is not the way to do this."
Perhaps the most damning evidence against the Blueprint program is not what it is doing, or what it will do, but what it will not do. Although every elementary and middle school student is affected by Mr. Bersin's literacy program, many fear that irreparable damage could be done to those who are relegated to the three-hour literacy courses in high school. Eighth graders who perform "significantly below grade level" in reading comprehension on the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Test will enter into Mr. Bersin's Blueprint program in high school. Although other students would be taking English, world history, geometry, physical education and a foreign language, the low-performing students, the majority of whom are students who speak English as their second language, will be taking the three-hour, literacy-based "Genre Studies" classes, some type of mathematics and the Active Physics course. Despite assurances in district press releases, many informed parents and teachers claim that no plan is currently in place that will allow students the opportunity to "test out" of this specialized program.
Yolanda Escamilla, vice president of the San Diego High Parent/Teacher/Student Association, expresses a serious concern held by many parents and educators. "The Blueprint has tracked minority children, primarily Latino and African-American kids, into dead-end, remedial classes without clear policy or procedure for getting them out of these classes. These kids are not getting an equal education," says Ms. Escamilla.
Ms. Escamilla goes on to point out that the majority of these Blueprint students might not be able to pass the high school exit exams. For those who do end up graduating and receiving their diploma, the Blueprint program will have eliminated or kept them out of the very electives that could have prepared them for trades. Those hoping to pursue a degree at a California college or university will also be left in the dark. According to the college requirements submitted by the Regents of the University of California, applicants must have taken two years of history or social science, two years of a language other than English, and two years of college preparatory electives in order to be considered for admission.
Marc Knapp, the president of the San Diego Education Association, represents the thousands of teachers who are still working within the district. He sadly confirms the rumor that between 1,100 and 1,300 teachers have decided not to return to the district next year. He also recalls the pre-Bersin days, when San Diego Unified was the envy of other districts. During this time, the superintendent, the board, parents, teachers and administrators all worked together. "Normally, we all came to a consensus on issues. Maybe nobody completely got what they wanted, but the kids were the winners. We now have a superintendent who does not talk to us, who does not talk with the parent advisory group or the PTA, and who has disbanded all of the ethnic advisory committees. When you have a situation like this, you have a problem."
Mr. Knapp offers hope and perspective to those who worry that Mr. Bersin, Mr. Alvarado and the current board majority have gotten the best of the San Diego Unified School District. "What Mr. Bersin does not understand, is that the majority of teachers do not have political aspirations like he does. They know what there careers are. They have chosen teaching because they want to service kids, and help the community. When you push them to the point where they believe that their kids are being short-changed, you are done," says Mr. Knapp. "One [board] seat up there is all that there is between sanity and insanity. Believe me, people are lining up to run for Sue Braun's seat [in March, 2002]. We will wait this guy out."
Efforts to speak with the Superintendent were denied by David Smollar, the Public Information Officer for the district.