May 18, 2001

San Diego High School Still Steaming Over Loss of Alfaro

By Yvette tenBerge

The concrete steps of San Diego High's downtown campus came to life Friday morning as an angry crowd of more than 50 students, parents, alumni, teachers and school board members gathered to express their outrage at the recent firing of its well-loved principal, Tony Alfaro.

Vice president of the San Diego High Parent, Teacher and Student Association, Yolanda Escamilla, shares her anger. Sheis surrounded by students, parents, teachers and alumni.

District officials and various media sources claim that Mr. Alfaro voluntarily accepted his resignation following a May 3rd meeting with the district's Chancellor of Instruction, Anthony Alvarado. There are many, though, who insist that the outspoken principal was forced to resign his position five weeks short of graduation.

In a written statement released yesterday, Mr. Alfaro responded to the San Diego School District's statement surrounding his dismissal and to other facts published in a May 12th Union-Tribune article. Mr. Alfaro states that he "never resigned" and that he "stepped down as principal at Anthony Alvarado's request." While district spokesperson Norma Trost claims that Mr. Alfaro chose his own date of departure, Mr. Alfaro states that his choice of June 17th, a date which would have allowed him to see his students graduate, was "not an option I was offered. Alvarado stated I could select a day [the] next week, which was the week of May 7th."

Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, a board member since 1996, was present at Friday's rally. Since then, she has submitted a request for an official explanation of the situation from district lawyer Ricardo Soto. "I am demanding to know how a step like this can be taken without [board members'] knowledge. They might say that [Mr. Alfaro] resigned and picked his date of departure, but I know this man. He is a fiery, intelligent, honest and proud person," says Ms. Zimmerman, who describes herself as "sick" over the ousting of Mr. Alfaro. "I know that Mr. Alfaro would have wanted to see the students he has followed for the past four years graduate."

Superintendent Alan Bersin has had no previous experience running a school district, and while this is not the first time he and Chancellor Alvarado have cut short the career of a long-time district employee, it may be the first time that they have encountered so much resistance from a single community for doing so. Mr. Alfaro, a 25-year district employee, is known for his dedication to students and families, as well as for his ability to increase performance levels.

In the four years that he served as the principal for San Diego High School, the number of students completing the University of California's entrance requirements rose from 26% to 35%. Library hours were extended; the effectiveness of the counseling department dramatically increased, and the number of graduates attending post-secondary institutions rose from 73% to 82%.

President of the San Diego High School Alumni Association, Sam Salazar, speaks out against Mr. Alfaro's dismissal.

Despite his ability to build at a time when school systems across the nation are collapsing, many close to the situation feel that Mr. Alfaro's habit of speaking his mind proved too much for those in charge. However, according to John de Beck, a board member since 1990 with over 36 years of teaching experience, the policies that Mr. Alfaro questioned were ones about which many experienced educators would express concern.

"People who have long-term experience like Tony Alfaro have questions. The Superintendent and the Chancellor have never had experience in high schools, so to many, it seems as if [Bersin and Alvarado] feel like they are going to fix high schools based not on proven practice, but on opinion," says Mr. de Beck. "The word on the street is that it's a rein of terror. People who work in this school system are afraid to say anything because they are afraid that they will be next."

Although it was well-known by staff and board members that Mr. Alfaro would not be hired again for next school year, board members de Beck and Zimmerman assured worried alumni, parents and students that they would not vote to dismiss him before then. However, Mr. Alfaro was fired without consulting the board. According to Mr. de Beck, this has become the norm.

"As a board member, I find out about things the day they happen or the day before they happen. We knew that [Mr. Alfaro] was in trouble, but we were never informed that he would be ushered out before graduation. Even if he did submit his resignation, he did so almost certainly at the threat of receiving bad evaluations and having a very hard time for the rest of the year," says Mr. de Beck. "Why shouldn't he take his money and run and spend the time with his family under these circumstances?"

As Friday's protest shows, there are many who are upset at the Superintendent's somewhat questionable tactics. Mr. de Beck's forecast for the future of the district echoes this discontent. "Basically what we have here is just the tip of the ice-berg. We have a very upset, ready to explode school district. The surface of the volcano is bubbling. We'll go down this road until election time where there will hopefully be some changes. If not, there will be a long line of people leaving the district - from any administrator with a conscience to a whole lot of qualified teachers."

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