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S.D. School Board to Consider Renewing Contract with Preuss

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Aired 4/19/09

San Diego school board will consider whether to renew its contract with UC San Diego's Preuss Charter School today. The charter school needs that contract to stay in business. Preuss officials say a lot has changed since the school was hit by a grade-fixing scandal five months ago, but some community members say too much has stayed the same. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis has more.

Preuss is nationally recognized for helping inner-city kids get into college. School officials reached into some San Diego's poorest communities and pulled out some of the brightest kids. They then gave them the academic tools to succeed in class.

The students' success placed Preuss firmly on top of national rankings.   That's why the audit released last December shocked so many people. The report concluded top administrators had improperly changed students grades and pressured teachers to give failing students extra chances at improving their grades. The report also stated that some teachers felt pressured to water-down Advanced Placement courses to make it easier on the kids.

That raised concerns in the community that Preuss students were being sent off to college underprepared. The scandal forced the principal, Doris Alvarez, to resign. Now Preuss wants to chart a new course with a new principal.

Gourevitch: We make a national search because we are a national school.

That's Peter Gourevitch, a member of Preuss' board of directors. He says the school is on the verge of naming a new leader. 

Gourevitch: We're known across the nation. I've made phone calls across the nation, from Massachusetts to Seattle, and bingo there's an immediate reaction. People say very positive things about it. They don't see this controversy as an important thing, they see it as a minor mistake with record keeping, and they don't see it as a big deal.

Preuss officials say they're looking for a skilled leader with integrity who will be open and honest with the school community.

But some community members and parents believe university officials need to take a closer look at the administrative culture at the school. They say the grade tampering is the symptom of a larger problem. Some critics say the administration cares more about its ego than helping inner-city kids achieve.

Takeia Armstrong graduated from Preuss and now attends UC Irvine. She says the administrative culture took a turn for the worse when the school began to get some positive results and exposure. 

Armstrong: We started getting a lot of accolades…and a lot of people calling, donating money, basing schools off our school. I think the administration, it went to their heads.

And Takeia believes that mindset combined with the pressure to be the best prompted administrators to bend the rules. 

Takeia: There were certain kids who got preferential treatment that, oh well 'how did that kid get a better grade than me when we spend more than half of our time together and I know he didn't do his work, kind of thing.

Takeia's brother is now an eighth grader at Preuss. Through him she still sees that preferential treatment on campus. Their mom, Maxine, has been vocal in asking the entire administration to resign.

Maxine Takeia: Check the turnover rate, the teacher turnover rate. Talk to a teacher that left, that still loves Preuss and still loves these kids and would come back if some things changed. Then you will know what's going on because they knew. We lost some of the best teachers in the United States.

Teachers like Jeremy Howard who taught history at Preuss for five years. He says the long hours and the academic pressure drove him and many other teachers away.

Howard: The administration was not an administration that's going to pat you on the back and say well done, its going to be administration that says 'maybe good job' with one pat, and the other pat goes, 'but you're not doing this.' So you're constantly hearing that, you're told you need to do better. And that wares on people.

For their part, Preuss school officials stand by the current administration, saying the school's success rates speaks volumes about the kind of educational environment exists at the school. In fact, UCSD data shows about 95 percent of this year's graduating class at Preuss was accepted into a four-year university.

One of the school's founders Cecil Lytle says teachers and students want to be at Preuss.

Lytle: One of the worries 10 years ago for out students was would they be ostracized when they return to their home communities. We had students changing their Preuss school uniforms on the bus ride home, back into street clothes. And now when you drive through the San Diego communities where we pick up students, you see people drive by honking. Viva la Preuss -- the entire community takes pride that the University of California San Diego is giving back and not taking out from the community.

San Diego school district officials who are reviewing Preuss' charter renewal request say the school has satisfied all the basic academic school performance requirements. However they are still taking a closer look at the school's governance team. They want to know how it will operate the school and handle the school's money.

San Diego school board members are expected to make a final decision on the school's charter renewal by next month.    

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS News.

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