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In San Diego Unified, Are Adults The Problem?

Audio

Aired 9/18/09

Today is the last day San Diego Unified School Superintendent Terry Grier will be working at district headquarters. Some people still can't believe he's leaving after just 18 months. Grier says one reason he resigned is people in the district focused too much on the needs of adults, not children.

— Today is the last day San Diego Unified School Superintendent Terry Grier will be working at district headquarters. Some people still can't believe he's leaving after just 18 months. Grier says one reason he resigned is people in the district focused too much on the needs of adults, not children. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis takes a closer look at whether it's the adults who are the problem.

San Diego Unified School Board President Sheila Jackson greeted a crowd of reporters last week to confirm, yet again, the district is without a superintendent.

“We wish Dr. Grier every success in his new position and thank him for serving San Diego Unified School District as well as our students,” Jackson said.

Earlier that day Grier was at a news conference of his own -- this one in Houston.

“I'm excited about being here. I’ve already been on the ground this morning,” Grier said.

Grier was peppered with questions about his experience and his short time in San Diego Unified. Grier said he left because the adults in Houston's public school district are more serious about tackling tough reforms.

“That's something that resonated with me,” Grier said. “The passion they had for wanting all children to be educated and educated well is something this community needs to be very proud of. And I promise you, it’s not that way everywhere.”

Grier has said on more than one occasion that it’s the adults, not the educational challenges, that drove him out of San Diego Unified. Many of his critics roll their eyes, saying it was Grier looking out for himself. Houston offered him a bigger paycheck, no teachers unions, and a school board that liked his reforms.

Whatever Grier's real reason for leaving, this issue of adult disagreements over what's in the best interest of students plagues San Diego as well as other public school districts. It’s often the ugly side of education and comes in the form of political infighting, turf wars or resistance to change.

Often fingers are pointed at the superintendent, central office staff, and the five school board trustees. Others put the blame squarely on the teachers union.

Camille Zombro is president of the union. She says the union does fight for adult issues, but victory in those disputes help students in the long run.

“The adults needs I'm hearing about are things like, ‘I need the books and other resources on hand if I’m going to be changing grade levels to a grade level I’m not familiar with, or I have to use a curriculum I’m not familiar with.’ You can characterize those as adult needs, but at their foundation, those are child needs,” Zombro said.

But some critics don't believe that argument and blame the union for being a persistent obstacle. They believe the problem is exacerbated by a school board majority that is backed by the teachers union.

School board president Shelia Jackson admits there has been a shift in power on the school board -- which now leans more towards labor. But she believes the adult issues come about because top ranking school officials are resistant to change.

“The power has shifted,” Jackson said. “When power shifts, the people who are in power are naturally going to say, ‘It’s not fair, its not right.’ I don’t want to call it sour grapes, but that is the way of the world.”

Experts say although educating children is an altruistic mission...education reform is wrought with politics because it involves taxpayer dollars and the lives of children.

Linda Skrla studies public school leadership at Texas A&M University in Austin. She says adults are bound to get into disagreements because there's no single path to student success.

“It isn't a matter of setting something up like a factory, and just moving children along and pouring things into their heads,” Skrla said. “It’s a very human business and relationships at all levels are essential.”

And Skrla says any school district in the midst of a leadership crisis has to be willing to take an honest look at itself, let the past go, and be willing to embrace change.

“So if people truly want something different, in terms of the results of the system for example, if they want achievement gaps to close, then large changes really are required.”

It’s unclear how academically successful this year will be for San Diego Unified. Grier's top ranking official in charge of academic reforms also resigned. More school officials might also leave.

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