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Challenging Year Begins for Many Local Schools

Backpacks hang outside of a San Diego classroom.
Ana Tintocalis
Backpacks hang outside of a San Diego classroom.

Challenging Year Begins for Many Local Schools
What are the top stories leading into the new school year? We speak to Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis, and San Diego Unified School Board President Shelia Jackson, about what's on tap for the new school year, and how the district will move forward without a superintendent in place.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Most local educators would agree that we are beginning a challenging school year in San Diego. Districts around the county have been forced to cut tens of millions of dollars from their budgets. Services have been cut, class size has increased, and there's really no way to tell if the state cuts to school budgets are finally over. In the county's largest school district, San Diego Unified, there is an additional problem, that of leadership. Schools Superintendent Terry Grier has all but officially announced his acceptance of a job in Houston. That has some wondering what direction San Diego Unified will be headed and whether the school board is up to the challenge of leadership. Well, joining us now is the president of the Board of Education for the San Diego Unified School District, Shelia Jackson, and, Shelia, good morning and welcome to These Days.


SHELIA JACKSON (President, San Diego Board of Education): Good morning. How are you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Just fine. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. I'm wondering, what are your biggest concerns heading into the new school year?

JACKSON: Well, I think we're pretty happy with the way we're heading into the school year this year. We're on track. We have all of our teachers in place, our staff in place. And we'll just transition leadership and we'll move forward. So I think we're in a excellent place this year.

CAVANAUGH: And so – But the challenges that I mentioned about the amount of money that's been cut from the budgets and the class size increase, does that give you a concern about where we're headed?

JACKSON: Well, only at the state level but locally we did an excellent job. We didn't lay off any teachers. We trimmed the fat in our district, and we did have some fat to trim so we trimmed that fat and my slogan has been to the staff, we've become a lean, mean education machine.



JACKSON: And we're focusing on that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, how will the school district, though, move forward without a superintendent if, indeed, Terry Grier takes this job in Houston?

JACKSON: Oh, it will move forward. The board and the community, the city of San Diego, actually is what makes the school district run. We actually have a superintendent that will come in and they're supposed to help us move forward but that does not stop the school district. We are elected, and you elect us to make sure our school district is moving in the right direction. I think this board has worked very diligently with the superintendent to move it in the right direction. So we will take our time, though, and we will go through the process of finding a new superintendent that will help us continue moving forward.

CAVANAUGH: And when will that process of finding the new superintendent begin?

JACKSON: Well, it can't begin until the superintendent has announced to us what his intentions are, whether it's to take the job in Houston or to stay. At that point, then we'll have a couple of options depending upon what his decision is. I believe that the Houston board will take their vote later on this week. After that particular vote, that announcement, then I think he will be clearer in what it is that he plans to do.

CAVANAUGH: Now I believe that you were quoted as saying San Diego might not need a superintendent, that the school board could handle most of those responsibilities. Do you believe that?

JACKSON: Well, I said that in a sense that the board has to be – take an active role in education and not just here in our district but across the nation. Superintendents do work for the board and tends to have boards just only do governance. But the board members live in the community and they work in the community and they have knowledge of the community that a superintendent may not have. So when decisions are being made concerning the schools, the board members need to be included as part of that decision making. And that's kind of a different model for some superintendents. The superintendent model tends to say here's the plan I want to, you know, implement and let me go implement it. But I think that they – that plan should be presented to the board first to make sure that it's going to fit the particular city or, in this case, San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Shelia Jackson, the recent cuts to the state budget that affected our school district. I know that you said no teachers have been laid off but how will those cuts affect the district this semester?

JACKSON: What you will see is that in places of leadership, we've installed a lot more technology. We're moving forward on our technology front so some of the things that were done before on Excel or quite a lot of people, we've streamlined that process. Some of the programs that have been around at the executive level for years and years, we have streamlined those programs as well. At the school sites, the schools will have their supplies. They might not have an excess of supplies. The school will have a budget that they'll be having to stick to. Like in the past, when they may have went over, they can't go over any longer on their budget. We did do some class size increase at some of the schools so some of our K-2 classrooms will be a little bit larger than 24 students, which really is not bad. In some areas, it'll be 30, 32, or that type of thing. So even though you did see those class size increases, they're minimum compared to other districts.

CAVANAUGH: And, you know, one issue that's been bubbling up over the last few weeks is whether student test scores should be factored in to teacher evaluations and compensations and that's because the Obama administration is offering $4.35 billion in education funds to state and local districts if they fulfill a set of criteria that includes that evaluation provision. So what's your take on that issue?

JACKSON: And I'll speak as a board member, not as the board president on that particular issue. I think that it is critical to understand that everyone plays a part in educating children, not just the teachers. And I think a program that says we're going to put the onus on the backs of teachers by putting money that says if a teacher is successful then we're going to elevate or give them extra stipends only if—and I say only if—the classrooms that they are teaching in are equivalent. That means they have the exact same number of students, the exact but similar amount of students, that means the same number of special ed students, you know, the same number of second language students. If everything is fair, I mean, and balanced and they want to use that model, I might could accept it. But I can't accept it because our children are all different, and children learn differently at different times. And so – And I was a classroom teacher. This is why I'm so maybe compassionate about being able to say we need multiple measures. And in evaluating our teaching staff and our administrative staff, and that, yes, the schools need money but that money shouldn't be contingent on one group of people.

CAVANAUGH: And we have the issue of the achievement gap as well in connection with the budget cuts that are going on. You know, State School Superintendent Jack O'Connell said he's afraid that our work towards closing the achievement gap between students of different races and economic backgrounds is going to suffer because of the state budget cuts. Do you agree? And do you think that we can still make progress on closing that gap?

JACKSON: I think we can make progress on closing the gap. The budget certainly does hamper us in several areas including the achievement gap area but what I said to our district staff maybe a – over a month ago is that people – teachers, we do what we have to do. We roll up our sleeves and we use what we have, meaning there was a time when teachers only had a chalk board and chalk and they taught kids. And so we can still do that. So – and it's all – it's also about the attitude that is in the classroom and while at our level we may have to deal with the hum-drums of the budget but that's what we do. The classroom level has to be with their focus on ensuring that each and every child feels they're capable of learning to help accelerate that achievement – to accelerate closing the achievement gap.

CAVANAUGH: You know, speaking about students and teachers in the classroom, my final question to you, Shelia, is a lot of – there was a lot of flap over the President's welcoming speech today. I'm wondering, did San Diego Unified notify parents that they could opt out of that speech?

JACKSON: Yes, we did, and we also let the teachers know that if they wanted to show it, you know, if they did not want to show it, they didn't have to. But, you know, I've been out in the community most of the weekend talking with people and teachers and staff members about it and most of them are very – actually are very excited about showing it. They're excited because, you know, last year when the President came in, our nation celebrated. And right now, given our economic climate in our nation, it'll – we have to have a well-educated workforce, and the President has to make sure that our students understand their role in that as well. So wishing them a successful school year and encouraging them to learn only benefits not only our city but our nation as well.

CAVANAUGH: Shelia Jackson, I know you have a busy morning. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

JACKSON: Oh, thank you for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with the president of the San Diego Unified School District board, Shelia Jackson. And now I'd like to welcome KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis, and we're still talking about the first day of school in San Diego. Let me just expand on the question that I asked Shelia Jackson, Ana. I know that there have been other districts around the county who've been wary of playing the President's welcoming speech. Some kids are sitting out the speech. Some districts are not going to play it, are going to play it later to people who want to see it. I wonder why the sensitivity?

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): I think the sensitivity, in talking to some parents and some school officials, is that they want to put politics aside and they just want to say that, you know, if you want to talk about education, if you want to talk about the importance of education and how that kind of figures into the whole political world, have that conversation at home. Have that in the comfort of your home, have your parents talk about it with you. You don't need to bring it into a public institution, which is, you know, a school setting. Take that at – take that to home. And so that's kind of the other side of the argument, is that this should be reserved for a parent to decide, not a school official, not a teacher who's really intimately connected with that child or with those children in the class.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, then, well, let's start out on the topic of achievement gaps in local schools. I talked to Shelia Jackson about that. Where do we see the biggest disparities in student achievement here in San Diego?

TINTOCALIS: So this is not just a San Diego issue. This is, you know, a San Diego district issue, a San Diego County issue, a state issue. And so what you're seeing is that Latinos and African-American students are still way behind when it comes to academic performance as opposed to their white and Asian counterparts. So while they are making gains, it's not like they're not making gains, it's kind of like this idea of where all boats are rising. It's just that they're not making extra gains to catch up with white and Asian students, so that is what's called the achievement gap and it's persistent and it hasn't budged. And there's been a lot of talk about it, there's been a lot of reforms to try to get at it, and that's the most frustrating part, is that while they are making gains, they're not making enough gains. And so it's a big dilemma that all educators in the state are trying to figure out, and it's very complicated and it's a tough nut to crack.

CAVANAUGH: What are those things that we've been doing here in San Diego and in districts around the county to try and close that gap?

TINTOCALIS: Well, there's been a number of initiatives. And I remember I – a couple years ago actually, this was the state issue that was talked about, and so they sent all kinds of educators, teachers, to Sacramento and they said, okay, let's talk about this achievement gap, what is happening. And the big thing that came out of that was that we have to be – or, teachers, I should say, have to be more culturally relevant in their classrooms. Okay, so what does that mean? Well, approach each subject taking in mind the ethnic racial backgrounds of each of your students so you can present material that connects to their heritage, their background, their understanding, their daily life. And that's easier to do maybe in history and English and stuff like that. In math, you know, that poses a problem. But that was one takeaway message, and also for teachers to really try to hold out their hand to their families, visiting their families, sitting down with a black or Latino kid, if the teacher is white, to get an understanding of what issues are going on there. However, after that huge summit, things kind of dropped because of this big state budget issue. And so now what we're seeing is, you know, you have a new data system that's coming out, at least in San Diego Unified, that's looking to track each student, you know, what are their performance levels? And so a teacher can take a look at that and see, you know, how their Latino students are doing, how their black students are doing, how their white and Asian students are doing, and kind of tailor instruction based on that data. So that is helping to figure out how to tailor instruction. They're also putting out benchmark tests like a few every year so they can see where the kids are at so, you know, if John is not doing well in reading, okay, let's figure out what he needs to get him up to speed with the other students. They're also – Principals are also taking a closer look at achievement gap levels when they get that data, so principals are a little bit more attuned to what is going on. And then just generally speaking, at least in San Diego Unified, there's a big push to improve attendance for all ethnic groups, and that's – that actually was credited in helping to get better test scores this last spring, is just better student attendance and that means educating parents. You know, your kid has to come to school every day so that he's performing well, and that's hard to do in some, I'd say, Latino families, who are – who speak Spanish, who are afraid to be involved in school. That's a difficult process to do. So sometimes you are seeing school officials knocking on doors, making sure that certain families know that this is the first day of school and you have to come to school every day. So those are some of the strategies that they're trying to get at the achievement gap.

CAVANAUGH: Well, all of that takes money. All of the programs in the school districts take money, and there's a big chunk of money that California and San Diego might be able to take part of but it's controversial. Let's talk about President Obama's Race to the Top, the money that's available through the federal program. It's more than four billion dollars on the table for state and local districts. What's the criteria for receiving some of that money?

TINTOCALIS: So there's like 19 kind of educational guidelines that states must satisfy in order to become eligible for a slice of this money. But the most controversial is that states must be open to embracing the fact that they can tie a student test score to a teacher, so in doing so, you figure out how a teacher is actually doing if you're connecting that student data to a specific teacher. And so the – to secure some of this federal money, you have to be willing to lift the firewall that exists at least in California between student data and teacher performance and state – or, I should say, federal and some state education officials say that that needs to be done because we need to figure out what teacher is doing a good job and what teacher is doing a bad job. So that's kind of a very controversial part of trying to secure some of this money.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit about that firewall that exists in California because I know Governor Schwarzenegger wants California to get some of that money and he is pushing reforms to allow us to change the way we evaluate teachers in order to get our hands on that money. Tell us about that.

TINTOCALIS: Well, there – A lot of states actually don't have this firewall. California has this firewall. Nevada and New York and I think Wisconsin also have these type of firewalls. And so what the governor is saying is, look, you know, state lawmakers, we have this law on the books that doesn't allow us to connect student test scores to teacher performance. What we need to do is remove that firewall through legislative change so we can become eligible to get some of this money. And in doing so, we're kind of reshaping education policy because the governor truly feels like he's on board with the Obama administration on this. He believes that there should not be any type of barrier when it comes to figuring out whether a teacher is performing poorly or if a teacher is doing well. So he is, you know, he's been around the state kind of putting his message out there, saying that we have to change this law that's on the book, which is kind of like a teacher protection law. And he was actually in San Diego, in Chula Vista actually, for a press conference to push that message forward and he was in Chula Vista because the Chula Vista Elementary School District, they use student data to evaluate their teachers. Now it varies from school to school and I actually talked to the superintendent here, his name's Lowell Billings. And I – Because I didn't realize Chula Vista does this. And I should explain that in California, there's a firewall but there's a loophole in the law that allows certain districts to move forward with their own little ways of doing it. So in Chula Vista, they have their own way of doing it, and it's not against the law because there's this loophole. And so the superintendent, Lowell Billings, says, you know, this is a huge part of how we conduct business down here. This is one way we evaluate teachers. He didn't say whether or not they get paid extra or they get dismissed based on it but he says it's a big part of figuring out whether a teacher is doing a good job. And this is what he had to say based on how there's no standard formula.

LOWELL BILLINGS (Superintendent, Chula Vista Elementary School District): It varies from school to school and teacher to teacher. And the point being is that data's there to inform instruction. And, you know, with some teachers it's more direct, with others it's more influential in terms of just shaping practice so, you know, there isn't one set way but the fact that it's there and it's a prominent part, teachers look at their outcomes. We print reports that show, gee, in your class, did students grow or did they lose ground?

TINTOCALIS: And that's Lowell Billings, the superintendent of the Chula Vista Elementary School District.

CAVANAUGH: What does State School Superintendent Jack O'Connell say about this issue of linking the teacher evaluations with student test scores?

TINTOCALIS: Well, he's – You know, he's trying to be very diplomatic. He doesn't feel – And I spoke to him about this. He doesn't feel that this law on the books as it exists right now, this firewall, is necessarily a bad thing. He, very much like San Diego School Board member Shelia Jackson, believes test scores should be one measurement. There should be several measurements to figure out whether a teacher is doing a good job. It shouldn't just be based on one test score. And he also feels like the law allows for these type of evaluative purposes using the data that is allowed. As you can tell, it happens in Chula Vista. There's – Long Beach Unified School District has their own way of connecting the dots, so to say, and – but when you take it out on a bigger level in terms of state policy and getting the terminology clear, that is not – that's where it kind of – there's gray areas. Like I said, there's loopholes. So there's a difference of opinion on the interpretation of what the law says. State Superintendent Jack O'Connell believes one thing, the Obama administration and the governor believe it says another thing.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And so on the one side you have this huge pot of money, on the other side you have people who are reluctant, like Shelia Jackson, to really link those teacher evaluations to student test scores because of a variety of issues which she outlined for us a little bit earlier. Is it fair to say that the teachers unions across the state are opposed to the idea of changing the firewall that you were talking about?

TINTOCALIS: Oh, yeah, very much so. I think the California Teachers Association is the largest, most powerful group in Sacramento and they're against any change. They actually helped to draft the law that is on the books right now that provided for this teacher protection, so they're against it for the same reasons that they say, you know, it's just one measurement. And to think about a student gets tested once a year in May or March, I believe, and for so much weight to be placed on this one score to tell you whether or not a teacher is doing a good or bad job, they believe, is not a fair thing. They say it's unfair, that there is tons of other things that students bring into the classroom, you know, in their kind of life outside of school that influences whether or not they do a good job on a test.

CAVANAUGH: Finally, Ana, I want to ask you about the potential search for a new superintendent for the San Diego Unified School District. I wonder if you've heard any rumors about what kind of person they might be looking for? When that search might begin? Anything along those lines?

TINTOCALIS: Well, it is pretty much up in the air right now. We do know that a formal contract most likely will be offered to Superintendent Grier this week, and so there should be some big headlines either this week or next whether or not he's going to take that job and all indications show that he will take that Houston job. I haven't heard what kind of person they want in that position as of yet. There'll be an interim superintendent. School board member Shelia Jackson did say they're really going to take their time, they're not going to rush to put someone in this position. Again, they're looking for someone who will go along with their style of the superintendent doesn't necessarily run the show. This person runs the show with the school board, and they want to decentralize the power so schools have more of a stake, responsibility and power in running their own shows at their own local levels. So they're looking for someone, it seems like to me, that will be accepting of that approach to education in San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: Some wonderful back to school information. Thank you so much, Ana.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. And you're listening to These Days on KPBS.