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How A San Diego Charter School Beat The Odds

School’s principal gives credit to ex-Superintendent Alan Bersin

Reported by Katie Schoolov

A San Diego charter school was the top performing underprivileged school in the state on standardized tests last year. KPBS reporter Megan Burks looked into what's making the school tick and got a blast from the district's contentious past.

A San Diego charter school was the top performing underprivileged school in the state on standardized tests last year. We wanted to know what's making the school tick and got a blast from the district's contentious past.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

America's Finest Charter School teacher Cassandra Tinyo prepares to read a story to her third-grade class on Nov. 2, 2015.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

A spreadsheet showing the reading progress of America's Finest Charter School third-graders during the 2014-2015 school year is pictured, Nov. 2, 2015.

Third-graders at America's Finest Charter School settle in on the floor around their teacher, Cassandra Tinyo, for story time.

But first, Tinyo reviews what to listen for and later replicate. They'll soon have to write stories of their own.

"So we have a hook. It gets the people into your story. 'Ouch!'" Tinyo shouted. Kids jolted in place. "What a great hook. It's sensory. It catches your attention. 'I want to know what Miss Tinyo was saying 'ouch' about.'"

Tinyo's students last year scored the highest on state tests for reading and writing among low-income third-graders statewide. With about 80 percent passing, they beat San Diego Unified's 48 percent pass rate and even outperformed their more well-off peers in the district, who had a 69 percent pass rate.

Other classes in the Chollas View charter school also impressed, especially given nearly half are English language learners.

Their success is by careful design. Across the courtyard from Tinyo's class, Director Jan Perry flips through a thick binder of spreadsheets.

"These kids were not so high when we started," Perry said, pointing to a daunting column of red scores. "That means they're far below basic."

But the column for the end of the year is awash in blues and greens indicating proficiency.

How does the school do it? Her answer is surprising.

"I really try to continue what Alan Bersin did," Perry said.

That's right. Alan Bersin, the superintendent who inspired so much vitriol a board trustee and protesting teachers likened him to a Nazi.

Perry worked in San Diego Unified and earned her administrative credential during Bersin's tenure from 1998 to 2005. What many saw as totalitarian-style orders, Perry considered ingenious reform.

"What struck me was that the principal was the instructional leader and the principal was in classrooms, visiting classrooms and really setting the stage for student learning," Perry said.

Taken by some as an intrusion, Bersin's so-called "Blueprint for Student Success" put coaches and principals in classrooms to help teachers improve their instruction.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

America's Finest Charter School Director Jan Perry observes Cassandra Tinyo's class, Nov. 2, 2015.

Bersin, who was the U.S. attorney in San Diego before coming to the district, threw nearly all of the district's resources at improving reading and math scores.

In addition to the coaching, he extended English classes. He added special tutoring hours. And he got special permission from the feds to use Title I funds reserved for low-income kids to make it happen across the district.

"I think a lot of the criticisms of the reform had to do with the top-down nature of the reform and how quickly it was put in place," Julian Betts said. He's director of the San Diego Education Research Alliance at UC San Diego and has done research in the district for 15 years.

"There were a lot of teachers who felt that all of their professional development and all of their cumulative experience was being set aside in favor of these new ideas that were being brought largely from New York," Betts said, referring to Bersin's instructional designer, Anthony Alvarado. He came from New York City schools with much of their curriculum in tow.

As Katherine Nakamura, former school board trustee, put it: "In San Diego we don't like anybody telling us how they do it in New York. We could care less."

Nakamura was a Bersin supporter, but ultimately voted with her colleagues in 2005 to cut Bersin loose. He had a year left on his contract. Parents wanted him out, and Nakamura said he was ready to go.

That's when Perry left the district, too.

"I noticed as the years went on, as new superintendents came in, they had their own agendas," Perry said. "I really felt it was so important for kids to do balanced literacy and to do math for understanding that I was determined to open a charter school."

Her school opened four years ago in City Heights then moved south to Chollas View. You can spot Bersin's legacy there in Kim Brunetto's fifth grade classroom.

Photo caption:

Photo by Katie Schoolov

America's Finest Charter School fifth grade teacher Kim Brunetto helps a student with a writing assignment, Nov. 2, 2015.

A schedule posted to the board is about 90 percent reading, writing and math. Students have an extended day and the option to come before or stay after school for extra help. Their textbooks are culled from curriculum used in New York. And it's common to see Perry, the on-campus reading and math coaches, or observing colleagues in the back of the room.

That's because Perry's biggest takeaway from the Bersin years was the importance of consistent professional development.

"I've had more training here at this school than I've ever had before," said Brunetto, who's taught for about a decade. Her students last year had a 63 percent pass rate on the math standardized test.

Of course, chalking her and her colleague's success up to Bersin is a little dubious.

"You have to be careful when you are looking at just one school or just one teacher. Is it something about the curriculum of the school? Is it just that the teacher is a fantastic teacher? It's really hard to know," Betts said.

Indeed, it's hard not to believe Tinyo's high scores last year were more circumstantial than Bersin.

"I did have my kids from kinder and then I jumped to first with them," Tinyo said. "Then when I taught them for third grade, it was really like a family. We were our own little family."

But Heather Lattimer said it's reasonable to believe Bersin is influencing the district today.

"In many ways you see a rebirth of some of the ideas and principles that were there at the time that Alan was in the superintendent role," Lattimer said. "And a lot of the people who are in leadership roles now are people who were part of that first group of peer coaches."

Lattimer is an associate dean at University of San Diego's School of Leadership and Education Sciences, and she helps run a training program for aspiring administrators that got its start with Bersin's help.

Nearly 150 graduates from the program have assumed administrative roles, many in San Diego Unified. Others involved in Bersin reforms have worked with the district as consultants.

And Betts said the Blueprint efforts Perry has replicated — peer coaching, extended days and the focus on literacy — did bear fruit.

Middle school students with extended English classes saw a rise of 5.5 percentile points in reading over one year. And schools with multiple instructional coaches (low-performing schools got additional coaches) saw significant gains in reading.

The Blueprint was less successful in high schools.

Betts noted that all of the improvement didn't happen until late in Bersin's tenure.

"The average length of time a superintendent lasts is somewhere between two and four years — it depends on the study — which is not a long time," Betts said. "The Blueprint for Student Success was implemented over a six-year period and I think that's key to any reform in an urban school district. You need to give reforms a chance to really take root."

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Though the pendulum has swung in a few different directions since Bersin left, Lattimer said she believes the Blueprint's roots may have finally grabbed hold.

"It was almost as though you were throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a lot of ways and we moved in a very different direction," Lattimer said. "It really feels like under Cindy Marten's administration we've moved back to some of those core philosophical ideas around teacher professional learning."

Nakamura, who fondly refers to her own children as "Blueprint Babies" and believes her son is at renowned music conservatory Oberlin because of the Blueprint, said Bersin's efforts "better" be making their way back into classrooms.

"I hope so. We spent millions and millions of dollars," she said.

Current Superintendent Cindy Marten did not want to be interviewed for this story. We reached out to Bersin for an interview, but were unable to schedule it.

Bersin is now an assistant secretary in the Department of Homeland Security.


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