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School Starts in San Diego County

School Starts in San Diego County
This week, many districts begin the school year with shrunken budgets and larger classes. We survey the education landscape at San Diego Unified and other districts to find out what to expect.

ALISON ST JOHN: And you’re back on These Days with me, Alison St John, sitting in for Maureen Cavanaugh. So it’s Labor Day once again, time to look ahead as the academic year begins and all over town students, teachers and administratures (sic) are returning to school with fresh hopes and high expectations. But everyone is having to do more with less. So how is that affecting our classrooms and what are schools doing to make the best of a difficult situation? Here with us in studio is KPBS education reporter Ana Tintocalis. Thanks for being in the studio with us.

ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): Thank you. Thank you.

ST JOHN: So this week launches the new school year, Ana, and I thought we’d briefly survey the landscape. So what are some of the worries that teachers have as they’re going back to the classroom this year?


TINTOCALIS: Right, well, I wanted to do kind of a different back to school story so on Friday we aired this story about how teachers kind of just psychologically and mentally prepare for the school year and it was really quite interesting because teachers have the same worries as kids do on the first day of school. They’re worried about whether their students will like them, how hard the class will be for them this year.

ST JOHN: It would be so good if students knew their teachers are going through the same things, wouldn’t it?

TINTOCALIS: Exactly. You know, can I take on these challenges? And, you know, can they juggle everything and still be an effective teacher, I think, is the biggest concern. And that leads to what they call their annual back to school bad dreams and nightmares. You know, I heard one teacher saying, you know, I kept on having these dreams of organizing, organizing, organizing, so I just had to run out to Walmart and start getting things to start organizing my classroom because I was so anxious about it. So, and they also get insomnia, anxiety, and it was just an interesting way to hear that. And, of course, like you said, it’s just a very different school year this year. This is the fourth, fifth year that schools have been dealt with really big budget cuts and I think the biggest thing that you’re seeing across the board are districts cutting their supply budgets and materials. So you’re not going to be finding a lot of new things in the classroom. It’s all about reusing, recycling. And I spoke to one teacher, Michelle Janette, who talked about the fact that she’s just going to have to be pulling out old folders, having to bring in things from her own house, asking parents to donate. And she said, you know, she’s trying to find the plus side to all of this, and this is what she had to say:

MICHELLE JANETTE (Teacher, San Diego County): In my room, they’re not going to have brand new things. I’m using these cardboard folders from last year so I’m going to explain to the parents I’m sorry if this doesn’t look pristine. But I think it’s good for children to learn that they need to take care of things that the taxpayers supply like pencils. You know, things are tight so we don’t – we can’t have a cavalier attitude towards the things that we’re given.

TINTOCALIS: Of course, that’s kind of hard to teach young kids to kind of understand that but this is the reality of this new school year. There’s just not going to be a lot of school supplies out there.


ST JOHN: And I think that’s something a lot of people don’t realize, is that teachers are often the ones who are paying out of their own salaries to supply these.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, a lot of them pay up to $500.00 to pay for new things and this teacher said she also squirreled away a lot of paper because they won’t have a lot of paper to use in the classroom. So it’s the nuts and bolts things in education, and I think district officials have really tried to keep cuts away from the classroom. You always hear that, but I think you’re beginning to really see that now this year, that cuts are affecting classroom instruction.

ST JOHN: So now, San Diego City schools, the Unified School District, has a new superintendent. What’s he bringing to the party here?

TINTOCALIS: Well, this is Superintendent Bill Kowba and he – he’s been within the district for a while so he’s not this new face and he’s been the interim superintendent for about the past year. So I think this year what he’s doing is just saying, you know, hello, I am the man in charge now and I’m accountable for this district, so he’s hitting the campuses, he’s meeting people. He had a news conference to roll out his new vision for reform. He also introduced his new cabinet, new administrative cabinet, which is kind of a dream team of veteran educators, and there’s nine people. And this is not a new approach but what he’s looking to do is strategically pinpoint these people in different parts of the district so schools within a certain geographical area will report to this one school leader and that school leader will then report to Superintendent Kowba. We have to remember Kowba is not a classroom educator. He’s never taught in a classroom. He’s more of a business – the business side of the house kind of guy, so he’s really going to have to rely on this team to move education forward in the district.

ST JOHN: And, you know, we’ve been hearing for a couple of years now, budget cuts after budget cut, is there anything more that can be pared down this year that students might notice when they come to the classroom?

TINTOCALIS: Well, it’s pretty brass tacks right now. I think, you know, the last few options that you have are having to lay off teachers at a considerable rate, lay off school employees and even they’ve tossed around this idea for a long time about closing small schools, schools that are under-enrolled. They’ve always pushed that off to the side but that’s another thing. And I think that a lot of school districts, again, a trend, when you look across the county, are school districts are trying to find new and creative ways to bring in their own streams of revenue. They’re saying, you know, Sacramento, we can’t deal with you anymore, we have to rely on ourselves. So you’re seeing a lot of school districts putting parcel tax initiatives on the ballot in November, San Diego Unified being one of them. Sweetwater Union High School District is opening their campuses to advertisers, so you might see people – or organizations like McDonald’s, Nike, Geico Insurance, putting ads on campuses.

ST JOHN: There used to be a lot of opposition to that, but are you hearing parents complain much about getting private big names plastered over their baseball park, for example?

TINTOCALIS: There’s a shift in mentality.


TINTOCALIS: Yeah, even with parents. They’re understanding that times are tough and if they want their kids to get a quality education, there’s going to have to be some compromises and real sacrifices that, in the past, have been argued and there’s been conflict in the past.

ST JOHN: Okay, so now reform is something that whenever you look at education, there always seem to be reforms in the works. What’s the latest talk about a way to try to make the best of the smaller budgets that are now available?

TINTOCALIS: Well, in San Diego Unified in particular, the new superintendent, who we were talking about, Bill Kowba, really wants to stress math this year so there’s going to be a real focus on math instruction. They also want to do more with critical thinking skills, really stressing those and this idea of being more creative in the classroom. But generally speaking, in San Diego Unified, their approach to reform is kind of an anti-reform.


TINTOCALIS: It’s like we’re just going to let things happen, you know, we’re going to allow teachers to work together, we’re going to look at the data, and if that all works and if the district supports you rather than telling you what to do, then schools go with whatever you think is going to work for your school. So it’s – Nationwide, it’s quite an interesting twist because you always hear reform being top down, this heavy-handed approach, and we’re seeing that at the Obama administration under U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who’s really trying to bring all states and districts up to a certain level, having to accomplish certain things. It’s a very top-down approach. And San Diego Unified is taking the total opposite side of things, and this is what school board president Richard Barrera had to say about this kind of what he feels – he describes as kind of reform in San Diego Unified.

RICHARD BARRERA (President, San Diego Unified School Board): It’s what I would describe as a community-based reform model because what’s happening at schools where we’re seeing consistent gains over time is a strong community within the school where adults and kids are working together, know each other, and trust each other.

TINTOCALIS: And so that – and that’s what they’re calling it, community-based reform. So just to reiterate again, schools, under the principal, will say, okay, what does our particular school need? And if that satisfies the school board then they can run with it. And I almost think it’s like a charter school approach to things because charter schools kind of figure out what they want to do in their school and they move forward based on whether or not the school board likes it. Well, it sounds like that mentality is going to play out at public schools across the district to a certain degree but there are a lot of pitfalls…

ST JOHN: Well…

TINTOCALIS: …in that thinking.

ST JOHN: …it sounds like – You were talking about how it’s going to allow the teachers, you know, traditionally they’ve just gone back into the classroom, shut the door, and done what they can to get the kids to meet the standards. But, I mean, is this more community or teacher driven?

TINTOCALIS: Right, and that’s the big criticism, is that the school board is really friendly to teacher union issues and the union itself, and there’s critics that say, you know, this is just, you know, it’s – it shows how in line the school board is with the teachers union, allowing them to kind of do whatever they think is best. So that’s a big criticism. And there was just a big report that was put out by the Public Policy Institute of California that took a look at reforms that Alan Bersin had put in place. And Alan Bersin was a former superintendent in San Diego, very notorious for his reforms in literacy. Well…

ST JOHN: Top down…


ST JOHN: …strategy.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, top down. And created a lot of friction within the district, however, the report said his reforms actually did a lot of good and they showed a lot of results in elementary and middle school grades, and the key to that was consistency, reforms that were consistent in the same across the district where now you’re having the district kind of doing a hodge – I call it a hodge-podge of different things…


TINTOCALIS: …possibly. And so the question is can the district bring all these kind of different reforms at different schools together, expand them in a way that will work so – and the district is short on specifics, quite frankly. They don’t know exactly how this is all going to play out, I think, to a certain degree so those are some criticisms that are very valid, I think.

ST JOHN: So if you’re a parent, you might want to keep sort of a close eye on what the teacher in your child’s classroom is doing because it will very much depend on what that teacher…

TINTOCALIS: Absolutely.

ST JOHN: …is deciding to do. And, of course, a teacher’s who’s given freedom may be more enthusiastic and more effective than somebody who’s had something imposed on them.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, and the other side of it is that educators almost everywhere get tired of these flash-in-the-pan type reforms. They said, if, you know, if you just let us do our job and try to do it the best we can and having the district support us versus the other way around like teachers supporting the district’s reforms, then we actually might get stuff done. And San Diego Unified, their test scores are doing well, so I think that allows the school board and school district officials to say, hey, I think we are doing a good job by just letting things play out as they might. However, other people think, well, maybe this is Bersin’s legacy. You know, maybe we’re seeing the results of Bersin’s top-down kind of consistent approach across the board. So that’s – I think that’s yet to be determined.

ST JOHN: I think that’s so interesting because, you know, Bersin’s reforms were quite a few years back but this study, what specifically did they show worked from that Blueprint for Student Success that we heard so much about at the time?

TINTOCALIS: Right. Well, when you took a look at – so this was really big on literacy and getting kids to read at a level or beyond their grade level, and so what was found effective was that in elementary and middle school grades, the key, really key, grades, longer English classes and a longer school year really benefited them in the long run. So it’s this idea of extra time on task actually produces results.

ST JOHN: Which now, a shorter school year is in place so that one’s kind of out the window.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, and we can talk more about what this school district will look like. But, yeah, so there’s going to be a shorter school year. But, you know, when you took a look at – when you take a look at the high school level in Bersin’s reform in high school, that’s a mixed bag. Actually, the report said it was a failure. And in high school what you had were these back-to-back English classes, like you’d focus on this part of English for an hour, then in another hour you’d focus on this, and then in the third hour, you’d focus on that. And that was not – that was not effective at all.

ST JOHN: Okay, so those long – I do remember those three-hour long classes…


ST JOHN: …and I wondered how on earth did the students sit still that long.


ST JOHN: So that was not effective. But on the other hand, the focus on literacy for the elementary and middle school was effective. Is there any sign that some of those strategies remain in the current…?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, I mean, when you talk to teachers, I think there are bits and pieces of this blueprint still out there and, you know, teachers say that on the face of it, these strategies are good, it was the way they were implemented and the way teachers felt like they were being told what to do and the coaching that went around with it and the very formulaic they call it strait jacket approach that just did not work for them. So I think there is some opinion out there that, hey, these reforms weren’t that bad. They just didn’t like the way they were approached so that you do see bits and parts of it within the district. And what the district wants to do is capitalize on some of these successes and maybe expand them to other schools that might be faltering.

ST JOHN: During that period, there was a lot of summer school training for teachers. I remember teachers being a bit resentful their summers were being broken up by all this training, and there was peer support groups. There wasn’t quite so much training this summer, was there? I mean…

TINTOCALIS: No, I mean, this is the reality of having…

ST JOHN: The budget.

TINTOCALIS: …education in the worst budget crisis ever. You just don’t have summer school anymore, which poses a huge problem for kids who are trying to get caught up. And in San Diego Unified, they’re moving to this I guess you could call it academic direction where students start taking college ready courses as soon as they get into high school, their freshman year. Well, if they don’t do good in those college ready courses, that could really be a big mark against them in trying to get into college, and if they can’t make it up during summer school, then they won’t get into college for some of them, so that’s a huge issue right now.

ST JOHN: The stakes are very high.

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, but in terms of school budget cuts for San Diego Unified and what this new school year might bring, not only for San Diego Unified but across the board, you are going to see shorter school years. Most districts have cut back their school year by about five days. And I think in San Diego Unified, their first furlough day was, I believe, on Friday, this past Friday, so they’re going to be sprinkled throughout the academic year but in the end you will have a loss of instruction. You’re also seeing bigger class sizes and that’s because teachers, their contracts, their temporary contracts either haven’t been renewed or they’ve been laid off. So that’s creating more class – bunching more students in a classroom so you’re seeing a lot of that as well. And I mentioned this before, the lack of classroom supplies and materials and then the cuts to really important programs that affect at-risk kids like teen parents and so on and so forth.

ST JOHN: I read over the weekend about Poway, which has got a very good reputation are having classes of about 50 people.


ST JOHN: So that suggests that this is something that’s going to be seen all over the district.


ST JOHN: What about Vista? You’ve looked at Vista a bit.

TINTOCALIS: Vista, actually, I’m not that sure of but I know that in north county and south county they’re looking at parcel taxes. And I see that we’re seeing that all over the place. The question is, can you get enough voter support to push these things forward. The nice thing about parcel tax is the money goes directly to the school district, it doesn’t get funneled through Sacramento, and school districts can use that not for building facilities so much as to just use it for operations like supplies, like teacher salaries, and that’s the new creative way that districts are trying to bring in more money.

ST JOHN: I believe there’s three of them on the November ballot, is that right?


ST JOHN: Which districts?

TINTOCALIS: In, well, I believe, there’s one in the South Bay, San Diego Unified for sure, and I think Vista is the other one that’s looking for a parcel tax.

ST JOHN: So for parents, you know, who are really thinking about – who’ve got kids in school right now and know their kids’ future’s is going to really depend – I mean, what would you say is an important thing to be thinking about as they look at, you know, the budget cuts that schools are facing? Do they need to get more involved in their kids’ education than before?

TINTOCALIS: Yeah, I mean, the constant message you get from school districts is that you need to speak up, you need to write letters, but I think with this current climate, I think it’s just important for parents to get out to their schools to see exactly what cuts are being made at their school. Talk to the teacher, talk to the principal, and find out, okay, what, in terms of my daughter or my son’s quality of education, how is that going to be impacted? And how you might be able to supplement that outside of school, so maybe it’s extra tutoring, you hire a tutor. Maybe you try to take advantage of a free city course through the YMCA or something like that. So I think it’s – it is up to parents to kind of look out how they could add to their child’s education which, I know, is difficult for many parents across San Diego Unified and there – therein lies the difficulty with education, the inequities of education, what some families can offer their kids and what others just cannot.

ST JOHN: So, Ana, I know you’re going to be keeping a close eye on what’s going on in the schools in the coming year. Thank you so much.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

ST JOHN: That’s KPBS reporter, education reporter, Ana Tintocalis. And stay with us. Coming up in the next segment of These Days, a Mayan scholar will be out to debunk some of the myths surrounding what the Maya calendar is saying about 2012.