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San Diego Unified's Problems Are Harvard Students' Laboratory

San Diego Unified's Problems Are Harvard Students' Laboratory
Harvard doctoral students will put their classroom lessons to work by finding solutions to the challenges facing San Diego's schools.

Twenty–five Harvard doctoral students are in San Diego this week to do more than escape nasty winter weather. They're looking for solutions to some of the tough problems facing San Diego city schools.

They're here with Harvard professor Deborah Jewell-Sherman and are in her class that focuses on putting what they're learning in their doctorate program to work on the ground. In the program's four-year history, Jewell-Sherman's students have worked with public schools in Detroit and Boston, the Children's Defense Fund and others.


While Jewell-Sherman said she was skeptical when she first heard San Diego Unified trustees appointed then-elementary school principal Cindy Marten to be the district’s next superintendent, she now wants her students to see Marten’s approach to improving city schools. She believes it's a possible game changer in public education, where she said ideas for quick fixes to entrenched problems abound.

Cindy Marten, the newly-named superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, at a press conference announcing her appointment.
Kyla Calvert
Cindy Marten, the newly-named superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, at a press conference announcing her appointment.

From the professor's perspective, Marten and her team approach the district's problems by recognizing its successes.

“We need to clearly understand how those are working, why are they working, what are the circumstances that allow them to work?" she said. "And then ensure that we set up structures so that it can go across the whole system. I cannot tell you how refreshing that is.”

Over three days, the students are visiting classrooms, interviewing districts staff and collecting other data about five problems in San Diego schools: discipline, first-grade readiness, high school performance, teacher and principal recruitment and students who are still not fluent in English after six or more years in U.S. schools.

Those areas were singled out by Marten and her chief of staff Staci Monreal during a summer visit to Harvard to start working with Jewell-Sherman.


The doctoral candidates will take the information they gather back to the East Coast to research what might work for San Diego students. Tracey Benson is one of five students looking at ways to narrow the achievement gap in terms of test score and graduation rates in the city's high schools. Being able to examine real problems and track the results of changes the students suggest is an experience Benson said isn't available in a classroom.

“In this situation we’re able to read about the history of the district, look at the percentages, look at the data and then also talk with people on the ground," he said. "And this is information you don’t have access to when you’re doing a case study.”

Marten and Monreal will make another visit to Harvard in the spring to see the students' research and hear they're proposed solutions. They'll come back with tools and materials to share with district staff and proposed changes they hope will boost student performance.

"There are no silver bullets or one-size fits all answers," Marten said. "And that's what's so beautiful about this. Then in there with us and co-creating it with us. And it's going to add the depth and complexity that we need in our own problem solving."

The students' cross-country trip and spring reports will cost San Diego Unified nothing. In 2007, the district commissioned a report from another Harvard researcher on improvements needed to special education programs. That report cost the district about $150,000, according to a UT-San Diego article from the time.