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Monday, March 01, 2004 | Tonight,the San Diego Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the charter proposals for Gompers, Keiller, King and Memorial. The meeting, which is expected to be contentious, begins at 3:30 p.m. at the Eugene Brucker Education Center, 4100 Normal Street, University Heights

How do you fix a chronically underperforming school?

That question has taken on a new sense of urgency under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Last year, eight schools in San Diego Unified hit an unenviable milestone. They had failed to meet their performance targets for six consecutive years and were facing NCLB’s highest level of sanctions. In accordance with the law, the school board issued a request for proposals to restructure the schools. Working groups of parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders were formed at each school site to consider various options.

These schools had been in some form of “program improvement” for years. Millions of dollars had been spent on a wide variety of intensive interventions, yet little had changed. Scores had begun to creep up, but unacceptable numbers of students were still performing at the “below basic” level. Radical new solutions were needed.

“Reconstitute the school an independent charter school” recommended the working groups at four of the schools – Gompers, Keiller, King and Memorial. (Memorial already is a charter school, but is requesting a greater level of independence from the district.) Charters are public schools that are exempted from many state regulations in exchange for a commitment to improve achievement.

Why have these communities embraced charter alternatives?

One good reason is that the people advocating the charters have solid game plans for turning the schools around. Although I can’t speak to the plans for all four schools, I personally have seen the proposals for Gompers and King, having sat on a review panel for the California Charter School Associations’s High Quality Charter grant program. In both cases, the plans are to replicate existing models that have already demonstrated success with similar populations of low income, minority students.

King/Chavez Academy for Excellence, a charter management organization which is proposing to operate (Martin Luther) King Elementary, has had phenomenal success with a K-8 school in the same neighborhood, raising its Academic Performance Index, or API, over 170 points in just two years. The team from UCSD that is proposing to mentor Gompers has a great track record with the Preuss School, a charter middle/high school that consistently ranks among the top schools on API. Last year, 100 percent of Preuss’s first graduating class was accepted into college. King/Chavez and Preuss are thriving because they: a) have created cultures of high expectations; b) provide rigorous, but balanced, standards-based instructional programs; and c) hold the adults in the organization accountable for raising student achievement.

The visions presented in the charter proposals have given new hope to parents who have felt disenfranchised by the school system. Over the years, many have given up on their local schools and are sending their kids outside the area. Now that someone is offering meaningful solutions to the problems, they have been reinvigorated. Grassroots efforts by parents garnered significant commitment to the charter proposals; 60-80 percent of the parents in the catchment areas for the four schools signed the charter petitions.

A majority of the teachers at the schools (the stakeholders most likely to feel threatened by the possibility of a new school structure) have also voted to support the proposals.

The working groups for the four schools decided that independent charter status was essential to achieving any turnaround. They rejected other ideas, such as having the district restructure the schools, because those alternatives would not allow the flexibility needed to recruit, develop and retain the best teachers. Their schools, like many other underperforming schools, have unbelievably high staff turnover. Under the current union contract, there are no incentives for taking on difficult assignments and many teachers use the “post and bid” system to get out. Principals aren’t able to choose their own teams and often are thwarted in their efforts to get rid of deadwood. The bargaining agreement also makes it difficult to implement improvement strategies such as extended school schedules. Going charter removes these constraints.

On March 1, the Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the charter proposals for Gompers, Keiller, King and Memorial. The applicants have met all of the criteria the board has set for them. The proposals are well thought out and there is solid parent and community support behind them. Charters may not be appropriate in every situation, but the time is right to give these charters a chance.

Susan Wolking is executive director of the Girard Foundation, which has provided millions of dollars for K-12 programs in San Diego County over the last 18 years.

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