Wednesday, February 16, 2005 | Words cascade out of John de Beck so fast that he can barely finish one thought without another intruding. Passionate about education, de Beck can at times seem intense and over-confident, yet his knowledge and zeal are backed by a career in the field that spans more than 50 years. With 36 years as a teacher and 14 years as a trustee for the San Diego Unified School District, de Beck is clearly the veteran on the school board.
The greatest challenge facing the district today, de Beck said, is working to set a new direction. Also critical, after many years of low morale, is to reverse the negative situation that exists with teachers, he added.
For the future, de Beck would like to see a radical change in how school districts operate. “We don’t need one dynamic superintendent or one single leader that’s the whole ball game,” he said. Instead, he proposes a system that provides checks and balances, with four or five top leaders each reporting directly to the board and each responsible for one particular area of education, like business services, facilities, or instruction.
This model, he said, would give each leader the political freedom to speak freely on ideas proposed by colleagues, without fear of retribution. De Beck feels strongly about this concept and even has his own web site that delineates this idea in greater detail.
A product of the Great Depression, de Beck came to San Diego with his family in 1937 when he was seven years old. He attended grade school and high school in Point Loma, and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business from San Diego State University.
De Beck began teaching full-time in 1954 at Lincoln High School in south San Diego and continued teaching in the district until 1990, when he was first elected to the Board of Education. He was re-elected in 1994, 1998, and again in 2002, and will complete his fourth term in 2006. He has also worked as a counselor, resource teacher, and curriculum administrator, taught business at San Diego City College for 10 years, authored many curriculum guides and textbooks, and served in various capacities on local and state-wide education committees and associations. He and his wife have seven children, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
De Beck, 75, represents Sub-District C, which includes the coastal area from Point Loma in the south to La Jolla in the north. “If water touches it, I represent it,” he said. The ethnicity of his district is predominantly white, he said. High schools in Sub-District C include High Tech High, Kearny, La Jolla, Mission Bay, and Point Loma.
Known as an outspoken critic of Superintendent Alan Bersin, de Beck spoke freely, with little prodding, about the tension between himself and the district superintendent.
When asked to name the best thing that’s happened in the past five years, de Beck said, “It’s about to happen,” referring to the recent buyout of Bersin’s contract which will end his employment with the district one year early. “My outlook is hopeful. I’m very proud of this new school board.”
De Beck did acknowledge that there has been improvement in test scores during the Bersin years, but he attributes much of the gains to the national trend that has placed focus on education and accountability in recent years. “Everybody got it good,” he said, “and we rode up with the tide.”
Although he doesn’t always support the positions of the teachers’ union, de Beck believes the union’s opposition to Bersin and his style fairly represents the bulk of the teachers. “If you go out to the rank and file, they’ll all agree [with the union position],” he said. “It’s blinding hate.”
Much of the animosity between the teachers and the superintendent, he said, is due to Bersin’s strategy to improve teacher quality by placing consultants and teachers with only two or three years of experience in the classroom to evaluate 20-year teaching veterans. He also said that fear techniques had become pervasive, and that people were afraid to speak out or dissent, for fear of reprisals.
De Beck admitted that not every teacher is good at teaching, but he said general attrition works to weed them out. He said the bad ones don’t get support from their peers, and principals end up intervening to provide them with the guidance they need to improve classroom skills.
Rather than coaching teachers in a top-down style, de Beck feels they would benefit more from collaboration and scheduled time together, an approach used in many North County school districts. “North County is ahead of us on this one,” he said, noting that international studies also indicate that collaboration among teachers is key to improving academic achievement.
In the past month de Beck estimated he’s spent close to 30 or 40 hours per week on school issues. Calling the job “public service,” he said an individual can’t have a full-time job and serve effectively as a trustee for San Diego City Schools.
In 2006, de Beck will have served four terms – 16 years – on the school board. Many would say it’s time to retire, but not de Beck. “I’ll run until I get beat,” he said.