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Monday, September 19, 2005 | For seven years the San Diego school board, like the district, was divided into warring factions. Antagonists endorsed improvement ideas not by their potential value to children, but source. Even among parents, teachers and principals supporting the reforms of Superintendent Alan Bersin, few embraced his top-down “take no prisoners” style of leadership. Finally, drained by acrimony, district voters elected a new school board majority.

The voters wanted change and got it. Bersin is out and a new superintendent, Long Beach’s celebrated school reformer Carl Cohn, assumes office next month. Unlike Bersin, Cohn’s forte is team-building and improvement.

The school board, in office only eight months, has had to confront many challenges, including finding a new superintendent. Thus, while the board is still maturing, this is an appropriate time, at least preliminarily, to assess their performance.

Local media have not done this. Television and radio, as headline reporters, lack the inclination. The Union Tribune‘s editorial writers, themselves disaffected partisans in the past school wars, remain consumed by old quarrels. A few Bersinites in the downtown power elite, along with retired board president Ron Ottinger, continue to spin public opinion in rearguard actions. This ignores the public’s desire for a new start and deprives them of insight into the workings of the newly elected school board.

Among the issues confronting the board from day one are: restore mutual respect to a divided, demoralized district; seek out student performance improvement strategies; revitalize physically deteriorated campuses; reduce growing budget deficits; learn how to function as an effective board; deal with a rebellious superintendent; and, ultimately, find his replacement.

Addressing them was not easy. The shear magnitude of the board agenda – many weekly meetings lasted from 9 to 9 – and the depth of the improvement challenge – two-thirds of district students do not achieve proficiency in the core curriculum – made it difficult.

Solving the student under-performance problem is the board’s top priority. One key to this, in their view, is to generate a new era of school-based teamwork and innovation among principals, teachers and parents at each campus. This requires, at a minimum, four things: ending district discord; inspiring principal leadership; an improvement-oriented, empowered faculty; and technical support.

The board focused, first, on ending the turbulence. The long shadow of district antagonisms reached directly onto the board because veteran members Katherine Nakamura and John de Beck came from opposite sides of the old conflict. At any moment they were but a word away from ignition.

All of the board, including newly elected members, Shelia Jackson, Mitz Lee and Luis Acle, understood they shared a mutual obligation to restore civility to the district. Doing this, they felt, required modeling it.

But they routinely address issues that produce impatience and conflict. For instance, schools north of Interstate 8 have, historically, received a larger share of district resources. North of I-8 board members want to safeguard this. Schools south of I-8 have greater unmet performance needs.

Large numbers of Hispanic and African American children attend schools in which 80 percent to 95 percent of children fail. These schools are not designed to adequately serve the students attending them. Frustration with this condition, and the lack of urgency which attends to redressing it, tests the equanimity of South of I-8 board members.

Still, everyone made an effort to remain courteous during debate, even heated deliberations. They welcomed diverse opinions. Notwithstanding their disagreement with Superintendent Bersin, they went out of their way to treat him respectfully, even as he sought to subvert their policies.

Finally, to further cooperation, the board decided to invest time in workshops focused on: building trust; defining board responsibilities; and clarifying where the line of their authority and that of the superintendent dissect.

During these sessions, de Beck and Nakamura, working together, discovered that they shared similar values, including a fierce commitment to increase student achievement levels. While pro- and anti-Bersin divisions have not been eradicated, they have been moderated. The first, crucial step, returning decorum to the board, has been achieved.

The board faces enormous challenges. It needs to generate strategic plans for pursuing its goals. For instance, it understands that parent involvement in most schools is bogus and that few schools have viable, ongoing processes for involving teachers in making improvements. Without such activities, and others, student performance cannot be significantly improved. Yet, the board lacks a comprehensive plan for achieving this. What it has is a new superintendent committed to doing this.

Les Birdsall has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years. Read his education column every Monday.

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