Monday, November 28, 2005 | Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series.

Having to adjust to declining enrollment, budget cuts, stringent state and federal accountability systems and rigorous expectations for academic achievement might be more than enough to wear down the average school district superintendent. But Don Phillips seems to relish the opportunity to adapt to changing influences and turn challenges into successful outcomes.

In the few years before Phillips began his job as superintendent of the Poway Unified School District, Poway was a growing district and economic times were rosy. But shortly after he arrived in 2001, California’s budget crisis began. Education funding was being threatened, and apprehensive educators were beset by feelings of worry and foreboding.

“If you wanted to pick a time to show up in a story – assuming a school district is a long story and this is just a couple of chapters in the book – these weren’t the easiest times to arrive,” Phillips said with a smile. “We started making cuts that first year, and ever since then we’ve been basically living on less while we’re trying to ratchet up our results in achievement for students.”

Despite the troubled economic times, Phillips has managed to record some of the highest test scores in the county, maintain stable relations with his teachers and their union, cope with declining enrollment and fluctuating demographic patterns and become a major player in education policy discussions in the county, state and even at the federal level.

Encompassing 100 square miles along the North County Interstate 15 corridor, the Poway Unified School District is the third largest in the county, with about 33,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12. It serves children from the city of Poway, parts of the county’s unincorporated areas, and neighborhoods in the city of San Diego – where about two-thirds of the district’s students reside. These include the communities of Rancho Penasquitos, Rancho Bernardo, Sabre Springs, Carmel Mountain Ranch and Black Mountain Ranch.

The PUSD has 22 elementary, six middle and four high schools – many of the schools rank near the top in San Diego County on the state’s rating system for achievement, the Academic Performance Index. All four Poway high schools recorded API numbers over 800 this year, the state’s target, placing them among the top 12 high schools in the county. The district also boasts a 96-percent graduation rate.

Phillips said one reason for Poway’s academic success is the district’s emphasis on examining and analyzing assessment data, which allows teachers to refine their lessons, fill in learning gaps and better meet individual needs.

“I’ve been disaggregating data on kids since I was a high school principal back in the 1980s,” Phillips said. “It’s always been something I do. So if you look at our scores overall, they’re great. But if you start to disaggregate them, then you start to look at who’s not achieving. And what are we doing for those youngsters?”

Phillips said the education profession has been slow to accept the value of data generated by standardized testing. “Our challenge is that we see [it] sometimes as a threat rather than as an additional tool to help us do our work,” he said.

Poway follows its students after they graduate and head off to college, which Phillips said is fairly unusual. “We’re trying to track that [and do] follow-up studies to find out what our graduates say about the experience and how well prepared they are,” he said.

Although assessment information is important, Phillips also believes there are other measures that gauge success. “We also look at our attendance rates, the number of students in our [Advanced Placement] classes, the number of students who are proficient in higher-level mathematics, how many are entering into science,” he said. “Those are all important measures.

“[While] our community is interested in those tests scores and Realtors use them a lot, ultimately what you really want is for your child to be well-prepared. If we can do a good job at that, which is more complex and richer than a single test, then we’re doing our work.”

Preparing for an unknown future

“The work world is going to be very different,” Phillips said. “We believe they’re going to have to re-invent themselves multiple times, and it may not even be in the same line of work. How do we prepare them? We’re really grappling with that.”

Besides teaching core academics, Phillips also emphasizes higher-order thinking, critical reading and writing skills, problem-solving, perseverance, overcoming adversity, lifelong learning and other habits of mind that will help children become successful when they reach adulthood.

“Those skill sets will serve our youngsters well,” he said. “We’re helping prepare our youth for a future that we don’t understand.”

Phillips said a long tradition in the district, and one of its greatest strengths, is its emphasis on enrichment programs like music and art.

“If you think about preparation for life and what it means to be educated, it’s much richer than a series of skill sets,” he said. “It’s a body of knowledge – like exposure to leadership, to theater, to athletics, to extra-curricular” – interests that can also open college doors.

“College admissions used to look for well-rounded individuals,” Phillips said. “They now look for what’s called well-rounded classes.”

Decades ago, colleges were interested in accepting students who had some experience in a variety of areas but were not necessarily gifted in any of them, Phillips said. “That would have been great because you were well-rounded,” he said.

“Now they say, ‘That’s fine, but what do you do at a really high level?’ Because when they’re looking at putting together their classes, they’re saying, ‘We need some theater people, we need some people to play in our orchestra, we need someone who can play on the athletic teams.’

“What they wouldn’t want you to do is dabble in everything and not excel at anything. It’s changed. It’s a fundamental shift. The word well-rounded is still around but it’s been re-defined.”

Phillips, 56, “became very aware of all the social issues in our society” in college in the late 1960s, and early in his career worked in Washington and Chicago-area high schools teaching social studies, history and economics.

He later became principal of Vista High School in Vista in 1986, and in 1988 became associate superintendent of the Vista Unified School District.

Before joining Poway, Phillips was superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District from 1997 to 2001 and of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District from 1990 to 1997.

“I grew up in Palo Alto, where I went back to be superintendent which is very unusual,” Phillips said. “In fact some of my teachers were still there.”

Phillips earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Whitman College in 1972, his master’s in social policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1976, and his doctorate in social policy from Harvard in 1984.

Although Phillips enjoyed some early teaching experiences in school-within-a-school environments, he has not tried to duplicate these novel alternatives in Poway. “We have a fair amount of site autonomy for schools to really create their own structures, and as a community we just don’t have that kind of demand,” he said.

Declining enrollment

“We had a kind of tightening of the state purse strings,” he said. “And we’re not eligible for much in the way of grant money [or] federal money.

“We’ve historically run very large schools, and that’s been part of our efficiency. And we’re a large system, so with 33,000 kids you only have one superintendent. So you don’t get some of the duplication.”

The district’s budget last school year was about $210 million, 72 percent of which came from state aid and local taxes. Most money is received from the state based upon student enrollment and daily attendance. If all of the students in the district attended school, the district would receive about $900,000 a day, according to the district’s web site.

Yet, fewer kids means less money. So the funding problem is compounded by the second challenge: declining enrollment.

Although more families with school-age children are moving into the newer portions of the district located west of I-15, older communities are maturing and generating fewer children.

“We went from a growth district, to flat, to a slight decline in enrollment, even though we’re growing so much in the west,” Phillips said. “We’re really trying to work with demographers to understand as best we can what those long-term trend lines will look like.” Phillips noted that neighborhoods with declining enrollment sometimes “hit a low point and then come back up a little bit.”

Also at issue is whether new schools should be built where the growth is or whether boundaries should be adjusted to accommodate shifting enrollment.

The PUSD has four high schools – two on either side of I-15. Existing plans call for a fifth high school in the northern part of the district, but Phillips asks, “Are we going to have the enrollment to justify building [it]?”

“If you look at our housing that was developed in the ’60s, compared to our ’70s and ’80s, our ’60s are in significant decline, our ’70s are just starting and our ’80s not quite yet but will,” he said. “Are the ’60s close to the bottom? Because then we can assume that what happens in our ’60s will likely happen in our ’70s and our ’80s. It’s very tricky.”

As enrollment is shifting, so are demographics. Asian students – now 13 percent of the district’s population – represent Poway’s largest growing demographic sub-group, while the number of the district’s Latinos, an increasing sub-group in many other districts, has stayed fairly constant at about 10 percent.

African-Americans are 3.3 percent, Filipinos 6.8 percent and whites 65.3 percent. The percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indication of lower-income households, has remained at about 8 percent over the years, Phillips said.

“If you go back in our history, rather than 60 percent white, we were probably 90 percent white,” he said, noting the increase in the numbers of language students who are not necessarily Spanish speaking. Because the community is fairly affluent, he said there are families that move in from diverse countries like Russia or Japan to study or work here.

“They come with their children [who] may or may not have [English] proficiency,” Phillips said. “We try to mainstream our youngsters in English as rapidly as we can. That’s a priority for us.”

Two key goals

But he and the school board have fundamentally changed their approach to district-wide objectives, zeroing in now on only two: facilities, which includes enrollment needs and school climate issues; and literacy, which has become the district’s college readiness initiative.

District goals, along with other PUSD facts, are highlighted on the district’s comprehensive web site (

The Poway school district is nearing build-out and is modernizing 24 of its older schools through a $300 million bond measure, passed in 2002. This will make those facilities not only “safe and clean and orderly” but will also provide the wiring, technology and electrical power to support learning for the next 25 to 30 years, Phillips said.

“And when we’re doing it, we’re trying to do more than just fix up facilities,” he added. “We’re really encouraging our staff … to think about it as a new beginning – an opportunity, like we do with new schools, to reflect on what’s worked and … [how to] do things differently to do a better job with our youngsters in a time of constricting resources. We’ve been moving towards that kind of restoration, rebirth.”

The other primary goal, literacy, encompasses more than learning to read. It starts in the early grades and progresses through to high school and college-readiness, Phillips said.

Because Poway has students from kindergarten through 12th grade, a unified educational program can offer seamless consistency in curriculum and instruction. All students should be college-ready, he said, but the question is what that means at each grade level.

He said his district’s college-readiness and literacy emphasis means that teachers at every grade need to focus on what students should be doing at their level to be ready for college, even if the students are only in elementary school.

Keeping parents involved along the way is a key element of the literacy goal. “Our parents really want to know what’s going on and be in the loop,” Phillips said. “We think that parent-as-partner as part of our core values is right on target.”

He said the schools try to work with parents to make sure students don’t stumble, and ask what can be done at home, at school, in summer school and after school, to help all students raise achievement – including those at the high end and in the middle.

At remedial levels, “how do we take those kids who are struggling, who don’t see much relevance in school, and make connections for them [so they’ll want to] develop these skill sets for survival?” Phillips said.

The educational demands to meet workplace requirements continue to rise over time, he said, “so if we’re going to prepare our kids to earn a living wage, they’re going to have to have [a wide range of] skills. And we think that looks a lot like what it [takes] to be ready for college. So we’re calling that college-readiness.

“Not that all kids will go to college. But we want them to have the skill sets so they have the ability to make the choice and have the option. And that’s a push for us. That’s a very bold concept. There aren’t a lot of school districts in the country who are talking about getting all their kids college ready when they graduate.”

Read Part Two: How the Poway Unified School District’s unique relationship with its teachers union, built on mutual trust and respect, enables them to move forward as partners and bypass sour labor issues that can sometimes paralyze other school districts.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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