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Watching Michelle Evans speak her mind to the high and mighty can be breath-taking to witness. No title or position is too powerful or intimidating for her, when she sees education leaders making decisions that are not in the best interest of kids.
She delivers her words with the passion and strength that comes from knowing that she speaks for the children. And she can smell double-talk and deception a mile away.
“You won’t be snow-jobbing me,” she said, of the leadership at the San Diego Unified School District, which has taken steps in the past few months to undo the progress Evans’ neighborhood school, Gompers Charter Middle School, has begun to make since becoming charter last September.
Claiming they are simply following the law, SDUSD officials are rigorously applying legal technicalities against many of the district’s charter schools to create financial and academic hardships clearly designed to impede progress and undermine success.
Evans is upset by the way the district is dictating policy with no collaboration or prior discussion, and she fumes over the district’s attempts to drive the struggling charter schools into financial ruin by double-charging rent for district facilities.
When his staff first presented the district’s undeniably hostile annual facilities proposal at a school board meeting on Feb. 28, SDUSD superintendent Carl Cohn sat as mysteriously silent as a sphinx during nearly an hour of angry public testimony and board discussion.
“He was quiet the whole time,” Evans said later. “I don’t deal that way.”
After the meeting, Evans lashed out at Cohn who stood wordlessly as she scolded him for not collaborating and for engaging in a top-down management style that she said was disrespectful to the community and inconsistent with his reputation for cooperation and openness.
“I didn’t mean to be rude,” Evans said later. “But if I don’t stand up for me and mine, no one will and they’ll run you over.”
One month later, when the district – with a take-it-or-leave-it offer – imposed an additional fee on charter schools to rent SDUSD facilities over and above the 3 percent the district already receives from them, Evans blasted them again. “You already get rent money,” she told the school board angrily.
She then chastised district staff for sending to Gompers “two people who didn’t want to be there” to talk about the facilities issues. “They didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said during public comment. “We’re well-informed. Why don’t you get informed and then come to the table and talk to us?”
Of the five board members, Evans is particularly cross with her district’s representative on the school board, Shelia Jackson, for not supporting Gompers’ efforts and for acting behind closed doors to erect barriers to the school’s chances for success. At the March 14 school board meeting, Evans addressed her comments specifically to Jackson when she said, “We just need our school board representative to support our school. When are you going to support [us]? Yes, we’re angry. Yes, we’re hurt. We put you in office.”
Later, to detractors, Evans said, “If you’re not going to give us a chance, then leave us alone. Don’t put up obstacles. Let us fall on our faces on our own.”
The only trustee Evans commended was Katherine Nakamura, who has been a staunch supporter of the district’s charter schools and has visited Gompers several times. Nakamura called the efforts at Gompers nothing short of heroic.
“This school board is notorious for saying something and doing something different,” Evans said. “Except for Katherine Nakamura. She does what she says and has always been upfront.”
Evans speculated that there is so much resistance from the school board and the district because “people think we aren’t intelligent enough to make this choice [to go charter]. And they just don’t want the power lost. For a lot of people, it’s about their political life.
“Educating kids is a big industry. I had no idea when I got started how political this would be. When you put students first, you’re going to step on some egos.”
No one is better than you except God
Evans credits her mother for instilling in her the courage to speak her mind. “My mom gave us a sense that no one is better than you are and no one deserves more or less than you,” she said. “No one is better than you except God. Everyone else can be talked to.”
Gompers director Vince Riveroll said Evans is so effective because “she cuts through all the bureaucracy and politics and gets to the core. She’s a true leader. She has incredible emotional fortitude. She is driven by what’s best for kids – it’s this focus that drives her.”
Evans is more modest. “At the beginning, it was just about my kid,” she said, describing her frustration when her son, who performed well in 8th-grade Honors English, was placed in a below-grade-level 9th-grade English class at Gompers two years ago. She felt he was labeled and pre-judged without being given a chance.
“He wasn’t staying in below grade level another day,” she said. “I had to fight to get him back into Honors.”
It was during her involvement with her son’s grade placement at Gompers that she became aware of an impending crisis facing the school, where enrollment is about 67 percent Latino and 32 percent African-American.
“I was told that the school was going to close because it had been low-performing for four years,” said Evans, who was disturbed over the entrenched, nonchalant acceptance of failure by both the school district, the students and the community.
Evans researched state and federal legislation and learned that there were five options for schools like Gompers that had missed their academic targets year after year. “One option was going charter,” she said.
Serving on the school’s work group with other parents and education leaders to investigate the problem was an eye-opening experience for Evans, who discovered that charter schools had the freedom to hire and fire their own employees – a key point, she felt.
Because of union rules that give special privileges to teachers with seniority, the majority of experienced teachers choose not to teach at low-performing schools in poor, high-crime areas where there is a shortage of resources and struggling students receive minimal support for learning at home – in other words, schools like Gompers.
These rigid union rules force school districts to assign new, inexperienced teachers to failing schools like Gompers, and most of these teachers, if they last long enough, transfer out once they achieve seniority. For nearly 30 years, Gompers began each school year without enough teachers.
“How does a school open with 18 vacancies?” said Evans, describing the situation in the fall of 2004. “We knew we needed teachers, good teachers, teachers who wanted to be here – not teachers who were placed here or teachers who didn’t like the kids.”
Because Gompers would be free from union restrictions, the teachers union didn’t want Gompers to go charter, Evans said. “Doctors go out of business if they’re not good,” she said. “Why isn’t that the same for teachers? If you’re not a good teacher, you shouldn’t be teaching.”
There were other issues as well. As a charter school, Gompers could have its own governing board which could establish curriculum and instruction policies independently from the district’s, as long as state academic standards are followed, mandated annual student testing is given and targets for performance are met.
The Gompers board could manage its own budget, apply money to improve long-neglected facilities, set its own hours, require student uniforms and develop a program and college-going culture designed specifically for the students’ needs.
“Parents as a whole chose charter,” Evans said. “We all have the same dream. We want to prepare the kids for college, not minimum-wage jobs.”
Going to college, Evans said, should be the norm. “College should not be something you only see on TV,” she said. “It should be a reality. They should all think that’s just the way it is – to go to college.”
Evans envisions for her children a life free from the pervasive influences of gangs, violence, drugs and teenage pregnancy. “I want for my daughter financial security, not to be on welfare because she doesn’t have a college degree,” she said. “This is one way to give our kids hope for the future.”
End of Part One. In Part Two tomorrow, read how Michelle Evans overcame the disadvantages of her humble beginnings and became one of the driving forces behind the movement to convert Gompers to a charter school.
Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at email@example.com. Or, send a letter to the editor here.