Tuesday, June 27, 2006 | A couple of weeks ago, at our end-of-the-year management team meeting, I gave everyone a homework assignment for the summer. Simply put, I asked each leader in the room to consider carefully how we could come up with ways to reduce the levels of adult conflict in San Diego City Schools. And I made this request, not because I’m looking for serenity in the second largest school district in the state, but because I really want us to be able to focus on accelerating gains in student performance.

As I conclude my first year here in San Diego, I’m concerned about how much valuable time adults spend in disagreements – time that could be spent supporting students who desperately need our help and assistance. Some of the fights have pitted parents against school principals over the spending of Title I funds; teachers against principals over the issue of shared decision making; teachers and parents against administrators on the question of campus climate and school discipline. Most of these battles take valuable time away from our efforts to successfully educate every child, every day.

If this is going to change, we leaders of the school system must take responsibility for figuring out ways to reduce conflict so that we’re modeling for the entire organization how we can create more time to better serve students and their interests, and to address the very real challenges facing our school system.

As the summer begins, I see at least four major challenges that need our attention:

Putting in place an organizational structure that works.

With the recent selection of five K-8 area superintendents, the heart of a new structure is emerging. This diverse group of leaders will be empowered advocates for their geographically clustered schools, focused on solving problems much closer to the point of origin. I want them to make sure that every school has a fully enriched and competitive curriculum – one that recognizes the importance of the basics along with art, music and physical education. In addition, they will hold all schools accountable for expanding their partnerships with parents, community, business and higher education.

When you look at the resumes of some of these new leaders, you see successful leadership experiences in San Diego, Orange County, the Bay Area, as well as Arizona and Texas. You also see some non-traditional experiences with Edison Schools, the New Schools Venture Fund and Newton Learning. We have to become a school system that is prepared to meet the new challenges of competition from charters, private schools and declining enrollment.

What are we learning from the CAHSEE experience?

Several months ago, I went out to observe an after school CAHSEE prep class in math at Clairemont High School. It was one of those sobering moments for a superintendent when you’re confronted with the shortcomings of your own organization. Here were second semester high school seniors struggling to grasp grammar school mathematics.

While the youngsters were both well-behaved and focused, it was clear that we had failed them by letting them move on to the high school level without the requisite preparation to do high school work. I’m convinced now more than ever that promotion standards at the K-8 level are critical to rescuing students with meaningful interventions that correct their academic deficiencies. In my judgment, it makes no sense to fret about students failing the high school exit exam when we let them leave middle school with multiple F’s in core academic subjects.

On July 11, our Board of Education will take up for a first reading a new policy that would require multiple-F eighth-graders to get an additional year of academic preparation before moving on to regular high school. I’m hopeful that an additional conversation about third and fifth grade promotion standards will follow this coming school year. Getting it right at the K-8 level and bringing a better prepared student to high school is critical to our success.

The charter challenge.

When it comes to charter schools, I’ve had a pretty steep learning curve here in San Diego. First of all, the charter movement here has an interesting and rich history with strong ties to numerous community leaders and organizations. I’ve also learned that it is a very diverse community that is not easily lumped together in monolithic fashion. There are independent, conversion and dependent charters all with a story to tell about the reasons for their origin. When I met with some of the charter school principals, they told me that they were running from the Blueprint and the “one-size-fits-all” nature of the school district’s curriculum. One charter school argues that they are accelerating student performance using “love” as the vehicle. Others, like Gompers and Keiller, said that it was the district’s failure to improve the academic performance of students, coupled with the rigid transfer and assignment provisions of the SDEA union contract that led them to seek independence.

I want to make it clear that I like what’s going on at some of these charters, and I believe that district schools can learn from them. I’m especially pleased with the developing culture of high standards – dress, behavior and achievement – at both Gompers and Keiller. And I’m really impressed with the strong parental support and the significant engagement of higher education at both of these schools.

At the same time, I’m deeply troubled by a school system that seemed to be saying to parents of color, south of Interstate 8, that they needed to be independent of the school district in order to get what they needed for their children, while at the same time delivering a very different message to La Jolla parents who were exploring charters a few years ago. I believe that we need to fix schools wherever we find them, and that we’ll take that consistent approach throughout the school system. If new conversations are needed with the teachers union on these subjects, I stand ready to help facilitate them as a working partner.

Campus climate, school discipline and attendance.

Often these issues aren’t sexy enough for some school reformers but they are incredibly important if you’ve ever spent any time in schools with teachers, administrators and parents. We have to take an honest look at student behavior, discipline and attendance if we want our schools to improve.

We can’t just imply that the adoption of a Zero Tolerance policy takes care of these issues because it does not.

Among other things, we plan to promote school attendance especially at those schools that are below 95 percent. We estimate that we lose about $25 million a year due to student absence. And, while we’re not going to encourage youngsters to come to school when they’re genuinely sick, there’s a lot more that we can do to improve attendance.

In addition, we want to have a Monday-Friday truancy sweep in place so that older students know that they might be picked up and taken to a truancy center on any day that they decide to miss school. The center will provide a day of instruction in a very regimented environment so that literally, at the end of that day, they view attending school as a better choice. Research from law enforcement confirms that reductions in truancy contribute to lower daytime crime rates, thus providing a larger quality of life benefit to our community.

As this first year of my time here concludes, I want all members of this community to know how much I appreciate the truly warm welcome that I have received throughout the school district and the larger community. This is a resource-rich community that cares very deeply about school children, and I’m convinced that we can make our schools significantly better by working together.

Carl A. Cohn is superintendent of schools for San Diego City Schools. Send your thoughts about this column in a letter to the editor.

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