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Monday, Oct. 30, 2006 | Kyo Yamashiro may have the toughest job in the San Diego Unified School District, teaching adults a lesson most children learn in kindergarten: play nice and share.

As director of the district’s Office of School Choice, Yamashiro is charged with overseeing the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as well as enrollment options for students who want to attend a school outside of their neighborhood.

But those duties are child’s play compared with Yamashiro’s most time-consuming and contentious task: supervising the public school district’s 36 charter schools. She must find a way for the district and the charter schools to share funding, facilities, and ideas, an objective easier said than achieved. Hostility runs deep.

Even other administrators within the district don’t envy her position.

“She’s walking a tightrope,” said Luci Fowers, principal at South Park’s Albert Einstein Academy Charter School. “She has to represents the interests of the district, and the interests of the charter schools. She’s in a very precarious position.”

Jed Wallace, High Tech High’s chief operating officer, said Yamashiro must contend with inherent competition within the district. “There tends to be an ‘us versus them’ mentality,” he said.

About 13,000 students attend charter schools within San Diego Unified, accounting for about 10 percent of the district’s total student population. The charter schools receive varying amounts of state funding that might have otherwise gone to the district, though the district is still mandated to treat charters as they would any public school.

Add to the mix a California Charter Schools Association-backed lawsuit against San Diego Unified over the use of district property, and you can see why Yamashiro has grown accustomed to being asked, why would you take this job?

Yamashiro began her post as Office of School Choice director in mid-July, having just completed her doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has a master’s degree in administration and policy analysis and a bachelor’s degree in English literature, both from Stanford University. She spent a year abroad, teaching English to airport employees in France.

Her prior work experience was in education policy and program evaluation. She crunched numbers on school performance indicators. Before taking the job at San Diego Unified, she was a part-time research and evaluation consultant for Long Beach Unified.

Yamashiro said she has known San Diego Unified’s superintendent, Carl Cohn, for a long time, and that helped influence her decision to come to San Diego.

“It was a hard to pass up opportunity,” she said. “With my background in researching and evaluating charter schools, to go from policy research to implementation, means that I’m able to look at that intersection.”

It’s hard to ignore Yamashiro’s relative youth. At age 35, she’s hardly the gray-haired, hardened school administrator. She’s straightforward but polite. She speaks in all seriousness, but is quick to laugh.

Those who have seen her in action at meetings say she has a way of winning people’s confidence quickly, appearing well prepared and open minded.

In an effort to ease some of the conflict between charter schools and the district, she has been holding monthly meetings with the charter school principals, and smaller working group meetings with select charter school administrators.

There are plenty of discussion topics, including a revised memorandum of understanding with charter schools, the authorization of new charter schools and reauthorization of existing ones, the application process for prospective charter school students, and even the implementation of state Proposition 39, which requires school districts share facilities with charter schools.

“When I first met with the charter school principals, I told them that my main goals are to improve communication, and to figure out where there has been past miscommunication,” Yamashiro said. “It’s going to take some work on all of our parts.

We’re laying the groundwork. It’s not easy and it’s not something that will happen overnight, but we’re working on it.

“We need to make clear our policies and procedures. To have no policies has made it difficult for them, and it makes it difficult for me to do my job.”

Yamashiro describes herself as a collaborator. The fact that she spends all day of almost every day in meetings is by design. “I think best when I talk it through with other people,” she said. “Once we can hash out some of these guidelines, some of the processes, I think there will be a lot less unease and questions. We need to know what the expectations are on both sides.”

While it’s sometimes taken to unhealthy extremes, the competitive environment created by the inclusion of charter schools in the public school system is intentional. Right there on San Diego Unified’s website, one of the stated objectives of charter schools is to “stimulate competition in the educational market.”

The schools are launched by revolutionaries – groups of parents, educators and community members – to meet needs not yet satisfied by the current system. Charter schools are intended to encourage inventive teaching methods, and accountability not based on rules but on performance.

To be authorized by the district, charters must meet student performance and operational goals. These schools are typically granted a five-year charter, during which they must gain the district’s approval or face being revoked.

“I think in the ideal world, a charter school can act as a beacon of innovation and change,” Yamashiro said. “Even if it’s not something so innovative that it’s off the charts, it’s something the district isn’t thinking of yet.

“I think when you step back from a policy point of view, everybody wants systemic change to happen in public education.”

While in some parts of the nation charter schools are intended to serve at-risk youth, particularly those students who might drop out of school altogether, San Diego Unified’s charter schools have varied objectives for students of all kinds. Educational focuses include art, language and technology.

“I think that’s the beauty, is they’re all so different and diverse, that they’ve sprung up to serve a wide range of student populations,” Yamashiro said.

Wallace, the High Tech High COO, has observed Yamashiro with particular interest. Not only is he an administrator at one of the most celebrated charter schools in the district, but he previously worked for the superintendent’s office to perform oversight activities for the district’s charter schools.

“I know the frying pan that she’s been thrown into,” Wallace said.

He said the job of a charter school authorizer is underappreciated. Those charged with determining what makes a good district charter school must strike a delicate balance between serving as an advocate for charters and the district, but also demanding a high level of accountability.

“I think that there are charter schools out there in the state that have a somewhat naive expectation that they can just lean on their district,” said Wallace, noting districts are likewise at fault when they’re not upfront about the costs of district-provided services. “Then there’s no way for the school to budget responsibly.”

There are a number of complex programs within the Office of School Choice, all of which are in a constant state of change, Wallace said.

“Given the breadth of the challenge she has, we all need to grant her some space to get command of the content, just as any mere mortal would need,” he said.

Fowers, of the Albert Einstein Academy, said Yamashiro is “in the honeymoon stage,” and so is still working to understand the systems that are already in place.

Fowers is working closely with the Office of School Choice these days because her school is in the process of seeking a charter renewal. The paperwork is due Nov. 13. The charter is up in May 2007.

In the school’s nearly five-year existence, its enrollment has grown from 27 students to 430, Fowers said. Most students reside within the school district.

“The problem is we’re competing for the same pool of resources. If I have taken 400 district students, and they’re each worth, for instance, $60,000 in state money, then I’ve taken money out of their pool and into mine,” Fowers said. “I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault, it’s just the system of charter law.

“That’s the sad part, we can’t seem to get across this canyon that’s been created.”

Fowers has some apprehension that Yamashiro has never actually administered a charter school before, but gives her credit for being willing to listen to all the interested parties.

“I really don’t know what direction she’s going to take,” Fowers said. “She seems reasonably open to communication, and I still don’t believe she has a hidden agenda. The jury is still out. We’re only beginning to know her.”

Yamashiro acknowledges that she is just beginning to get immersed in her job. She still has much to do to put procedures and guidelines in place.

She feels like it’s her duty to mend relationships and sooth some of the hurt feelings between district and charter school administrators, even though much of the discord happened before she was appointed.

“The biggest thing is transparency,” Yamashiro said. “I’d like to get to a point where we can see all the good things and the bad things, we all can talk about it, and fix it together.

“I strongly believe that when the students are being well served by charters, that all district students benefit. We all should be celebrating those successes.”

Jennifer McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance journalist. She can be reached at jenmcentee@yahoo.com

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