Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | The mission of San Diego City Schools is to improve student achievement by supporting teaching and learning in the classroom.

When Alan Bersin was appointed superintendent of the San Diego City Schools in March, 1998, his first task was to simplify the mission statement of the nation’s 13th largest school system. The priority of the new system was clear: increase student achievement by focusing intensively on improving the quality of instruction in the classroom.

Now that he is leaving at the end of June, what is the report card on the old, contentious board and superintendent Bersin?

The achievement gap, which had been widening before Mr. Bersin’s appointment, has begun to narrow.

The number of schools that are high achieving on the state test has almost doubled.

San Diego City Schools is one of three urban school districts in the state to achieve all 46 of the federal No Child Left Behind benchmarks two years running.

There has been marked improvement in high school students passing the California High School Exit Exam, with three-quarters passing the exam. The progress is slow at some schools and must be accelerated, particularly at high schools.

Yet like the experience in many large urban school districts across the country, the San Diego increase in student results has come at a tremendous price. The teacher union leadership actively fought the reforms for six years because it prefers a system in which each teacher is an independent contractor with little or no contact or relationship with their colleagues in their own schools or across the district. The union even ran a radio ad campaign just prior to the new board taking office urging the new members to oust the superintendent. All of this deflected parents’ and the public’s attention away from the important strategies that were playing out in the classroom.

On December 6, 2004, the new school board took the oath of office. Luis Acle, a former small businessman and substitute teacher, became the board president after six rounds of balloting. Mitz Lee, a parent and community activist, and the only board member to actively campaign on turning back the reforms and firing the superintendent, became board vice president. Shelia Jackson, a navy veteran and former elementary school teacher, attempted to become board president and is seen by many as a swing vote on the new board. These new board members joined John de Beck, an opponent of the reforms, and Katherine Nakamura, a supporter of the drive to improve student achievement.

The initial actions of the new school board should be a concern to all in San Diego. Will petty political payback and a return to the old site-based decision-making culture become higher priorities than improving student achievement by focusing the system on instruction in the classroom?

Alan Bersin’s strategic plan for raising student achievement has included investing in teacher professional development and on-site reading and math peer coaches, upgrading the leadership and academic skills of site principals, establishing researched-based reading strategies to unlock the gate to academic success in all subjects, supporting smaller class sizes and more books in the classroom, and instituting an accountability system that holds principals responsible for student learning and outcomes.

The new board is threatening to end many of these common sense reforms including:

The highly successful aspiring principal training center at the University of San Diego. The primary reason? Partial funding for the center has come from Los Angeles financier, Eli Broad, who supported candidates for the board who were defeated by several of the new and existing members.

Freezing budgets for consultants who are used nationally to help teachers improve their instruction in English and mathematics. Eliminating all instructional leaders, akin to coaches on sports teams.

Eliminating all on-site peer and content coaches who model sound instruction and work with teachers to improve their skills, has been openly discussed at board meetings.

My question to the new school board: do you support the mission of San Diego City Schools?

Ron Ottinger served 12 years on the San Diego City Schools Board of Education, seven as president of the board. He currently serves as the national associate director for the non-profit AVID Center, which disseminates the AVID college preparation program for low-income students across the country.

Click here to Voice your thoughts about what the school board should do.

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