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Friday, Oct. 12, 2007 | It was a simple scheme: Divvy up one of San Diego’s toughest junior highs into three smaller schools. Two years ago, it looked like a good bet. By restructuring as three schools, not one, Mann Middle School expected to dodge impending penalties under No Child Left Behind, focus more attention on at-risk kids, and spark their interest with special themes — science, activism and the arts — all in a revamped “Complex of Excellence” color-coded violet, orange and green.

Now, staff at one Mann school lament a teacher exodus, parents complain of ever-shifting schedules, and the teachers’ union has asked to scrap the whole concept. Twelve of 15 teachers at Mann School of Expedition have left since last year, said Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego teachers’ union. Meanwhile, two new principals have stepped to the helms of the struggling schools, under the direction of a brand-new area superintendent.

This week, a handful of Mann teachers sounded an SOS.

“No one needs more help than Mann,” Zombro told the school board Tuesday, a ‘We &#9829 Mann’ sticker pressed to her blouse. “Reconsider the small schools configuration.”

Years ago, Zombro’s statement would have pushed against the tide. In 2003, San Diego’s small schools had already shown promising results at the high school level, bolstered by an $11.4 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Nationwide, new funds were available for pint-sized schools thanks to the Smaller Learning Communities program, one component of No Child Left Behind. At the turn of the millennium, more and more schools were “thinking small,” to borrow the title of a peppy brochure printed by San Diego City Schools last year.

“Break up an anonymous, large high school into schools of about 400 students … the theory and research being, students feel safer, more connected and engaged, and they can get support more readily,” said Betsy Brand, director of the American Youth Policy Forum, a nonprofit that researches youth issues. “Kids aren’t getting lost. But to do it right, there are lots of moving parts.”

For Mann, splitting into three schools had another advantage. By 2005, the Mid-City school had fallen short of No Child Left Behind requirements for five years, as test scores failed to clear the law’s escalating bar. When Mann divided, two of the schools got a blank slate, freed from the restraints imposed by NCLB after failing to make the grade. The third — Mann School of Expedition — kept the old Mann’s “school code,” and its record.

Mann had — and has — almost every hurdle imaginable to overcome. All its students are low-income. More than 40 percent are learning English. At home, they speak 25 different languages, a dazzling Babel of tongues, from Spanish to Lao to Somali, in which parent brochures and flyers are dutifully printed. It’s what teachers love about Mann: The jostling of a “little United Nations” on its way home from school. The flutter of girls’ headscarves in the breeze, teal and bubblegum-pink.

Patricia Fumagalli, who’s sent two sons to Mann, loves it too. She loves Mann so much that in December 2004, she and her now-ninth-grade son spent winter break with teachers and administrators huddled in a classroom dubbed “the war room,” hammering out the plan to split Mann, in order to save it.

“I’m an advocate for staying in your local school,” Fumagalli said, “and if it’s not working, then you get in there and you change it.”

At her side was Matt Malone, the special assistant to then-Superintendent Alan Bersin. The plan they helped draft was approved in March 2005. Then, within a few months, Bersin was ejected by a new school board after a stormy 7-year term, and Malone quickly followed.

Looking back on Mann, Malone, now a superintendent in Swampscott, Mass., is deflated.

“I take Mann a little personally,” he said. “We went out there and gave Mann hope. We bussed in hundreds of people, to demand the schools approve their plan … And then there was no support. They were left to the wolves.”

What went wrong? Malone claims support for Mann fizzled after Bersin’s departure, and the school lacked the resources it needed. Mann didn’t snap up the millions in Gates Foundation cash that San Diego’s flourishing small high schools got; the board planned to shell out $300,000 in one-time costs for the switch, and about $500,000 annually, according to a meeting summary.

“They did it on the cheap,” said school trustee John de Beck. “If you’ve got a crisis school, put in some crisis bucks.”

Trustee Shelia Jackson, a longtime opponent of Bersin whose district includes Mann, gives a slightly different account. Jackson argues that poor planning, not poor funding, hobbled Mann’s progress. The small-school vision didn’t delve into the underlying problems at Mann, she said, problems such as teacher training and language barriers.

“Someone said, ‘Let’s make it small schools, because small schools are better,’” Jackson said. “But that’s not necessarily true.”

Reflecting on scads of small-school initiatives across the county, Brand says the concept has sometimes seduced administrators who fail to “dig deeper,” and don’t plan for the smattering of changes that accompany slimming school size. Teachers need re-training. Parents need to buy in. Practical issues such as scheduling and specialized classes can overwhelm the best intentions, she warned. Brand recommended schools do at least a year of planning before becoming small schools.

Otherwise, she said, “it’s small school light,” or can devolve into ultra-segregated schools, as in one Denver district where white students flocked to the “college prep school,” Latinos filled an “English-learning school” and African-American students “ended up in a vocational track.”

That hasn’t happened at Mann. In some ways — ways that matter to parents like Fumagalli — the school has lived up to the hype. Fumagalli raves about Bruce Ferguson, former principal of the arts-based Mann School of Expression, and the close bonds he formed with his students.

“I’d watch him every day at the top of the stairs. He knew every one of his kids by name,” Fumagalli said. “He’d say, ‘Rachel, where’s your lanyard? Joey, you have detention.’”

But in others, the school hasn’t met expectations. Test scores have risen, but are still dwarfed by the district averages: Ten percent of science-minded Mann School of Exploration sixth-graders met state math standards, compared to 43 percent of their peers districtwide.

And practical problems abound: Fumagalli’s seventh-grader has had three math teachers this year, including a lackadaisical athletic coach, she said. Mann Expedition resource specialist Meghann Hughes complained of “high class sizes” and “continuous change in teacher assignments.”

The most egregious example was cited by a sixth-grade Mann teacher who addressed the board Tuesday. Her class has swollen to 44 students, 17 of them with special needs, she said. For the first week, she had a resource teacher available for a few periods. Now that teacher is gone.

Trustee Katherine Nakamura is aggravated. The small schools plan amounted to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” she said. Instead, Nakamura thinks Mann should have taken the route as Gompers Middle School, a then-struggling school four miles from Mann: Go charter.

“The circumstances at Gompers were very similar” in 2005, she said. “The high turnover, the violence — that was Gompers. They don’t have that anymore.”

Gompers director Vince Riveroll said converting into a charter has liberated the school from district constraints, and “the results have been amazing.”

“Parent engagement has increased. Test scores increased. Teachers are staying,” he said. Riveroll says 71 percent of Gompers teachers now stay after a year, compared to 25 to 50 percent before the transition, when Riveroll tried to fill 18 empty spots. “In just two years, the campus is calm.”

So far, no one has set forth a clear plan for pulling Mann from its slump. Principal Kurt Madden, former principal Ferguson and former Expedition principal Valerie Voss could not be reached by press time; a secretary for Exploration principal Esther Omogbehin said the principal couldn’t comment, because she hadn’t attended the Tuesday meeting.

Area 4 superintendent Karen Frison, whose region includes Mann, has only recently taken the job, and is steadily assessing Mann’s situation. She cautions that the lurid examples cited by Zombro and the Mann teachers who spoke at Tuesday’s board meeting may be aberrations; in the case of the teacher faced with 44 students, one teacher position is vacant and a substitute has been absent, Frison said. Teachers had agreed to take in the excess students until the hire was made, she added.

“As the issues have arisen, we’re working on it,” Frison said. “They have our attention, and we’re really trying to relieve them, to make sure we’re creating the best environment for all the students at that school.”

The question is how, and it’s a question that even a Mann loyalist like Fumagalli strains to answer.

“I’m really not sure,” she said, minutes before a meeting with principal Madden, where she planned to air her grievances. Her son’s initial English teacher wasn’t certified for his honors program; days after she complained to Madden, the teacher was replaced with a certified instructor, who is “awesome … but it shouldn’t have to happen this way.”

“I’m just trying to get a hold on all this,” Fumagalli said.

Correction: The original version of this story wrongly identified Bruce Ferguson, former Mann School of Expression principal, as the current principal.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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