Friday, Nov. 16, 2007 | An unusual plan to import a bankrupt private academy into an under-enrolled public school has bitterly divided parents and infuriated school trustees, who question whether the marriage is fair or even legal. And as tempers flare, one area superintendent has taken the brunt of parents’ ire.

Harborside School, a downtown private school, folded in May, only days after parents learned that the private campus’ funds were dwindling. In its wake, San Diego Unified School District courted the displaced parents and their kids, encouraging them to enroll at Washington Elementary, a majority-Latino school in Little Italy. The tiny school had suffered as its enrollment shrank 32 percent over the past 11 years.

Area superintendent Delfino Aleman promised Harborside parents and teachers that their program, which stresses small class sizes and hands-on learning, could be recreated within Washington Elementary. Students from Washington can apply for the selective program, which requires test scores, teacher recommendations, and interviews by Harborside teachers and the principal before admission. Roughly 70 students joined Washington from Harborside, hiking its 2007 enrollment to 333 students.

“(Aleman) rescued a group of parents and teachers and students from demise,” said Mae Lin Levine, a Harborside parent who now leads the Washington Elementary Foundation, a fundraising tool for the school. “And for that, we are absolutely in admiration.”

By merging, Washington would gain students — and the attendance funds that come with them — and Harborside could survive. Boosting enrollment has been a point of pride for the school district, which had fewer losses in its K-12 enrollment this year than in years past. And Harborside’s program offered a new, innovative option to attract students who might otherwise choose private schools.

“In a sense, we’re pioneers,” Superintendent Carl Cohn said. “Everybody in a coastal urban district is declining (in enrollment). We’re the lone exception … trying to do something different. One of the standing criticisms of public school systems is that we’re too bureaucratic and too bound by union contracts. We’re out here defying the odds, and part of that growth is changing the dynamics, and breaking down the bureaucratic obstacles.”

But the Harborside program has alarmed Washington parents and teachers, who see it as separate and less than equal. Harborside directly transferred its teachers to Washington, and the jobs were never posted for district teachers to bid for, as mandated by San Diego teachers’ contract. Teachers union president Camille Zombro said the union didn’t challenge the process because Harborside teachers were hired on a different timeline than that laid out in the union contract, complicating any challenge to the hirings.

“We saw ahead of time the perceived and real inequities in how they were trying to roll this out,” she said. “They’ve created a situation that’s pitting teachers against each other, and parents against each other.”

Harborside students enjoy art, music, theatre and dance classes thanks to district funding — classes that Washington students seldom have, teachers said. When school started, some Harborside classes numbered only five to 10 students, while Washington classes had more than 20 students.

Aleman and Cohn said the inequities are start-up issues, and will be remedied soon. Class sizes often fluctuate when school begins, Aleman said, and the school plans to extend arts and theatre opportunities to Washington students by January, paid for the new Washington Elementary School Foundation. Over the past few weeks, the school’s smallest classes have grown, and its largest have been trimmed.

“Our district has never done anything like this, so it’s a huge learning curve,” Aleman said. “It’s really unfortunate that parents perceive what we’re doing there as something inequitable.”

The program has driven a wedge between Washington and bewildered Harborside parents, who feel blindsided by the controversy. One Harborside parent left a joint Washington-Harborside meeting Thursday morning in tears. Washington parents say they haven’t slept. A new principal, Nestor Suarez, is struggling to mediate.

Thursday’s meeting devolved into shouting, crying and arguments, as Washington parents cut off Aleman’s explanations. Aleman, who is bilingual, struggled to translate between English and Spanish as parents lobbed accusations across the auditorium.

“Our kids know the other kids are getting a bigger slice of the cake,” said Maria Puente, a Little Italy employee who sends two children to Washington. “Their kids have privileges, special classes in art and drama. Ours don’t.”

“We’re at the butt end of this tremendous anger,” Levine said, a Harborside parent, adding that some Harborside parents have decided to leave the school. “You can only take so much. It’s really unfortunate that our host, basically Washington, chose not to be gracious.”

School board members appeared surprised by the controversy when two Washington parents toughed out a six-hour board meeting Tuesday night to deliver their concerns. Though trustees knew that Washington had absorbed Harborside students, they said they were unaware that Harborside’s program was distinct from Washington’s, and afforded different resources.

“It’s not fair. It’s not equal,” trustee Shelia Jackson said. “And it has to be explained to the parents in advance.”

Trustee John de Beck, whose area includes Washington, has questioned whether the program is legal, and pushed to close the Harborside Program completely. Cohn said district legal counsel Ted Buckley was confident that the Harborside plan was legal, and comparable to other district programs for gifted students. De Beck is unconvinced.

“If it’s not illegal, it’s highly irregular,” de Beck said. “How can they create a program in our school, and tell our kids they’ll allow them to apply? … It’s bigotry, it’s bad practice, and it’s stupid.”

When Washington absorbed Harborside students, its demographics shifted. Its percentage of poor students dropped from 91 percent to 78 percent. Those contrasts have aggravated the sense of inequality at Washington. Harborside’s program was carefully branded with its own logo, and both Aleman and principal Nestor Suarez have held separate meetings with Harborside and Washington parents.

“We didn’t do a good job of communicating, and I’m to blame for that,” he said. “But the intent was never to have a separate situation between the haves and have-nots. Some people want to describe this as a racial thing. It absolutely isn’t.”

Washington is not the only San Diego school to incorporate a fizzled school, nor to ride out controversy during the merger. Last year, Carver Elementary absorbed more than 100 students from a charter school that catered to Somali Muslims, and was criticized for accommodating the new students with a 15-minute break for optional prayer. Aleman cited similar “rumblings” when City Arts Academy Charter was assimilated into Logan Elementary School.

As charter schools have flourished in San Diego, so have worries that when charters fail — most often for financial reasons — public schools are left to pick up the pieces. District staff met this summer with Zombro and other union officials to craft a policy, laying out what should happen when charters or private schools shut down, Zombro said.

The Washington flap is “a clarion call for us to work with everyone to come up with practices with regard to these mergers that are in fact transparent, that are in fact well-communicated,” Cohn said.

Others agree it’s a clarion call, but their fight is to abolish the program, not include it.

“We don’t feel welcome in the school now,” said Loyola Benitez, a Washington parent volunteer. “We welcome all the Harborside students. But we want to be one school.”

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