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Wednesday, June 25, 2008 | Bilingual signs surrounding the new Sherman Elementary School still list Edward Caballero as its future principal. And for six months after San Diego Unified tapped him to lead Sherman, he was. Parents knew Caballero as a fixture at monthly community meetings, the leader who hired teachers and helped them dream their new bilingual school into being.

Then on Friday, San Diego Unified yanked Caballero from Sherman Heights and reassigned him to Jerabek Elementary, a high-achieving school in affluent Scripps Ranch, unexplained. It’s a job that other principals covet. Yet a first-time principal like Caballero has pleaded to keep his original job at Sherman.

“Once you told me that to become a great principal, you must prove yourself in the inner city,” Caballero told the school board and superintendent Friday. “All I ask is the opportunity.”

Neither neighborhood likes the switch. Sherman Heights parents fear that losing Caballero could jeopardize the bilingual program he crafted with their support — a program that school board member Luis Acle wants to jettison. One calls it “an attack on Sherman Heights,” which is now left without a principal.

And Scripps Ranch parents are outraged that they had no choice in their new principal. The enclave of highly active parents usually helps choose their school leaders, and has even interviewed candidates for the principal’s secretary.

“It’s horrible,” said Katie McCauley, a first grade teacher at Jerabek. Even though McCauley hears that Caballero is a good guy, “he’s already coming in under a black cloud.”

Transferring Caballero is just one in a slew of administrative changes that Superintendent Terry Grier has pushed at San Diego Unified. Friday, more than 100 principals, vice principals and other top administrators were either reappointed to their jobs or reassigned to new ones. Vice principals were re-interviewed using a novel method meant to gauge their core beliefs. Departments are being reorganized, and a number of administrators picked by former superintendent Carl Cohn are departing.

But moving Caballero was especially volatile because parents and principals on both sides of Interstate 8 are mystified. Caballero didn’t fail the new interview — he never took it. His bilingual program wasn’t eliminated — it’s still planned for Sherman, according to administrators. And if Caballero is being punished, being assigned to a top-scoring school that is envied by veteran principals is a strange penalty.

The only rationale is that Jerabek is “the polar opposite of Sherman,” said Bruce McGirr, president of the Administrators Association.

“I can’t believe they’d move somebody with Mr. Caballero’s skills to a school where he can’t use them,” said Debbie O’Toole, president of a Jerabek parents’ group. “It’s like they picked a name out of a hat and said, ‘That’s where he’s going.’”

Questions surfaced for Sherman Elementary, which opens this fall, when school board member Luis Acle learned that the school was planning a dual language immersion program that would split the school day between English and Spanish. Such programs aim to make both English speakers and English learners proficient in two languages. Dozens of Sherman parents helped plan the bilingual program and want to see it realized. Caballero had already been appointed as principal. But Acle was alarmed.

“It would enable students to continue functioning in their native language without really having to learn English,” Acle said.

Other trustees worried that the bilingual program could violate California law. Under Proposition 227, English-learning students generally must be taught in English unless their parents sign a waiver.

But San Diego Unified staffers reassured the school board that bilingual programs routinely follow that rule, said trustee Shelia Jackson. Sherman will also provide an English-only program for families who don’t sign the waiver, said Teresa Walter, director of the school district’s Office of Language Acquisition.

And several experts countered the fears that Acle raised of Spanish-speaking students failing to learn English in a bilingual immersion program. San Jose State University professor Kathryn Lindholm-Leary said students who take classes in both languages typically score as high or higher on grade-level tests than English-learning students in English-only classes.

Walter said she didn’t know of any plans to eliminate Sherman’s bilingual program. Yet Acle linked Caballero’s transfer with the bilingual debate, saying the superintendent’s decision to move the new principal was consistent with the needs of English learners in San Diego Unified.

Caballero, in turn, pleaded with individual board members to preserve the program and his role as principal. But his efforts backfired. Some trustees “felt like he was over-asserting himself,” said Jackson, who says she is one of two trustees who voted against Caballero’s reassignment.

And the superintendent must have agreed with their complaints, or decided not to disagree. He appointed Caballero to Jerabek.

“It’s a travesty to the Sherman community,” Jackson said.

Parents and teachers fear that removing Caballero could cripple the bilingual program he created. They penned dozens of letters to the superintendent and enlisted state senator Denise Ducheny, who sent a representative to the school board to plead for Caballero to stay at Sherman.

“They’re undermining the parents’ wishes,” said Renee Oswald, who Caballero hired to teach at Sherman next year. “The community pretty much hand-selected Mr. Caballero. They chose who they wanted, and they built up trust with him. Now the board just removes him?”

Jerabek Elementary recently lost a veteran principal, Tom Liberto, who took a job at Clark Middle School. Parents expected to help pick Liberto’s replacement: In years past, committees of parents and teachers have routinely screened applications and interviewed finalists. Jerabek parents and staff said they even met with Area Superintendent Chelsea Smith last week to discuss their role in picking the new principal. The same week, Caballero was named to lead Jerabek.

“It makes our meeting appear to be nothing more than a dog and pony show,” said Tamara Hurley, a parent at Jerabek.

Trustees Katherine Nakamura and John de Beck were on an educational tour in China and unavailable for comment Tuesday. Grier could not be reached.

School board member Mitz Lee said she didn’t oppose reassigning Caballero or any other administrator because Grier needs to prove himself by making his own staffing choices. It’s a significant shift for Lee, who presented the last superintendent with a systematic plan to get community input on picking principals, only to be frustrated when Cohn presented a different plan that let area superintendents decide for themselves how to involve the public.

Lee said she appreciates that Grier has a consistent process: That the superintendent and his staff find the best fit for each school.

McGirr of the Administrators Association said he understands the goal of matching principals with schools.

“But this seems like a mismatch,” he said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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