Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008 | Fearful that San Diego Unified might scrap the experiment that they credit with their gains, teachers at a small, diverse high school in City Heights are trying to secede from the school district, forging their own path as an independent charter school that is publicly funded but calls its own shots on hiring, firing, curriculum and budgets.

Their bid for independence is a signal of the growing fears that budget constraints, mixed academic results and the rapid turnover in the highest ranks of San Diego Unified could spell the death or dilution of the small high schools that were formed by splitting large schools into several smaller ones on the same campus.

Going charter is an attempt at self-preservation for the School of Community Health and Medical Practices, known as Champs, one of four schools-within-a-school that were carved out of the faltering Crawford High School four years ago. Its most impressive marks are in mathematics, where it claims its polyglot population of English learners has now bested the average San Diego Unified scores for such students. Its teachers chalk up their successes to their size, independence, and unique focus on medicine and health, touting their career-focused classes in anatomy and nutrition and an aggressive focus on study skills and organization.

“Champs is better than other schools,” said Shabnam Nazir, a senior who emigrated from Pakistan last year and wants to become a nurse. Her words nearly echoed those of freshman Fadumo Said, who is pursuing her lifelong dream of being a pediatrician.

“When it was a big school nobody ever learned anything,” Said said.

Many teachers worry that the small high schools could be consolidated to save money, though no such plans have been aired by school leaders. Rapid turnover in the highest ranks of San Diego Unified, which has had three superintendents since the small high schools were formed, has not assuaged their fears. Nobody has said that small high schools are finished. In fact, Superintendent Terry Grier has a staffer, Tony Burks, who specifically oversees and champions small high schools.

But rumblings about the added cost of small high schools, which were first introduced under former Superintendent Alan Bersin and bankrolled in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have alarmed small schools advocates as that funding evaporates. School board members have openly questioned whether the benefits are worth the added cost, earlier estimated at roughly $768 more per pupil than conventional high schools.

And charter proponents complained that San Diego Unified has already treaded on the autonomy of small schools by selecting a new Champs principal without the extensive input and ultimate approval of teachers, a privilege they enjoyed in the past. Such involvement is one of the founding principles of small schools, according to their proponents.

“The churn in the school district has been very frustrating for all the schools, but in particular the small schools,” said Libia Gil, a senior fellow at the American Institutes for Research, which is evaluating the success of the San Diego small high schools. “The concern is: Where is the direction? What can we count on? Who can we count on?”

Champs is the first public school to contemplate splitting from San Diego Unified since 2005, when a triad of faltering schools converted into charters after repeatedly falling short under No Child Left Behind’s standards and punishments. But while Gompers, Keiller and King-Chavez billed their charter transformations as the antidote to a dismal status quo, Champs is seeking independence not to remake itself, but to protect itself from the school district.

Teachers have already applied to convert Champs into a charter school and the vast majority of its staffers have signed on, but the school board must approve its bid for independence. Such conversions have been controversial in the past, and could drain funding from San Diego Unified if students defect from other public schools to attend the new charter.

San Diego Unified staffers have already questioned whether it is possible or appropriate to convert a single school in a multi-school complex such as Crawford, and charter proponents are still deciding what relationship, if any, their employees might have with the teachers union. And its test scores will face sharper scrutiny as it pleads its case for independence.

Its charter bid parallels the dropped charter ambitions of La Jolla High School, which revolted against the reforms of former Superintendent Alan Bersin and threatened to secede from the school district in 2002. San Diego Unified ultimately struck a deal with the vaunted La Jolla school that gave it academic freedom. Charter organizers at Champs said they might forego the charter if San Diego Unified would strike a similar agreement guaranteeing that their small school — and its autonomy — will remain intact.

“In the absence of something happening like that, there is a very strong core group of teachers that feel good about going charter,” said algebra teacher Carl Munn.

But the parallels with La Jolla end there. Champs’ students are drawn from the refugee and immigrant communities that cluster in City Heights, a multilingual enclave of Somali, Latino, Lao and more recently Burmese and Nepalese immigrants. Nearly half of its students are learning English, and teachers say some are still learning the alphabet. Their educations have often been interrupted by war and displacement, and most of their families are low-income. In a chemistry class, teacher Wayne Rosenberg searches for a common frame of reference to explain the formation of clouds.

“Normally where do winds come from? The ocean?” Rosenberg asked, and was met with silence.

Rosenberg uses a concise textbook that relies on concrete examples and basic questions to spark interest, and fills his classes with experiments to keep kids interested. They dub him “Mr. Rosie.” Lab experiments provide a new common ground: His students shake liter bottles containing a splash of water and a puff of smoke to see clouds arise mysteriously in their hands. He cannot use examples that could baffle students from other cultures, such as pumping a bicycle tire or even swimming, nor expect background knowledge from middle school or even elementary classes.

“You have to teach everything from scratch,” he said. “And that takes longer.”

Beset by such challenges, Champs has repeatedly failed to reach the testing goals set by No Child Left Behind, and is now required to offer tutoring and the option of enrolling elsewhere to its students. Its overall scores are on the higher end for demographically similar schools, but fall short of the expected target for California schools. And its English scores, in particular, have lagged behind those of San Diego Unified and the state. While its beginning algebra scores are notable, it has tested far fewer students in the next level of algebra, none of whom reached the goal level of “proficient” last year.

Charter advocates point out that some gains, such as a changed culture or stronger relationships, may not register on standardized tests. Champs has become a family, said special education teacher Rubyat Kibria, whose cell phone is loaded with students’ numbers. That closeness can help motivate students whose families may lack the same family encouragement and interest in college and schoolwork as professors’ kids in University City, Munn said. One sophomore who had bounced between at least three high schools in the last year said she had found a home in Champs.

“Teachers at some other school could have, like, 1,000 students a day,” said Ivonne Herrera, who came to Champs this year. “Here I can trust my teacher as a friend.”

“I can talk to my principal every day,” added Muna Afpali, a junior. “You want to be here.”

And its proponents say that digging deeper into the school data reveals gains hidden in their overall test scores. Math teacher Jonathan Winn said that by crunching the state numbers he discovered that a higher percentage of Champs students score “basic” or above on standardized introductory algebra tests than students in other San Diego Unified schools.

Recreating his findings is difficult, but it is evident that mathematics is Champs’ strength. The school has developed its own math curriculum, relying on less wordy texts to transmit the universal language of math. It is drilling students on basic study skills that may be as foreign as English, enrolling every 9th and 10th grade student in a special class where students study quietly and their planners and binders are scrutinized by teachers for organization.

And it has drawn the interest of students by linking lessons to lucrative, fulfilling careers in medicine. Medical prefixes such as “cerebro,” “osteo,” and even “lymphat(o)” speckle the classroom where Ellie Vandiver, a registered nurse and teacher, helps teens build double helixes out of red licorice and neon marshmallows. Advanced classes learn to read vital signs and transfer patients into a wheelchair using a model hospital bed. Champs is working, Munn said, and going charter could keep it that way.

“It feels like the logical next step for the evolution of the school,” he said.

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