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Friday, Dec. 12, 2008 | In the wake of a budget crisis that cost other San Diego Unified schools their counselors and librarians, Clark Middle School is overflowing with programs and people that other schools can only dream of, including six counselors, two social workers, a school psychologist, a full-time librarian, and a parent center staffed with a director, an outreach coordinator and a phalanx of volunteers who patrol the campus and copy flyers for teachers.

Grandmothers listen intently to a Spanish lecture in a parenting class on campus; parents can earn their high school diplomas through a program sponsored by the Mexican consulate as their toddlers babble happily under a caregiver’s gaze. Not far away are Rosa Parks Elementary, where nurses at a spacious health center give kids immunizations and prescribe medicine to parents and kids alike, and Hoover High, where seven counselors and two student advocates coax teens toward graduation and soothe worries about violence and stresses off campus.

“Other schools would give their eyeteeth to have that kind of support,” said Barbra Balser, who retired last year as principal at Clark.

These three City Heights schools also enjoy more freedom than other public schools, tailoring their curricula to the desires of their own teachers and principals in one of the poorest areas of the city. They owe that freedom and their outpouring of services to the City Heights Educational Collaborative, a decade-old partnership between San Diego State University, Price Charities, the teachers union and the San Diego Unified School District that has poured more than $30 million in people and programs into Rosa Parks, Clark and Hoover over the past decade, winning kudos from teachers, principals and many parents.

“I can’t even imagine where it would be if we didn’t have that support,” said Clark Middle Principal Tom Liberto. “How can we just focus on the (academic) data if there are all these other needs? There are two sides of the coin and we’re focusing on both.”

Reformers hoped that fulfilling the social and emotional needs of City Heights children would free them to get down to the business of learning, in classes shaped and supported by experts at San Diego State. A decade later, if judged on standardized test scores — the standard if controversial coin of academic progress — the results of the towering investment in the City Heights Education Collaborative have been mixed, with some schools faring better than others.

Clark now scores in the top echelons among demographically similar middle schools, Rosa Parks saw early gains before scores hit a plateau, and Hoover has remained among the lowest-performing schools in San Diego despite gains.

Kids that stay in the three schools longer excel over their peers who transfer in and out, a heartening sign for reformers. But while all three schools have seen their scores grow, scores on many tests do not differ dramatically from similar schools nearby. And the troubling dropout rate at Hoover — estimated at 24 percent by the California Department of Education — has been repeatedly invoked by Superintendent Terry Grier.

The outpouring of counseling and healthcare paid by Price Charities and teacher training provided by San Diego State have not uniformly translated into markedly higher test scores in English and math, though funders say they could have other, less easily measured effects.

“How do you measure healthcare? How do you measure having social workers in a school? There are no metrics for measuring those things,” said Price Charities President Robert Price. “How do you put a value on that?”

And that is part of the dilemma. No clear set of measurable goals exist for the project, so different people have judged it differently, dubbing it anything from a success to a disappointment to something in between. Educators glow when they discuss the project.

“We are on the cusp, a couple of years away from being a really, really great school,” said Chuck Podhorsky, principal of Hoover High.

Yet school board member Katherine Nakamura believes the Hoover dropout rate alone is proof that the collaborative reforms have not worked, and wants Grier to get more involved in overseeing the three City Heights schools.

“I’m not satisfied with it,” Nakamura said. “And I haven’t been for a long time.”

As the idea of community schools that address a wider range of student needs gains popularity nationwide, Rosa Parks, Clark and Hoover represent one dramatic test of whether taking on non-classroom needs such as trauma, illness and a lack of parent involvement can boost academic achievement in the classroom.

Collaborative Executive Director Tim Allen believes the answer is yes, but that Rosa Parks, Clark and Hoover need more — a lot more — of the same and an additional dose of something different. He wants to expand services to expectant parents, reach out to more City Heights schools, and is also prodding a more aggressive focus on college through an agreement that guarantees a spot at San Diego State University to Hoover students with adequate grades and scores.

“We provide these services, but the question is, how saturated are all the families with those services?” Allen asked. “If you put them in a great school environment and then they go home to a dysfunctional neighborhood, what is the effect?”

The City Heights Educational Collaborative is much like a school district within the school district, a partnership funded by Price Charities and steered by San Diego State that is tasked with overseeing teaching and instruction while San Diego Unified handles basic services such as maintenance and food services.

Price acts primarily as a funder, though its share has slimmed year by year as San Diego State picks up more of the $3 million tab for the project, which includes an estimated $1.2 million in educational staffers and $520,000 in social services and supports. The charity also spends an additional $3 million on special educational programs such as School in the Park, which immerses elementary children in Balboa Park museums.

As superintendents and collaborative leaders come and go, the project and its relationship with San Diego Unified have evolved. Robert Price said the teachers union and the school district have retreated since its inception, leaving many of the decisions to the university and the charity. There are few firm guidelines about which organization handles what, how much autonomy the schools are granted, and what results are expected from the three chosen schools, only a general agreement penned more than a decade ago that mentions “state standards.”

Schools have prized their independence: The collaborative has traditionally enjoyed the freedom to hire its own principals and teachers as they see fit, and unlike other public schools, can interview any teacher regardless of his or her seniority. Teachers have had a say in hiring principals and even the head of the collaborative, said union President Camille Zombro.

“That isn’t normal,” Zombro said. “It was always this happy place where teachers felt honored to have services and supports that other schools don’t have.”

The three schools have also called their own shots on curriculum, choosing which textbooks to use and which assessments to give. While teachers at other San Diego Unified schools have complained about new tests required by San Diego Unified, Clark teachers had a choice on whether to use a new writing test and decided against it, said resource teacher Gerrie Gilroy. Clark teachers had also begun using a system of tests to measure student progress before San Diego Unified mandated them, and because it was homegrown, few resisted the idea. Ideas and tools from San Diego Unified that excited them were there for the taking; anything they disliked could be disregarded.

“It isn’t the district coming down and saying, ‘This is where we expect them to be,’” Gilroy said. “Teachers will choose which of the standards to cover. They’ve taught it and I trust their professional judgment.”

“Your opinion is valued here,” Gilroy concluded.

Years ago, that flexibility was a blessing to educators who wanted to escape the instructional mandates of past Superintendent Alan Bersin and saw the three schools as an oasis from his prescribed reforms; it seemed less relevant under his successor, Carl Cohn, who pushed a grassroots approach that left many decisions to individual schools anyway.

Grier has praised the influx of funding and resources from Price Charities but is pushing for a closer relationship with the three schools, and has already tested their independence by insisting that their vice principals and principals undergo and pass a standardized interview that is required for all other San Diego Unified leaders.

“They’ve been pouring a lot of money into those three schools, and to be honest, the question arises — have you gotten your bang for your buck?” asked Deputy Superintendent Chuck Morris. “If you look at the data, that probably hasn’t been the case.”

The sheer investment in Rosa Parks, Clark and Hoover is staggering. Special programs and the arts abound. While other schools have sliced the hours of their librarians and counselors, the three schools are flush with parent classes, counselors and even social workers. While nurses have become scarce in other San Diego Unified schools, sometimes visiting only once or twice a week, Hoover operates a clinic where two full-time nurse practitioners can actually prescribe drugs, give shots, and diagnose and treat symptoms, dramatically cutting down absences from students unnecessarily sent home sick. Dentists visit Hoover three times weekly and help not only students but their families, and therapists are available on campus to avoid sending teens away from school for mental health needs.

Price Charities also chipped in money to build the campuses of Clark and Rosa Parks, and the collaborative is even paying for teachers. Clark is able to run a block scheduling system with fewer, longer classes because the collaborative helped pay for extra teachers; it can afford to staff smaller “houses” within the school where students know all their teachers. San Diego State provides student teachers and social work interns to the schools, its professors help train teachers, and counselors and educators at the three schools meet regularly to share ideas and concerns, smoothing the transition from one school to the next.

Perhaps most remarkable are the parent centers at all three schools, which buzz with activity as parents flit in and out of the colorful rooms aided by staffers who are often City Heights parents just like them.

“I have seen how it is when we don’t have a parent center,” said Rocio Agiss, director of the parent center at Clark. She previously worked with a foundation that partnered with seven San Diego schools, only one of which had a parent center. “It is a mess. You get to a school and you don’t feel welcome. The secretaries are busy. Here they know where to go and they come straight here.”

“I am so happy with this,” said parent volunteer Lourdes Pimentel, speaking in Spanish, as she gestured around the parent center at Clark. “I help supervise. I help call parents whose children come late to school. We listen and share problems and we are pushing kids to go to universities.”

While parents of lesser means are often shy or too busy making ends meet to get involved at school — a factor that is linked to poorer school performance among their children — the three City Heights schools have successfully drawn parents in with classes and events, and mobilized parents as a volunteer force to patrol and supervise the campus. Some volunteers have even evolved into staffers who then empower other parents, such as Irma Alvarado, an outreach coordinator at Rosa Parks whose children now attend Hoover, San Diego State and Chico State. She estimates that Rosa Parks parents spent more than 22,000 hours volunteering last year — an average of roughly 22 hours per child.

The campus also has a parent academic liaison who teaches parents how to serve on school committees that oversee spending and advise the principal, and Principal Peggy Crane is even weighing whether to add an on-campus legal clinic that would aid parents with immigration worries. The list of programs and partnerships is dizzying.

“You have to take care of those things for kids so they can learn,” Crane said.

Data provided by researcher Mike Corke, director of the collaborative’s Office of Evaluation and Analytic Studies, show mixed results for the ambitious and complex project. Scores have risen at all three schools, but so have scores at many similar City Heights schools. Students are slightly less likely to switch schools, but attendance was about the same.

Teacher retention is higher than the nationwide average for urban schools, Corke said, but dropout rates have been a continuing problem: Nearly two-thirds of Hoover students quit the school before graduation day, although some may re-enroll at other schools in San Diego Unified or elsewhere. Incorporating those reenrolled students, the California Department of Education calculates the Hoover dropout rate lower, at 24 percent over a four year period.

Robert Price chalks up some of the problems to turnover among principals. He believes that Hoover, in particular, is headed for a turnaround under Chuck Podhorsky.

“I come out of a retail background. You always look at your store manager,” said Price, whose father founded the Price Club stores that later merged with Costco. He added, “My experience in education is, if you don’t have a top notch principal, you can’t get it done.”

But others believe the problem is deeper, embedded in the leadership of the collaborative itself. The patchwork of groups that oversee the schools can make it difficult for community members to know where to turn, and who to hold responsible when problems arise. Activists from the San Diego Organizing Project were confused about who to contact when they pushed recently for more dropout prevention in City Heights. That makes it more difficult for ordinary people to give input and to shape the project.

“The intent was very good,” said Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Policy Studies and Language and Cross-Cultural Education at San Diego State who was not directly involved in the project. “Where it was lacking was really taking in the voice of the community.”

And it is a community that faces taller challenges than most. English alone is a massive barrier: Librarian Stacy Rindfleisch at Clark scrambles to find picture books that appeal to middle schoolers who are still learning English, and displays a Christmas-themed Clifford book in a holiday display. The lingering reputations of Clark and Hoover send many children out of the neighborhood on school buses to other, wealthier parts of down, draining pride in the community, a factor that Principal Podhorsky has battled by refurbishing the Hoover campus with new benches, signs and student artwork. And poverty and violence are a constant struggle.

“I only see the child for one and a half hours each day,” said Norma Sandoval-Ordonez, an English teacher at Hoover who grew up in City Heights. “If they go home to drinking and drugs and abuse and neglect, there is only so much that I, as a teacher, can do. I became a teacher to help these kids and I would go home crying. What am I doing wrong?”

“They tell you, ‘I don’t really care to get a diploma,’” Sandoval-Ordonez said.

One promising sign is that students who stay in the City Heights Education Collaborative schools longer perform better, according to data collected by Corke. Kids who proceed from Rosa Parks to Clark to Hoover, spending three or more years in the system, are more than twice as likely to score proficient on state tests than students who are in the system for a shorter time. But families in the area tend to be mobile, a factor that militates against the planned continuity of the three schools and their supports. And other schools also feed into Clark and Hoover, diluting the effect of the intensive services: In 2006, less than half of Clark 6th graders came from Rosa Parks, and slightly more than half of Hoover 9th graders came from Clark.

Allen said the solution is to expand services even more and even earlier, by training expectant parents and bringing social services to more schools. He wants to model the City Heights Educational Collaborative on the Harlem Children’s Zone, a tightly focused network of social services that aims to shepherd New York City children from the womb to high school graduation, and that has already seen dramatic results in Harlem classrooms. But neither he — nor other observers — expect a silver bullet.

“They used to call this a pilot — the idea was, we were piloting something to see how it works,” said City Heights Community Development Corp. Executive Director Jay Powell, whose organization is not a part of the collaborative. “Then three, five, seven years go by, and we’re still piloting.”

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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