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Critics call San Diego Unified a failing school district. Even worse, they say, it has turned down federal reforms — and federal money to back them.

The school district argues it has reform plans of its own. Plans to amp up critical thinking. Plans to encourage teachers to collaborate. Plans to empower schools to make their own decisions instead of imposing ideas from the top. Plans to ensure that each child is measured individually.

But the school district still has to translate most of those plans into concrete changes in classrooms. While San Diego Unified has working groups and slideshows loaded with phrases like “focus on student achievement,” it is still figuring out what its brave new vision of school reform will actually look like.

Barely a month left before school starts, most of the details still have to be hammered out.

“I know the district has set out goals,” said Bruce McGirr, a former principal and director of the school administrators union. “But that’s not the kind of detail that teachers need.”

The lack of details has given ammunition to school district critics and could endanger the reforms themselves. Ideas can quickly evaporate if the school system doesn’t find a way to spell out what they mean and make tangible changes. Fans of the reforms are eager to do that.

“It’s a vision I strongly support,” said Scott Barnett, who is running for school board. “But it needs a lot of flesh on the bone.”

It isn’t surprising that school reforms are still sketchy: Budget cuts and a lengthy superintendent search distracted the school board last year. The school district says its goal is to create reforms from the bottom up, a method that is naturally slower because groups of teachers, not a single powerful leader, create changes together. School board members argue that change must be gradual and collaborative to take root.

“Anything done on a grassroots level can be a little sloppy, not as efficient as something directed from the top,” said school board member John Lee Evans. “But I think it’s worth it. We’re not looking for quick, gimmicky solutions.”

Some changes have already happened: The school district put area superintendents in charge of geographic clusters of schools so that each area of the school system has one leader at the top. Doing so could help localize decisions, letting parents and teachers in each area seek solutions to their own issues.

But vagueness on other questions, like how to emphasize critical thinking, has also left the district vulnerable to accusations that it is doing too little or nothing at all, especially as it spurns federal reform efforts like Race to the Top, a competition between states for hundreds of millions in federal stimulus money. A new group of philanthropists, business leaders and parents, San Diegans 4 Great Schools, says the district needs an overhaul, pointing to its scores on a national exam, which stagnated while its state test results improved.

“San Diego is taking a little bit of a Kumbaya approach. Let’s hold hands and get along and work together to improve things,” said Matt Spathas, a technology executive and parent in the group. “I’m not saying that can’t succeed, but you have to have real accountability.” Spathas is particularly concerned that the school board is loath to link test scores to teacher evaluations.

“We’re dancing around issues that the rest of the country is talking about,” he said.

The school board counters that it’s already attacking problems the group has spotlighted. For instance, school district leaders concluded that the gap between the state and national tests showed that the school system hadn’t done enough to hone more advanced skills such as critical thinking.

So a group of teachers and district leaders is trying to figure out “explicit and measurable” ways to emphasize deeper thinking so that it becomes more than a buzzword. Teachers are also setting standards for skills that tests don’t measure, like social skills. Kindergartners should be able to take turns; high school seniors should be able to question authority. Nellie Meyer, the deputy superintendent who oversees academics, compares them to milestones in the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

Without specifics, reform ideas “can be Jell-O,” said Carol Hunter, Evans’ community liaison. “What does it mean for students to be able to analyze writing? What does it look like?”

School leaders have pointed to some existing practices as good examples of the district’s direction. Eighth graders at the Language Academy in College Area, for instance, give oral presentations in English, Spanish and French that dissect what they did well and where they can improve. Teachers grill them, asking how they know that a source is reliable or how they used “logos, ethos and pathos” in a persuasive essay.

In City Heights, Cherokee Point Elementary has put the same challenge to fifth graders, who research a topic they care about and try to persuade a panel of teachers. There, teachers do less grilling than encouragement, trying to get children comfortable with defending their ideas.

“Many people don’t understand when you buy a lipstick or a house cleaner how it has affected animals,” said Cindy Vazquez, an assertive fifth grader who chose animal testing as her topic last month.

Principal Godwin Higa listened intently as she spoke. “You feel very passionate,” Higa said after Cindy finished her talk. “What are you going to do to change it?”

San Diego Unified faces the same question. Its plans have real, concrete obstacles: If reforming the schools means more projects and presentations, that means more time for teachers who have already complained about their workloads. If reforming the schools means de-emphasizing tests, it will have to swim against the tide while schools are subject to No Child Left Behind and judged by state tests.

The reform push also has a few more facets: Schools are supposed to spend more time examining student achievement data and let teachers share ideas about how to solve problems. Students would aim to achieve “a year of growth” — a term that means that schools would try to meet each student at their level and help them improve. Evans says that as he envisions it, grade levels might stop being as important as each student gets their own learning plan, tailored to their needs.

That means finding and funding new ways of crunching data while the school district is squeezed for money. And it requires changes in school schedules to give teachers time to collaborate.

“This all sounds good and I’m willing to support it,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura. But she added, “When we lowered the dropout rate, that wasn’t due to everyone sitting around and saying ‘Kumbaya.’ It was due to concrete plans.”

Bill Freeman, the new head of the teachers union, offered up an even more ambitious idea: Schools would diagnose and take on community problems that hinder children. Freeman said the idea is that schools would confront problems that are often considered beyond their reach, like figuring out if children need glasses or a place to play at home. Teachers would knock on doors and contact nonprofits.

“We can no longer accept the rhetoric that, well, you can’t do anything about the family,” Freeman said. But he shied from hard-and-fast details about how teachers would find the time and where funding would come from, saying he was still meeting with community leaders and educators.

“We don’t have it all worked out yet,” he said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at and follow her on Twitter:

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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