Point Loma seems like an unlikely place for a parent revolution. Its scenic hills are dotted with elementary schools a real estate agent could crow about, funded by a muscular foundation.
Still, some parents in this seaside burg are quietly considering how to stake out more independence for their schools — or whether to secede from San Diego Unified and form charter schools. A new law could give their push new power, letting parents force dramatic change at some schools.
Their worries have persisted even as San Diego Unified pledges to give communities like Point Loma more control over school budgets and reforms. Point Loma is often seen as a shining example of that community control, a humming network of parents, teachers and principals that prodded to bring more Mandarin into its schools and just got a city crosswalk in front of Correia Middle.
A small but devoted group of parents argues they still have too little sway over their schools. While most love their schools, they are less enamored with the rules and red tape that come with the district.
The group has floated a bevy of ideas, from eking out greater freedom inside the school district to converting all their local schools into charters. Though parents haven’t settled on a plan, they’ve started talking with parent organizers and scheduled an upcoming forum called “Are Charters a Better Way?”
“We’re tired of just having a voice. It doesn’t go anywhere. We can give feedback until we’re blue in the face. Until we sit at the decision-making table, we’re done,” said parent Julie Cramer.
Point Loma schools were supposed to get extra freedom over their budgets last year. But when San Diego Unified lost its finance chief, the idea dropped off the map. Parents complained that the central offices controlled too much of the money.
“It sounds good. But it didn’t do much,” said Matt Spathas, a Point Loma parent who has been at the forefront of the talks. “It’s really hard to make change.”
The budget isn’t their only worry. They also lament bureaucratic hassles and labor rules that make it harder to change school schedules or find more time for teachers to collaborate. Some parents are aggravated by the dizzying staffing systems that can pull teachers from schools or bump secretaries on seniority.
And some are simply inspired by what they see at charter schools like High Tech High. Point Loma parents have toured the lauded school in Liberty Station for ideas. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, free from school district rules. Most aren’t unionized.
“It really opened my eyes to the possibilities,” Ocean Beach parent Shelli Kurth said about visiting High Tech High. She likes that charter schools aren’t like a big school district that has to juggle different areas and their needs. “They’re not trying to fit their students into a giant puzzle. They’re fitting everything to the needs of their students.”
Parents are also eyeing a new law called the parent trigger: If more than half of the parents at a faltering school sign a petition, they can force it to replace its staff, become a charter school or make other changes. While schools can already opt to convert into charter schools, the thing that makes the parent trigger different is that teachers don’t have to agree to it — one thing that killed the idea at Correia.
None of the Point Loma schools have struggled enough to be eligible for an overhaul, but parents believe Point Loma High could fit the bill next year if it keeps missing No Child Left Behind targets. They’ve invited the activist behind the trigger, Ben Austin, to talk to them at their February forum about charter schools, along with the High Tech High founder and the dean of a local school of education.
“People say they want parents involved, but all they want are bake sales. If you make too much noise, they put you on a committee,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles group that organizes parents to demand school change. “This is parental empowerment. And it scares people.”
The question is whether their quest will catch on with a wider group of moms and dads. Point Lomans have flirted with making their middle school a charter school, even batted around the idea of forming a separate school district. Both ideas fizzled.
“Everything falls short of what Point Loma wants,” said former school board member John de Beck, who unsuccessfully proposed the separate district. “They want independence. They’re not going to get it.”
When schools have split from San Diego Unified or threatened to do so in the past, they’ve been driven by discontent: Parents at Gompers Middle School were upset with sagging scores. La Jolla High nearly became a charter in a revolt over a previous round of reforms.
In Point Loma, even the parents pushing for more power say they’re happy with their schools. New school board member Scott Barnett said the biggest worry he heard from Point Loma during his campaign was over athletic fields. He can’t remember a single email complaining about the schools.
“If it’s working, why change it?” asked Loma Portal Elementary Principal Glenda Gerde, who fears the charter talks could distract from bigger issues like the budget crunch facing schools.
Carving off schools from San Diego Unified could also run into practical problems. Roughly 35 percent of Point Loma High students come from other areas in the school district, part of the reason that the idea of a coastal district dissolved. Losing them would mean losing diversity and funding.
Parents are also keen on keeping their schools together, which could be difficult to do if just a few schools split off as charters. While a few small school districts elsewhere in California have converted entirely to charter schools, Point Loma would be the biggest area to try to do the same, said Lisa Berlanga, the regional director of the California Charter Schools Association.
While Point Loma asks whether charters are a better way, San Diego Unified says not so fast.
“If people have clear ideas for change and they feel that the school district is an impediment to that, they should sit down with us,” said school board President Richard Barrera. “We’re open to that.”