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Last summer after San Diego Unified was criticized for turning away from federal school reforms, accused of being too close to its teachers union to seek change, the school board touted a new reform plan, rooted in collaboration with its teachers.

The school district dubbed it “community-based school reform,” a very different way to fix schools than the national reform zeitgeist of evaluating or paying teachers based on test scores. Teachers would work together and share data on how kids were doing. Parents would get more involved. Everybody tied to schools would band together to come up with reform ideas of their own.

The teachers union chimed in, saying it would go to work for the reform push. The school board struck an agreement with the union and a nonprofit to test the plans at a scattering of pilot schools starting in March. The idea: model the simple process of getting people together to improve their schools, while putting the muscle of trained organizers behind it.

Now, with the district warning of teacher layoffs, the teachers union has cut off its every-other-week talks on reform with Superintendent Bill Kowba and other leaders. The budget crunch has pitted board members who have long been seen as labor allies — even derided as union puppets — against the same union that once championed them.

While many reforms are still going, the breakup between San Diego Unified and the teachers union has slowed their plans and stopped them from actually joining forces to improve schools, one of the most intriguing parts of the plan. The split has only exacerbated confusion over what, exactly, community reform means.

Some schools tapped as possible pilots are now unsure what will happen. Pacific Beach Middle School is one of them. Teachers there met earlier this year to talk about their vision for the school. Labor leaders met with Principal Julie Martel. More meetings were planned. Then came the pink slips last month.

“It came to a halt,” Martel said. “It seems like it’s been put on hold.”

The question now is what reform will look like if the school district and the union each go it alone. Many of the efforts are still chugging along: The Equality Alliance, the nonprofit that is helping to bring parents together as part of the reform push, just wrapped up a parent survey.

San Diego Unified has tried to foster more community involvement through getting parents involved in “clusters,” the schools that lead into each high school. And union leaders just met with parents and employees at Mira Mesa High School this week to talk about whether it could become a pilot school.

At Mira Mesa High, Principal Scott Giusti is excited about dreaming up new ideas with teachers, parents and anyone else with a stake in the school. But he worries about rallying teachers and parents behind a plan while the teachers union isn’t talking to San Diego Unified about it. What happens, Giusti asked, if they come up with a plan and the school district doesn’t like it? Or what if the union balks?

“I’m a little cautious because everybody isn’t at the table,” Giusti said.

Leaders on both sides say they won’t let the freeze stop them from working on school reform, each in their own way. “The work can still be done without the district stepping up to the plate,” said Craig Leedham, executive director of the union. “I think we’ll actually accomplish more.”

School board member Scott Barnett echoed their words on the other side. “The teachers union reform plan is in addition to what the San Diego Unified board is doing,” he said. “Ours is going ahead.”

The teachers union argues the district broke its trust by opting to warn more than 1,300 teachers of layoffs. San Diego Unified, with an estimated deficit of $114 million or more, says it had no choice. Labor leaders argue it could have used other money to spare teachers.

Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer said she believes both sides still share the same vision. “But things have been strained somewhat due to the difficult decisions that had to be made,” Meyer said.

The reform plan was first unveiled last summer as the school district was under fire for ducking away from Race to the Top, a competition for stimulus money that tied teacher evaluations to test scores. The very same morning that Kowba announced the reforms, a conservative think tank gave the school district a “D” grade, saying it was dominated by the teachers union.

San Diego Unified set out its plan as an alternative that drew on schools’ strengths. But because the school district is trying to foster reform from the grassroots, instead of installing the same changes everywhere, nobody can say exactly what it will look like at Mira Mesa High or anywhere else.

“It’s not a meeting. It’s not an event. It’s a process,” said Andrea Guerrero, executive director of the Equality Alliance. “I know people are impatient. But this is something different than we’ve done before.”

To help explain it, the teachers union drew up a diagram on “characteristics of a community school,” including longer hours for schools to serve as community centers. Meanwhile, San Diego Unified put out a brochure that says schools will bolster critical thinking and use data to help kids academically. School district leaders say it’s all part of the same thing.

Many principals have found it confusing.

“I’m still trying to get my head around what this is,” said Cindy Marten, principal of Central Elementary. “Can the district move ahead without the union? Can the union move ahead without the district? And can the community move ahead without either of them?”

Labor leaders complain that San Diego Unified has dragged its feet, failing to ensure principals and area superintendents understood the plan. Clark Middle School Principal Tom Liberto said he was still waiting to hear more about what it would involve, weeks after being told Clark might be one of the pilot schools. Just a few days ago, the Mira Mesa principal said he was still “kind of in the dark” about it.

School board President Richard Barrera, who has been at the forefront of the community reform push, said it comes down to something very simple: sitting down with teachers and parents to define what’s best for kids.

“It can still work,” Barrera said. “It works better if we’re all communicating. But neither the school district nor the union can use that as an excuse to not do our jobs.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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