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There’s plenty of blame to go around for the San Diego Unified School District’s dismal record in promoting student achievement, but placing blame on the victims — the students themselves — is not fair, accurate or constructive.

Yet a recent Voice of San Diego commentary by Vladimir Kogan (“Is San Diego Unified ‘Failing’ Its Students? Nope.” June 15, 2011) did exactly that, questioning the need for school reform because, “As any respectable education researcher will tell you, the primary determinants of student academic performance — socioeconomic status, English proficiency and parental involvement — are fixed long before students ever set a foot in the classroom.”

What a chilling and fatalistic view of public education.

Our reform measure challenges such apathy. Instead, we offer optimism that the Accountability and Student Performance Initiative would turn our schools around by taking a close look at the way our leaders function in the public education system.

We propose expanding the five-member elected board to include four appointed experts to help bring balance to a special-interest-dominated board and bring the focus back to kids and their academic success, which can certainly be improved by well-supported principals and teachers.

In an analysis of student achievement nationwide, the Center for Public Education found that “teacher quality stands out in the research for its potential to close the gap in academic achievement between students from traditionally poor, non-white, and/or urban backgrounds and their better-off peers.”

In fact, the CPE found that “teacher quality more heavily influenced differences in student performance than did race, class, or school of the student; disadvantaged students benefited more from good teachers than did advantaged students.”

The CPE report even found there are “steps school districts can take to help all (English Language Learner) students become English proficient and successful in school,” such as additional resources for professional development for teachers.

San Diego “reformers” take the contrary view and do not give credence to Mr. Kogan’s further claims that “local education policy choices can make a difference, but only on the margin.”

I believe local education policy directly affects outcomes and success stories, such as San Jose Unified School District, give reason to believe leadership matters.

San Jose’s district of 31,680 student body is made up of 42.1 percent economically disadvantaged, 27 percent English language learners, 10 percent with disabilities, and more than 51 percent Latino.

Though a great deal smaller in enrollment compared to San Diego Unified, the demographics mentioned earlier as “determinants” are fairly comparable. In San Diego Unified, Latinos make up 46 percent of the student body and less than one-third meet the UC/CSU requirements compared to 54 percent of white students.

Between 2001 and 2009, San Jose’s Latino 12th graders went from 23 percent to 50 percent graduating meeting A-G requirements to enroll in a UC/CSU school.

“We understood that this was not just a matter of saying ‘we’re raising our test scores,’” said San Jose school board member Richard Garcia. “We needed to present to our community that we were well prepared to do this.”

The district got creative, giving high school principals flexibility to create programs and support services to improve student achievement — from block scheduling to Saturday academies. The district also sponsored mentoring and tutoring programs, after school and summer institutes, and alternative education options for students with special needs.

Plus, teachers received professional development to accommodate students’ unique learning styles and needs.

All paid for by restructuring their budget, according to Bill Erlendson, assistant superintendent of education for accountability and community development. The district continues to experience academic gains.

Reorganizing our board and increasing the level of accountability in San Diego Unified could be our ticket to creating our own success model.

Kogan claims the “disturbing” facts of failure in the classroom “can’t tell us whether San Diego Unified is to blame.” Is no one accountable for student achievement? Do we simply throw up our hands and give up? Do we inform parents and the community that due to their demographics, there is nothing further we can do for half of SDUSD students? “Sorry Mom and Dad, our schools can’t help your child much, she came in ill-prepared.”

Where shall we point the finger?

The teachers? No, we’ve seen they can be of the greatest assistance in improving outcomes, when given the proper support.

The kids? No, even students facing difficulties in socio-economic status, English proficiency and parental involvement can thrive without prepared teachers and supporting programs.

It’s up to the district board to lead by setting progress-based policies and approving fiscally sound budgets with student success in mind.

We must stop punishing the kids whose education suffers because adult political agendas conflict with fixing a troubled, dysfunctional system that’s custom-built to fail.

Scott Himelstein is the President of San Diegans 4 Great Schools, director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego, and president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors for 2011. He is a proponent of the Accountability and Student Performance Initiative, which is currently qualifying for the next citywide ballot.

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