When there’s a job opening in La Jolla schools, it can be attractive for teachers around San Diego Unified School District. But district rules mean principals are only allowed to consider the five most senior teachers who apply for the jobs.

The La Jolla Cluster Association, a group of teachers, parents and staff at five La Jolla schools, pushed to change that.

They wanted their schools to be able to choose from all district teachers when hiring. A big majority of teachers in the schools affected agreed.

But on May 29, the teachers union scuttled the cluster’s push for a waiver from normal practices.

The waiver was part of a larger plan, called the La Jolla Cluster Partnership Agreement, which has been in the works for three years. Of the parents, teachers and staff who voted on the plan, 98 percent approved.

The waiver would have allowed La Jolla freedom from the so-called “post and bid,” system, which gives more experienced teachers priority in hiring.

(In 2009, Voice of San Diego explored the teacher-placement system in depth over a series of stories. Check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)

“When there’s a position open, we want to see all teachers who are qualified,” said Julie Latta, a sixth grade teacher at Muirlands Middle School in La Jolla. Latta was part of the cluster’s effort.

The teachers in La Jolla agreed with her, but union leaders for the whole district shot it down.

La Jolla Teachers’ Support Not Enough

San Diego Education Association President Bill Freeman said the teachers union supports the La Jolla Cluster Association’s efforts, but not at the expense of the district’s teachers as a whole. He said it wasn’t enough to get approval from La Jolla teachers.

“To make changes that impact such a large number of educators, those educators should have a voice in that,” he said.

The waiver was approved by 84 percent of the teachers who voted in the La Jolla cluster schools. The cluster includes: Bird Rock, La Jolla and Torrey Pines elementary schools, Muirlands Middle School and La Jolla High School.

(Full disclosure: My daughter will be attending La Jolla High School for the first time this year. It will be her first experience in a La Jolla cluster school.)

The La Jolla Cluster Association was formed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Parents and school employees were alarmed that teachers were being laid off, longtime staff members were moved and shrinking funds were being spent on district-mandated programs the founders of the association didn’t think were relevant.

Beginning with a town hall meeting in 2010, La Jolla parents and teachers spent three years creating a plan that would improve local schools.

With encouragement from San Diego Unified’s board and administration, the local group formed a partnership and began a process outlined in the district’s Community-Based School Reform Model.

The model aims for higher student achievement, greater parent involvement and better coordination among schools in a cluster.

“We understand this district is huge and we believe in community-based school reform,” said Fran Shimp, co-chair of the La Jolla Cluster partnership agreement committee and mother of two children who attend area schools.

Grassroots Reform Model the District Pushes

The La Jolla Cluster Association worked with the school board as its local plan evolved. The group surveyed the community and came up with some recommendations for improving the schools. Among them:

  • Allow each La Jolla school to determine its own curriculum, professional development, courses of study, scope and sequence, instructional strategies, text selection, staffing configurations and assessment.
  • Give each La Jolla school the ability to modify its beginning and ending bell times, length of days and calendar.
  • Permit the schools to pool their resources to effectively serve special education students.
  • Allow the schools to contract with a district-approved vendor to make repairs when the district cannot fulfill a work order request within two business days.
  •  Give children of La Jolla Cluster school employees the ability to attend a La Jolla school, provided resident students are not displaced.
  • Give the La Jolla Cluster schools the right to purchase supplies directly from vendors, rather than through the district.

“It’s been a long, inclusive process of finding out what people really wanted and what they thought would be most effective for our kids,” said Latta, who is also a co-chair of La Jolla Cluster partnership agreement committee.

Freeman said the teachers union wholeheartedly supports community school reform and the La Jolla Cluster’s efforts to meet the educational needs of students.

“The waiver is a very small piece of that.” The big picture, he said, is “we have over 600 educators right now excessed. All of these educators are available for placement — excellent, qualified, credentialed educators. The cluster request impacts all of our members.”

Freeman said requests for waivers are normally signed by the affected teachers; for example, a teacher requesting to teach a larger class size. In that case, all teachers at the school have to sign a waiver because it takes students away from the other teacher’s classes.

Another common request is adding a seventh period to the school day, he said.

“That impacts all the teachers, so the individuals that it impacts often have a voice in that decision because of the fact that we are a democratic organization. That was not the case with that particular waiver (La Jolla). That would have impacted a huge number of individuals that would not have had a voice in that decision,” Freeman said.

Also, he said it wasn’t clear that there was an educational benefit, which is a requirement for a waiver.

Some schools do have the freedom to interview any teacher, not just the five senior candidates. Schools with low Academic Performance Index scores have this right, as do magnet schools that offer intensive programs in specialized subjects like science and engineering.

File Photo by Sam Hodgson
Bill Freeman. File photo by Sam Hodgson

Freeman said that because La Jolla does not have low API scores at any of its schools, there wasn’t evidence that granting a waiver would provide an educational benefit.

The 2012 API scores of the schools in La Jolla are:

  • Bird Rock Elementary: 967
  • La Jolla Elementary: 985
  • Torrey Pines Elementary: 990
  • Muirlands Middle School: 913
  • La Jolla High School: 854

The overall average 2012 API score for all San Diego Unified District schools is 808.

Freeman explained the reason the teachers union went along with the exception in  struggling schools is it’s often more difficult to attract some of the most experienced teachers to work at the low API schools

“You do often have to go through a number of educators to find the right match,” Freeman said.

So why did the teachers union board ignore a vote of 84 percent of its members in the La Jolla Cluster?

Freeman said “we certainly did listen to those teachers,” but with 6,800 teachers in the district, “we have to consider the fact that we are a democratic organization and if we’re going to make a change that’s going to impact all of them, they should have a voice in that change,” Freeman said.

Push Continues

Retired area superintendent Mike Price has continued to work — unpaid — as a liaison between the district and the La Jolla Cluster Association. He said the post-and-bid system came to San Diego in 1978.

“I think that the landscape is changing for the teachers association because they have more and more younger members now that don’t view it the same way as people of my generation would,” he said.

“If they get 50 applicants, then they should talk to 50 people to find out if they’ve got a person that matches the set of skills, the personality and the abilities and philosophies that they’re looking for,” Price said.

Latta thinks there could be support for the La Jolla Cluster Partnership Agreement from teachers across the district.

“I have to imagine that if we got 84 percent here, there has to be a fairly strong amount of support for it out there,” she said.

The district’s current contract with teachers runs through June 2014. Negotiations will begin before that. Latta said she hopes the waiver discussion can be included.

“The fact that we had such overwhelming support here and we’re probably a more senior staff than a lot of staff around, I hope that’s a signal to the negotiating team,” Latta said.

Latta sees lots of promise in what clusters can achieve. And the agreement could set a precedent for other groups because it covers kindergarten through high school issues.

“It potentially could be argued that we don’t need an agreement, that we can do things only through our association. But we contend that an agreement is an important part of being a cluster because the agreement stays through changes in administration and changes in the leadership in the district office,” she said.

There have been many changes since La Jolla High School created an autonomy agreement in 2002, under then-Superintendent Alan Bersin. That agreement contained some of the same recommendations and requests in the La Jolla Cluster Partnership Agreement, but was limited to only the high school.

Since then, the district has had a revolving door of leadership. Next came Carl Cohn, then Terry Grier and Bill Kowba. On July 1, Cindy Marten will take the reins. In contrast, La Jolla High School has had the same principal, Dana Shelburne, the entire time.

“It makes things stay more consistent over time,” Latta said.

“Which is really why they wanted the waiver, too, because when you only have a selection of five teachers, you’re not sure one of those teachers is really going to be on board with what our educators might want to do,” Shimp said.

Latta said the Point Loma and Scripps Ranch clusters have organized for school reform too. In 2011, school board member John Lee Evans and Scott Giusti, principal of Mira Mesa High, spearheaded that school’s community schools reform agreement, which has many similarities to the La Jolla Cluster Partnership Agreement, minus the waiver request.

After three years of collaboration, the leaders of the La Jolla Cluster Association vow to carry on with what they say has been a beneficial process.

“If every qualified candidate was open to every principal and every school in the district, I would consider that far more of a win than just the La Jolla community getting a waiver,” Shimp said.

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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