At a San Diego County Board of Education meeting in May, Daniel Lopez stood nervously at the podium, unsure how to explain in only one minute that Tracy Thompson, a former principal in the county’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools system, had changed his life.

“There’s been a lot of stuff in my life that’s just gone wrong,” said Lopez, a student in the JCCS Metro independent study program, who has known Thompson for five years. “When I was 8 years old, my mother died in a home invasion where they shot and killed her. Him and all of the staff at Metro, they’ve just helped me greatly to cope with all this and to see that education is the best goal for me — that education is really going to be where I shine.”

Lopez was one of 17 speakers at the meeting who defended principals who had lost their jobs in a massive County Office of Education shakeup.

For more than an hour, the county school board considered the costs and benefits of reorganization. The exchanges between critics and county officials became heated at times, but at the heart of the debate was a crucial question about how to prepare at-risk students for success after high school.

School board member Gregg Robinson expressed concern about the county’s decision not to ask JCCS leadership-position candidates directly about how they would meet students’ unique social and emotional needs.

Each year, JCCS serves 12,000 students from around San Diego County who have struggled in a standard school setting. Some are court-ordered to attend schools affiliated with juvenile-detention facilities. Others attend specialized community schools, including ones that educate teenage mothers and homeless youth.

County officials defended the reorganization process. The county has since completed the reorganization, but it is too early to tell how the changes will affect student attendance and academic performance over the long run.

Pete McNamara, a teacher in the Metro independent study program who has spent 30 years working for the county, told VOSD the transition has been disorganized, and he said the county made a mistake in not keeping Thompson on as principal at Metro. McNamara was one of 10 panelists to participate in the process to interview JCCS principal candidates.

“Our style was working,” he said. “Our students were graduating.”

By restructuring the JCCS division and strengthening the curriculum — including a switch from a system with one executive director, one senior director and eight principals to one with an executive director, two senior directors and five principals — county Office of Education administrators said they would best position students to thrive.

“Every report that we have received, all the data we have … reflect the need for instructional changes,” Randolph Ward, the county’s superintendent, said at the May board meeting. “We cannot maintain the status quo.”

Critics agreed that high academic standards were important, but worried any reorganization would threaten the fragile balance that has kept at-risk students in school and out of trouble.

“I’m thankful that you support my students’ successes, but I feel like decisions are being made without taking my unique population of students into consideration,” said Natalie Priester, a teacher at San Pasqual Academy who works with foster youth, at the May meeting.

Priester, who served on an interview panel for new JCCS principals, said many of her students had suffered abuse and needed stability in their lives after years of being shuffled through the foster-care system.

Priester argued that the county should have retained Suzanne Miyasaki, San Pasqual’s principal before the reorganization.

So far, the county’s efforts are in line with recommendations made in January by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a group of outside consultants the district asked to analyze JCCS’s management and finances.

Among the consultants’ key findings was an “excessive” emphasis on supporting students’ emotional needs over academic instruction at JCCS. That was one of the major points Ward raised at the May school board meeting in response to criticisms that the county was pushing out beloved principals.

The consultants also found that a lower-than-expected attendance rate in the community schools was costing JCCS more than $750,000 in yearly revenues, and the staffing level was 45.7 percent higher than comparable county systems.

The consultants acknowledged “enormous pressures” on programs like JCCS because the state had transferred the burden of caring for “California’s most serious juvenile offenders” to counties without providing adequate funding over the last decade.

“Decreases in juvenile court school enrollments can take place suddenly, and can place serious short-term pressures on the budget,” they wrote. “County community schools statewide have also experienced decreased enrollments for each of the past three years. Maintaining the integrity of these budgets requires great focus and efficiency.”

The consultants recommended that the district cut as many as 39 support-staff positions — a projected cost savings of $2.2 million — and revamp efforts to boost revenue by increasing attendance in the community schools.

In March, the County Office of Education completed its own internal assessment of JCCS, which focused on changes necessitated by the state Department of Education placing the county in a process called program improvement.

If a local educational agency receives Title I funds — federal grants for agencies and schools with a high concentration of students from low-income households — it must consistently meet yearly progress goals. States enforce local agencies’ progress on those goals.

In California, local educational agencies must undergo program improvement if they miss the yearly progress goals for two straight years. In 2012, the county entered the third year of program improvement, which required the state to impose one or more federal sanctions. The state opted for the sanction that required the county to develop a new curriculum and beef up professional development for staff.

County analysts found that parts of JCCS were working. But they recommended a greater focus on academic instruction, professional development and internal progress assessment.

After reviewing the reports, Ward said he was not confident that then-JCCS Executive Director Mary Glover and her team could bring the organization out of program improvement and put it back on track to meet state standards. He has brought Stacy Spector on board as executive director. Glover is no longer employed by the Office of Education, according to a spokesperson.

Ward said the district had done its best to place removed JCCS principals in new positions within the county that are a good fit for their skill sets.

Thompson and Miyasaki both still work for the County Office of Education. Miyasaki is a coordinator for an occupational-training program and Thompson is coordinator of a gang-violence prevention program.

“I have no regrets,” Ward said. “We had to take it up a few levels, and I didn’t feel I had the staff to do it.”

Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.

Joel Hoffmann was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.