Superintendent Cindy Marten has a dream.

That the San Diego Unified School District will put a quality school in every neighborhood.

That one day all of the district’s students will be “actively literate, contributing, participating members of society.”

That kindness and optimism will prevail over hatred and poverty.

How she’ll help make that happen exactly, she didn’t quite say at her first State of the District address as superintendent. But for now, the dream seems to be enough for Marten.

After all, Martin Luther King Jr. changed the world without a plan, Marten said.

“He didn’t have a checklist,” she said. “He had a dream.”

Both Marten and School Board President John Lee Evans assured the audience that “practical solutions” would come at some point.

What We Learned from the Speech

The district started developing its long-term plan in 2009, when the class of 2020 was in the first grade. (Hence the name of the plan: Vision 2020.)  But the district has had a difficult time explaining how it will attain the overarching goal of Vision 2020: to put a quality school in every neighborhood.

Marten said she’s already caught glimpses of that future.

“Every problem that we have in the district, there is a solution already in place,” she said. “If not in one of our schools, at least in one of our classrooms.” Her job, she said, is to figure out how to apply those solutions across the district in a “sustainable” way.

Marten has been observing schools through an “appreciative lens” to identify evidence of all 12 of the district’s indicators of a quality school. By December, she said, she will have spent at least four hours in 18 of the district’s schools — three for each area superintendent.

This practice stems from what Marten sees as quality leadership, one of the district’s four key goals for this year. Marten identified four “specific actions” the district was taking to foster it:

• Alignment of Vision 2020 with all of the district’s existing plans and legal requirements.

• A planned November leadership retreat to create an implementation strategy for the district’s goals.

• The development of “data dialogues” — the first will be held in December — for top administrators to discuss attendance rates, suspension rates and the academic performance of student “subgroups” that are lagging behind.

• A study of the district’s high schools to determine how well they are meeting the needs of all students.

When the district gets it wrong, Marten said, its new quality-assurance office will find out why and “respond in a way that makes sense for all parties.”

Questions Left Unanswered

Marten touched on the district’s other key goals for this year — quality teaching, a broad and challenging curriculum and professional development for all faculty and staff — but she didn’t provide a complete picture of how she’d help achieve them.

As the district said last fall, “focusing on evidence signals a shift with past approaches.” Marten seems to be on board with this shift, but she doesn’t want students to be reduced to their test scores.

She said in the speech that student assessment data is a “flashlight to show the way,” but “soft skills, the silent curriculum, matter as much, if not more.”

Marten acknowledged that she didn’t know how to measure optimism or kindness, but said she wants to see both flourish among San Diego Unified’s students.

This, so far, is her definition of quality teaching.

We still don’t know how broad the curriculum will be or what will make it challenging. Also absent from the speech was an explanation of what types of training teachers would receive and how that would significantly impact students’ performance in the classroom.

Marten said she’s confident that she can lead the district toward the future it envisions, difficult as that road may be. But she’s still looking for answers.

Whether she will be able to share her findings in an accessible way is still an open question.

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

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