It’s hard to fit Cindy Marten’s thoughts into a sound bite. She’s the first to admit that, and she’s working on it. But when you examine all that she’s said and done as superintendent over the last six months, it’s clear that she’s been bringing her dreams down to earth for the San Diego Unified School District.

“I know it sounds like a lot of slogans and so forth, but she really is making it happen,” said school board member John Lee Evans.

Grading Cindy Marten

Marten told us that she wants to usher in nothing short of a fundamental shift in the way the district educates children. And for this shift to work, she said, everyone has to be on board — from area superintendents to bus drivers, teachers and cafeteria staff.

“That was a big challenge for me to figure out,” Marten said. “How do I speak directly to 14,000 people?”

Cindy Marten Grade B

Marten said she’s been trying to do that since July. She’s been meeting with as many district employees as she can to communicate her vision in terms they can understand. So far, Marten has earned praise from many people who are watching her closely, and we took that into consideration when we gave Marten a B grade on her first Voice of San Diego report card.

Grading Cindy Marten is an effort to hold Marten and the San Diego Unified School District accountable for their pledge to put a quality school in every neighborhood by the year 2020.

For Marten’s first report card, covering July 2013 to December 2013, we interviewed people with intimate knowledge of Marten’s plans and judged what we heard about Marten’s progress against public records and other facts that we could verify.

We talked to more than a dozen people — inside and outside of the district — and heard a lot of enthusiasm for Marten’s plan, but we also heard concerns about the tradeoffs that come with it. Like Marten spreading herself too thin and substitute teachers filling in during the district’s increasing professional development sessions.

Marten’s plan boils down to this: She wants San Diego Unified students to be critical thinkers who can solve problems in the real world and work collaboratively in teams. She wants everyone in the district to be kind to one another, even when others aren’t kind to them.

There is concern that Marten will burn out because she’s doing so much so fast and taking on tasks that she could delegate to other high-level administrators. But her long-term plan isn’t to be everywhere all the time. She wanted to come out of the gate sprinting to inspire others’ to do their jobs as well as they can, and she said she’s identifying teaching and leadership practices that work and figuring out how to apply them across the district.

Still, some people said that Marten’s big ideas might come with unanticipated consequences that she needs to be prepared for.

“She has good theories and ideas, but sometimes we have to look at the practical application of those theories and ideas,” said Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association, the district’s union for teachers. “Sometimes things look better on paper than they do in practice.”

Marten and others said the district has been developing benchmarks for success slowly because Marten wants to get it right instead of defaulting to a system of student assessment that may not gel with the district’s long-term goals.

By spring 2015, when California schools will take the first assessment tests under the new Common Core system, Marten expects the plan to come to fruition. But over the next six months, she’ll have to start pulling back and letting it develop so she can focus on the overarching goal of putting a quality school in every neighborhood.

The Nexus of Leadership and Professional Development

All of the goals that Marten has emphasized for this year are intertwined, but she started by focusing on quality leadership and professional development for all. That’s what we’ve focused on in our assessment of Marten.

Marten has resisted handing down commandments from the top. She’s been examining the district at ground level so she can see what the principals and teachers and students are seeing. But she’s not just looking at what’s happening in the classroom. She’s been visiting schools for a few hours at a clip.

“I’ve been a principal 12 years, and it was the longest visit I ever had,” said E. Jay Derwae, principal of Marvin Elementary in Allied Gardens.

In the past, he said superintendents had popped into his office – maybe visited one classroom – and left. Marten visited Derwae’s school in October with her chief of staff, Stacy Monreal, and stayed for more than four hours. They took a full tour of the facility, including classrooms, the cafeteria and the kitchen.

Derwae’s school was honored last year by the state as a distinguished school.

During the tour, Derwae pointed out what he thought was in need of improvement — inside the classroom and out. Marten told him to focus on the things that are working.

“It’s a refreshing approach to be acknowledged for the things that never get out there,” Derwae said. Like the theater productions his students are working on. It’s teaching them how to write scripts and present their ideas to the public, he said.

Investment in Professional Development

Derwae and others said Marten’s push for professional development is rallying district staff behind her. The state gave San Diego Unified $20 million to help with the transition to Common Core — an educational doctrine that emphasizes problem-solving over memorization — and Marten has earmarked more than $12 million from that windfall for professional development.

It’s not just development for development’s sake, Evans said. Right now, the emphasis is on the district’s 200 principals, who will have to carry out Marten’s vision.

“The key function that I’ve put in place are monthly principals’ conferences,” Marten said. “We teach concepts and expect what we teach to show up during walkthroughs over the next four weeks.”

Marten has seen a lot of leadership practices she likes during the school visits. (As you might expect, Marten wouldn’t share criticisms of individuals.) She’s working with her six area superintendents to tweak and refine the language of the benchmarks for success so there is no confusion about what is expected of everyone.

“This hasn’t been done before,” Marten said. “Every large school district’s superintendent is trying to figure this out, and there are all kinds of approaches.”

Marten doesn’t want success to be the byproduct of “a workaround.” She wants there to be clear, district-wide solutions. The principals and the superintendents will provide a feedback loop for best practices, Marten said, and she expects those practices and expectations to flow down into the classrooms.

Freeman said Marten is able to zero in on improvements that need to be made for students because of her experience as a teacher and a principal.

“It takes an educator to understand the difficulties of education, the bends and curves in the system,” he said.

Next year, the district will turn those practices into measures of student performance. Marten gave us a glimpse at the range — beginning, developing, accomplishing — but we won’t know exactly what those terms mean until district leaders fill in the blanks during an 18-school pilot program.

“We’re coming close to a common language,” Marten said.

The Trade-offs

Freeman and Lisa Berlanga of the school-reform group UPforEd don’t often see eye to eye. But they agree on this when it comes to Marten: There are trade-offs to consider with what she’s doing.

Both Freeman and Berlanga expressed concerned about teachers leaving the classroom for professional development. One class period might not make a difference, but hundreds across the district might.

They’ve been impressed by Marten’s ability to inspire the San Diego Unified community, but the district’s finances are still in bad shape — even with a $500 million influx of Proposition Z funds over the next two years. This means Marten can only plug so many gaps in the dam.

“Of course, Cindy inherited all this,” said school board member Scott Barnett. “It’s the result of the district pledging money it doesn’t have.”

That means Marten will have tough choices to make down the road, especially when it comes to employee contracts, but Barnett said Marten is serious about accountability.

“Changes will be made at end of school year if people are not up to the job,” he said. “I’m confident that, unlike in the past, Cindy will make those changes for those reasons instead of waiting for an explosion.”

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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