In an unlikely twist, it’s not lack of money that’s blocking San Diego Unified’s way as it prepares to roll out Common Core standards. It’s time.

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown budgeted $1.25 billion to help school districts transition to new standards that weigh critical thinking skills above rote memorization. San Diego Unified’s slice is about $22.5 million for the next two years, the majority of which will go toward professional staff development.

For teachers, the change might mean redesigning lessons and asking students “why” as often as “what.” It could also mean using more technology in the classroom – something not every teacher is comfortable doing.

And with a trial run for the new Smarter Balanced assessments just months away, San Diego Unified can’t say precisely how many teachers, or how many schools, are fully prepared for the new curriculum.

It’s not that the shift has caught the district by surprise. The state Board of Education adopted the new standards in August 2010, backed by San Diego Unified’s full support.

The biggest problem is that until recently, the district didn’t have the money to spend on professional development.

And until now, the approach the district has taken has been more popcorn than systematic – training teachers and administrators at various schools and hoping the information will trickle down or spread to other educators.

Jim Solo, executive director of the district’s office of leadership development, said that it’s not appropriate to try to break down the percentage of teachers or schools who are fully trained in Common Core methods.

“There’s a spectrum,” he said – one that varies from school to school and teacher to teacher. Despite the degree of uncertainty that still exists, Solo said the district has made good use of its time.

“I would not say there’s no work that’s been done. I would say that there’s been work done as early as the 2012-13 school year, but until very recently we haven’t been able to focus on Common Core, or train our educators, to the depth that we would have liked to,” he said.

This year, the district is also giving schools extra money to bring in substitutes while teachers are released to train in the new curriculum.

Moving forward, San Diego Unified plans to embed several Common Core support specialists in each of the district’s 16 clusters. These support teachers would then guide the professional development happening at schools in their areas.

Indeed, it seems there’s been a good amount of front-end work done. But in terms of getting resources to teachers who will actually be delivering the goods, there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

According to a statewide survey conducted by county superintendents and education leaders, about half of the participating school districts didn’t think all their teachers had mastered the Common Core standards in English or math. Less than half have actually started writing units or lessons.

While San Diego Unified hasn’t published a similar survey, disparities exist in the district, too.

Lincoln High School teacher Liz Gekakis told VOSD that she and other teachers recently received a sort-of status update on issues facing Lincoln. The report noted barriers to the Common Core roll-out, like the fact that teachers won’t have access to needed resources until next school year.

“I heard we might have professional development around (Common Core) in the future, but we haven’t had any training yet,” said Gekakis.

Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego teacher’s union, said that because the district’s teachers have already been teaching students to think critically, San Diego Unified is better prepared than other districts.

His concern, he said, is whether all students will have access to technology to take this year’s Smarter Balanced pilot test — which will be computerized — and whether the students will be keyboard-proficient. Los Angeles students face big shortages when it comes to the technology necessary for the tests, the Los Angeles Times discovered.

A district official said San Diego Unified might be better off, thanks to the investment in technology it’s already made through use of Prop. S dollars. That’s why the district chose to spend $14 million of its Common Core-prep funds for professional development.

Bea Fernandez, program manager for the parent outreach and engagement department, said her office is one of several responsible for communicating the basics of the new standards to parents.

She and her office staff have worked one on one with teachers and hosted training sessions for parents, like a recent workshop at Johnson Elementary.

“It’s our job as district staff to make sure that we provide enough information to schools and principals,” she said, but schools will continue to be the primary sources of information of parents. Teachers are the ones who send information home in students’ backpacks, she said.

Fernandez recognizes that a lot is changing in a short amount of time, but said the success of the Common Core rollout still comes down to how well prepared teachers and principals are.

“It’s not going to be easy, OK? It wasn’t easy when we first switched to the California State Standards. But now we have more information at our fingertips,” Fernandez said.

“It’s a process,” she said. “But we’ll get there.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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