At a recent San Diego Unified school board meeting, Superintendent Cindy Marten stepped forward and unceremoniously dropped a bomb: The district has broken the promises of equity it made to schools and children, she said. To make it right, San Diego needs a three-pronged approach to closing the achievement gap.

In its most basic sense, the achievement gap refers to students who are making it and those who are not. Cut the term open, however, and questions of race, poverty and equity spill out.

Marten said that unlike doctors who hope to find a cure for cancer, the district already has the solution to the problem. The trick is finding out how to deliver the medicine with the district’s limited resources.

Marten didn’t just float the idea — she presented bold strategies. While it’s still too early to call them part of a plan — there are details yet to iron out — the proposal would allocate additional resources to students at every level, from preschool to high school.

The district would expand and increase its focus on early childhood education. More resources would go to middle schools to support long-term English learners. And the district would try to close the so-called school-to-prison pipeline by revamping disciplinary practices and preventing drop-outs.

The call-to-action seems like a sudden shift from the back-patting and positive messaging the district has bullhorned since it became a finalist for the Broad Prize this fall, or after it ranked as a top urban district in the Nation’s Report Card.

Trustee John Lee Evans disagrees. There hasn’t been a shift at all, he said — the new strategies are more of a renewed commitment to the values the district has held all along.

“This does not mean that we’re close to closing the achievement gap,” he told VOSD. “We have made incremental gains and now we want to accelerate those gains.”

The school board has Marten’s back. After she outlined the strategies at a meeting, trustees applauded their boldness and scope.

Trustee Richard Barrera said that he appreciated the fact that Marten was “taking on the big challenges” directly, and focusing on the youngest kids and high school students at the same time.

“This is an issue that people have been talking around for a long, long time.” Barrera said. “Our generation is going to actually take these big problems on and actually do something about them.”

Indeed, never before has the district taken such a holistic approach to addressing the gap, especially when it comes to investing in preschools.

But Barrera’s suggestion that the district has simply “gone through the motions” for generations overlooks former superintendent Alan Bersin’s  Student Blueprint for Success, which he put forward nearly a decade ago.

Bersin’s sprawling plan aimed to close the gap through increased literacy. It included extended reading blocks, summer school and “peer coaches” for all schools to help teachers learn proven teaching methods.

Despite Bersin’s efforts, and those of superintendents who followed, stark disparities in test scores, school discipline and graduation rates still exist between white, Latino and black students.

But regardless of what’s been tried, and done, Marten doesn’t talk about the new strategies as though she’s embarking on a new social science experiment. She waves away the mystery, and speaks with certainty.

“Let me forecast what’s possible. In public education we actually have all of the answers. That’s kind of a bold statement. But I have yet to meet a student that we don’t know how to teach in a way that they’re going to learn, student by student,” she said in a recent board meeting. “The degree to which we’ve done that for every child, every day, has to do with decisions and priorities that we make.”

We’ll be following as the district begins to invest in the new strategies, but here’s a quick primer for what Marten’s laid out.

Early Childhood Education

Marten’s stated objective for early childhood education is to close the achievement gap by first grade. That assumes at least one thing: that an achievement gap exists by first grade.

Trustee Scott Barnett asked Marten when she first pitched the strategies: How do we even know that, and how would we measure progress?

It’s a valid question. Students don’t take standardized tests until they’re in the second grade, and recent changes to state testing will push tests back until the third grade.

At this point, the evidence for the early gap is more anecdotal than quantitative. Some students have been saturated with books and literacy since they were born, Marten said. Others haven’t even seen a book until their first day of kindergarten.

As far as measurements, both kindergarteners and preschoolers are already assessed. Teachers look for indicators like how well students interact with others, or how they use numbers and language. The key is to pick indicators which all teachers will use, and then to keep track of that data in a centralized way.

Moving forward, the plan is to grow the number of schools that offer preschool and transitional kindergarten programs — a type of modified kindergarten curriculum for students whose birthdays fall before the cutoff date — by incentivizing it. In short, if schools offer early childhood education programs, they’d be eligible for additional funding.

Long-Term English-Language Learners

Marten said there are 7,000 middle school students in the district who are considered long-term English learners, meaning they’ve been in district schools for six years and still haven’t mastered English — at least not in the eyes of the district.

The goal is to provide students enough additional support that they are reclassified and have the same educational opportunities as native English speakers by the time they get to middle school.

While Marten said there are pockets of success in the district, the fact there are still 7,000 students in this category means “we’re not doing those programs systemically for every child, every day.”

To support long-term English-language learners, the district would invest in English-learner resource teachers to accelerate learning at the middle school level.

High School Interventions

It’s clear that kids can’t learn if they’re not in school. If the district wants to improve its graduation rates, particularly for black and Hispanic students, it needs to find a way to keep students in their seats.

Equity aside, it’s also in the district’s practical interests to retain its student body. Based on this year’s base grant for average daily attendance, the district would miss out on over $34,000 for every ninth grader who dropped out of school.

Toward this end, San Diego Unified plans to invest in dropout prevention and credit recovery for those who have fallen behind and tutoring programs.

The district has also renewed its commitment to revamping disciplinary policies.

Researchers like Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, said that overly punitive policies – such as the loosely defined category of “willful defiance” – can push kids out of school and contribute to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

San Diego Unified drafted a uniform discipline plan which was adopted by the school board in 2012. The problem is the plan has essentially sat on a shelf instead of being instituted in a systematic way.

Chief student services office Joe Fulcher did not return requests for comment on how policies will change moving forward.

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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