San Marcos Elementary School / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

For years, San Marcos Elementary had a stable teaching staff – one or two teachers would depart each year, often because they moved out of town, or went on maternity leave. But this year, nearly half of the teachers at the school are new to campus – and most are new to teaching altogether, a significant shakeup that could disrupt student outcomes.

The changes at the school, and elsewhere in the district – which has been grappling with financial and labor issues – have worried some parents and community members.

The teacher exodus at San Marcos Elementary followed news in the spring that the school’s principal since 2009, Stephanie Wallace, would be reassigned to a teaching position this school year.

Wallace, who has since begun work as a school administrator out of state, declined to specify how or when she was asked to leave, but said, “Research shows that teacher turnover rates harm students, and due to my unforeseen departure, many teachers chose to work at other sites and I am sad about the effect it is having on students and teacher morale at San Marcos Elementary.”

The school’s new principal, Daniza Montero, and a new assistant principal, Julie Blied, were both brought in from San Diego High School. That’s where San Marcos Unified’s new superintendent, Carmen Garcia, also came from.

The shifts at San Marcos Elementary were part of a series of leadership changes Garcia instituted as she entered her second school year at San Marcos Unified this fall. Several principals and assistant principals were reassigned to new campuses or teaching jobs. In some cases – like at San Marcos Elementary – they were replaced with people Garcia knew from her prior campus.

A crowd of parents from San Elijo Elementary and other campuses gathered Tuesday night to protest the changes at the San Marcos Unified School District board meeting.

Parents accused Garcia of nepotism, according to district audio of the meeting. Some wanted answers and others called for more transparency. Multiple people asked the school board to hire a third-party investigator to review Garcia’s hiring and firing practices.

The decision to pass over an assistant principal at San Elijo Elementary for the principal job was a top concern for several parents, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, but no school appears to have undergone as dramatic a staffing shakeup as San Marcos Elementary.

The school has 15 new teachers on campus this year, out of 33. Twelve of the newcomers are beginning their teaching careers for the first-time, according to their online school bios and school officials. In 2018, the school had two first-year teachers and three second-year teachers, and teachers on campus had an average of nine years of experience, just below the district average of 10 years, state data shows.

For a school serving a large population of English-learners and students from low-income families (about 59 percent and 77 percent, respectively), teacher experience can be even more important.

“A kid exposed to a novice teacher is being exposed to a teacher that is not as effective as she will ultimately become. That’s a disservice to those kids,” University of Virginia professor James Wyckoff, who directs the education policy Ph.D. program, recently told VOSD.

Studies have linked increased teacher experience to improved student outcomes, including academic achievement and decreased absenteeism.

“We, as the community, want to know if Dr. Garcia is performing her due diligence and hiring only the most qualified people to serve our children, your students and our community,” said Hilda Oltean, a parent in the district who read a prepared statement Tuesday night. “From the outside, the hiring practices of the superintendent appears to be nepotistic and personally biased. Firing practices seem flagrant. … We need valid proven reasons for the changes she has implemented.”

San Marcos Unified parent Sarah Pilgrim echoed the nepotism concern Tuesday, criticized the school’s new leadership as “unapproachable” and said kids are suffering this year.

“Dozens of teachers have left the school. Multiple suspensions have occurred including kindergartners,” Pilgrim said.  “We are a high-performance district and we are not interested in being a training ground for her friends or her resume pad.”

Garcia told VOSD parents should not be concerned about the turnover at San Marcos Elementary, nor the fact several are first-time teachers.

“These vacancies were highly coveted teaching positions. This is evidenced by the overwhelming number of qualified applicants,” she said, indicating there were 302 applicants for 15 positions. “These enthusiastic teachers are a perfect fit for the SME instructional program.”

Garcia declined to explain why Wallace was removed from her position, but said Montero made it through two panel interviews and was chosen as the best candidate to replace her.

The school’s new principal said the dramatic changes represent an opportunity.

“The vacancies provided me with an opportunity to hire teachers that would help us meet the multifaceted needs of our students,” Montero told VOSD in an email. Three of the new teachers had past teaching experience, and, “we’re leveraging existing teacher experience to mentor our first-time teachers with various professional development workshops, trainings, mentorships, as well as additional district office professional development,” she wrote.

When it comes to parent engagement and English-learner proficiency, Montero said there have already been gains under the new leadership. Some 115 parents recently graduated from a parent engagement program, and 45 students this year were reclassified from English-learner to fluent-English-proficient, 80 percent more than last year.

Before public comments were made at the board meeting Tuesday, Garcia received a 3 percent raise and added stipend pay. She also tried to head off the leadership controversy.

“All districts go through attrition. Ours is no different. People leave for promotions or other opportunities,” Garcia said. When she said her new principal hiring process sought input from parents and employees, some in attendance responded with derisive laughter and applause. Garcia continued, “All hires are in alignment with our board policies and procedures. … Throughout my career, every decision I have made has been in the best interest of our students, your children and mine.”

On Tuesday, someone who answered the phone at the San Marcos Educators’ Association hung up when asked to comment on the turnover at the school. A voicemail left for the union president, Michael Devries, was not returned.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Hilda Oltean and Sarah Pilgrim as San Marcos Elementary parents; their children attend San Elijo Elementary in the district.

Ashly McGlone

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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