A School Board Member’s Journey through Twelve Years in San Diego Unified

In San Diego

I knew my term on the school board was going to end in 2020, but I did not know it would end in the midst of a pandemic with our campuses closed for months.  Our district was founded 166 years ago before the Emancipation Proclamation.  We have been through the Civil War, World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Great Depression.  Many of our graduates fought and died in World War II.  We benefited from the postwar prosperity that propelled California to the top of the nation in educational funding and outcomes mid-century.  We integrated our San Diego schools in the 1970s. We weathered 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008. In 2020 we now face the Great Pandemic and the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.


Facing a hard reality on Day One

Richard Barrera and I were elected on the heels of the Great Recession.  On the day after I was elected a reporter came to my house to ask what we were going to do about millions of dollars of cuts in the middle of the school year. The very severe cuts continued for the next four years as we struggled to keep the district afloat.  We had community meetings across the district to identify what it was that we absolutely needed to keep.  It was daunting, to say the least.  Richard and I would meet with the finance team and district leadership for hours every weekend to figure out how we could finesse the cuts without completely destroying the district.

We came into a District that had a revolving door of Superintendents.  The problem was that the District would look for a “Savior Superintendent” to save us from ourselves.  Then after the Board would hire such a person the members would begin to disagree with what he was doing.  A new Superintendent would come in with many new ideas and throw out the old methods, even the ones that were working.  Urban Superintendents tend to move on after a couple of years, leaving the schools dealing with the turmoil of another change.

Developing Vision 2020

As a Board we decided that first we needed a plan.  A new Superintendent was hired just before we started.  He was taken aback by the fact that we wanted to come up with a community vision for our schools rather than simply relying  on the Superintendent.  It was further complicated by the fact that he was not an honest communicator and he took an adversarial approach to teachers.  We called our plan Vision 2020 to focus on how we would improve our schools over the next decade as our first graders at the time moved towards graduation.  We developed a school reform plan, San Diego style.

During the next few years we worked on the plan even as our funding continued to be cut.  At the same time there were moves to undermine the democratic basis of our public schools by calling for appointed school board members.  Underfunding the schools was an ideal way to prove that public education doesn’t work, but in those difficult years we continued to improve our student achievement.  We also saw inequities in resources and curricula among our schools and began to devote extra resources to the higher needs schools.


A new Superintendent

In 2013 we appointed a new Superintendent, Cindy Marten to operationalize the goals we had outlined in Vision 2020.  We chose a principal of a high poverty elementary school who was producing positive results in her school by focusing on student needs, motivating a stable staff and reaching out to the community and the District for support.  At her school she was already doing the work of a Superintendent and we wanted to take her success to scale across the District.


The changes we made

Broad and challenging curriculum

The No Child Left Behind program led schools to teach to standardized tests that were very narrow in scope.  We wanted a broad and challenging curriculum that taught the basics, but also included music and the arts, physical fitness and social emotional development.  We have all students learning another world language and at some schools we now offer immersion programs that allow students to become fluent.  We became a national leader in technology, which was a lifesaver when we were forced to resort to online learning during the pandemic. To challenge our students we began offering more Advanced Placement courses at all high schools.  Even more impressive was the exponential growth of college courses offered to students on our high school campuses.

Critical and creative thinking

We have emphasized critical and creative thinking.  This is so important with the plethora of information and misinformation that our students must learn to sift through.  Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator, said that literacy is about more than learning to read and write.  It is about learning that you can act upon your world and be an agent of change.  Our new ethnic studies courses put this principle into action.

Changing the way we measure success

We have changed the way that we measure success beyond the single standardized test scores.  The National Assessment o Educational Progress found San Diego schools improving the most among 25 urban districts.  The Broad Foundation, not necessarily a supporter of San Diego style school reform, studied our schools and, based on the data, listed us as one of the top four districts they surveyed in the nation.  In California think tanks at UCLA and Stanford saw San Diego Unified’s results as an outlier.  Based on our demographics our students are beating the odds.

Effective teaching

Quality teaching is the key ingredient of Quality Schools in Every Neighborhood.  We have just reached a tentative agreement with our teachers to replace our old pass/fail evaluation system with a new growth and development model.  This will allow teachers to work on a path of continuous improvement and support with peers and instructional leaders.  Teacher evaluation is a hot topic across the country and I believe that this new system will serve as a model for the nation.

Meaningful graduation

We increased the graduation rate, but we also made graduation more meaningful.  We have made the graduation requirements more rigorous than some of our neighboring suburban districts. The University of California entrance requirements are the default curriculum for our students.  We have also increased the number of career technical courses in our transformed high schools.  Now upon graduation students will have the opportunity to choose between university or community college or to go directly into a technical career. Just in the first two years we went from 44% eligible for UC to 70%, but the increases were much more dramatic for African American and Latinx students.


The one thing that was still mi$$ing

Funding is unstable, inadequate

As 2020 approached I realized that, while we had not yet achieved our goal of a high quality school in every neighborhood, I realized that we had made substantial progress on our goal of improving our schools.  But there was one issue that was still a major obstacle: a lack of stable funding that would provide all of the programs that everyone agrees our schools need.  The Local Control Funding Formula formalized what San Diego Unified was already doing: providing extra resources to our neediest students and schools.  But the problem was that the base grant was not enough to operate even a school in La Jolla.  The concept is right, the basic funding is not. This funding problem has existed in California over the past 40 years as we descended from the top tier to the bottom tier nationally in school funding.  They say that money does not buy happiness, but poverty does buy a lot of misery.

At the end of 2019 we met with the leaders of California’s large school districts to begin to work on a plan for long term, stable funding for our schools.  We balance our budget every year and never run a deficit.  But at the beginning of budget planning every year it looks like we have a “deficit” because we must calculate our budget on last year’s revenues, but next year’s expenses until the state approves a budget.  Just as we wanted to step out of the immediate crisis when we developed a long range Vision 2020, we wanted to act similarly with regard to budgeting.  We would need to continue our annual advocating for a little more money, but we also needed to look at how to completely reform the system.

Soon after we began talking about this the pandemic broke out.  We were able to leverage our collaboration with other districts to prevail against  massive state budget cuts to our schools, including laying off staff, in the midst of the challenges of the pandemic.  San Diego Unified also led the nation in advocating for federal funds, which started with the CARES Act, but much more still needs to be done.


Dealing with the pandemic in our schools

Last summer when we wanted to reopen our schools in the fall we faced so many conflicting guidelines—Centers for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics, California Department of Health, even the White House.  We decided to empanel a group of experts in infectious disease and public health at UCSD to determine 1) what mitigation factors need to be in place for our students to be safe in school and 2) to determine what the community conditions that make reopening unsafe are.

Reopening in phases

The UCSD experts recommended that we begin reopening in phases.  We began Phase 1 with appointments for individuals and small groups of elementary students who are facing the most challenges as students with special needs, students who are under achieving and our new students, including our youngest.  This phase has not progressed as quickly as we would like and we are now adding on middle and high schools students.  At this stage it is voluntary for students and teachers and we need to better inform them about all of the safety measures in place.

We are very aware that there is great suffering and damage being done by this pandemic.  We have a goal of reopening in person in January with half of the students in class at a time.  But there is one factor that we cannot directly control: the spread of the virus in the community that makes it unsafe to open.  But we must be ready to reopen at the first moment that we get the green light.  All of the protective measures are in place now, as well as a routine testing and tracing plan.

Just as we came out of the 2008-2012 financial crisis stronger than before, we can do the same as we come out of the pandemic.  We must begin working on a recovery plan for 2021 to make up for what we have lost.  This also requires Congress to act to restore our schools.  We can and must come out stronger than before.

Lessons learned from the pandemic

We have also learned lessons from this pandemic.  We can move away from the old funding model of “time in the seat” and be more creative about how we utilize our time in large groups, small groups and individually.  Likewise, our grading system is being reformed to be based on mastery and competence in the subject matter.  It will include additional time and second chances to learn material to put more students in the sphere of success.  The Black Lives Matter social justice movement has put a heightened emphasis on our disproportionate discipline policies and we are reimagining the role of police in our schools.  While we are eager to return to in person learning, online learning will be a valuable supplement to in person learning and will improve ease of communication between teachers, students, parents and even committee meetings across the district.

Hope for the future

There are a couple of reasons that I am hopeful as our schools move beyond the year of Vision 2020: the students at Lincoln High School and the Class of 202 across the District.

Lincoln High moving forward

When we first came on the Board in 2008 Lincoln High School had just reopened to a beautiful new campus.  But in the next few years we heard about low test scores, incidents of violence on campus and a revolving door of administrators.  While some students were successful, the overall picture was not pretty.  Last year the administration put in a new leadership team to change the culture of the school and to improve student achievement.  Right away we heard about fewer absences and less tardiness and fewer discipline issues on campus.

I decided that I wanted to see firsthand what was happening at Lincoln, so I did an Undercover Boss type visit. Of course, it was not easy to blend in, but I put on blue jeans, a t-shirt and a backpack and shadowed a student for the full day.  I did all of the school work the students were doing.  In English we learned about looking at situations through different cultural lenses and how to write an expository essay.  In algebra I learned (or relearned) how to divide polynomials.  The teacher carefully explained to the class, then had them practice in small groups and them had them turn in a quiz at the end of the class.  She wanted to determine who needed further teaching for the next day.  I just had to go up to the teacher to see if I had done it right and she said, “Yes!”  I felt the pride of a student who has mastered a new skill.  At lunch and between classes I walked across a calm, peaceful and friendly campus. Not once did I think about the concept of discipline.

The students are teachers were fully engaged.  They were mutually respectful, not the authoritarian atmosphere that I experienced in my high school years.  These students are going to be better prepared to enter the next phase of their lives than I was.

Saga of the Class of 2020

The Class of 2020 was in first grade when I first joined the Board.  I followed one cohort of students from elementary to middle to high school and made a video each year about their experience in school and their plans for the future.  Their intelligence, creativity, empathy and inclusiveness were impressive every year. Little did we know that the few months before they graduated they would be doing their school work at home on a computer and that they would miss senior activities, including graduation.  They even faced uncertainty as they were about to begin their college careers in an unknown format.  But they are also resilient and optimistic, as you can see in their final video before they graduated.


Hope for 2030

As I finish my third term on the Board of Education, I am optimistic because we have the right Superintendent and staff and the right Board to focus on excellence and equity.  We also have an amazing group of students.  The second graders, the Class of 2030, will get through this pandemic and then benefit from many of the ongoing reforms in the district, particularly the focus on quality teaching.  Just as the Class of 2020 survived the Great Recession, the Class of 2030 will come out stronger.  Another reason that I am hopeful about 2030 is that the Class of 2020 will be hitting their stride and already making a very positive mark upon the world.

Together we will come out stronger.