From time to time, San Diego city schools Supt. Tom Payzant likes to ask his constituents what’s on their minds.
Not the five-member board of trustees, not the 4,300 teachers, but some of the 117,000 students whose fears, likes and dislikes about the nation’s eighth-largest urban school district often are subsumed in the daily drama of meetings, reports and conferences that occupy Payzant’s time.
So, for the past month, he has been meeting informally with the student leaders of area high schools, sitting down with about 30 or so at a time to trade views on curriculum issues, to proffer advice on educational philosophy and to admit he doesn’t always have all the answers.
On Wednesday, the associated student body officers from Point Loma, La Jolla and Mission Bay high schools peppered Payzant on a wide variety of topics, from grade point averages to parking.
A Mission Bay senior wanted to know why he had to take elective classes in addition to his required college-preparatory subjects when he already had taken enough courses for graduation and didn’t need the elective credits.
“I’d rather be at home studying,” he said.
Payzant said he and the school board are always being told by parents and teachers that the greater number of required courses now mandated by the district leaves too little time for elective studies such as industrial or fine arts.
“I think you ought to take another art course, or another year of foreign language, or maybe a shop course,” Payzant said. “At the risk of being a little paternalistic, I’ll tell you that you may never have another opportunity to try some of these subjects.”
But, the student persisted, he had already taken an art class in junior high and auto shop, which he would consider studying, conflicts with one of his advanced classes in the same period.
“There’s another problem right there,” Payzant countered. “The numbers of students wanting to take electives has dwindled, so we can’t offer more classes in things like auto shop . . . but I bet I could sit down with you and the catalogue and find something you’d like to take.
“We as administrators think we know a little more about life than you do, and that you need a broad range of experiences,” he said.
Other students took up the cudgel, saying they have their college focus clearly in mind and don’t need to sample other courses.
“Look,” Payzant said, “I don’t have all the answers, and I’m 48 years old. You’re only 17 or 18, and the toughest thing is to realize you don’t have all the answers, either. . . . The notion of exploring is a good idea because there are areas in my educational preparation that even now I consider myself woefully short on.”
Payzant added that too many educators in the 1970s, both at the high school and college levels, did not demand “enough work and expectations” from students.
Another student told Payzant that the district should require a geography course as a condition for graduation.
‘A Big Gap in Their Education’
“I couldn’t agree with you more. . . . My own kids are all out of high school now, and they have a big gap in their education on this; when things come on the news, I’m never quite sure they know where all these places are,” Payzant said.
“We have made some improvements by requiring social studies year-round in elementary schools (instead of for only nine weeks) . . . but that begs your question as to whether we will ever make it a separate course,” he said.
On a less cosmic note, a La Jolla senior complained about the fact that a dirt lot across the street from the high school, owned by the school district, cannot be used as a parking lot.
“There were students parking on it, it was orderly, nobody was blocking anybody, but, two weeks ago, everybody got ticketed, so my question is why?”
With a wry smile, Payzant pulled out his memo pad, saying that, “even though I’ve been around for a long time (six years), I always learn something new in these sessions, and I confess that I’ve never heard of that one.”