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Payzant Says He Surprised Himself, and District Underachievers Can Too

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citing his experiences during a weeklong wilderness survival program, city schools Supt. Tom Payzant said Tuesday that higher expectations are realistic for the San Diego Unified School District, especially for its nonwhite majority.

“Damn it, if Tom Payzant can do things” he thought he could never do, so can the students, if principals and others hold them to higher standards and expectations, Payzant told his 385 top administrators at their annual meeting to kick off the school year, which begins next Tuesday.

No matter the 5% budget cut in the district’s overall spending plan--and an 8% cut in classroom-related programs, Payzant said. He expects the educators “to get out there with high expectations and to model” for students.

Later, Payzant said the week he spent on an island off the coast of Maine was a powerful experience and showed him that the rhetoric of achievement often used by the school district can be put into practice.

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Payzant and 10 other educators and police chiefs from around the nation spent a week in the Outward Bound program last month, testing their physical and mental endurance. The challenges included living for several days on a sailboat with no creature comforts, swinging 100 feet down a rope and letting go to grab another, and crawling 50 feet across a thin cable 30 feet above ground.

“It involved having good support from people cheering you on, by having good teaching in learning how to do it, and from having individual determination not to fail,” Payzant said. “Sure, not everyone completed the tasks with the same finesse or smoothness, but we all finished because of encouragement and support, and the expectation that you would succeed.”

District principals and teachers are under pressure from Payzant and school board members to close the achievement gap between white and Asian students, on the one hand, and black and Latino students who score much lower on standardized tests and in teacher evaluations.

Part of the answer lies in putting more effort into challenging students to believe they can do better, Payzant said, adding that such success also depends on continued district integration efforts.

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The district’s 124,000 students are now 63% nonwhite: 28% Latino, 19% Asian and 16% African American--including 29,000 students who are learning English as their second language.

“Integration is not a frivolous goal,” Payzant said. “We are a multicultural society, and we must show diversity.”

He listed numerous other areas in which he wants to see progress during the school year, including further action by individual schools to take more responsibility for curriculum and budgets by setting up joint teacher-principal-clerk planning committees, more help for instructors to learn different ways to teach students who do not respond to traditional lecture or workbook lessons, and continued emphasis on dropout prevention programs.

Payzant’s 3 1/2-year cooperative agreement with the teachers union will also come up for renewal this year as negotiations on a new contract begin in earnest, he said.

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“That collaborative spirit will be put to the test,” Payzant said, referring to the union’s participation in district programs, such as a move toward more school site autonomy.

He downplayed the many frictions in the district, in part because of the budget cuts and elimination of many teacher aides, and in part because of longstanding philosophical differences with principals and teachers over whether Payzant’s goals are realistic.

“We’ll have a great year” despite the financial problems and the prospects of another tough money situation next year, Payzant said. “We’re still the best urban district in the nation.”


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