Jury Still Out on School Reform : Education: ‘Break-the-mold’ attempts at change are under way at several schools in the San Diego District.
Linda Vista Elementary was considered a total mess by San Diego school officials five years ago. The bottom line: lousy student achievement.
Muirlands Junior High in La Jolla was seen as one of the district’s stellar campuses three years ago. But the bottom line there: Achievement could be better.
At both campuses, the search for improvement led pell-mell into the world of school reform: changes in teaching, changes in organizing the school day, changes in getting parents to participate, changes in reaching decisions among the staff.
Now, the early returns from these first efforts are emerging at Muirlands, Linda Vista and several other San Diego public schools that are wrestling with ways to put education reform into practice.
The results are mixed so far. Student achievement has improved more at some schools, less at others. Some teachers are happier with new responsibilities, others less so.
The conclusions among the educators: There are no quick fixes, despite the expectations arising from public debate over how to fix the nation’s school systems.
The reality of school reform cannot match the rhetoric of school reform, they warn.
The topic of reform is on the lips of educators from Maine to Hawaii--a movement with a full head of steam as the nation worries about its future competitiveness in a world where European and Asian students seem to out-achieve their American counterparts.
Tom Payzant, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, has been a major player in national and state studies that lament the condition of American schools and push for reform. He has encouraged several local schools to shake up their entire program in the hope such action will eventually lead to a movement districtwide.
While only a handful of schools have turned their operations upside down, the first stirrings of reform can be seen at a majority of the district’s 170 campuses--if only in the setting up of committees of parents, teachers and administrators.
The reform rhetoric paints an appealing vision of what American schools could look like, and how American students could perform, if only a host of proposals were embraced by teachers, principals and parents. Liberate teachers and principals from a stifling bureaucracy, from tradition, from the fear of attempting something new, the argument goes, and a flowering will follow.
Proponents say that “break the mold” schools all across the nation could re-create American education by the year 2000 by serving as guideposts for others as they learn of the exciting experiments under way.
The latest promise came last month from a business-funded group formed by President Bush to boost education reform. The group chose 11 teams of educators nationwide to receive millions of dollars in grant money to create such schools; San Diego Unified is a member of two of the teams.
In San Diego, several “break-the-mold” attempts are already under way, but the jury is still out on their results.
“We want to hear the rhetoric, to hear the vision from our national leaders, because it gets us pumped up and motivated,” Principal Kimiko Fukuda said. “But there are so many roadblocks not anticipated that the realities can soon come crashing down on everyone. A key reality is that reform means just plain hard work.”
During the past five years, she’s overseen a still-difficult, often-contentious effort to turn around another “academic mess,” this one at Wilson Middle School in East San Diego.
For example, teachers say the concept of approaching each child’s academic performance on an individual basis can sound wonderful--making the student an “active learner” who shows mastery through projects, not just through multiple-choice tests. But then they confront the reality of two or three students who persist in disrupting a class of 35, despite all attempts to turn them on with new teaching styles.
Similarly, it sounds great to tell teachers they will have more responsibility for the curriculum and the classroom. But fewer like being told that they also will have to take at least some of the consequences for students who don’t perform better.
The reform umbrella covers an array of programs and ideas in areas of curriculum, teaching styles, social services, decision-making--all the components that together determine how well, or poorly, an individual school or school district runs.
That means a lot of extra work for everyone involved as they try to figure out what changes can best improve student achievement and how they can promote acceptance of new ideas in light of the skeptics who remember the failed reforms of the 1960s and ‘70s.
In San Diego, several schools have undertaken the effort, akin to what Mann Middle School Principal Julie Elliott calls “changing the engines and wings of an airplane while still in flight.” Private foundation grants have helped ease the pain by providing chances for teachers to travel out of state to share ideas and fears with other teachers who are also on the cutting edge of the reform movement.
In two other cases--O’Farrell Middle and Darnall Elementary--the district has started schools from scratch. The staff has been hand-picked so that everyone is committed to turning past practices upside down if necessary. While starting fresh is not feasible for the entire district, reformers say that new ideas might be tested more easily at the new schools.
“There are at least two ways, maybe more, that we can go,” Payzant said. “But no matter the case, the real challenge is to get people to think in very different ways, to go beyond change as simply some small project that is discrete, that lasts only for a short period of time, and that’s focused in a single area.
“That kind of change in the past has not really had any lasting impact on a school district,” he said.
Payzant and others also say that in all cases, a school staff must first sit down and ask themselves what can be done to help their students do better. Otherwise, the entire effort can founder on issues of relative power between the teachers and principals, or between the school and the central office--issues, they concede, that do not automatically lead to improved student achievement.
“Reforms have to be grounded in the idea that past ways of trying to teach all children in the same way have not worked,” Payzant said.
“Student first--that’s got to be the focus,” Muirlands teacher Anita Graham said.
While Muirlands has ranked at or near the top of any district measure of overall student performance, its large numbers of Latino teen-agers--who are bused to upscale La Jolla from Barrio Logan as part of integration programs--have shown far less spectacular results. The county Board of Education made it clear that schools need to exhibit success in all their ethnic groups, especially in a district whose student population is now more than two-thirds nonwhite.
At Muirlands, the discussions led to some unhappy teachers at first, counselor Milan Dimich said, especially when a majority of the staff voted to change the campus to a middle school. Muirlands shed ninth grade and added sixth because of research showing that a junior high functions better with those grades.
“It took meeting after meeting after meeting to work out what we wanted to do,” teacher Pat Sell said, “to get to the point where we now have a direction.”
Teachers also decided to try interdisciplinary instruction, and to divide the school into smaller student groups known as “houses” or “families,” where members stay with the same teachers for much of the day.
Houses, now being tried at several additional San Diego junior high and middle schools, allow teachers to get to know individual students better, which can sometimes make the difference in motivating teen-agers with more than academics on their minds.
“You talk about them with other members of your teaching team,” Wayne Bartos said. “You learn more about them, so that, for example, you can congratulate a student who got an A in science even though you may teach social studies.”
In addition, students can easily design a project that covers more than one academic subject, relating history with science, math with English.
Muirlands teachers say that after three years, they can now see improvement among all their students. This past June, only two seventh-graders were not promoted to the next grade, a figure that is far lower than before. “And those are not social promotions” in spite of grades, Dimich said.
Vice Principal Maria Uhry said that of 36 students identified last September as “at risk” of falling further behind in academics, 20 came off the list by June.
Still, despite all the changes Muirlands teachers have made, vexing problems remain, not the least of which were letters this spring from Barrio Logan parents who complained that their children were still treated as second-class citizens and deserved better academics.
“As a tactic, it certainly got our attention, and we do need to get things resolved,” Sell said. She and several other teachers who make up a planning group have met throughout the summer to revamp discipline policies and to expand chances for all students to learn journalism, art, computer simulations and other enrichment activities.
The Muirlands path--teachers in on all the decisions, wholesale changes instead of piecemeal--is the only way to go, Linda Vista Principal Adel Nadeau said.
“When you are moving and changing everything,” Nadeau said, “it solidifies the (backbone) of those teachers who are with you and forces those who are sitting on the fence to dive in.”
Linda Vista, with a large population of students who speak English as a second language, revamped grading procedures, student testing and language groupings to allow smaller class sizes. After five years, test scores are beginning to inch upward, although the school insists that progress must be measured in other ways as well.
“It took three years just to get to the point of developing student progress reports based on” having children do portfolios of their work, Nadeau said. Only now are Linda Vista teachers working through a final plan for how Nadeau should evaluate them based on student achievement, something that no other district school has come up with yet.
“It’s got to be realistic, but it’s also got to reflect” more than minimum standards, she said.
By the same token, there comes a time after three or four years “when you must draw the line and tell those teachers who have not bought in that they need to do something to change traditional ways of thinking or leave” for another school, Nadeau said. “At some point there is a bottom line.”
Mann Middle School found that a few teachers who experience some success early can get their more reluctant colleagues stimulated.
“We’ve got teachers now who, instead of doing remedial drill, work with kids on ideas and thinking skills,” Principal Elliott said. “And these same teachers who once saw these kids as the ‘worst in the class’ now find them among the best.”
“Teachers will buy in, but it takes time, because many see reform as something that brings a lot more work and no big immediate payoffs,” Elliott said. “It’s very, very hard for many to think about doing something in a totally new way.”
Together with Muirlands, Mann works with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation to receive consulting help and extra money to make change easier for teachers.
Nevertheless, several years of reform have persuaded Elliott and her staff that schools cannot do it all.
“We aren’t in control of the home,” she said. “We expect our parent programs to begin having some effect, but schools can’t succeed without” a turnaround in society’s responsibility to the schools.
Even at those schools allowed to start from scratch, with all teachers committed from the beginning, the path has been rockier than expected.
“There’s no question that it should be easier to start anew, because you don’t have to set aside old processes, programs and attitudes before trying new things,” said Bertha Pendleton, deputy school superintendent who directs day-to-day reform planning.
Yet, even with a can-do attitude, teachers at first find it difficult to turn students on to learning regardless of the changes to curriculum and teaching styles, said Bob Stein, principal at O’Farrell Middle School.
O’Farrell, in Valencia Park, called itself the “Dream Team” school when it opened three years ago, and that enthusiasm is still there, Stein said. But the school has had to scale back on audacious promises to have all its students ready to tackle any course upon promotion to high school.
“We’re not saying that everyone here who meets our standards will leave ready to go into advanced placement courses,” he said, “but we still do believe that more of our children can move into higher-level courses” than in the past.
Teacher Lenora Smith, one of the original Dream Team members, said, “We really feel badly that out of our first group of students, only about 30% met our standards.” The school relies almost totally on interdisciplinary instruction and requires that students demonstrate with projects and written reports, rather than tests, that they have learned the material.
O’Farrell teachers also undertake all the counseling for students within their “houses,” having voted to use money that would have gone to paying counselors and apply it instead to smaller class sizes. That move so far has met with skepticism from other campuses looking at ideas to borrow from O’Farrell.
“But we are having less negative things happening at our school,” Smith said. “Children are coming to school early and staying late; they are excited about being there, and if that’s not a mark of success, hey, I don’t know what is.
“Now that they are here, we are busy trying to bring them up to an (academic) level they have never been expected to achieve,” she said. “Yes, it’s harder than anyone thinks, because you don’t have all the answers to prove that we’re doing things right.”
Darnall Elementary in Chollas Park will reopen next month to handle a growing number of East San Diego-area students in the district’s latest “break-the-mold” effort.
Its principal and teachers--all of whom volunteered to move there--owe the school’s existence to the persistence of San Diegan Ron Tompkins, a local businessman. He persuaded the Board of Education in January to open Darnall as free as possible from existing district and union regulations regarding work rules, job descriptions, curriculum and evaluation.
But even though the staff has a freer reign for designing new instruction--even to the point of literally removing walls between classrooms to make team teaching easier--Principal Loyal Carlon says student performance will be the ultimate benchmark.
“If we can’t show that our ideas work for students, then everything else doesn’t really count,” said Carlon, who is versed in reform from a previous stint as a Muirlands vice principal. “We want to have five years to make a difference, but I hope that people will see differences in the classroom from Day 1.”
Added teacher Sandy Vidana: “I know that the chance to break the mold drew me here, but I have to hope that what we are doing here can happen anywhere.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.