Steve Poizner’s book about Mount Pleasant High School offends subjects

At Mount Pleasant High School on Thursday morning, students practiced guitar in a courtyard and boned up on math before class. Parents met with the principal, and teens filtered in the doors. Faculty played an April Fool’s joke, announcing that the school year had been extended.

But amid the routine, tension rippled across the campus, set near the edge of a quiet San Jose neighborhood, over a book by Steve Poizner, a candidate in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Poizner, who spent a year teaching at the school, donated thousands of dollars to help its students and recorded his experiences in the book, has been told he is no longer welcome there. He touts the publication in his campaign to show his commitment to fixing a failed education system, but many who teach and learn at Mount Pleasant say it’s a caricature of their community intended to advance his political ambitions.

Throughout the pages of “Mount Pleasant,” released Thursday, Poizner sprinkles details about his guest stint at what he characterizes as a rough urban school starting in late 2002, two years after he sold his high-tech company for $1 billion.

He was relieved, he writes, to find his Lexus safe in the parking lot after his first visit. He built a lesson around the corporate history of Kentucky Fried Chicken rather than that of Apple, thinking Col. Sanders would hold more relevance for the students than Steve Jobs.

He ruminates that the underprivileged and, often, uninterested teens on the fringe of Silicon Valley would never match the achievements of young people from his own affluent town of Los Gatos, in the heart of high-tech country.

Martha Guerrero is an associate principal who has worked at Mount Pleasant for 24 years and sent two children to the school, including a son now studying aerospace engineering at UC Irvine. She says Poizner exaggerated the school’s problems to serve his narrative.

“My concern is that my community, my school, my family -- because we live here -- are being used,” she said, and she fears the damage to the school’s psyche will linger: “It makes it hard for students who come from here to go out there, because there is a belief that if they come from here, they may not be good enough.”

Poizner writes that he had trouble engaging the school’s young people, whose “wiring” and backgrounds were foreign to him.

“Were they all too busy ducking bullets to consider their careers?” he wonders. “I felt out of step -- a privileged brainiac who didn’t know how to teach and had little understanding of his students’ sensibilities.”

Poizner was banned by the principal, Teresa Marquez, from going to the school to discuss the book last week after she decided Poizner’s planned appearance there would have been political. Marquez was among 200 protesters who met him at a book signing in the area Thursday evening, and in an emotional confrontation, she said his students “were some of the brightest.”

“And you made it seem like they were nothing,” she said.

But Poizner told reporters that he had never written the students off.

“If you read the book, you’ll see that I think that every student at Mount Pleasant High School . . . can and should excel, but the fact is many of ‘em aren’t,” he said. “What I’m trying to do is shine some sunlight on all of this. The fact is, it does cause some people to bristle when they hear about some of the things that are wrong.”

Earlier that day, the nearly 50-year-old campus, painted since Poizner taught there, seemed orderly and clean. So did the surrounding low- to middle-income neighborhood of single-story homes, most with neat lawns, at the foot of the Diablo Mountain range. A $30-million school upgrade, approved by voters, is slated to begin this year.

Mount Pleasant’s student body of nearly 1,800 is 68% Latino, and about a quarter of its students have limited English proficiency, according to school statistics. Among parents, 18% have college degrees and 68% have finished high school.

Most of the students and teachers say they have so far read only portions of the book. Poizner’s critics say that although the school does have gang members on campus, economic disadvantages and below-average test scores, the school is no worse -- and is, in fact, better -- than many others.

Mount Pleasant failed to meet state and federal goals for academic performance last year. In 2008, it ranked in the bottom half of high schools statewide but did better than most others with similar demographics, state statistics show. The 13% dropout rate for the 2008 graduating class was just below the state average.

Many students do not attend college, but some go to prestigious ones, despite Poizner’s suggestion that most would do best in vocational school.

Such sentiments “kind of brought me down, because I have my own dreams,” said Victor Noguera, 18. “He opens the door for other people to think bad about us. By him saying we’re this gangster-infested school, it makes all of us seem negative. My dream is to go to Stanford, and I’m taking as many AP classes as I can.”

Poizner, who badly trails former EBay chief Meg Whitman in his bid to become the Republican nominee for governor, coordinated the book’s publication date with the announcement Thursday of his “education reform plan,” which focuses on strengthening charter schools. He devotes a section of the book to charter schools, praising them as an escape valve for students from the kinds of problems he says he saw at Mount Pleasant.

In Poizner’s year there, he mostly observed for one semester, then taught a class for about an hour a day in the second semester. He has returned for annual visits in his current post as California’s insurance commissioner and has paid for student trips to Washington, D.C.

Some faculty members have rallied to Poizner’s side. Todd Richards, whose American government class Poizner taught, said that although the book overlooked some positive elements, “everything in that book is real.” He said some teachers, who would prefer to ignore the problems, had “really fanned the flames” and deprived students of a dialogue with the author.

“When you start denying other people an opportunity to hear a point of view, I think that’s just poison to the civic discourse,” Richards said. “It would have been a very neat thing for our students . . . and they were robbed of that.”

Meanwhile, the book is in hot demand at the school library.

“I have probably 10 copies, and they’re all gone,” librarian Chris Evans said.