Education Up Front

July 13, 2004

July 27, 2004

August 10, 2004

Looking back at six years of educational reforms

Earlier this month, Alan Bersin began his seventh year as superintendent of San Diego City Schools. For fans and critics alike, July 1, 1998, his first day on the job, seems an eternity ago.

Indeed it was, considering the conditions under which he became the chief executive of the school district that educates 140,000 students in 180 schools throughout much of the San Diego metropolitan area.

Bersin was a non-educator -- and a lawyer at that. His management persona was at best, gritty, yet reflective -- a style honed by his several years as U.S. Attorney for San Diego and the surrounding region. His lack of a public education track record together with his reputation as a no-nonsense federal prosecutor made many in the district and union bureaucracies nervous.

However, his new assignment was hardly the Garden of Eden. The district had lost touch with much of the community, largely the result of a brutal teachers' strike two years earlier during which community opinion sided with the teachers' union. Many of the district's campuses and buildings were overcrowded and dilapidated by years of neglect. The achievement gap between underprivileged students and those of economic means was considerable in size and growing.

Bersin's charge by the Board of Education majority that hired him was simple but almost overpowering: Bring the massive school district back into the community mainstream and do what it takes to improve student achievement on the part of all students.

We've discussed in this column many of the reforms undertaken by City Schools during Bersin's tenure; however his six-year anniversary is an appropriate occasion to step back and recap some of those changes which many view as accomplishments.

In 1998, on average, City Schools elementary school children were reading less than 30 minutes a day -- and the feeble reading scores proved the point. Bersin directed Tony Alvarado, chancellor of instruction, to reintroduce an emphasis on literacy to equip San Diego Unified's children to succeed as they rose through the grades and graduated.

Alvarado designed, using input from other states' plans, and Bersin ran the necessary interference for the Blueprint for Student Success, a massive reform package that focused on site leadership, professional development for teachers and more classroom time and materials for students and teachers. The blueprint actually was driven by the state, requiring all districts to come up with a plan to end social promotion.

The achievement problems were by no means confined to elementary and middle schools. With the assistance of the Gates Foundation, Bersin implemented a high school renewal plan focusing on smaller and specialized high schools and raising academic expectations using the Business Roundtable for Education-supported Construction Tech High, High Tech High and San Diego Charter School as models.

City Schools, under Bersin, developed and implemented a district accountability framework that meshes federal and state accountability systems to hold all district schools to high standards. Bersin connected with Just For Kids California, a statewide organization that uses accountability data to improve student achievement. In fact, he was the first urban superintendent to provide data to conduct a comprehensive analysis of overall student achievement. Since then, other urban districts in California have followed suit.

The district also implemented the federal No Child Left Behind Act provisions, which emphasizes reading and literacy, accountability, school choice and supplemental services. Today, San Diego City Schools is one of only two urban districts in the state to make "Adequate Yearly Progress" under the federal program.

During Bersin's tenure, full-day kindergarten became a reality. It has become a large contributor to establishing solid literacy skills early on in children's school careers.

The Charter School policy and MOU process in which the Business Roundtable for Education worked collaboratively with Bersin and the charter schools to establish standard criteria for charter schools has become the model for the state and nation.

The district expanded its partnership program with community businesses and organizations, resulting in more than 1,400 outside organizations and 22,000 volunteers working in district schools.

Bersin also developed parent communications and involvement standards that encourage parents to become partners in their children's education, and that spell out the respective roles the district, school site, classroom and homes play. The district also created a Parent University, Mobile Learning Center and a Parent Congress.

The district central office has been reorganized and trimmed on several occasions during Bersin's tenure to keep revenues focused at the classroom level.

The most visible accomplishment, however, deals with bricks and mortar. Bersin led the successful effort to pass the $1.51 billion Proposition MM bond measure in November 1998 to repair schools and construct new ones and created a properly functioning oversight committee to streamline process flow.

Today, the district prepares to open 14 new and smaller schools within three of its underperforming high schools. At the other end of the K-12 spectrum, Bersin is implementing an early childhood initiative that offers preschool to more youngsters in order to prepare them to be ready to learn when they enter kindergarten.

Things haven't always been smooth on Bersin's watch, but no one can say that substantive educational reform hasn't taken place in the past six years.

Not a bad record. But, I suspect there's even more to come. Stay tuned.

Hovenic is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at

July 13, 2004

July 27, 2004

August 10, 2004