San Diego City Schools went under a full-day microscope Sept. 27 to ask itself and outside experts whether the massive educational reforms and other changes the urban district has undertaken during the past six years have been successful.
Although billed as an assessment of local urban school reform efforts, the San Diego Review program conducted at the University of San Diego was, in effect, an assessment of Superintendent Alan Bersin's six-plus years as superintendent of the nation's eighth largest urban school district.
The district educates nearly 140,000 K-12 students in roughly 180 schools throughout the San Diego metropolitan areas and immediate suburbs -- from southeast San Diego up to and including Scripps Ranch. It takes nearly an hour to drive from its northernmost to southern boundaries on a light traffic day.
What's especially noteworthy is that along with the Council of Great City Schools, Bersin was the co-convener of the detailed critique of everything that has been done to improve student achievement since taking the superintendent's seat in July 1998. Researchers were given six months of full and unfettered access to the district's schools and data, and were encouraged to tell it like it is.
Very few public sector leaders -- especially those like Bersin, who are not elected -- would have the motivation or the courage to subject their record and results to any level of objective review, much less convene the process to do so. But then, very few public leaders deal with anything even beginning to approach the mammoth task of educating our society's next generation, especially in an area where more than 50 languages are spoken and nearly six out of 10 students come from homes at the poverty level.
The general sessions included papers and presentations that evaluated the district's overall performance, the Board of Education's governance and external constituencies, professional development and instructional improvement, internal accountability mechanisms, charter schools, the district's relationship with unions, recruitment and hiring, information technology, and parental choice.
Those were just the morning sessions. As the day progressed, there were sessions on central district leadership; recruiting and managing principals; low-performing schools, special education, business services; English, math and science curricula; high school improvement; and English language learners.
Presenters and respondents included educators and other representatives from Harvard's Business School and Graduate School of Education, the University of Washington, Columbia University, Stanford, the Cleveland Municipal School District, the Urban Education Partnership, several foundations and institutes, and the San Diego Unified district itself. Attendees lugged home 3-inch notebook binders, chock full of detailed reports on the covered topics.
I've taken the space to list the all the sessions to demonstrate the complexities and myriad issues San Diego City Schools faces as an urban district serving a diverse population base in complex times. This isn't your suburban school district of 35 years ago, when the issues tended to center on a school bond measures, a student protest or two and maybe some curriculum issues.
Shortly after taking the job, Bersin, half jokingly confided to a colleague that unless he acted quickly and forcefully, his fate as a newly minted superintendent would be somewhat akin to being handed the controls of a runaway locomotive 400 feet before the tracks came to the edge of the cliff.
"I'm not going over the side and taking 140,000 kids with me!" he vowed.
He therefore acted "fast and top down," to quote one observer, to "alter the aircraft carrier," another analogy Bersin used later to describe the school district. He has put into place educational reforms at a level unprecedented in the district's long history and at other urban districts across the country. Bersin's Blueprint for Student Success and numerous administrative and business reforms have caught the attention of educators all across the country who now regard San Diego City Schools as a major beta site for educational reform.
What was especially interesting to those preparing the critique's board governance section was the fact that San Diego City Schools has become a model urban district where significant educational reform work has taken place under the barest level of Board of Education support. For the most part, Bersin has only been able to depend on three out of five votes to implement his reforms. And, today, the former lawyer who was a U.S. Attorney until July 1998 is one of the longest-serving urban district superintendents in the country. In fact, he's now doubled the average 33-month tenure of urban district superintendents.
No wonder there's so little continuity and positive results in urban education elsewhere, if those who are in charge of the systems have so little job security.
The San Diego Review was just that -- a review or detailed history of what has happened in the past six years. The key questions now are: What are the next steps? What are the education plans as a result of this review? What happens after next month's general election, when three new Board of Education members will take the helm to focus the district on educational achievement? What will a future review tell us about what happened from this point?
For the sake of our children -- and the future of all of us -- we better have good answers.
Hovenic, Ed.D., 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. Comments regarding this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. All letters are forwarded to the author.