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Bersin Continues Effort to Improve Student Achievement

Bersin Continues Effort to Improve Student Achievement


Superintendent of Schools Aims to Strengthen Communications


Staff Writer

As the KPBS-TV crew prepared to tape “These Days,” the camera zoomed in on the show’s guest , Alan Bersin.

A close-up of Bersin’s left eye filled a nearby TV screen. The camera panned down, showing a larger-than-life picture of the San Diego superintendent of schools’ jaw.

Until taping started, sections of Bersin’s face loomed large on studio screens , seeming to reflect the magnifying glass under which he resides.

Four years ago when he signed on with the San Diego Unified School District, the one-time Rhodes scholar served as the nation’s third nontraditional head of schools, which means he had no background in education. Bersin had been the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California and a senior law partner in Los Angeles.

Earlier this month, the school board renewed Bersin’s four-year contract , amid controversy and a split vote , giving him a $24,500 raise in annual base pay to $189,500.

Looking ahead at the next three to five years, Bersin’s plans for the district of 140,512 students include:

– 100 percent of the district’s high school students will pass the California High School Exit Exam, compared to 42 percent today.

– No city schools will fall in the bottom 20 percent academically, as compared with others across the state in the Academic Performance Index. Right now, 35 schools out of 169 in the San Diego district are in the lower 20 percent.

– The district will find $100 million in savings to pump into academic programs.

And that’s just for starters.

Bersin’s vision remains ambitious, especially for a leader wed to a divided school board and a teachers’ union that’s “trying to tear out his heart,” said Larry Prior, CFO of San Diego-based Lightpointe Communications.

As the man once hired to bring San Diego County back from the brink of bankruptcy, Prior has watched Bersin’s sojourn into the world of public education.

“(Bersin’s) the kind of guy you want to pray for on Sundays,” Prior said.

When Prior worked as the county’s chief administrative officer, he enjoyed a supportive board.

“(Bersin) has a split board that doesn’t agree on the problem, let alone the approach,” Prior said. “He has so many more degrees of difficulty than I had.”

– School System In Crisis Mode

Before Bersin, the San Diego district suffered from an achievement gap, said board of trustees President Ron Ottinger. Facilities fell into disrepair, and a crisis unfolded in the special education department.

Former superintendent Bertha Pendleton retired. Under fire, district officials polled residents to learn what they wanted in a new superintendent. The No. 1 mandate: Hire an agent of change, Ottinger said.

Bersin brought three main goals , build student achievement, revitalize the district’s business side to fund education reform and democratize the process.

He ushered in a Blueprint for Student Success, focused on literacy and asked teachers to use a common method of instruction. While the majority of principals believed Bersin’s blueprint improved reading skills, teachers worried that not all students’ needs were met, according to a study by the American Institutes for Research, a Washington, D.C.-based, nonprofit group that conducts basic and applied research.

Also, teachers struggled with Bersin’s strategies and top-down management style, the district-funded study said. They reported feeling more stress and exhaustion. Perhaps worse, more than half reported enjoying teaching less.

– Change And Communication

Change brings stress, Bersin said. And he found “the change cycle is a much more contentious affair in the education arena than the private sector.”

Corporate America deals with restructuring as part of doing business, he said.

“The culture and politics of school districts made that restructuring less accepted,” he said.

Discussions with the teachers’ union degenerated into power struggles; communication failed.

“Communication with Alan is one way,” said Marc Knapp, president of San Diego Education Association. “(Teachers) got kicked out of the passenger seat, so did parents. We realized it’s a one-seat airplane.”

Bersin accepts responsibility for glitches in communication, naming it his gravest misstep during the first four years.

Along with a chancellor of education and other key positions, Bersin hired John Spelich in October to lead communication and community relations. Spelich, the former president of Stoorza Communications Inc., also guided communications at Ford and Gateway Inc.

Bersin believes Spelich’s role remains key to winning over teachers and parents during the next four years.

– Nontraditional Superintendents

Retired Marine Col. Al Davis of New Orleans joined the ranks of the nontraditional school superintendent one year after Bersin signed on in San Diego. Like Bersin, Davis was hired to be an agent of change.

When Davis arrived in the New Orleans school district, Louisiana officials had proclaimed 54 elementary and middle schools statewide as “academically unacceptable.” Davis’ district contained 47 schools on the list.

Keeping focus remained difficult.

“You get bombarded with a number of issues that tend to deter you from your main reason for being here , academic achievement. … Because you are nontraditional, people are looking for every misstep,” Davis said.

Since taking over the helm at the New Orleans district, Davis and his staff have succeeded in removing more than half the “academically unacceptable” schools in their district from Louisiana’s list.

Nontraditional superintendents come into districts minus preconceived ideas about what needs to change, and they enjoy the advantage of no ties to the education establishment, Ottinger said.

“On the flip side the education establishment starts off a little suspicious of a nontraditional superintendent.”

Some local teachers seemed a bit skeptical of a leader who never spent time in a classroom, Knapp said.

“My first reaction is it doesn’t matter as long as we do the right thing,” he said.

Even Bersin’s fans agreed he’s under the gun now to improve student achievement. Test scores progressed steadily in the beginning of his first four-year contract, but they flattened this year.

One key to future successes revolves around getting more people involved in forming policies and implementing reforms, Bersin said. He wants to make the system bigger than any one person.

“The key to that is focusing on children,” he said.


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