On March 11 at 3:30 p.m., Morse High School math teacher Elizabeth Ahlgren was in a meeting with other Morse staff brainstorming ways to make the school better.
At that same time, the San Diego City Schools Board of Education was approving a state Department of Education report that said Morse High School was, for the most part, doing everything wrong. “The school lacks a shared vision,” the report states. “The school lacks adequate fiscal and human resources to support academic achievement.... All students do not have access to a rigorous curriculum.... The school lacks the elements of an effective learning community.”
The findings-those listed above barely scratch the surface-were the result of an extensive five-day investigation of Morse, its teachers, students, administrators and campus, conducted by a 10-member state audit team last fall. Morse is a Title I school, meaning 40 percent or more of the student body is considered socio-economically disadvantaged. Title I schools receive money from the federal government and must spend it on improving student achievement. Morse had failed to improve academically for the past four years so the state stepped in to see what was going wrong.
A school's effectiveness, according to the state, is determined by its Academic Performance Index, or API score, a blending of standardized test data that quantitatively gives a school worth. Ideally, the state wants all of its public schools to be an 8. Morse is currently a 5, a number the school's been unable to nudge upward for the past four years. In the larger public school context, Morse is average, but when compared to schools with similar demographics, Morse is outstanding-a 9 out of 10. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that Morse hasn't met its “target” API score for three of the last four years.
Morse is the first school in the district to come under state scrutiny. However, two more district schools-Clairemont High School and Central Elementary in City Heights-are also expected to be subject to state audits.
When the Board of Education approved the state's assessment of Morse on March 11, the school entered into what's called a Joint Intervention Agreement, or JIA, with the state. The JIA sets goals for the school and target dates to meet those goals. State investigators, working with the district, monitor the school's progress quarterly and if the school doesn't show improvement in 18 months, the state steps in and takes over.
It didn't reflect well on Morse that no one from the school showed up at the March 11 board meeting to argue that the Encanto campus wasn't as bad as the report made it seem. That, says Ahlgren, is because Morse was tired of waiting for the district to get its act together.
“We were supposed to have the [state] report in January, the board was supposed to approve it in January,” she said.
Then Morse administrators were told the JIA would come before the board in February. That never happened. In the meantime, Morse staff spent January and February getting things in order. They drew up a new vision statement, implemented a new dress code, new attendance policy and new discipline policies.
“We did what we could do, what we needed to do,” Ahlgren said.
By the time the board approved the JIA on March 11, Morse had already failed to meet 10 of the improvement goals that had a Feb. 28 “due date” attached-no fault of the school since the district withheld the audit report until the board meeting. When Ahlgren arrived at the March 11 meeting at 5 p.m., she was given the last available copy of the report, which she had to share with the rest of the staff the following day.
One of the recommendations due Feb. 28 advised the district to “revise and make changes, as necessary, to the Morse High School leadership team... and assign them clear roles and responsibilities” according to the school's updated vision statement.
The first week of April, Morse staff was informed that there would be a meeting on campus the following Monday evening. They were not informed why. They were told school district Superintendent Alan Bersin would be there (he ended up a no-show, due to a “prior family engagement”) along with the district Deputy Chancellor Mary Hopper, Morse Instructional Leader and former principal Shirley Peterson and Chief of Staff Terry Smith.
At the meeting, attended by a majority of Morse staff, a handful of parents and a student representative, four-year Morse principal Suzanne Miyasaki was told she would be replaced by two co-principals, pending a school board vote the following day. The absence of Trustee Ed Lopez the next day delayed the vote until April 22. Also replaced, pending board approval, would be one of the school's four vice principals and its literacy administrator.
The district says Miyasaki knew her end was near. Ahlgren, who was sitting with Miyasaki at the meeting, said Morse's popular principal had heard only “insinuation and innuendo” (Miyasaki's words, says Ahlgren) from the district prior to the April 7 meeting. Jim Holloway, the chair of the school's advisory committee who was at the meeting, called the language in the JIA directive too vague to dictate Miyasaki's removal. And when asked by CityBeat whether replacing Miyasaki was one of the state's recommendations, state audit team leader Linda Gaylor responded with a flat-out “no.”
The April 22 board vote couldn't have come at a worse time. That day was the first of six days of school-wide testing-the same test that will determine whether or not Morse is improving academically. (Shortly before CityBeat went to press Tuesday, the Board of Education voted 3-2 to reassign Miyasaki to Roosevelt High School, where she will be vice principal. Board member John de Beck resigned his post as vice president over the vote.)
“To pull the principal out at testing time is just insane,” said Holloway, who has a daughter and a niece at Morse. “At the very least she should be allowed to finish out the school year.
“We don't want her to go at all,” he added. “She's done a fantastic job.”
Students, meanwhile, say they're devastated and have been rallying behind their principal who, as several have told CityBeat, is respected campus-wide.
“This is Ms. Miyasaki's year,” said Ahlgren, an 18-year Morse teacher and 26-year veteran of the district. “It's our year, it's all of the things we've done since the fall to try to make things better for all groups on campus.”
CityBeat tried to reach Miyasaki during the first week of April and on April 3, her assistant called to say the principal would be happy to talk the following week. But after April 7, Miyasaki has declined to talk to the press. “She's carrying on, business as usual,” said Ahlgren. “She's going to do her job until it's done.”
Morse isn't an easy school to get to. You take the 805 freeway to Imperial Street, which drops you off at 47th Street. The turnoff to get to Morse isn't until 66th Street-22 blocks down the road. Then it's right on 69th and a few blocks up a hill to Skyline Drive. It's an area where you can find nice middle class homes that offer stunning views as far out as Coronado Island. Work your way down the hill, though, and the homes become much smaller and a little shabbier.
An imposing wrought-iron gate surrounds the campus. An additional chain-link fence encloses the main parking lot. The buildings up front are relatively new, white and coral, with names like Micronesia and Oceania, signifying the school's embrace of Pacific Rim culture. Nearly half the school's students are Filipino, a quarter are Hispanic and 20 percent are African American. Half the students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, nearly 20 percent more than the national average.
With an estimated 3,150 students, Morse is the most populous school in the district. Optimal high school size is 900 students-a luxury in public education. More realistic figures say 1,400 to 1,600 students is ideal. School size affects student achievement, and it's rare that you'll find an overcrowded high-performing school.
Morse is a science-and-technology magnet school, meaning in the past, it has actively recruited students from outside the area in exchange for more than half a million dollars a year in funding to support magnet programs. The school offers a flight-training program (which will, unfortunately, be cut next year) and was one of the first in the district to set up its own Internet server (www.morsehs.com) and wire classrooms for online access.
For the 2001-2002 school year, the district capped enrollment at 2,950 and the school stopped recruiting magnet students. This year, Morse is slated to lose its magnet funding during the same board meeting it's expected to lose its principal, the district citing the school's “inability” to attract magnet students.
Holloway, whose daughter and niece attend Morse, points out that the campus was originally built to hold 1,600 students. In order to deal with overcrowding, a Prop MM-funded $6.8 million reconstruction project began in November 2001 with an expected finish date of Jan. 2003-four months ago. Delays-most recently from an electrical subcontractor who went bankrupt before work was completed-have left gaping holes in the campus' concrete walkways. Classes rotate in and out of portable classrooms, depending on which building is being worked on, and the school's library has been reduced to a space that will hold only six students at a time. The new library that was slated to open this spring now won't be ready until November, though the building's steel skeleton looks promising.
The campus is dusty, often noisy during construction hours (which coincide with school hours) and students and teachers complain of odd smells coming from the holes in the ground. Students have been routed and re-routed throughout campus, portions of which are completely blocked off, causing a rash of tardiness. Only recently have workers stopped emptying port-a-potties during school time after the smell made several students ill.
To make it bearable, Miyasaki's commissioned students to paint murals on the temporary construction walls throughout the campus. One mural is a take-off of Van Gogh's “Starry Night,” except, in this case, with a city underneath the sky. The mural blocking the steel skeleton of the unfinished library depicts a series of famous landmarks and has provided Ahlgren with a way to make light of the construction mess. To get to her classroom, she tells people to turn left at the Golden Gate Bridge.
When things go wrong, human instinct seeks to place blame. “Scapegoat” is the word often used by those who oppose Miyasaki's removal. They say that she's taking the fall for the district's own failure to take care of its largest high school.
The district, Ahlgren points out, didn't send any representatives to visit Morse until the final day of the five-day audit, and even then it wasn't Supt. Bersin or then-Chancellor of Instruction Anthony Alvarado. Ahlgren said several members of the audit team were upset that Bersin didn't make an appearance. “The other 16 schools [statewide] that had audits had their superintendents there,” Ahlgren said she was told by a team member.
The real fault of the district, critics say, is ignoring the school's staffing needs, depleting its Title I money and unilaterally imposing, despite vehement objection from Morse teachers and parents, the Blueprint for Student Success, the district's controversial education-reform program.
District critics say the state audit points glaringly to everything that's wrong with the Blueprint-that it isolates low-performing students and ignores state education standards in favor of a poorly implemented, costly curriculum that lacks proof of its efficacy.
According to recent standardized test scores, only about a third of Morse students read at or above grade level. Many come from homes where English is the second language, or where parents don't speak fluent English at all.
Ahlgren said that before the Blueprint was implemented in 2000, Morse had in place a reading program, Second Chance Reading, that's proven to work especially well for high school students reading significantly below grade level. Data for 2000, the last year of the program before the district pulled funding, found that the average student's reading ability jumped one to two and a half grade levels each semester. So, a ninth grader reading at the fifth-grade level could, potentially, be brought up to speed in one year. That same year, Morse's success with Second Chance Reading was selected for “Best Practices in Education” recognition from the San Diego Business Roundtable for Education.
The program was funded by Title I money, of which Morse received $400,000 a year, pre-Blueprint. When the Blueprint came along, Title I schools lost control of 80 percent of their Title I funds-the funds were redirected to fund the Blueprint-leaving Morse with a meager $32,000 a year, not enough to do much of anything.
The district also mandated that all reading-intervention programs be replaced by a three-hour literacy block, meaning students scoring in the bottom quartile in reading/language arts must spend three periods of a six-period day in a remedial English class. Those same students usually end up taking two periods of math as well, leaving little time for other core subjects, let alone time to earn enough credits to graduate.
The next highest quartile is grouped into two-period literacy classes and the top 50 percent of students get to take college-prep English. The audit makes note of this grouping: “The unintended consequence of the ineffective intervention, Accelerated Literacy Core Block, is to create an atmosphere that cultivates homogenous grouping and deprives students of the opportunity to interact with students at all levels.”
Another term for this is “tracking”-separating out students by ability level. Tracking violates federal law when disproportionate numbers of students-of-color students end up in remedial classes. In the case of Morse, Hispanic students are the ones largely being left behind.
“Intervention is necessary for students performing below grade level,” said audit team leader Linda Gaylor, “whereas this one [the Blueprint], when we looked at it, students weren't getting the intervention they needed, they weren't getting the results.”
The audit urges the district to implement instructional programs approved by the state board of education that will allow low-performing students access to a comprehensive curriculum and increased interaction with high-performing students.
Math, unlike literacy, wasn't singled out in the audit, and most students at Morse are doing pretty well-nearly 50 percent scored at or above grade level on recent standardized tests. The audit did, however, point to a lack of rigorous and research-based instructional strategies at the school.
Since math is her field, Ahlgren points to what she and other Morse math teachers believe was another poor choice by the district. Two years ago, the district replaced Morse's algebra curriculum with books authored by three teachers from a private boarding school for musically gifted kids in Michigan. Contextually and geographically, the books are a long shot from what most public school students can relate to, especially those who have no concept of wind-chill factor when it's used to explain a lesson. Plus, the books require graphing calculators, which forced the district to kick in extra money to purchase 20 for each class. It didn't help that the state standards tests-the thing that could have prevented the state audit if scores had improved-doesn't allow students to use graphing calculators.
Mike MacCarthy, founder of Voters for Truth in Education and a vocal advocate on behalf of Title I schools as well as an outspoken critic of the Blueprint, is troubled by what he sees going on at Morse.
“Here we have the cornerstone high school, the biggest high school,” said MacCarthy. If the [Blueprint] works, it should work at Morse High School and if it doesn't work at Morse, it doesn't work.”
Shirley Peterson preceded Suzanne Miyasaki as principal at Morse. When Peterson left to take a position as one of the district's 11 “instructional leaders” (a position similar to assistant superintendent), Miyasaki, who had been a vice principal at Morse since 1995, stepped up to fill Peterson's place.
Before coming to Morse, Miyasaki taught physical education and worked as a resource teacher at Hoover High School in City Heights. After receiving her administrative credentials, she worked as a vice principal at Bethune elementary, a Morse feeder school.
School board member Fran Zimmerman said she was initially opposed to Miyasaki's promotion and was skeptical whether she'd be able to handle a school of that size. Miyasaki, said the trustee, has proved her wrong, and Zimmerman stands strongly opposed to the principal's removal.
Parent Holloway concurs. “She came into the job and we knew she was kind of green, but this is a lady who takes such pride in the school and works so hard.”
Ahlgren said Miyasaki is the fourth principal with whom she's worked during her 18 years at Morse and by far the most popular.
Morse students agree. On a recent rainy Monday evening, more than a dozen of the school's student government officers gathered in front of the school for a candlelight vigil in support of Miyasaki. Struggling to keep their candles lit in rain and wind, they talked collectively about the principal they affectionately refer to as “the strongest little Asian woman in the world”-a title she earned after seriously injuring her hand trying to break up a fight between two students.
“She the school spirit. She's Tiger pride,” said senior Leilani Paco (the tiger is Morse's omnipresent mascot.)
The students said the audit's claim that the school was ineffective is “bogus.” They cited the burden the construction work has put on Morse staff and the difficulty that comes with test scores determining a school's success. “The board only looks at what we do, not what she does,” said Leilani.
“Ultimately the blame is on the students,” added junior JayPee Punzal, pointing out that he thinks some Morse students could stand to work a little harder.
Most of the students gathered on Monday night were seniors. They said they'll be disappointed if Miyasaki, who's been there since they were freshmen and who, they say, knows each of them by name, isn't the one handing them their diplomas on graduation day. “We're going to graduate with a new principal?” said senior Julian Cabais. “He doesn't know us.”
Peterson, who's taken the lead in making changes at Morse, said she recognizes the emotional impact removing a principal can have on students and teachers. The district, she said, is trying to mend hurt feelings as much as possible and communicate the rationale for removing Miyasaki. “We need to have the school move out of corrective action,” she said. “ It's my belief that in compliance with directives from the state, we need to address [the audit] as quickly as possible.”
She noted the state deadline of Feb. 28 to make changes to Morse leadership. “It's felt that we need to have a new principal move into the school as quickly as possible,” she said, “to establish a relationship with the staff so that they can utilize the rest of the school year and the summer to address the intervention strategies... so that we can move them get out of the corrective-action status.”
As for the audit's apparent criticism of the Blueprint, Peterson insists that it's a program that should have worked at Morse and that the audit gave the program short shrift. The audit team, she said, “didn't discover everything that is in place in the district to support schools.
“It's our belief,” she said of the district's Institute for Learning, which implements the Blueprint, “that with extended time [the two- and three-hour literacy classes], students will be able to reach the level of other students.” She added that below-grade-level students are given ample opportunity to catch up and fulfill graduation requirements through summer school and after-school programs.
“So if the student takes advantage of all of those opportunities,” said Peterson, “he or she will be able to graduate in the same timeline as other students.”
Peterson did point out that based on input from teachers, the three-period literacy class will be cut from all high schools for the 2003-2004 school year.
The same group of students that gathered Monday night at Morse later made a trek over to school board member Ed Lopez's house, a short distance from the campus. The students had originally wanted to gather in front of his house for a vigil but were warned it might put them at risk for arrest-protesting, no matter how peaceful, is illegal in a residential neighborhood.
Morse is in Lopez's district, and the students believe he holds the key to preserving Miyasaki's job. Of the five-member Board of Education, only two members have firmly expressed their support of Miyasaki, a split that isn't surprising given the board majority's tendency to vote in line with Bersin's wishes.
In an interview with CityBeat last Monday, Lopez said he was undecided on whether to remove Miyasaki. On one hand, he agreed with Peterson-the replacement principals should be brought in as soon as possible so that come September the school will be set for a new start. But Lopez said he also recognizes that it might be disruptive to pull out a popular principal so suddenly, especially during testing week.
“Potentially [removing Miyasaki] could disrupt the students' state of mind as they go into testing,” he said. “But if you make the decision that there ought to be change, are you any better off by delaying that?”
On Monday night, Lopez said he was open to talking to two of the dozen or so students who showed up in front of his house. Leilani Paco and junior Charlie Celeste were appointed ambassadors and after about a half-hour with Lopez, the two returned out to the street to give their peers a full report.
Lopez had told them the district wanted to “experiment” and try new leadership at Morse to see if that improved test scores. Charlie said he and Leilani countered by pointing out how disruptive it would be to remove Miyasaki during testing week. Lopez understood but explained the concern that the new leadership team needed as much time as possible to establish itself. Charlie suggested that task would be easier if Miyasaki was kept on as a co-principal. Lopez reportedly considered that a good idea.
“We told him that as his constituents, he should listen to us; he should know how hard she works,” Leilani said.
The students agreed they needed to follow up their meeting with Lopez by making an appearance at the following week's board meeting to remind the trustee of the students' concerns. Right now, said Julian Cabais, “he's not hearing all our voices.”