Four television cameras, two radio reporters and a few print journalists waited for someone to start talking.
“Ernie, Grandma, say what you're going to say,” a bystander offered.
Dorothy Martin, known to her community as “Grandma,” glanced down at a stack of papers in front of her before explaining why more than 150 students from Johnson Elementary weren't in class Monday. Earlier that morning the students had been sorted by grade level and escorted into the barracks-style buildings that surround Greater Life Baptist Church, which, for the next three days, would be their classrooms. The makeshift school would prove more stimulating, parents believed, than what their kids were getting at Johnson, a modest school in the predominantly black, working-class neighborhood of Emerald Hills.
“Our school, Johnson Elementary ... is at its worst as I've ever seen it,” Martin said to the gathering of media. “We don't have any textbooks for our children, no extended-day math support, no extended-day reading support for grades 3 and 5. Last year our fourth graders scored very low on the SAT-9 test.
“We're fed up,” she continued. “We have talked and we've talked and no one has listened to what we have to say.”
Martin served as spokesperson and head organizer of the three-day-long school boycott that parents and local community leaders say is the only way to get the San Diego Unified School District to listen up.
At issue, they argue, is a two-year buildup of grievances that have been ignored by school administrators. The list is long-phasing out a successful reading program; cutting the school's GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) program for fifth and sixth graders; science, social studies and math classes that have been without textbooks since the school year began.
To compensate for the missed classroom time, organizers set up the makeshift school at Greater Life Baptist Church, about a half-mile down the road from Johnson. Parent volunteers and retired local teachers staffed the school, and Ernie McCray, a respected former principal and a vocal critic of district Superintendent Alan Bersin agreed to serve as principal on Monday. McCray, well known for his occasional poetry, opened the school day with an original composition he'd written for the kids.
“Your very presence says to San Diego City Schools / ‘Don't lie to me; give me what I'm due. / You promised that we could keep the old / but all we see is the new. / When do our extended math and reading programs begin? / Where are our math books, / our reading books, / our social studies books? / How can you not care / about the state of despair that we're in?'”
The “old” McCray refers to is Johnson parents' main point of contention-the district's phasing out of Direct Instruction, a nationally upheld phonics-based reading program that, in the past, had reportedly worked well for Johnson students. With the full implementation of the Blueprint for Student Success in 2000, the controversial district-wide reform program, funding for Direct Instruction was cut. Dolores Stevens, the former principal of Johnson who retired last year for health reasons, was told she could continue with the program but money wouldn't be available for related books and teaching supplies. “If you haven't got the funds,” Stephens said, “it isn't going to work.”
The cut to Direct Instruction funding came despite acknowledgement by Chancellor of Instruction Anthony Alvarado that the program benefited Johnson students, more than 90 percent of whom are children of color. Since 2000, parents have tried desperately to get the reading program back, most recently meeting with their board representative, Ed Lopez. But it's been an exercise in futility, said Martin.
“We've spoken to our principal ... we've been down to the board and we have addressed the trustees about some of the issues we have at Johnson. We've talked to the representative of our district. We have asked and we have not received,” she said.
The Johnson Elementary boycott is the second such boycott this year. In September, a group of parents in Mira Mesa kept their kids out of school for a day to protest the Blueprint's rigid curriculum. In that case, the district criticized parents for using their children to make a political statement, citing the boycott's proximity to election season-the parents involved were strong supporters of school board candidates John de Beck and Jeff Lee, both Bersin critics.
In this case, however, the election is over. “People are saying our kids are being used as pawns,” McCray said, “and that's not what it's about at all.”
Indeed, the children participating in the boycott took their role seriously. The morning began with parents dropping their kids off at a check-in site where they were name-tagged and organized by grade. Afterwards, they joined the adults in a picket march in front of Johnson that then made its way over to the church. After a brief assembly lead by McCray, the kids were ushered by grade level to their classrooms and given their schedule for the day: spelling, reading, lunch, social studies, science, math and P.E. The morning began with a writing assignment on what the kids thought about the boycott.
Maxcine Stephens, a retired high school teacher, presided over a class of 14 lively third graders. As the group lined up for a game of relay tag during the morning break, Stephens handed McCray her class' essays, which included titles such as “How can we make today a better day” and “The best day of my life.” Stephens said her young charges seemed very aware of what they were involved in and were eager to talk about it. “They're very knowledgeable,” she said. “They didn't ask questions, but gave me their opinions [of the issues].”
On Monday a district spokesperson declined comment on the boycott, deferring instead to a letter from Johnson Principal Christian Gordon. The letter, sent to parents last Friday, urged parents to attend a community meeting scheduled for Monday evening rather than keep their kids out of school that day. The letter also carefully addressed the concerns motivating the boycott, attempting, in some cases, to dispel what he believed were myths built up by boycott organizers such as whether or not two sixth grade classes were staffed by credentialed teachers.
Monday night, more than 100 parents packed Johnson's small auditorium to direct questions at Gordon, who they say has continuously ignored their concerns.
Gordon, a tall, thin black man in his mid-30s, stayed calm although his opponents clearly outnumbered his supporters. Working against Gordon is that he was trained at the University of San Diego's Educational Leadership Development Academy, a program that critics say churns out principals who support the Blueprint curriculum.
At the meeting, Gordon took responsibility for making decisions without consulting parents, such as the choice to cut the GATE program in the upper grades. Some of the other issues, however, were the fault of the district, such as the lack of textbooks, which, ironically, had arrived the previous week and were sitting in boxes in the corner of the auditorium. The books were to remain boxed until teachers completed training on the new curriculum-something that should have happened this summer, not a third of the way into the school year, parents argued.
Gordon promised parents that he would immediately form a task force to address their concerns. It was an additional step that some didn't want to hear.
“We've been really patient,” said parent Thekima Mayasa-Hailey to Gordon. “What I was hoping is that you had consulted with the district and come up with answers. Instead, you're telling us to consult with you again.”
After almost an hour and a half of discussion that grew increasingly heated, Rev. Willie Manley, pastor of Greater Life Baptist Church, intervened. “We need to bury our pride,” he urged, “so that these children can get the quality education they need. If we stand here arguing ... nothing will happen.”