This past Monday morning at Ericson Elementary school in Mira Mesa, the day's routine start was disrupted by protest. Carrying signs reading “Bring back the fun-more field trips,” “Teachers shouldn't have to teach in fear,” “All work and no P.E. give kids a dull day” and “Someone please let flexibility back in school,” roughly 40 parents and children picketed up and down the sidewalk in front of the school's main entrance.
“We have a choice, be your child's voice,” the group chanted, the children's voices, ironically enough, surpassing those of their adult counterparts.
The group was harmless, even halting their march to allow the crossing guards extra room to work. Principal Linette daRosa stood slightly behind the picket line, apparently unfazed by the scene. She had been contacted by parent organizers early on and had been informed of their plans; moreover, principals of all nine Mira Mesa schools had been briefed by the district office which, up until that morning, clearly had no idea how large the demonstration might be.
DaRosa said she was surprised by the reasons for the protest. She cited Ericson's exemplary achievement record-on recent standardized tests, 85 percent of students were reading above grade level. Aside for the malcontents holding the signs-daRosa said she counted six Ericson families in the group that also comprised parents from several other Mira Mesa schools-she felt that, for the most part, parents and students were pleased with the curriculum. “The parents here to protest have a lot of misinformation,” she said.
The target of protest, indeed, was neither the school itself, nor the teachers nor the principal, all of whom parents say they have no problems with. Rather, their gripe is with the higher-ups, namely district Superintendent Alan Bersin and his Blueprint for Student Success. The Blueprint, which has run up a $250 million tab since its implementation two years ago, is a district-wide reform program that focuses on basics-reading, writing and math. Critics describe the program as a one-size fits all curriculum, too centered on improving standardized test scores rather than creating a well-rounded student. Under the Blueprint, the average day for an elementary school student includes a three-hour reading block and an hour and 15 minutes for math; what remains of the day is a scant 45 minutes for the leftovers: history, art, science and physical education as well as the things that make school fun for a kid: field trips, holiday events, guest speakers and hands-on projects.
“It's not that we hate the Blueprint; we hate the way it's being implemented,” said Debra Magallanes who helped organize the protest even though her two children no longer attend district schools. She put her kids in a charter school this year after noticing a marked change in their attitude towards school. Prior to that, Magallanes said she regularly attended the district's parent congress meetings to learn all she could about the Blueprint. At the meetings, however, she was discouraged by the lack of opportunity for parent input and involvement.
Then she ran into Bersin at a political function and saw an opportunity to put in her two cents. “So I walked up to him,” Magallanes said, “and I introduced myself and I told him I had attended his parent congress meetings and I was very disappointed and I wouldn't attend again.
“All they were doing,” Magallanes said of the parent congress meetings, “was selling me the Blueprint and asking me to critique how well they had sold it to me rather than how well it was working in our kids' lives.”
She said she was surprised by Bersin's curt response. “Well, it's a free country,” he said. “Do something about it.”
The protest, Magallanes explained, was the culmination of a summer of discussion with parents and teachers. Parents figured the only way to be heard was to do something drastic, and at 8 a.m. Monday when the attendance bell rang, the Ericson protest became a boycott: an unexcused absence deprives the district of the $154 it would have received from the state had that child showed up for school. In order to get Bersin's attention, the parents opted to do something with financial consequences.
Chancellor of Instruction Anthony Alvarado, Bersin's right-hand guy and head of the district's Institute for Learning, described Monday's protest as a failed demonstration. His main concern, however, was with parents involving their children.
“Their use of children for political ends is shameful and disgraceful,” Alvarado said. It was also bad timing, he added.
“At the beginning of the school year when bonding with classmates and teachers is important, when the San Diego community is particularly sensitive to the safety of our kids and the week when the country has to deal with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, to pull kids out of school and use them as political pawns is really beyond the pale.”
He attributed the protest to the upcoming school board election. With the steadfast 3-2 split in the current school board's voting habits, the Mira Mesa parents critical of the Bersin administration openly claim support of District C incumbent John deBeck and District B candidate Jeff Lee. “This obviously is the first crack at the politics of the school board race,” Alvarado charged.
Debbie Nichol, co-organizer of the boycott, anticipated criticism aimed at parents choosing to keep their kids out of school Monday. The Friday before the protest, a dozen or so parents gathered at a Mira Mesa Starbucks where Nichol encouraged discussion about the boycott.
“Look at it as a child development day,” she said, “we're going to take them on the field trip that they're not going to get this year. I'm thinking of it as quality time with my kids.”
Nichol said she planned to take her kids to the Fleet Science Center. Parent Jim Bender said he was going to take his son to the aquarium and then for a tour of FBI headquarters. He had originally organized the tour for his son's class, but the trip was vetoed by daRosa, who deemed the destination vocational rather than educational and not within the scope of Blueprint.
The protest itself would be educational, said one parent. “It's a form of peaceful protest. We go to school board meetings and [the administration] acts like we're not there. [This protest] is a way to acclimate our kids to the democratic process.
“We're not trying to unseat these people,” he noted. “We're trying to get them to change their policies.”
Nichols prodded the group on how they planned to explain the boycott to their children. A handful of parents said their kids had already expressed a growing dislike of school, well beyond the norm.
“[Both kids] get up and say, ‘I hate school',” noted one parent. “They should be excited, saying, ‘We're doing this today,' or ‘We're doing that.'”
“I'm here because I see a difference in my kids,” another parent added. “I'm seeing the difference in attitude towards homework, the difference in attitude towards school.”
There was one voice of concern. “What if [the protest] backfires?” questioned one mother. “What if they think, ‘Mom doesn't like school either'? It's a bunch of kids seeing adults protesting... It's a grown-up problem that will be carried on the children's backs.”
“Joe” (teachers interviewed for this article requested their names be withheld) has been teaching for 28 years, 15 years in the San Diego school district. Prior to last year he hadn't given a thought to retiring. Now he's looking forward to it. He describes the Bersin administration as “the most suppressive administration I've worked for. I've never in my life experienced anything like this.
“I have no problem with revamping the educational system,” he said, “but the way it's being done is appalling. Teachers have no say about what's being taught in the classroom. When you try to tell [administrators] that you can't have a one-shoe-fits-all approach, they tell you that this is what the Institute [for Learning] says and this is the way it will be.
“We have principals in the district who've had nervous breakdowns,” he added.
Joe said he supported the boycott and was pleased to see parents attentive to teachers' concerns. “When we get so involved in teaching,” he said, “our lives are so busy that we don't have the energy to protest. We tell administrators, ‘We know what the standards are; we know what the concepts are-now let us come up with ways of teaching.' They say, ‘No, your ways aren't effective. Only the Institute knows what's effective.'
“I've been teaching a long time,” he said. “All my kids are advanced. I know how to teach, yet [administrators] look at me and their eyes glaze over. [Their message is], if you're not doing what the Institute says, you're doing it wrong.”
“Barbara” has been teaching 34 years, four of them in the district. While she said she understands the purpose of the Blueprint, the regimented school day allows only a surface glance at other subjects. Teachers want a more balanced curriculum, she said. “Most teachers accept the district's focus [on reading, writing and math] to a point, but when you have [a three-hour literacy block] it's hard to start something in science or social studies.”
Alvarado said the district plans to add a hands-on science program this year funded by the National Science Foundation, something parents said they weren't informed of.
“We focused on reading and now we're focusing on mathematics, and we're adding other subject areas. That's the plan of the Blueprint and that's what we had intended to do all along,” he explained.
“We believe deeply in a well-rounded comprehensive curriculum, but if a student does not have the gatekeeper skills in reading and mathematics, how are they going to take advantage of those other subject areas? You can't read history if you can't read well.”
He said he hoped parents would direct their concerns to the principals. “The principals are the leaders in the implementation of the reform in the way it meets the needs of the students at that particular school site.
“There's going to be different perspectives on what American public education should be,” he added. “I do not know why one would expect the schools to put forth a curriculum that every single parent would be in total agreement with. It would be impossible. The fact that the vast majority of parents are content with what is happening at their local school is an indication that by far a majority of parents believe their students are being well-educated.”
Both Nichol and Magellanes said parents have been open with principals about their concerns, but ultimately they feel Bersin and Alvarado need to answer to parents.
“I don't want to be derogatory towards Bersin,” said Nichol. “I want to speak to the issues we're concerned about. We do need [the Blueprint] to some degree.... We're trying to stay positive.
“I would love for Bersin to meet with us,” she added, “and tell us how he's going to change things.”