"We need her like we need food."
Even though rain had washed away most of the ink on the poster, if you looked closely, you could just make out the words. The "her" is Suzanne Miyasaki, principal of Morse High School in Encanto. The "we" is the 3,150-strong student body who've rallied around their beloved principal after finding out last Tuesday that the San Diego Unified School District plans to fire Miyasaki, pending school board approval on April 22.
This past fall, Morse was subject to a state audit for the school's alleged failure to improve its Academic Performance Index score, or API, for the past four years-"alleged" because while the school's API score dipped 14 points in 2001, for the 1999-2000 school year, its score jumped up 24 points. For the 2001-2002 school year, Morse added only one point to its score, bringing it up to 617 (800 is the target goal for all schools). For schools with similar demographics, Morse ranks in the top 10 percent statewide.
The state audit suggested the district "revise and make changes, as necessary" to Morse administration. Linda Gaylor, who spearheaded the audit said it was up to the district how it wanted to interpret that suggestion. At a last-minute meeting held April 7, district staff announced that it planned to replace Miyasaki, plus one of the schools four vice principals and a literacy administrator. Two co-principals will take over Miyasaki's position.
Students held a rally April 8 in support of Miyasaki and on Monday night, despite heavy rain and wind, more than a dozen student government officers assembled in front of the school to hold a candlelight vigil for their principal. While local media had swarmed the Tuesday rally and promised to show up on Monday evening, the rain apparently kept them away.
Students had planned to hold the vigil on the sidewalk in front of school board Trustee Ed Lopez's house, as Lopez lives only a short distance from the school. Vigil coordinator Leilani Paco said her father had received a phone call from a school district police officer, informing him that his daughter and any other students who showed up at Lopez's house stood the chance of being arrested-it's illegal to protest in a residential area.
The students reluctantly relocated to Morse. They had hoped to sway Lopez's vote in Miyasaki's favor. It's likely the board will vote its usual 3-2 split, with Lopez, Ron Ottinger and Katherine Nakamura in favor of getting rid of Miyasaki while district critics Frances Zimmerman and John de Beck plan to oppose her removal. Lopez, however, told CityBeat Monday that his vote is still undecided.
"School's almost over and we're going to graduate with a new principal? He doesn't even know us," said Julian Cabais, a senior.
"I don't think the board has considered what [Miyasaki's] done for this school," added senior Jaypee Punzal.
"She's there every day at lunch," said junior Charlie Celeste, who also noted it's well known that Miyasaki stays at work late into the night.
"She's the school spirit; she's Tiger pride," said Leilani.
The students recalled their favorite anecdote about Miyasaki-when she broke her hand trying to stop a fight between two students, earning her the title, "Strongest Little Asian Woman in the World."
Leilani said Miyasaki knows all the students by name and has earned their respect in the four years she's been at Morse.
"Ultimately, the blame [for test scores] is on the students," said Jaypee.
After about an hour out in the rain, the students wondered what the harm would be if they made a trip over to Lopez's house and politely asked to speak to him. Within minutes, a caravan of eight or nine cars was making the short drive to the trustee's home where they were greeted by two school district police officers.
Leilani asked an officer if a couple of the students could knock on Lopez's door. She was told that they had to remain 100 feet away from the property. "He doesn't want to have contact with them," one of the officers explained, though he promised to have dispatch let Lopez know there were students outside who wanted to speak with him.
Within a few minutes, they got a response. Lopez would talk to one student. The group designated Leilani to be that one. Terrified, she asked if Charlie could accompany her. Lopez opened the door and Leilani and Charlie went in while the rest of the group watched from their 100-foot distance.
Lopez gave them a half-hour of his time, after which Leilani and Charlie gave a full report to the group. He was really nice, Leilani informed her peers.
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 that the district planned to remove Miyasaki during the week the school was to take the state standards exam. Lopez told them that perhaps it would be a good idea to keep her around the rest of the year, though that might make the transition more difficult, come fall, for the two new principals who needed as much time as possible to get a sense of the school. Charlie suggested that that task would be easier if Miyasaki was kept on as a co-principal. Lopez said that was a good idea.
"We told him that as his constituents, he should listen to us; he should know how hard she works," Leilani said. "He said we were doing a good job," she added.
Julian jumped in, encouraging his peers to attend next week's school board meeting to remind Lopez of the students' concerns. Right now, said Julian, "he's not hearing all our voices."