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2005 blog


Keeping up with Jewish officeholders

Ousted San Diego School Superintendent
says 'Blueprint' achievements will remain
,  Jan. 31, 2005

education file

San Diego School Superintendent Alan Bersin chose the words of  19th century American poet Emily Dickenson to express his feelings after negotiating a mutually agreeable buy-out of his contract with an antagonistic new majority on the 5-member San Diego Unified School District board.

Some of the changes Bersin had pioneered for the 138,000-student district under a program called "Blueprint for Student Success" —emphasizing  literacy and math for students and teacher and principal training for their mentors—are likely to be changed by the new majority

However, Bersin wrote friends and colleagues that "the infrastructure we erected was a means not an end.  Emily Dickenson's poem, which I have read with our principals, comes to mind.

"THE PROPS assist the house
Until the house is built,
And then the props withdraw-
And adequate, erect,
The house supports itself; 
Ceasing to recollect
The auger and the carpenter,
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected life,
A past of plank and nail
And slowness,--then the scaffolds
Affirming it a soul"

Under terms of the buy-out, Bersin will complete his tenure as school superintendent this June—a year ahead of his contract.

In his letter to colleagues and friends, he compared the standings of San Diego city schools today with what they were when he took the position in 1999.

"The revised data issued this week in Sacramento shows that 107 of our schools (60 percent) now score at or above 700  (of a possible 1000) on the statewide API (Academic Performance Index) compared to 75 schools in 1999.   In 1999, 32 schools (fully 22 percent of our schools) placed under 600 on the API; today only 12 schools (less than 7 percent of our schools) operate at that unsatisfactory level. 

"We have narrowed the academic achievement gap dividing our students based on factors of  race, ethnicity and class. We are one of only two districts in California (the other is Long Beach) to meet all 46 Adequate Yearly Progress performance indicators for two years running under No Child Left Behind.  San Diego City Schools tests more than 98 percent of its students and ranks second among urban districts in the state (slightly behind San Francisco) in the number of students performing at proficient or advanced levels on the California Standards Test in English Language Arts and third in mathematics (tied with Sacramento)."

Bersin said as a result of three new trustees comprising a new board majority, "there will be changes, to be sure... Many components of the professional development infrastructure that the district built to ignite and nurture adult learning in the service of student achievement will be reduced and in some cases, entirely eliminated.  

"Nobody can change, however, the commitment we have made, individually and collectively, of improving the quality of instruction that is so evident now in the4 midst of our classrooms. Nor will we lose the professional habits of mind that lead us to problem solve with our colleagues and focus our attention on the learning issues facing our students and ourselves."

Before being appointed as School Superintendent, Bersin had served as the United States Attorney in San Diego.  He and  then-President Bill Clinton had been Rhodes Scholars together in England.  Bersin went on to practice law in Los Angeles, eventually marrying Lisa Foster, whose parents Stan and Pauline Foster were longtime leaders of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego.  Foster today serves as a Superior Court Judge.

While teachers rarely contested Bersin's brilliance, he often was faulted for having a top-down, sometimes brusque management style. Board meetings were acrimonious, particularly prior to last November's election when Bersin still could count on a three-member majority to support his reform policies, and trustees who formed the minority sometimes would lash out.

In one memorable example, School Board Member Frances O'Neill Zimmerman  likened those who followed Bersin's school reform  policies to Jews who helped nazis round up fellow Jews. The comment stung both Bersin and then-Trustee Ron Ottinger, who also is Jewish. There were immediate calls for the resignation of Zimmerman, who, like Ottinger, had only a little time left to serve as she had not run in 2004 for reelection. Zimmerman rode out the storm and completed her term. Now Zimmerman and Ottinger have both left the arena—and Bersin soon will follow.
Donald H. Harrison