Flummoxed? Outraged? Ineffective? Embarrassed? These feelings are not necessarily compatible all at once. However, when I got a call two weeks ago from Mercury News Education reporter, Sharon Noguchi, I experienced all four emotions at the same time. I was totally mystified that as president of the county Office of Education Board of Trustees I didn’t know the answers to a series of questions she asked to begin the interview.
Noguchi asked if I knew that the Alternative Schools Director had recently resigned from her position. She asked if I knew that the Odyssey Community School in San Martin had “spun out of control since school began in the fall.” In fact, the board was being told on a regular basis that everything was on target with the recommendations listed in a report commissioned by the board in the fall of 2010.
In January 2011, WestEd submitted the “Report of the Alternative Education Program for the SCCOE” to the board and community. This report was discussed in public sessions several times over the next few months with a cadre of community stakeholders. Groups that participated in discussions about the report’s findings included the members of Mayor Chuck Reed’s gang task force, the District Attorney’s office, Probation Department, SJPD, Sheriff’s Office, Juvenile Justice Commission, PACT, CTA, school district representatives, judges of the juvenile court, students, parents and interested community members.
I was the one who proposed the study get to the truth of what was really going on in alternative schools. We certainly were not hearing the truth as a governance body then. After the five-month study was completed, my board colleagues and the community embraced its recommendations. It was a guiding beacon for continuously improving the alternative education programs for the next several years. The update reports to the board by former Superintendent Dr. Charles Weis and his staff were encouraging, but we never heard from teachers.
I spent hundreds of hours in my first two years as an elected board member working to strengthen SCCOE alternative education instructional programs to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of its 650-700 students. I met many times with members of People Acting In Community Together to learn about what they thought were the weak points of the system. I visited schools with my colleagues. The issue consumed many hours in public board meetings.
My interest comes from my work as a juvenile court school teacher for the SCCOE from 1974-84. I loved the work and the students. My professional colleagues at that time were second to none.
In Saturday morning’s front page story, Noguchi wrote, “Despite past scrutiny, a critical consultant’s (WestEd) study and repeated promises from outgoing Superintendent Charles Weis, the County Office of Education’s Alternative Schools Department still struggles…Fearful of consequences, community schools staff members hesitate to speak out. ‘We’re all terrified’, one teacher said.
The WestEd report, written 18 months ago, states: “While SCCOE has implemented changes in various areas, there is a need for a stronger organizational and administrative environment that includes high levels of internal two-way communication, a consultative planning and decision-making process, and an organizational focus or mission agreed upon by all levels within the county … School staff have low morale.”
Sadly, some of the WestEd findings mirror what Noguchi describes as existing today: “School staffs feel there is a great disconnect between the central office and the various sites, with very little consultation and communication regarding decisions that impact schools and students. Many AEP stakeholders perceive consultation and communication with the various community agencies as weak. Engaging the critical partners in the AEP is key for providing needed services to students. Teachers do not feel appreciated for their work, their responsibilities are extensive, and they are ambivalent about so much change, particularly related to staff turnover.”
I tried to give it my all on this one, but I have come up short of the mark. I am the President of the Board, therefore I must hold myself accountable.
That said, there is some hope for the future. We have a new superintendent, Dr. Xavier De La Torre, coming into lead the organization on July 1. We have a plan in place with strident, if not bold, recommendations for him and his staff to follow.
He has a reputation, from his time in El Paso, Texas, of being a builder of trusting relationships in a complex 44,000-student school district. This board can no longer, as one of my board colleagues wrote in an email, “be conned, bamboozled, and hoodwinked.”
I’m embarrassed. The students and teachers deserve better oversight from those elected to provide it for the public good.