Joetopia

San Luis Coastal can learn from Teach experience

jtarica@thetribunenews.comFebruary 22, 2013 

The San Luis Coastal Unified School District meeting was crowded Tuesday, Feb. 19, for budget discussions. The largest group appeared to be supporters of Teach school, but comments included support for librarians and counselors, too.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

I can’t believe this Teach school drama.

You can take that both ways, as in, I find many of the San Luis Coastal district’s methods hard to fathom and I’m not sure I trust all that they say.

The board met again this week to debate the fate of Teach, ultimately deciding to forgo a decision for now while they study the issue further.

That’s probably the best supporters of the school could hope for at this point, but it wasn’t easy, pretty or without controversy.

At the core, I still don’t feel we’re hearing the whole story, despite trustees’ protestations otherwise.

“This began as an issue of capacity and it has stayed that, although it spun out of control at some point,” board member Ellen Sheffer said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Hogwash.

This is clearly not simply an issue of capacity, as Superintendent Eric Prater acknowledged. It’s as much a debate over educational theory as it is a task of juggling the number of students at the Bishop’s Peak/Teach campus. The capacity challenge is merely the most prominent and visible result of the two schools’ popularity and an easy, immediate motivation for action.

The fact is, the district has botched the handling of this issue from day one, introducing the prospect of closure prematurely and then exacerbating it by repeatedly adopting an antagonistic stance toward the Teach community.

At the start, instead of reaching out to parents and applauding the school for its accomplishments, the district was skeptical and accusatory, forcing Teach to defend itself when no defense was necessary.

As Tuesday proved, some among them continue, in various ways, to mishandle management of that relationship even amid attempts to defuse the tension.

Take board President Walt Millar’s approach to public comment, which he restricted to 20 minutes on the Teach agenda item, plus some additional time earlier.

He has taken some heat for that choice, but really, what did he expect?

The discord over Teach had been bubbling and churning for more than a month. If nothing else, these public meetings are a way to blow off steam. But beyond that, the parents deserve a chance to be heard, even if they are saying the same thing over and over again.

Yes, he needs to move the proceedings forward, but restricting public comment will almost always be seen as a slap in the face of the constituency the board was elected to serve.

Millar would be wise to remember that.

But he’s not the only one.

Prater has also been guilty of talking and acting without thinking.

He acknowledged as much and did apologize for calling parents “bullies,” albeit with one of those “if I offended you” caveats, which always drain some sincerity from the apology.

But from his comments throughout the night, he does seem open to leading a genuine conversation, and the board did come to a wise decision in choosing to postpone action while studying the matter.

My hope now is that they handle this process in a forthright manner and approach the next seven months in a more intelligent fashion than they did the last two.

Because I’m skeptical, and I still believe other unspoken motivations beyond the capacity issue are at work here.

Yes, there’s a capacity issue, but why did they have to put the Teach program in such a publicly tenuous position so quickly?

It might help to examine Prater’s comment to reporter AnnMarie Cornejo at the end of last Sunday’s story: “I can support it if it is doing great things for kids but not if it is at the expense of the whole.”

What exactly does that mean?

We know Teach is doing great things for its kids, but there remains a lurking argument that it’s not fair to offer certain opportunities to some kids and not all.

And yet it’s obvious that an accelerated track is not suitable for all kids — or even the majority.

So what is he getting at? Is this a legitimate argument or a smokescreen hiding something else?

What if it’s that Prater, Millar and others simply don’t like pulling some of the top students out of their neighborhood schools and aggregating them at a magnet campus, even if that campus serves its kids well?

Perhaps that reduction in the number of high performers hurts the test scores of the schools they came from. Surely those school principals have goals and targets to meet, linked to those test scores, right?

Suddenly, another possible motive becomes clear, and it’s one that on its face seems to focus less on kids and more on policy, funding and protecting turf.

This might seem like a cynical perspective, and certainly district leaders care deeply about educating children. But if a factor like this is even marginally true, it must be addressed openly as part of the debate.

The district ultimately could decide to dissolve the Teach campus while spreading the Teach model so that it is more broadly applied.

Prater hinted at this when laying out his thinking: “Is Teach School the best model to educate our most advanced learners. Are there alternative models that deserve consideration that might reach more students?”

But then, he immediately pivoted, to applause from the audience: “What if we find that Teach School is in fact the ideal model. ... If so, how do we find a more suitable and sustainable home for it?”

So it could go either way, although I do fear that a dispersal and dilution of the Teach methods could very well jeopardize the critical mass and energy necessary for longtime success.

That would be a shame.

In any case, the district has some work to do, and it can begin by rebuilding a dialog and trust with the Teach community.

Despite what some board members may think, transparency is a matter of perception, and you are only as clear as your partner in the conversation perceives you to be.

With that in mind, here’s hoping they embark on this task with open ears, open eyes and open minds.

Joe Tarica is the presentation editor for The Tribune. Reach him at jtarica@thetribunenews.com or follow @joetarica on Twitter.

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