III. Implementing Vision 2020 and LCFF

A. Reimagining how SDUSD can support school sites

As part of a $124 million dollar budget cut last year (2017–2018), the district continues to reorganize central office staffing and school-site resources. Part of the district’s reorganization has allowed the central office staff to be more closely involved in monitoring course offerings available to students at the 22 secondary sites, working in coordination with all six local area superintendents. A monitoring process includes developing systems that allow schools to share course offerings. In many cases, this new level of transparency has resulted in eliminating any courses that aren’t approved as “A-G.” Monitoring course offerings represents a new function of the district, compared to the past when raising graduation rates was the primary focus of SDUSD. School counselors are also key leaders in this new focus.

Importance of School Counselors

Like local area superintendents, central office resource counselors now find themselves in a revitalized role—coaching principals and lead counselors in the process of designing master schedules with an emphasis on improving access to more challenging coursework. While this isn’t new, the attempt to establish common practices around master scheduling is a recent development. Their work is also intended to support coherent scheduling goals between assistant principals and principals. Schedules are also being developed with the academic, social and emotional well-being of students in mind. Francesca Del Carmen-Aguilar, Principal at San Diego High School, describes further: “The counselor in knowing the whole child has a very impactful, powerful knowledge of what the students need in the classroom related to behavior, related to the dynamics that happen at home, related to the mental health of our students and how we can better approach that.”

The unique expertise that school counselors bring to the table to strengthen education leadership across the districts allows more staff to coordinate upstream if students are struggling or off track academically.

Student-Centered Coaching

Underlying a clear focus on quality instruction across the district is a belief that the way students experience learning has to fundamentally change from a passive to an engaging activity. This is also mirrored in the way adults in the district are trying to “learn by doing” through new types of professional development opportunities. Such an endeavor requires more technical support and guidance from expert teachers and a willingness from school site teams to test out new classroom strategies. It also demands that teachers, principals, and district leaders observe more classrooms and model new ways of learning for students and adults in the district.

Aligned with this idea, the district has also adopted centrally supported student-centered coaching that targets particular grade levels and content areas across the district. This allows for site instructional coaches to have additional support from the district central office, and to establish greater coherence in common practices across school sites. Teacher-to-teacher coaching across the 22 secondary schools has taken shape with 80 secondary teacher leaders from English, Math, Science and History teachers at the high school level and over 20 middle school teachers. Site visits and coaching include integrated teams of classroom teachers and central office resource teachers (Office of Language Acquisition, Special Education, Common Core and Math) in which teams set targets for students based on data, state standards and curriculum to ensure student targets are met. Vice principals and principals also often attend trainings and site visits.

Wendy Ranck-Buhr, Instructional Support Officer, explains:

It gives them [school leadership teams] a rare opportunity to not just plan out units and instruction, but also share ideas across each of the sites.

This strategy has begun to address what local area superintendent Kimie Lochtefeld describes as SDUSD’s previous “curriculum chaos.” Mixed results no longer characterize the district as it pursues a new level of coherency in terms of student learning experiences and readiness.

B. Fostering stronger collaboration across the district

In order to allow staff more direct connection to site-based instructional practices, the district eliminated the position of Chief Academic Officer. While it was a budgetary decision to eliminate the position, Supt. Marten wanted to shorten the distance between her cabinet and the teaching and learning taking place at each of the six local area districts. Her logic was that shortening the gap between classroom practices and district decisions would mean fewer staff, but also give her a more realistic sense of the type of education being delivered across each of the 200 campuses.

Local Area Superintendent Collaboration

Local area superintendents have taken on much more than site visits under a new vision for how leadership can support school growth for students with the greatest needs. Area superintendents now meet with executive leadership weekly and plan all secondary principal professional development together. They have a well-established professional learning community, something that doesn’t exist in many large urban districts. In some instances, this has required difficult conversations about how to build stronger connections within schools between adults or from adults to students to advance a clear learning agenda.

High School Area Superintendent Sofia Freire articulated the power of a well-calibrated superintendent’s team from all six local districts—to build off each other’s expertise, but also to move towards more consistent practices around instructional quality and student achievement. Freire explains how common practices and strategies have benefited the district without limiting the ability of principals and teachers to engage in powerful work at each of the school sites to meet student needs.

I get the impression that before this team was developed and before our superintendent was here, that there were six superintendents. They were just functioning and doing their own thing with their set of principles. For us, we’re all doing the exact same thing. Our feedback to principals is on the exact same form. Our expectations are the same. We speak the same language.

The very nature of conversations has changed between the six area superintendents, especially as they have spent more time together at school sites. Instead of focusing on compliance with district mandates as may have been the focus in the past, area superintendents are focused on ensuring that evidence of student learning shows up in the data at each school site. Throughout the district, there’s a focus on using student data to drive the equity work. As Mitzi Merino, Area 5 Superintendent, explains, their functions as district leaders have been transformed.

We changed what we did by putting our eyes on students and their experiences. We changed what the leaders did; we changed what the teachers did; and we started having the conversations about if that’s really it. What can we do differently in our lesson plan tomorrow?

The importance of strong, collaborative leadership that now characterizes SDUSD’s area superintendents is essential to implementing the ambitious vision for the district across over 200 school sites, especially at the secondary level. However, principal and teacher leadership still determine whether the district is able to address pervasive inequities that continue to exist at many SDUSD school sites and surrounding communities.

C. Empowering principals and teacher leaders to lead site-level implementation of detracking

SDUSD has made a conscious effort to breathe new life into school site leadership with principals who are passionate about the district’s vision, either by promoting instructional experts from within the system or by recruiting administrators from outside the district. Two-thirds of principals are new to their school site or new to leadership within the last five years. Consequently, many principals are just beginning to gain the trust of their school site teams and implementing new practices.

Principals are encouraged to examine whether tracking is evident in access to gateway courses (e.g., Mathematics, English) for students of color, especially early on in a child’s education. With that comes its own pressures of administrators trying to figure out how to execute an ambitious detracking agenda and change the mindsets of staff to raise their expectations for all students. This is especially hard to accomplish at some school sites that have struggled to provide an enriching and supportive learning environment for many years. Jason Babineau, Principal of Hoover High, describes how, as a new administrator, it can be difficult to notice immediate victories.

There’s been a certain way of doing things that, this equity-driven purpose toward education — which seems like it should’ve been the case forever. It seems a bit more foreign, and we have to change the paradigm and mindsets of entire staff. And so, there is urgency from the district office to do it right now, and it takes time to shift paradigm of entire staff.

So there is a pressure. I feel that pressure, because I want to make it happen right now, as well, because I want to see the benefit of it. It takes some time to build relationships to be able to have that difficult conversation and to move practice in a way that’s best for all kids.

School Site Implementation

Principals like Babineau aren’t asked to take on changing school culture and climate alone. Like area superintendents, principals in the district meet more regularly than they have in the past to help improve communication across school sites and to solidify a common leadership vision for the district. Additionally, there is an expectation that each site principal develop site-level strategic plan. They also participate in district-sponsored Principal Institutes and Leadership Labs, provided content aligned to the areas identified in strategic plans. Site leaders are provided planning time to reflect on the new learning as they consider the adjustments necessary, based on the context of their schools and the needs of their students.

Establishing common practices around school leadership is becoming a stronger emphasis as well. This includes sharing strategies for closer alignment in course offerings, student engagement, instruction and assessments. Additionally, principals engage in monitoring meetings with their colleagues. Through the guidance of their Area Superintendents, monitoring meetings provide the opportunity for principals to share best practices, challenges and strategies to ensure successful implementation of their strategic plans and the impact on student outcomes in relation to the standards.

School site principals are keeping a laser focus on student achievement, regardless of regular questions about the budget.

Marshall Middle School Principal Michelle Irwin captured the relationship between access to course offerings and student success as schools try to move from a tracking, proficiency and factory school model to a detracking and student mastery agenda in which expectations are high for each and every student.

We had a speaker last year who said something that really resonated with me. We need to make sure that opportunities precede achievement as opposed to achievement precedes opportunity. So as a middle school group we really pushed that this year. So, we have an appeal process [for courses] now.

Administrators and educators have to be sure that existing practices in the school don’t reinforce or replicate achievement differences. Homework can be one of those practices that don’t reflect a focus on mastery but can remain an untouchable habit. In fact, homework can replicate inequities in achievement based on a student’s ability to do high quality work outside of school (Simon et al., 2007).

One site administrator draws his own connections between homework practices, mastery and meaningful learning, rather than the simple task completion that dominated his school in the past. He shared that it has taken his staff eight years to be comfortable with rethinking the purpose of homework. Grading is a central part of the change equation as well.

Now we’re grading on can you meet this standard; not did you do the 100 pages of homework for the last 100 days. It’s can you score well on this test? Now if you did the homework most likely you’re going to be able to do well on that test, and there’s lots of ways we’re giving support for students to come in for that extra support and so forth if they aren’t understanding the homework. Now we look at homework as practice as opposed to a must, a requirement.

Improving home-school connections, especially for incoming students, is something that another administrator has emphasized as a way to establish trust between caretakers and schools. These relationships can help alleviate fears that parents may have of their child taking more rigorous coursework, or allow for them to ask questions about how they can take more proactive steps in the education of their children.

Every student has had a home visit and we’ve been able to make that home-school connection. That was huge: to walk into their house, talk to their family, ask for a tour. They’d show you their room, you’d see the crazy posters on their wall and things like that, that’s that connection. That’s the key piece.

Opening the Path to Education Opportunity

In addition to closer school-family connections, there are also many deliberate changes feeder middle schools and elementary schools can utilize to reshape the educational trajectory of students. It has been well documented that a student’s academic trajectory in Mathematics can begin as early as elementary school (Zarate & Gallimore, 2005). Many students enter their ninth-grade mathematics coursework underprepared and experience difficulty in making sense of key algebraic concepts that are typically taught in grades six and seven (California Department of Education, 2013). In addition to lack of preparation for high-level mathematics, many students are not tracked for college-level coursework.

SDUSD school sites are looking to eliminate these historical patterns. Instead, key educational pipeline points are where Marshall Middle School principal Michelle Irwin explains her school is not letting traditional measures track or determine the ability of her students.

Through the middle school principal group this year, we’ve really pushed the idea of allowing more students to be placed in an accelerated math pathway. Let’s allow for students and parents to appeal the decision based on this math placement test.

D. Pursuing immediate ways to improve student access through technical fixes or strategies (e.g., master scheduling, reclassification processes, grade inflation)

In the midst of big, structural changes to the district, SDUSD has focused on finding immediate ways to address pervasive patterns of inequality, especially for the high-need student populations LCFF was signed into law to support. Many of these patterns became evident through the central office equity audit process.

Master Schedules

Careful reexamination of master scheduling and course sequencing, along with reclassification for English Language Learners, may not sound like headline educational change material. However, a very deliberate focus on these organizational practices has begun to yield positive results. As long-time educator and now Chief of Staff for SDUSD, Staci Monreal stated, “Master schedules and student scheduling were either providing opportunities or acting as gatekeepers to opportunities—English Learners, special education students and students whose math skills were lower.”

Master schedules represent an untouched vehicle for equalizing course access and improving opportunity in the district. SDUSD had an in-house expert Jeff Thomas, Operations Specialist, who had already tested out new master schedule tools while working at one of the school sites. Using that experience, he and the central office helped systemize ways for preventing students from being eliminated from learning opportunities based on the design of the scheduling system. (See Appendices A and B.) Course sequencing, a key component of master schedules, has also played a role in preventing mostly low-income students of color from completing prerequisite courses required for some Advanced Placement courses in the appropriate order. That is no longer the case, as Jeff Thomas explains:

For Advanced Placement (AP) Biology, they said you had to have Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry, and they wanted Advanced Placement (AP) Biology in 11th grade. That was the 11th-grade course. You had to have Chemistry before you had that, because they said that’s one of the prerequisites. Well that wasn’t in the sequence to have it that way. So kids that were from the Tierrasanta area where Serra is, which is relatively upper middle class, mostly white, they knew that hidden sequence from an early age, so when they were in middle school, they could prep for that. But if you came from one of our schools that we bused in kids, mainly the Hoover area, City Heights, those kids came in and they didn’t know about this pathway to a class. And I say hidden, but it really … you had to know about it. It wasn’t publicized.

Close oversight of the master schedule process was initially met with resistance. Some of this resistance was related to the pressure to eliminate courses that weren’t preparing students for a college- and career-readiness track. In some instances, doing so required schools to reassign classes to new instructors or presented a need to justify keeping some staff who didn’t have the capacity to teach higher-level courses. Christina Casillas, Roosevelt Middle Principal, elaborated on how master scheduling has helped guide and anchor the work of her instructional team to not lose sight of the relationship between master schedules and student achievement. Both middle and high schools have participated in a rich process of reviewing master schedules.

This topic of experiences and conditions is something that we have engaged our staff around specific to how we design a master schedule. I brought up my guiding questions as I’m working with our instructional leadership team throughout the year. One, will students in our focus master schedule help us improve the achievement of all of our students? And then reflecting upon our current structures, are we providing an experience aligned to our vision for all students or just some? Looking at our master schedule in its current form, along with our data, is our master schedule structured to maximize learning opportunities for all students, responsive to student needs and what can we do differently?

Scheduling and School Counselors

A closer look at course schedules has also required school counselors to reevaluate scheduling practices. This is especially true for secondary counselors, who often are given an overwhelming amount of responsibility to determine an appropriate course load for students and respond to student social and emotional needs in a stressful time of their academic career. Sometimes, however, secondary counselors can reinforce inequities as “gatekeepers” of access and opportunity, assigning students low-level coursework or an unchallenging academic load. In these instances, principals may be reluctant to question the decisions of their school counseling staff. Sofia Freire, High School Area Superintendent, says more: “Many secondary counselors have applied a ‘poor you’ approach to student scheduling and master schedule development, as many of them are the master schedule designers. This has been further complicated by school leaders who may see these inequities but choose to avoid upsetting the apple cart over strategically confronting these challenges.” The judgements of school counselors aren’t the only factors that can determine whether or not students are on an A-G college track. However, they are key decision-makers for the district as the trick works to aggressively remove student tracking practices.

Language Reclassification and A-G Readiness

SDUSD serves over 24,000 students learning a second language. More than 60 dialects are spoken. Standardized assessments or processes like reclassification for English Language Learners have the ability to limit education options and opportunities. Reclassifying ELLs can allow students more opportunities to benefit from a college-ready track. That’s why SDUSD has begun to reconsider the process for how they reclassify English Language Learners. The district hopes to eliminate a bottleneck of students who no longer need additional language development support and would benefit from a different pathway.

SDUSD has overhauled their management processes for determining reclassification eligibility and systematized the administration of the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) assessments and results. Under the new system, 100 percent of eligible students are considered for reclassification. School site leadership teams and local area superintendents can monitor the reclassification process through a live database to see whether they are reaching annual reclassification goals. This allows local sites to be less dependent on central office personnel for guidance with the reclassification process.

Sandra Cephas, Director of the Office of Language Acquisition (OLA), explains SDUSD’s new process for managing language reclassifications.

We provide ELPAC data to the area superintendent every month during the reclassification window. We now know exactly how many [ELLs] are eligible for reclassification. So, because of this focus on reclassification and ensuring that the students are eligible or not falling through the cracks, it has ensured that students who are eligible for reclassification are getting classified, which was something that wasn’t happening before.

If students aren’t reclassified, there are now safeguards in place to position students well for the next assessment. Getting these systems in place has been difficult. However, there are now more existing structures for monitoring progress for ELLs with shared accountability for staff at all levels of district leadership. And the results have been significant, something we’ll summarize in the next section.

Not only is the reclassification process different, the district has also restructured the role of English Language Instructional Resource Teachers (formerly English Language Support Teachers) who are experts in evidence-based practices around language acquisition. In previous years, OLA focused heavily on reporting or “compliance” for ELL progress, as required by state and federal law. They did very little to help build the capacity of school sites with growing numbers of ELLs.

OLA now devotes its activities to not only reporting, but also coaching, working closely with school sites. Ms. Cephas leads a team of 43 English Language development coaches who are organized by grade-level spans: PreK–2, grades 3–5, 6–12, and a small group of coaches who specialize in models of dual language and biliteracy. Another core part of the OLA team focuses heavily on the development of state-standards-aligned curricula to allow for some uniformity across grade levels and school sites.

Many students learning English as a second language already arrive in schools knowing a second or third language. However, the district has historically offered a limited number of options for assessing the existing language skills of students. It became imperative for the district to offer more Language Other than English (LOTE) tests to meet students’ needs for languages other than Spanish and French.

That’s just what SDUSD did. The district expanded the LOTE assessments from three (Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali) to 27 for multilingual students to meet the A-G foreign language graduation requirement. For students learning a second language, this allowed many to start down an A-G readiness path, radically changing their educational trajectory. As evident in the data (Section IV), the number of students taking and passing the LOTE and thus becoming A-G eligible has increased significantly for languages other than Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali.