Cindy Marten’s freshman year is almost over.
San Diegans have heard a lot about dreaming big since she took over as the city’s school chief on July 1, 2013. Has she turned dreams into reality in her first year on the job?
Marten convinced me early on that she was genuine when she said she wanted to improve education by putting students first. She’d done that at Central Elementary, where she was principal. As the unanimous choice of the school board, Marten had a mandate to carry out the vision she had established at Central throughout the district.
One thing is clear a year later: Running a struggling elementary school is a lot easier than leading a bureaucracy with 13,000 employees, 132,000 students and 226 schools. A superintendent can’t get to every PTA meeting or school performance. She needed to prioritize, so did she focus on the right priorities?
In her freshman year, Marten did several things right. Among the highlights:
• She wasn’t afraid to tackle some tough issues. She formed a focus group made up of regional law enforcement agencies and watchdog groups to find ways to keep children safe from abuse in school. She filmed a public service video  and met regularly with child welfare advocates and experts.
• She put in the time that the top job requires. She met with school leaders and district committee volunteers, often working seven days a week to tackle some of the district’s problems and listen to stakeholders’ ideas about solving them. She visited lots of schools, letting principals, teachers and students know she was watching and wouldn’t spend all of her time hunkered down at the district’s Normal Street headquarters.
• She has included community input in the teacher contract negotiations , asking that union leaders be open, respectful and mindful of the budget constraints the district is facing. She has promised to give periodic contract negotiation updates  to the public. She called for the inclusion of student and parent feedback on teacher performance.
• She has established a quality assurance office  to address complaints and concerns by parents, students and staff.
Even the district’s harshest critic has some praise for Marten. Sally Smith, a school district watchdog  best known for battling illegal student fees, said, “I do see incremental changes in the right direction.” But, Smith said, Marten is “getting pressure from all sides, and making child-focused decisions isn’t as easy as she thought. So far she’s done an admirable job of deflecting criticism, but it’s not going to last.”
Fran Shimp, a parent volunteer who has met regularly with Marten on issues affecting the La Jolla cluster of schools , said “my experience with Cindy is that whenever there’s an issue, she does what she can to resolve it.”
Marten took the top job in the state’s second largest school district at a time of upheaval in education. She quickly had to figure out how to navigate some big, immediate challenges:
• California changed the way its schools are funded  in an effort to get more money to help needy students. San Diego Unified has had to advocate for its fair share.
• Schools began the transition to align with Common Core state standards . The district had to choose curriculum, pilot a test and train teachers.
• Budget constraints continued, which led the district to offer a retirement incentive to get high-paid teachers off the payroll. Next year, there’s a $106 million budget shortfall  and a plan to sell more district-owned property.
Marten started the school year with a string of appearances where she shared her mantra: “Work Hard. Be Kind. Dream Big! No Excuses.” Nothing wrong with that, but I attended a few meetings during that time when parents were anxiously waiting to ask her specific questions about their schools or educational programs. There was not a two-way conversation going on. I talked to parents who were frustrated and teachers who wanted details, not warm and fuzzy catchphrases .
Lately, some complaints have mounted, especially from communities at struggling schools where reform-minded principals were making changes parents supported.
Parents from Field Elementary have spoken at the last three school board meetings about a teacher they say was physically abusive with students. Field’s principal, Yesenia Robinson, is currently on administrative leave, despite the fact that parents had complaints about a teacher, not about Robinson. The parents wanted Marten to explain why the teacher was still on the job, while the principal had been removed from her post.
Lincoln High School, which has seen shrinking enrollment even after the district spent $129 million rebuilding it, also has an administrator on leave. Some community members have lamented the loss of principal Esther Omogbehin , who had battled teachers and raised graduation rates.
The district recently unveiled a plan to launch a middle college program at Lincoln, hoping to win back students. But community member Edith Smith told the board recently that changes are coming too slowly and the kids who are enrolled there now won’t benefit. “I implore you to do what’s right for kids, not what feels good,” she told Marten.
Districtwide, there are four principals currently on administrative leave, and Marten hasn’t explained why.
Meanwhile, other school communities are calling for ineffective principals to be tossed out.
Marten has reorganized the district administration twice since she took over. Several veteran principals were moved into positions to help train new leaders. That’s a good idea, since lots of long-time principals retired last summer  when offered an incentive package.
Marten needs to model honesty and transparency in decision-making. As the leader, she needs to direct her staff that information needs to be openly shared – even if it reflects badly on the administration – so that the public can decide whether the district is making the right decisions on behalf of students.
The district has been reluctant to release negative information. For four months, I’ve asked for the results of a survey of parents regarding school choice . Parents were asked why they were choosing to send their children to a school other than their neighborhood school. Since I am still waiting, I am left to assume the results must reveal something embarrassing to the district.
The district has also been less than open about another survey, this one on school climate.
Data from the 2013 California School Climate Survey  and California Healthy Kids Survey was used to create the draft accountability plan required by the state. But the district included only the staff responses. It’s clear why: 92 percent of staff agreed that school is a safe place for students, but only 57 percent of ninth-graders agreed. When asked whether adults “really care about students,” 89 percent of staff members agreed, while only 31 percent of ninth-graders agreed.
Similarly troubling opinions about school climate were reported by seventh and 11th graders. Instead of manipulating data to appear more positive than it is, district officials should make it a priority to figure out why students don’t feel safe or cared about at school.
Other Bumps in the Road
The rollout of the district’s new online grade and class-tracking program, Power School, was an utter disaster. Counselors at some schools had their entire student schedules deleted and had to reassign students to classes only hours before the school year began. There was inadequate technical support for the program and there had been little training to prepare for the switch. Some students spent the first days of school in the lunch court because they had no scheduled classes to go to thanks to the massive glitch.
To be fair to Marten, the deal on the new software was signed before she took over, but the administration did not grasp how disruptive the system’s crash was in the first weeks of school, nor did it respond swiftly enough.
The end of the school year had its own bumps: Many substitute teachers were called  in to relieve teachers who were absent because of Common Core training. There was rarely a day in the last four months that my daughter didn’t have at least one substitute teacher. The quality of substitutes is highly variable. One math sub was vastly superior to her regular teacher, she said, but some others who filled in for a day here and there did nothing but show movies.
Teachers need training in Common Core and other professional development, but that need must be balanced with children’s limited instructional time and the reality that some substitutes simply can’t fill a teacher’s shoes.
The Vergara trial  – which recently found California teacher’s tenure rules unconstitutional – gives Marten an opportunity to negotiate the teacher’s contract  in a new climate. Without the last-in, first-out constraints, parents are going to expect for her to find a way to keep and reward the most effective teachers, regardless of seniority.
My children, and all San Diego students, deserve a quality education, every day and in every class. That hasn’t happened this year. I don’t blame Marten for the many things that are beyond her control. It has not been an easy year to take on the job, and I commend her for being brave enough to accept the challenge. But this next year, she needs to recommit herself to the ideal of putting students first and holding accountable the adults who don’t prioritize children’s best interests.