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Five Years in, Cindy Marten Has Notched Some Successes at San Diego Unified But Black and Brown Students Still Struggle

Five years into San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten’s tenure, the district has moved the needle in some ways, floundered in others and at times behaved in ways that contradicted the “be kind, dream big” rhetoric on which Marten has staked her image. While districtwide test scores have risen, the achievement gap Marten pledged to tackle has gone virtually unchanged.

Cindy Marten

San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Superintendent Cindy Marten stepped into Kearny High’s auditorium in October 2013, ready to deliver her first state of the district address as superintendent of California’s second largest school district.

It was a momentous night, both for Marten and the five school board members who had sidestepped a public search and quietly chosen her.

Images of rainbows and smiling children scrolled across a screen as Marten described the school district she envisioned, one where every student had the ability to attend a quality school in their own neighborhood. The board had tasked her with making that goal a reality.

“Every problem that we have in the district, there is a solution already in place,” she said. “If not in one of our schools, at least in one of our classrooms.”

Marten’s job would be to take “the pockets of success” she already glimpsed and put them in place districtwide. When that happens, the thinking goes, families will realize they don’t have to look any further than their own backyards to find the answers they’re looking for.

Four months earlier, Marten called the same idea the school board’s “Wizard of Oz theory,” referring to the fact that trustees found their homegrown superintendent serving as principal of a predominantly low-income elementary school in City Heights.

As if to bring the point to life, Marten walked behind a lectern and stepped into a pair of ruby red slippers. She then took center stage and clicked her heels three times.

“There’s no place like home,” she said.

Five years later, the gains have been incremental and difficult to measure. There’s not a quality school in every neighborhood. Enrollment districtwide has declined. And about the same portion of parents are taking their kids across town as when Marten started.

The Vision

In several important ways, the stars aligned for Marten when she stepped into the role of superintendent.

Unlike many large urban districts, where political and ideological rifts lead to infighting between board members, San Diego’s school board was unanimous in choosing her, and walked in lockstep toward an overarching plan for the district – which they called Vision 2020.

California was shifting to Common Core State Standards, and with them, a new statewide assessment for students.

Along with that shift came a temporary reprieve from testing while the state developed a new assessment. And a new test meant there’d be no way to compare the academic progress under Marten to growth that happened under former superintendents.

And after years of recession-era budget cuts, the district’s financial picture seemed ready to brighten.

The same day Marten took the helm as superintendent, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a new way of funding schools, called the Local Control Funding Formula. It promised to send school districts more money and give them more discretion over how to spend it. San Diego voters had also approved a pair of construction bonds that would provide the district with more than $5 billion to spend on construction and technology.

School board president John Lee Evans announces Cindy Marten as the board’s pick to helm San Diego Unified. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Marten’s leadership would be an experiment that, if proven successful, would repudiate high-stakes testing and accountability-driven sanctions imposed by the federal government.

But after five years, the gains have been incremental and progress often difficult to measure.

Enrollment has continued to decline, expenses have outpaced increases in funding and year after year the board has stared down a budget shortfall that’s resulted in perpetual threats to cut programs, layoff notices and disruptions to special education services.

While districtwide test scores have risen slightly, mirroring scores statewide, the achievement gap Marten pledged to tackle at the outset has gone virtually unchanged.

Trustee John Lee Evans believes Marten has accomplished a great deal by making graduation rates more meaningful and intensely focusing on instruction. But her accomplishments can’t be boiled down to a single measure, he said.

“I know it’s so tempting to have some simple little score or measure of what’s going on, but it’s difficult to come up with that. I think it needs to be a lot of different measures,” said Evans.

There are a dozen ways to unpack the impact of a superintendent, including academic gains, a district’s financial health, transparency and parents and employees’ reported satisfaction.

We’ve taken a look at several of those metrics. Together, they tell a story of an administration that’s moved the needle in some ways, floundered in others and behaved in times of controversy in ways that contradicted the “be kind, dream big” rhetoric on which Marten has staked her image.

Parents Still Wary of Neighborhood Schools

About 10 years ago, district officials began to push back on the pervasive belief that parents needed to drive kids across town or load them onto buses if they wanted access to a solid education.

Busing was expensive, questionably effective and the burden of travel fell most heavily on students of color from low-income communities.

Besides, why shouldn’t every neighborhood have its own quality school, asked school board Trustee Richard Barrera?

Board members drafted a plan to do just that. And by 2013, they believed they found in Marten the perfect person to make it happen.

Marten and the board came up with 12 indicators that would define a quality school, things like quality teaching and leadership. If the reforms succeeded, a growing percentage of students would choose to remain in their assigned neighborhood schools.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

In the 2012-2013 school year, just over 44 percent of parents across the district chose to send their children to schools outside the neighborhood. By last year, according to data provided by the district, roughly the same percentage of families opted out of their neighborhood schools.

The percentage varies by geography, and is seen as a gauge of the confidence parents have in the schools closest to home.

In the affluent La Jolla Cluster, for example, 93 percent of students enrolled in their neighborhood schools last year, a number that’s been consistent with past years. In southeastern San Diego’s Lincoln cluster, by contrast, about 70 percent of neighborhood students opted out of the area high school.

Evans, often credited as the architect of the neighborhood schooling plan, said the goal isn’t as much about the numbers as it is about increasing the options parents want. To that end, the district has increased the number of dual-language programs, added new magnet schools and increased the number of career-preparatory programs.

“The ultimate goal is not that every kid attends their neighborhood school, but that students don’t have to leave the neighborhood because the school is not quality,” Evans said.

“I think we’re approaching the goal in the right way,” said Barrera. “There’s an easy way to keep more kids in neighborhood schools, and that’s to eliminate the choice program. But that’s the wrong way. The right way is to increase people’s confidence in their neighborhood school, and we’re already seeing that happen in places like Golden Hill and South Park. But it takes time to really see that percentage move,” he said.

Indeed, the board could have eliminated some choice options. But trustees also knew that doing so could cause a number of parents to simply leave the district. And while the district has kept the choice program alive, it’s also quietly slashed bus routes by nearly half and imposed financial burdens on families who rely on busing to attend schools outside their neighborhood.

Schools in certain areas have begun to attract the more affluent residents moving into the neighborhoods. But it’s hard to untangle whether those successes are attributable to the district, or to the parents and staff members at the schools themselves.

Barrera and other board members have held up McKinley Elementary as a model of a school that can be transformed when families invest in their neighborhood schools. Two years ago, when I asked what district leaders did to support that school’s success, Barrera said simply: “We didn’t mess with them.”

Test Scores Rise, But Gaps Remain Stagnant

In April, the release of scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a nationwide test that shows what students know in various subjects, brought a national spotlight to the district.

The results showed San Diego Unified to be the only large school district to make gains in fourth grade math and reading scores since 2015.

Marten touted the scores in a celebratory press release, and attributed the gains to the dedication of teachers. Meanwhile Mike Casserly, executive director for the Council of the Great City Schools, said San Diego Unified “blew the socks off” the test.

“The gains are evidence of, and testimony to, the serious academic work the school district has been doing over the last several years,” Casserly said.

But education policy expert Tom Loveless, former director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the NAEP results must be interpreted with caution.

“The NAEP is like a thermometer. It will tell you if you have a fever or not, but it won’t tell you why. That’s why you have to really exercise caution when politicians want to take credit for it,” he said.

Loveless said politicians on both the left on the right have long seized on the NAEP scores to make the case that the policies they support are working. The problem is that there’s no way to tease out whether scores are the result of federal, state or local policies, he said.

San Diego Unified made gains on the NAEP since 2015, but district scores on the test have also been rising steadily since 2000.

And while San Diego Unified outperformed other urban districts, it also has fewer students in poverty, and a smaller percentage of black students compared with other large urban districts, Loveless said. (The randomized samples of students who are tested match the demographics of the districts where they’re taken.)

A better measurement of the success of a superintendent’s reforms are generally scores on standardized tests, like the Smarter Balanced tests tied to the Common Core state standards, he said. So far, there’s only three years of data for that test to point to.

Between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, average test scores ticked up for students across the district. The most recent scores show 55 percent of students met or exceeded standards in language arts – a 4 percentage point rise over three years.

In math, scores went up 5 percentage points over the same period, from 41 percent of students meeting or exceeding standards to 46 percent.

But while the scores rose overall, the gaps in test scores between Latino and white students – as well as black and white students – remained largely stagnant, shrinking less than 1 percentage point in both subjects over three years of testing.

Last year, 68 percent of white students in San Diego Unified met or exceeded state standards in math while just 25.4 percent of black students did the same. Just over 17 percent of students with disabilities met or exceeded math standards.

District spokesperson Maureen Magee said Marten wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story, but said the superintendent recognizes the district still has much work to do in closing the achievement gap.

Magee pointed to the rising number of black students who completed college-prep classes, known as A-G courses, which are aligned with entrance requirements to University of California and California State University schools.

Rising graduation rates have been a sign of success Marten and school board members have often lauded.

The district’s class of 2016, the first class required to pass A-G courses in order to graduate, landed a record-high graduation rate of 91 percent.

The graduation rate was accomplished, in part, however, because a significant number of the lowest-performing students who weren’t on track to graduate left for charter schools before they completed their senior years – in some cases on the advice of district counselors.

District officials initially claimed departing students had no bearing on the rising graduation rate, but a study by UC San Diego researchers later confirmed that had students who transferred to charter schools remained in a San Diego Unified high school, the graduation rate would have dropped from 91 percent to around 80 percent.

Still, the percentage of graduates who earned a C or better in A-G courses rose for all students, from 49 percent to 56 percent between 2013 and 2017, which district officials consider proof that the graduation rate has not only improved, but that a San Diego Unified diploma is now more meaningful.

Black graduates who met college entrance requirements rose, too – from 39 percent to 50 percent over the same time period.

“We have seen progress in the rapidly rising levels of achievement among our African American high school students, who posted strong gains in completing their UC a-g coursework with a C or above average,” Marten said, through a spokesperson. “These results are proof that progress is possible, and we are confident other supports in place will help spread these gains throughout the system.”

But to others, progress for black students has been too little, and come far too slowly.

“I’m so tired of hearing district leaders pat themselves on the back and celebrating these incremental gains for African-American students,” said Wendell Bass, a former San Diego Unified principal who has served on the board of the Association of African American Educators.

In 2016, high school resource officer Cheryl Hibbeln incensed parents when she said during a meeting at Lincoln High that far too many students enter their freshman year reading at a second-grade level. But Bass said he saw the same trend when he was principal of Lincoln High 20 years ago.

“You made some improvements and 50 percent of our African-American students are ready for college. But how much failure is acceptable?” Bass said.

Anything for the Kids

In 2013, not long after Marten took the helm as superintendent, I had a conversation with former school board member Scott Barnett, in which we discussed the board’s decision to appoint Marten without seeking input from the community.

During his tenure, Barnett broke with the board majority on many issues. But not when it came to the decision to select Marten.

“Everything that Cindy does is for the kids,” Barnett said at the time. “She will work with you, sweet talk you, go around you, step over you or break your arm to get what she wants if she believes it’s in the best interest of children.”

Five years later, Barnett’s comment has taken on meaning he may not have intended.

To Barrera, who was the first to float Marten’s name as a candidate for superintendent, Marten is an educator who at her core believes every student can learn if teachers are supported and students are given the right set of strategies. Not only did Marten have the expertise to make that happen, she had the rhetorical talent for connecting with audiences.

“Cindy was incredibly articulate about why the approach [she took at Central] was effective, and why it worked, and that’s why I thought Cindy was the right person to lead our system. I saw not only somebody who knew what worked, but somebody who could articulate those strategies to the public. That’s why I’m still incredibly confident that we have the right person,” Barrera said.

In press conferences, interviews and state of the district addresses, Marten still speaks with the kind of flourish that inspires confidence.

But her actions haven’t always matched her public image. And educators and district-watchers have described a culture of fear and retaliation during her tenure that’s grown increasingly pervasive.

Earlier this year, administrators surveyed across the district described chaos brought on by staffing shortages. Many of the complaints related to unreasonably heavy workloads. But several described an atmosphere of fear and hostility that’s come from district leaders.

“This job is hard enough (without) feeling the added pressure of always wondering when the noose will fall around your neck. We shouldn’t be afraid to have opinions, be frustrated and want our voices heard,” one middle school principal said in the survey.

One former principal told us at the time she faced hostility from district officials after speaking with reporters – a claim consistent with the tone of emails sent by the district’s chief public information officer, Andrew Sharp. (Sharp, who Marten selected as chief PIO, twice joked about the murder of a VOSD reporter.)

Under Marten, the district has been slow to respond to questions from the public and members of the press. Last year, a court ruled San Diego Unified illegally withheld emails related to a VOSD investigation of former school board trustee Marne Foster. More recently, the district announced its plans to delete all emails older than a year.

And one case headed to trial next month involves allegations that Marten played a role in attempting to cover up sexual assault at an elementary school.

That case involves Michael Gurrieri, a former investigator for the school district who claims school officials removed incriminating details from a report he produced about an alleged sexual assault at Green Elementary to satisfy Marten’s desire to keep the principal employed.

Marten’s evasiveness during a deposition in the case stands in stark contrast to her stated commitment to accountability.

In response to a question from Gurrieri’s attorney about whether forced copulation on another student constitutes a “serious incident,” Marten answered: “It depends … I need to know all the facts before I would determine the seriousness of it.”

Marten is expected to take the stand after the trial begins on June 6.

Still Waiting to Get Lincoln Right

If increased focus on instruction and meaningful graduation rates are two of Marten’s biggest accomplishments, southeastern San Diego’s Lincoln High represents one of Marten’s biggest failures.

In 2013, Marten described Lincoln as a kind of symbol for the most significant challenges urban schools face across the nation. But she was optimistic her administration could move the needle.

“When we get Lincoln right, we get America right,” she said at the time.

Five years later, Lincoln teachers, students and parents are still waiting for that to happen.

Marne Foster, school board trustee Kevin Beiser and Superintendent Cindy Marten attend the first day of the 2014-2015 school year at Lincoln High. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Lincoln has seen four different principals in the five years Marten has been superintendent. District officials have restructured and rebranded the school multiple times, with little success.

At a school board meeting in late April, parents and students from Lincoln lined up to air their grievances to Marten and the school board.

Tanja Daniels, a parent of two teenagers at Lincoln, blasted Marten and the board for failing address ongoing violence at the school. Her cousin, Eileen Sofa, died recently, before a lawsuit she brought against the district could be resolved.

Sofa’s son, who has severe disabilities and is non-verbal, was the victim of a suspected rape at Lincoln High. Before her death, Sofa said school staff withheld from her the truth about the case – including the fact that the suspected perpetrator had admitted to police he sexually assaulted Sofa’s son.

One of Daniels’ sons, a junior at Lincoln, told the board he and his brother have been the target of harassment and assaults from other students since September – and that sometimes the violence happened in full view of staff and security guards. When he or his brother sought help from school staff, the concerns were met with indifference, he said.

“I don’t know why I’m talking to you. It’s not like you’re going to do anything about it anyway. Y’all don’t care about us,” the student said.

Trustees were forced to temporarily close down the meeting as members of the audience shouted “Shame! Shame!” at Marten and board members.

The complaints are glimpses into a larger systemic failure to address Lincoln’s shortcomings.

Last year, just over 10 percent of students at Lincoln met or exceeded state standards in math, and 26 percent did so in English. That was the lowest rate of proficiency in English of all district high schools and second lowest in math. More Lincoln students were suspended for violent incidents last year than any other high school in the district – and that’s not even counting the number of students who administrators have sent home informally.

Barrera, however, believes Lincoln is on the cusp of change. He said this is the first year Marten has taken a truly hands-on approach to improving instruction at Lincoln, embedding herself and members of team on campus weekly.

Marten is a true instructional expert, he said, and has tremendous ability to ignore criticism and stay focused on the work. But her strength has a related drawback, he said.

“That same quality of not getting distracted has also been one of her biggest challenges, because you’ve got certain people who don’t necessarily understand what Cindy understands, and they don’t feel like they’ve been brought into the process or feel ownership over the decisions,” Barrera said.

The idea that Marten’s reforms are not the problem – that the problem is instead the public’s inability to understand her work, is a claim district officials have made often.

I asked Barrera why, if Marten has had the tools to improve Lincoln all along, it has taken five years to do so.

“Lincoln is certainly a source of frustration for me,” Barrera said. “I think Lincoln has been incredibly divisive politically, and there are people who take positions sometimes with involvement at Lincoln, and sometimes with no involvement. And that’s created a political environment that’s made it very difficult for teachers to do just do their work,” he said.

But the divisiveness that Barrera points to isn’t isolated to Lincoln. A growing sense of resentment has emerged between Marten and segments of the black community who believe the superintendent has made decisions that show disregard for black students and parents.

Marten did away with a plan to boost the academic achievement of black children that was in place since 2010. She said the plan was outdated, and claimed that because it was never formally voted on by the Board of Education, it was never district policy.

She effectively dismantled the district’s race and human relations office, whose staff members had for years had led work focused on racial justice. In the process, the district lost black staff members who had institutional knowledge and ties to the community.

And she stopped meeting with advocates from the Association of African-American Educators, said LaShae Collins, a former president of the group, but continues to meet with members of other student-interest groups in the district.

The district, via a spokeswoman, sent this response on Marten’s behalf:

“Cindy Marten spent a decade teaching and leading in the diverse City Heights neighborhood. African-American students have made strong gains in the time Cindy Marten has served as superintendent. The achievement gap in terms of graduation rates has narrowed. College readiness – defined as having completed UC A-G courses with a C or better – has improved for African-American students at a rate that is four times greater in San Diego Unified than in the rest of the state – from 2015 to 2016 alone. Much remains to be done, but all San Diego Unified students, including African-American students, are making progress under Superintendent Cindy Marten.”

Bass, a former Lincoln principal, said race relations have been tense since of the beginning of Marten’s term, when she addressed a room full of black community members as “you people,” and said they were more interested in complaining than finding solutions. (The statement was independently corroborated by another person who attended the meeting. Marten did not respond to a request for comment.)

Decisions Marten has made in recent years, like removing black educators from leadership positions, or calling shots at Lincoln High without community input, haven’t eased tensions, Bass said.

“There’s always been a sense from her that only she and other district officials really know what’s best for the community,” Bass said.

To Bass, the story of San Diego Unified is a reflection of Marten’s leadership. With its relative affluence and safety, a large percentage of district students share in the district’s success. But beyond the bright spots, the students who have historically struggled in disadvantaged neighborhoods continue to languish.

And five years after Marten took the district’s top spot, he said, district leaders are still not moving with the urgency needed to address the gaps between the students who have always done well, and those who have not.

“You can’t read people’s hearts so I can’t say someone doesn’t care. But all I can do is go by people’s actions. And through the actions, and the fact that our black and brown children are still at the bottom, I have to believe that we have a district and a superintendent who doesn’t care about our African-American children,” Bass said.

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