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The Learning Curve: San Diego Unified Addresses Problems at Porter Elementary, Kind Of

At a school board meeting this week, San Diego Unified discussed Porter Elementary, which is under fire for safety and special education issues. But there was a big disconnect between the rosy presentation and the experience of parents and employees at the school.

Porter Elementary School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Porter Elementary School – a place where the majority of people are undoubtedly trying their very hardest – persistently struggles to do right by its students. It is on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools, because of its high absenteeism, high suspension rate and abysmal test scores. Eight other traditional public schools in San Diego Unified School District are also on the list.

We’ve been exploring the problems at Porter through the eyes of several families and a school counselor, who all agreed the school is unsafe and denying special education services to children who should receive them.

After an hour-long discussion at this week’s San Diego Unified school board meeting, which involved community members, district staffers and the local NAACP – which has for months been trying to get answers on the situation at the school – Porter seems to be quickly becoming a symbol for the district’s inability to provide safety and alleviate the achievement gap at a handful of schools.

On Tuesday, board trustees discussed the problems we’ve raised about Porter – or some of them, anyway. District staff brought up strategies they are using to improve school safety, but never addressed the charge they are denying special education services. A 25-minute presentation, full of buzzwords and synergy-infused jargon, was more often unintelligible than enlightening.

Porter Principal Graciela Chavez and Area Superintendent Bruce Bivens continually referred back to a new mantra for the school: “Porter is a safe, collaborative and inclusive culture.” Several community speakers, after the presentation, savaged the idea that this was the true reality of Porter’s campus.

Their presentation also offered new safety data, as well as two specific classroom strategies for improving the school. The safety data, which came from a student survey, showed that a full 30 percent of students did not feel safe in the classroom last school year.

“We can assume from this trend data unless we inject different strategies … this data will continue,” Bivens said.

But the presentation suggested Bivens and Chavez have no plans for new strategies, at the moment. They implemented reforms at the beginning of the school year, they said, and plan to see them through.

For instance, the campus instituted the Sanford Harmony curriculum in its classrooms, Chavez said. That curriculum focuses on social and emotional well-being. It involves check-ins with students at the beginning and end of class to see how they are feeling. Chavez noted that most of her students live in poverty and many have experienced trauma. Without getting the emotional piece right, academics is impossible, she said.

It all sounds great. But accounts from parents and the school’s counselor directly contradict the idea that Porter has created a healthy campus. Some have reported the campus is unclean. And others say many of the adults on campus look mean and unhappy to be there. One mother reported it was almost impossible to get her son to go to school, after bullying he endured.

A science teacher did come to the podium during public comment to say that she had not trusted the Sanford Harmony curriculum at first, but she believed it was now slowly beginning to work.

Chavez also highlighted a program where students who are “caught doing the right thing” are rewarded with prizes. But positive reinforcement sounds more like standard best practice than a specific strategy to help alleviate the oppressive burdens of poverty.

Bivens and Chavez also pointed to a “student-centered coaching cycle” for math the school has been implementing. The specifics of this program were unclear, but it involves pre- and post-instruction testing to help understand how much students are learning throughout the school year.

Again, this is standard best practice that San Diego Unified has highlighted throughout the district.

My main takeaway from the presentation is that district officials are unable to answer community members’ questions in ways that are candid and understandable. Take this word pile-up from Bivens, which presumably was meant to reassure people on the progress at Porter:

In the process of teaching into, learning from and building a culture of focus around academics and student supports among our educators at Porter, we are seeing evidence take hold on campus with this foundational initiative that supports the building of a safe, collaborative and inclusive culture – a level one high priority in becoming a high reliable school for learners and for families at Porter.

I won’t even try to translate that for you. But if anyone knows what it means, feel free to let me know.

Superintendent Cindy Marten “brings in the presentation so you can pretend like something is going on,” Francine Maxwell, a community member, told board members Tuesday. “We love to throw out the strategic words. We know how to wordsmith in this community.”

Board trustees did acknowledge the disconnect between the presentation and the perspective of many community members Tuesday. Some asked for more data and to be updated on Porter’s progress in the future. Trustee John Lee Evans said that if the district’s plan for having a quality school in every neighborhood is working, no schools should show up on the state’s lowest-performing list.

As the discussion wrapped up, Board President Sharon Whitehurst-Payne tried to answer Evans. “Overall, all of the schools that are on the list … in fact, every school has a plan, I understand, right?” she asked, looking at Marten. “So, the schools that are on the bottom, they definitely have a plan,” Whitehurst-Payne said, answering her own question.

What I’m Reading

What We’re Writing

  • Escondido Union School District officials changed the names of some special education teachers, so they could get around a state-mandated cap on student-teacher ratio, according to a Department of Education lawsuit. A judge agreed with the state, according to documents obtained by Voice of San Diego.
  • A state report blasted San Diego Unified School District for serious flaws in its English-learner program, according to other documents we managed to find. The district frequently promotes how well it does helping EL students transition into English proficiency, but the report noted the district may not be sticking to a high enough standard when it moves a student out of English-learner status.
  • Following our reporting on Porter Elementary School, which revealed serious safety concerns, three leaders from the NAACP tried to tour the campus. They were told they couldn’t see the school.
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