The Learning Curve: Sweetwater Students Know a Crisis When They See One - Voice of San Diego

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

The Learning Curve: Sweetwater Students Know a Crisis When They See One

Superintendent Karen Janney insists the district is not in a financial crisis. The teens who’ve lost their laptops and bus transportation disagree.

Kimberly Gonzalez addresses district officials at San Ysidro High School on Aug. 15. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

I’m assuming the readers of this newsletter are fairly familiar with the fiscal debacle of Sweetwater Union High School District — the second largest school district in San Diego County and home to roughly 40,000 students in the South Bay. 

If so, you’ll remember the district very suddenly came up $30 million short last September. (It is currently being investigated for fraud by multiple agencies.) Since then, the district has lost hundreds of employees, taken away teacher planning time, reduced summer school and after school programs, and cut transportation and technology — all to right the ship. 

But to many students, the ship does not feel right. It feels like an overloaded ferry that, quite literally, will not deliver them to where they need to go. Many bus routes have been eliminated at one school.

On Aug. 12, Superintendent Karen Janney attempted to address these concerns in front of the public. First, she pointed her finger at the San Diego County Office of Education for acting in a way that she believes is hostile to the district. (The county ed office has some oversight authority of Sweetwater and recently disapproved its budget.)

Then she painted a picture of hard work and collaboration over the past year. “The truth is we listened to our staff and community and took action to right the course with the least disruption to students,” she said. “The truth is we are not in crisis right now!”

Three days later, students — who began protesting when 20 out of 22 bus routes were cut at San Ysidro High School — got a chance to confront district officials. 

About a dozen students gathered in San Ysidro’s auditorium to meet with three school district representatives. They laid into the officials for the slashed bus routes, increased fees and reductions in technology, which have led seniors to go without laptops. They also responded to Janney’s speech. 

“I have to wonder what she considers a disruption to students?” asked Kimberly Gonzalez, a junior at San Ysidro. “We ask if she considers the removal of 20 bus routes all going to low-income and minority communities a disruption to students? Is an uphill 3.5 mile walk not a disruption for students?” 

Gonzalez went on to slam the district for taking away the laptops from seniors who need them to apply for college and fill out financial aid forms. She also referenced cuts to special education at her school. (District officials maintain they have not made any cuts to special education.) 

“The biggest surprise is Janney’s words on the non-existent crisis at our school district,” Gonzalez said. “If as Janney states, ‘We are not in a crisis right now,’ are these actions not disruptions but simply the true face of a school district that refuses to put their students first over their salaries. If we are not in a crisis, we demand our resources be returned.”  

Multiple investigations have shown high-level officials knew Sweetwater’s budget was in danger long before the $30 million hole came to light last September. State investigators have even said some officials took steps to conceal the budget problems. Throughout it all, Janney has refused to say what she knew and when. The students are now demanding — whether she knew the budget was in trouble or not — she be held accountable for the current cuts. 

They also demand a meeting with Janney. As of Thursday, they haven’t heard back. 

State Pulls Back on Ethnic Studies, San Diego Unified Goes Forward

After the draft of a statewide ethnic studies curriculum was panned from both the left and right, state officials decided to make revisions and slow up its implementation. 

But San Diego Unified School District’s new ethnic studies program (it is a different curriculum) is still going forward. 

Last spring, San Diego Unified decided on its own to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement for local high schoolers by 2022. And when the school year begins on Monday, students will have access to courses that meet the requirement. 

A handful of courses will fly under the actual ethic studies banner. But students will meet the requirement in separate English and history courses, which have an ethnic studies element baked in. The history course is called “Identity and Agency in U.S. History,” said district spokeswoman Maureen Magee. 

What I’m Reading… This Weekend

  • I will be thrilled to finally sit down and read the New York Times Magazine’s megaproject about the year 1619 this weekend. That’s the year that slaves were first brought to the United States and, as Nikole Hannah-Jones reflects, “No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed.”
  • What’s especially exciting, though, is that the Pulitzer Center created a curriculum for educators to help incorporate the 1619 project into their classroom teaching. If you’re a teacher in San Diego that plans to use the curriculum, please reach out to me. I’d love to hear your plans!

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