April 12, 2002

Sherman Elementary Shoots for the Stars: Petitions to Go Charter

By Yvette tenBerge

Students from Sherman Elementary.

During the week the national education community will celebrate charter schools (April 29 through May 3), the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) board will have the chance to turn the dreams of the majority of the teachers, parents and students at Sherman Elementary School, located at 450 24th Street in Sherman Heights, into reality.

For more than two years, a group of the school’s teachers and staff have labored over a proposal that would grant them the right to navigate their own course. Sherman Elementary, one of the district’s lowest scoring schools on state mandated tests, would become The Sherman Science and Technology Charter School (SSTCS) - a public learning center that many believe will completely turn the school around.

Susan Brinchman, a 24-year teacher who serves as a Resource Specialist at the school, is a member of the Sherman Charter Committee. She estimates that the ten person committee made up of seasoned teachers and staff members has spent “thousands of hours” planning the charter school. She crosses her fingers in hopes that the district will approve the proposal.

“We believe that Sherman Heights and greater San Diego area students will benefit a great deal from a comprehensive elementary school education that emphasizes science and technology while building strong literacy skills,” says Ms. Brinchman. “Every child deserves to have a challenging, motivating education.”

As outlined in the charter petition, the curriculum for SSTCS will be based on California State Standards, a rigorous set of standards to which all California students are now held and on which they are tested annually. Technology and science will be em-phasized,and study field trips and hands-on learning encouraged.

SSTCS will “continue to follow current district guidelines on biliteracy, bilingual education, sheltered English immersion and mainstream English cluster programs for English Language Learners.”

Since the nation’s first charter school opened its doors in 1992, more than 2,400 other such schools have joined the ranks. These charter schools are public schools that come into existence through a contract with either a state agency or a local school board. This contract, called a charter, establishes a framework within which the school will operate.

Although a charter gives a school the power to oversee its own operation and frees the school from regulations that other public schools must follow, the level of accountability that these schools face is high. These schools are responsible for achieving the goals originally set out in the charter, and they must improve student performance.

Student Statistics:

Framed black and white photos of the nearly all-white classes of the early 1900s hang on a wall in the entrance hall to Sherman Elementary. Since that time, the demographics and the economics of the community have undergone dramatic changes.

Eighty four percent of Sherman’s students are Hispanic, five percent are African American, eight percent are Caucasian and three percent are Asian, Native American or Filipino. Seventy five percent of the student population is made up of English Language Learners, and close to 100 percent of Sherman’s 878 students are on free or reduced lunch programs.

The charter petition paints a picture of the “typical” Sherman Heights family, a family that is “Latino with the parents working one or more jobs and spending as much as 75 percent of their monthly income on rent. Many other families are homeless or near homeless.” The school serves families living in the five shelters located in the neighborhood, as well as those living in motels and garages.

In January of 2000, the San Diego Association of Governments estimated that the median household income for a resident of Sherman Heights was less than $20,000, compared to $45,041 for the city as a whole.

Georgia Malcolm is Sherman Elementary’s Educational Psychologist, and the Director of a program called Colaborativo SABER, an eight-year-old initiative that has created a system of social support, health education and wellness promotion for Sherman Heights’ children and families. She stresses that all of the community will have a say in how the SSTCS is run.

“We believe in total collaboration and feel that all major stakeholders should be included in the decision-making process,” says Ms. Malcolm, who states that the Shared Decision Making Team, comprised of representatives from administration, classroom teachers, staff, parents and community members, will be the “seat of power” and will report to the school board. “This would bring the school under local control.”

Academically, Sherman ranked in the lowest decile compared to all other schools in the state for 2001. However, compared to other state schools with similar characteristics, it ranked five out of 10. Although the Sat 9 scores in reading, language and math increased from 1998 to 2000, scores for reading and language increased only slightly between 2000 and 2001. Math scores dropped by seven percent.

Research Supports Charters:

Despite the fact that the district has had little luck in bringing either the academic performance of Sherman’s students or the state of it’s classrooms up to par with those of schools in wealthier neighborhoods, the recently published results of a California State University, Los Angeles study shows that going charter may be the answer.

The study, by Cal State L.A. education faculty members Simeon P. Slovacek and Antony J. Kunnan Hae-Jin Kim, was released in March 2002 and found that: “low-income, at-risk students” showed “greater improvements in California’s charter schools than in their non-charter counterparts.” Researchers analyzed three years of California’s Academic Performance Index (API) data (1999, 2000 and 2001) for charter and non-charter schools, as well as measuring other characteristics.

The study concluded that California charter schools are doing a “better job of improving the academic performance, as measured by API, of California’s most at-risk students,” and that student achievement, as measured by API, in California’s low-income charter schools is “improving at a faster rate” on average.

The Academic Performance Index (API) measures the academic performance and progress of schools. The API is the “cornerstone” of the Public Schools Accountability Act, a 1999 law that authorized the establishment of the first statewide accountability system for California public schools.

“The State of Charter Schools 2000 ­ Fourth Year Report,” which the U.S. Department of Education released in January 2000, cites the three most common reasons that a school petitions to become a charter school as: to realize an educational vision, to gain autonomy, and to better serve a specific population.

The report lists the most common reasons that parents enroll their children in charter schools and that teachers choose to teach in them as: high academic standards, small class sizes, innovative approaches, or educational philosophies in line with their own.

Sherman as SSTCS:

Genaro Borbon has children who attend Sherman Elementary and has been a teacher there for seven years. He is among the more than 60 percent of teachers who signed their names to the petition to go charter and states that his reasons for supporting the initiative go back to the days when Sherman seemed to have more to offer their students.

“My children are here because, at one time, Sherman had a very comprehensive-type curriculum. My children studied literacy, science, arts and computer technology,” says Mr. Borbon, who admits that Sherman’s computer labs have been closed for one year and that the science labs are “collecting dust.” “There is no reason why our children cannot receive everything that they deserve.”

Since Superintendent Bersin’s “Blueprint for Student Succes” came to town, the majority of the day for many students, especially those designated as “low-performing,” is spent in two and three hour literacy and math blocks. This leaves little time for science, arts, computer technology and other “extras” that have traditionally served as motivators for students.

Laura Norris is a Sherman Elementary parent and Co-Chair of Sherman Elementary’s Shared Decision Making Team. She confirms that the elimination of the computer lab was a “big issue” with the parents and community and states that she has problems with the fact that her son, who has been classified as “gifted,” is in classes that are literacy focused.

“These classes are not up to his level. He needs computers, science and more challenges,” says Ms. Norris, who claims that many of Sherman’s students are in school for as many as 10 hours a day, due to the specially designated early morning math and reading classes, and after-school classes. “Despite these hours, many of these kids are not making progress.”

Ms. Norris points to the curriculum currently in place as the reason Sherman students are not realizing their potential. She cites the use of a book called “Everyday Math,” a text purchased by the district despite the fact that it is not aligned with the California State Standards.

Narciso Garcia is a third grade biliteracy teacher at Sherman with ten years of experience in the classroom. He is among the teachers and community members who are against Sherman becoming a charter school.

“I am not against charter schools per se, but I am against the reasons some of our teachers are for the charter and how they are pursuing it,” says Mr. Garcia, who is also worried about losing some of the teachers and staff who came to Sherman with the implementation of the Blueprint. “I don’t feel that our students can afford to lose the resources they have now.”

When asked about the loss of Reading Recovery teachers, Peer Coaches (teachers who instruct other teachers) and Math Specialists, the Charter School Committee confirms that these instructors will go to make way for others. Once Sherman Elementary becomes SSTCS, more than $700,000 in Title 1 funds will funnel directly to the school.

This money will enable SSTCS to hire a science teacher, a technology teacher, a prep-time teacher who will teach either music, technology or physical education, and classrooms assistants for all kindergarten and first grade classrooms, and potentially for second grade classrooms. The remaining funds will go toward computers, curriculum development and textbooks.

Dr. Douglas Arbon is a retired anesthesiologist and a member of the San Diego Rotary Club, an organization that sends volunteer “readers” to Sherman Elementary. He began his stint at the school roughly a year and a half a go, a time when its science teacher was “let go.” He is among those who believes that the sky is the limit for students if Sherman Elementary becomes SSTCS.

“I began talking to the kids about science, and I realized that it was an incredible catalyst for reading, as well as writing,” says Dr. Arbon, who has given power point presentations on subjects such as nuclear fusion, one of the aspects in understanding the life cycle of the stars. “I anticipate that in 15 to 30 years we will land an astronaut on Mars, and it is my fervent hope that she will have been from Sherman.”

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