February 1, 2002

Ex-Commander Prepares to Steer Education in the Right Direction:

Jeff Lee Runs for SDUSD Board, District B

By Yvette tenBerge

Many things have changed within San Diego City Schools over the past decade. Building exteriors have been repainted, teachers have retired, children have graduated, and the "old way" of educating students has been replaced with an aggressive reform plan. Throughout all of these changes, two people have served as constants. Over the past ten years, Jeff and Mitz Lee have taken it upon themselves to educate parents, teachers, students and decision-makers as to what it takes to implement effective public education.

Candidate, Jeff Lee

With the approach of the March 5 primary school board elections for District B, which includes Allied Gardens, Del Cerro, Mira Mesa, Miramar Ranch North, Murphy Canyon, San Carlos, the San Diego State College area, Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta, the San Diego community has the opportunity to officially lay claim to Mr. Lee's expertise.

It is hard to believe that a former commanding officer of a guided missile combatant vessel and a decorated combat veteran could be shy, but Mr. Lee becomes just this when asked to list his attributes. His voice booms, though, when the conversation centers on his passion: the education of all children.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a child. This country promises that it will pay for your education, yet when you arrive, the books aren't there; the curriculum isn't there; and you are not taught to read. What enters your mind about this country? I know a very different America," says Mr. Lee, who uses the word "caring" to describe the country he defended for 22 years as a Naval Officer. "If you are poor, education is your access to the American dream. Without it, you are locked out."

Some of Mr. Lee's supporters

Mr. Lee and his wife became involved in improving public school education more than 10 years ago when they decided to send their two sons through the San Diego City Schools system. Much to their dismay, they found it nearly impossible to navigate their way through the now 143,000-student, billion dollar district. Rather than giving up, though, they spent thousands of hours researching answers to questions that have traditionally gone unanswered.

In 1996, the Lee's founded the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), an independent, community-based non-profit organization that aims to "help people avoid the learning curve" that the Lee's, themselves, experienced and to transform public education so that "every child receives a quality education."

"I have been going to school board meetings as a spectator for six or seven years. Unfortunately, the Blueprint is not benefiting our kids, and it is costing a lot of money. Parents are scared, and they are frustrated," says Mr. Lee, who supports a curriculum that teaches the California State Standards, rather than the Blueprint for Student Success, a program that has cost the district more than $150 million to implement over the past three years.

Mr. Lee describes a recent candidate forum in San Carlos. As usual, parents approached him after the event to voice their concerns. "The Blueprint has taken so much money away from their school that parents had to fund raise to buy soap and toilet paper for the children's bathrooms. Imagine, we are spending a billion dollars a year in the district, and we are not even providing basic necessities for our children," says Mr. Lee, shaking his head in disgust. "It's time to get back to making decisions that are good for the kids."

Mary Merrill recently retired from Brooklyn Elementary after 24 years of teaching in San Diego City Schools. Her teaching career has spanned a total of 39 years and included jobs in Michigan and Kentucky, as well as California. Ms. Merrill, who currently volunteers her time to work on Mr. Lee's campaign, recalls her initial impression of the Lee's.

"I knew that they lived in Mira Mesa, but they were at every board meeting. I have to say I was impressed because it's very hard to get parents who are working and trying to survive to come out ­ and they did. They weren't just talkers - they were doers," says Ms. Merrill. "I know that Jeff would be a person who looks out for the children and who would not emphasize the politics."

Jeanie O'Dwyer, a retired San Diego City Schools kindergarten teacher, taught at an inner-city school for 33 years. After meeting Mr. Lee at an education conference in Mission Valley and discovering that he was running for the District B school board seat, she admits that she was "a little wary." "So, I attended gatherings where he was able to speak about what was important to him, and it always seemed to lead back to what was best for the students," says Ms. O' Dwyer, whose observations will result in a vote for Mr. Lee. "Jeff is a decent, knowledgeable, consensus-building person who knows something about budgets and about the laws that govern education."

Most campaigns consist of catchy sound bites devoid of substance, but Mr. Lee's difficulty comes in having to condense valuable information in order to answer the questions of potential voters who have limited time. When asked about topics such as reform, the achievement gap and issues pertaining particularly to minority students, Mr. Lee pauses to formulate his "sound bite."

"People talk about reform year after year, but it has never translated into results. We have seen spending go up, yet student performance has stayed flat or gone down. This is not good; we know how to educate our children," says Mr. Lee. "If you want more Latino and African-American students to learn, educate them. They are capable of learning, the problem is that they are not being taught."

When pressed further, Mr. Lee gladly launches into specific things that, if changed, would guarantee positive results. "The top-down approach that is happening in San Diego City Schools has got to go. We need to get resources back to the school sites and empower those teachers and that principal at that site. Then, we need to better use the testing data we have to help those teachers understand where the weaknesses of their students lie," says Mr. Lee. "Once we organize the district to really support teaching and learning in the classroom and start making decisions based on what's best for the students, we'll make great progress."

Trustee Frances O'Neill Zimmerman swaps education philosophy with Mr. Lee.

Mike MacCarthy is a local publisher who first met Mr. Lee three years ago. "He sat down with me at my convenience and spent untold hours answering my questions ­ always patient, always helpful, always pleasant, always positive, and never condescending or patronizing. What I found out was that if Jeff Lee said that something was fact, you could take it to the bank," says Mr. MacCarthy, who has closely followed the business of San Diego City Schools since his initial meeting with Mr. Lee. "His word is bond; he's not given to hyperbole or over-reaction."

Mr. Lee admits that running for the school board has been "hard work," and he confesses that he passed up the opportunity once before because he isn't "much into politics." When pressed as to why he would choose to get involved at this point in his life, he looks off into the distance before answering. "You know, if you see something bad happening to a kid and you turn and walk away, that isn't right. It just isn't right."

More information about Jeff Lee can be found at: www.jeffleeschoolboard2002.com

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