3 big high schools to be replaced with academies, special classes

By David E. Graham

February 11, 2004

Three large high schools will close, and in their stead 14 smaller academies will open in September in hopes of improving education, San Diego school trustees decided. They also gave the schools more money.

The plan, approved last night, calls for breaking Kearny, Crawford and San Diego high schools into campuses of about 400 students each. Operating on the original school sites, each would offer specialty courses such as law, health, business or design.

Acknowledging the school system's severe budget shortfall and the hurdles the schools face in opening in the fall, school officials found an additional $1.6 million to give the new schools, which helps keeps teachers in place.

The vote was 3-2, along a familiar split that occurs on many substantive issues.

Alan Bersin, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, has encouraged the experiment to help poorly performing campuses improve, in part by creating a smaller school environment in which students interact with smaller groups of classmates and teachers.

Board members John de Beck and Frances O'Neill Zimmerman voted against it, each questioning whether there is sufficient money to operate the schools as described. Zimmerman called for more support for librarians.

"I want to believe," Zimmerman said, adding later that she fears the plan "flies in the face of reality."

The district is pursuing the experiment at a time when it also faces a $60 million-plus shortfall in its $1.1 billion budget for 2004-05. The plan would primarily rely on money at the three existing schools, officials said.

Even so, district officials said the new schools would be given $1.3 million from a state grant for poorly performing schools. The money would be used to keep teachers at the campuses, and $300,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will pay for principals. The Gates foundation had given much of the money for the original planning as well.

District officials said some money for future years would have to be found.

Crawford and Kearny highs would each be divided into four schools, and San Diego High into six. Points of emphasis within each school would include visual arts at one of the schools to medicine, construction, fitness and law enforcement at others.

Advocates argue that students would have a better chance for college or a job in a field related to that school's specialties.

The plan had called for 16 schools. However, one program at Kearny and one at Crawford were postponed or blended into others to save some costs because enrollments might be less than 350, officials said.

Teachers union President Terry Pesta told board members he questioned whether the plan could be put in place effectively by the coming school year and he questioned how it could be financed.

David Graham: (619) 542-4575; david.graham@uniontrib.com

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