SJ 2020: Will districts work together?

San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and Santa Clara County Superintendent Chuck Weis are leading SJ2020, an ambitious initiative to end the achievement gap in the state’s third largest city by 2020. But will the city’s 19 school districts collaborate in ways they’re not accustomed to in order to make it happen?

Mayor Chuck Reed and Santa Clara County Superintendent Chuck Weis are betting that an appeal for collaboration,  a moral imperative and a hint of money will work where the iron fist of No Child Left Behind law hasn’t. Here’s hoping they’re right.

Weis and Reed are the instigators of SJ2020, an initiative to see that all students in San Jose are proficient at grade level by the end of the next decade. Last Thursday, a handful of superintendents, college presidents, charter school leaders and non-profit executives were among the 300 people at City Hall to pledge their efforts.

No Child Left Behind demands that all children be proficient in English language arts and math by 2014. There’s been incremental progress — but, with five years to go, at least 40,000 students — and probably closer to 60,000 or more than 40 percent of San Jose’s children — aren’t at grade level.

Most of these are low-income, Hispanic children, many of them learning English. While 85 percent of Asian-American children are proficient in academic skills, only 41 percent of Hispanics are — a gap of 44 percentage points.No Child Left Behind has sanctions to try to force change.  Reed and Weis technically are powerless to drive it.  The mayor has no express power over schools, and the county superintendent, while responsible for overseeing  financially troubled districts, can’t tell school boards how to run their affairs. And they also don’t have any extra money to offer — at least initially — although  they do have the stature  of their offices to bring people together.

Reed and Weis want San Jose to become the first large urban area to eradicate the achievement gap. Making that happen will take a lot more cooperation among don’t-tread-on-me school districts.

San Jose has 19 districts, from San Jose Unified, covering about a quarter of the city, to one-school Luther Burbank. This fragmentation, with six K-8 districts feeding East Side Union High School District, has hampered creation of a city-wide strategy. Big foundations, like Gates, aren’t interested in working with such small districts, and corporate philanthropies are often frustrated in having to deal with so many of them. (That’s the value of my sponsor, Silicon Valley Education Foundation, which runs summer school in algebra for multiple districts.)

Weis and Reed are hoping that all organizations that work with kids will come together to  identify gaps in services, such as after-school and pre-school programs, commit to high standards and then adopt successful academic programs and share best practices. Charter school operators — Downtown College Prep, KIPP, Rocketship Education and ACE Charter Schools — are anxious to, but it’s unclear how active many districts will be. Most superintendents have yet to take the pledge, and East Side Union High School District, distracted by the suspension of its superintendent, didn’t participate in the planning. It has half of the city’s high school students.

For now, SJ 2020 will rely on two Chucks’  leadership and will run on  a Two-Buck Chuck budget.

The next step will be to launch nine workgroups, which include school readiness, parent involvement, college and career preparation, community partnerships and extended learning time. (Update: You can now find out all about the initiative at the county office web site and sign up for updates and to join the effort .)

One issue that needs consensus: What will be the measurement of college/career readiness for high school students? State standardized tests are a fine measure for elementary and middle school but not for high school. The high school exit exam is too low a standard. Should it be the A to G course requirements needed to get into a CSU or UC school, which San Jose Unified has adopted but other districts have not?

With all districts, the city and non-profits crying poverty, there’ll be no promises of new money, at least initially. And there’s no provision under state law to permit a city to create a tax for education — not that it’s even been discussed.  But an initiative led by a mayor and county superintendent  may help in the competition for philanthropic, corporate and  federal money;  there’s talk about pursuing a Race to the Top innovation grant next year.

For now, SJ 2020 will rely on two Chucks’  leadership and will run on  a Two-Buck Chuck budget. But it’s important to raise the public’s awareness of the tremendous disparities in student achievement in the state’s third largest city and to persuade 19 superintendents to work together to end them. The first step has been taken.

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