Posted on June 12, 2006

A Puzzling Legacy

Don Speich and Jennifer Gollan, Marin Independent Journal, June 11, 2006

It is by far the wealthiest school district in Marin, spending more than $22,000 per student — three times the state average and among the highest in the nation.

Yet its students have the lowest test scores in the county. More than half never graduate high school.

Its teachers have among the smallest classes in Marin and are the county’s highest paid, earning an average of $71,000 a year.

Yet critics often target the teachers as part of the problem.

Most students are from low-income families and live in federally subsidized housing.

Yet they are surrounded by residents with some of the highest incomes and priciest homes in California.

It is the Sausalito Marin City School District, a 283-student, predominantly minority school system where efforts to succeed can be measured in decades, but where now – energized by voters’ support and a new mantra to achieve – administrators are spearheading an ambitious effort to turn a tide of failure.

“A lot of money has been wasted on unfocused programs,” said George Stratigos, president of the school board. “The question is: How many generations of kids’ lives have been wasted?”

Led by Stratigos, a Sausalito native and former city councilman whose own parents sent him to private school outside the district, the board is hiring new administrators they believe will help raise test scores, focusing curriculum on basic academic skills and setting its sights on test scores achieved by only a handful of Marin schools.

It is spending a $15.9 million voter-approved bond to rebuild Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City and renovate Bayside Elementary School in Sausalito, import a Tamalpais High School math teacher to supplement instruction and embark on a formal teacher training program focused on student discipline.

It is struggling to reinvent itself.

“We need to look at how to change a culture, and rebuild hope and confidence, and build a program that allows these students to be successful,” said Bob Ferguson, superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District.

Despite years of hopeful rhetoric and promises of academic improvement, the district remains where it has been for decades: mired in its history, going nowhere.

The district — which includes predominantly white, affluent Sausalito and predominantly black, low-income Marin City — has struggled with issues of race and academic achievement since at least the 1960s, when it was targeted by both the Congress of Racial Equality for being segregated and the Black Panther Party for having no black studies classes or programs like those implemented at schools and colleges throughout the country in the late ‘60s.

Enrollment plunges

Enrollment at the district’s three schools was reshuffled to accomplish racial balance, black studies courses and programs were instituted — and academic achievement, as measured by test scores, began to fall. Student enrollment, which was 1,227 in 1960, dropped to 710 in 1970 — a slide that continued over the next three decades to 283 — as white parents, and then black, moved or sent their children to private schools.

As the student body became increasingly minority from low-income families, the schools became eligible for hefty federal and state funds aimed at raising academic achievement.

In 1974, a Marin County grand jury report called the district’s per-pupil expenditures “exorbitant,” test scores low despite the lowest student-teacher ratio in the county and teacher salaries excessively high.

Nearly 10 years ago, national auditors — echoing many of the same findings as the 1974 grand jury — diagnosed the Sausalito Marin City schools as broken, despite ample funding.

Teachers were “frustrated, distressed and exhausted” and “instruction had taken a back seat,” auditors said. They urged the district to raise expectations of students, saying, “People have to believe that failure is not an option.”

The audits led to a recall campaign that resulted in recall leaders Shirley Thornton, and a few years later, Stratigos, being elected to the board. They said they were galvanized by the district’s low test scores, as well as poor leadership and classroom discipline. They promised change.

Change has been elusive.

“I have been puzzled ever since 1969 on this,” said Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University who visited the district 37 years ago. “The same problems that were there at that time are the same they have today.”