“The culture of the district was basically based on retaliation, intimidation. Those are the two words that I can think of,” said former Sweetwater school board member Bertha Lopez.
Exactly six years have passed since Sweetwater schools superintendent Jesus Gandara was terminated at 2 a.m. on June 21, 2011 following seven hours of closed door meetings.
A raucous crowd of 500 people gathered in a high school gymnasium the evening before to attend the Sweetwater Union High School District board meeting, many to demand better from their school district leaders. Some hoped Gandara’s departure would close a dark chapter in the district’s history dominated by stories of malfeasance.
But what was supposed to be the end was only the beginning of the end for leaders of California’s largest secondary public school district, which spans from the city of San Diego to the U.S.-Mexico border.
An investigation of Gandara’s activities, as well as the Sweetwater school board and contractors by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office would last a few years and end in various criminal charges, including felony bribery and conspiracy. A couple Sweetwater leaders landed behind bars.
Much has been written about the DA’s case, the outcome and the troubling decision-making that occurred on Gandara’s watch.
But there is a story behind all those stories that has yet to be told, about the six individuals who set the whole thing in motion by demanding accountability from their local school leaders and going to the district attorney for help.
“I felt like if we didn't do it, nobody else would, and these folks would continue to get away with crimes,” said parent Stewart Payne.
“The public has more power than they think that they do,” said parent Maty Adato.
“Did I think justice was served? No. Not only no, but hell no,” said grandparent Kathleen Cheers.
Payne, Adato and Cheers were part of a group of mostly parents and concerned community members who spent years faithfully attending public school board meetings, scouring documents and sounding the alarm when students were shortchanged by district leaders.
To mark the six-year anniversary of Gandara’s termination, we put together a special podcast to allow them to share their story, their motivations, challenges and the sacrifices made along the way. They also have advice for others who want to see change at their local government agency.
Entering the real world is difficult for many young adults, but for some that transition often leaves them stuck in limbo.
The term "opportunity youth" is now being used to describe the growing number of 16- to 24-year-olds who don't attend school or have a job.
A few institutions in the region have started noticing the problem of disconnected youth and new programs serving the population are in the works. San Diego Continuing Education, a school that provides adults with different job and education alternatives, is one of the organizations testing out a few different solutions.
On this week’s podcast, cohosts Scott Lewis and Laura Kohn sit down with Carlos Cortez, president of San Diego Continuing Education, to talk about how the school is helping guide students who struggle with the transition into the so-called real world.
"Many [students] have so many gaps in their educational development that it really requires simultaneously providing foundational skills and support, while also providing them with the job training that's going to help them to land a job that pays a livable wage," Cortez said.
9.6 percent: The percent of 16- to 24-year-olds in San Diego County who are considered opportunity youth. That's almost one in 10 of the 43,000 students in the county.
The International Rescue Committee: An organization that helps refugees settle in cities across the country, but also makes sure young adults have the tools to succeed in American schools.
There's no one comprehensive strategy behind educating English-learners in California. Instead, it's a mishmash of programs, many of which leave students struggling to learn English for years.
This week, cohosts Scott Lewis and Laura Kohn discuss what research is showing to be the best ways to educate English-learners.
Author and education expert Ruby Takanishi joins the show to talk about a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that examined the most effective ways to educate English-learners.
Takanishi said that even though more and more educators and researchers are promoting multilingualism at schools, school districts in several states are still lagging in providing adequate resources for students who don't speak English.
"It is very clear that (English-language learners) in all states throughout the country are really at the bottom of the charts," she said. "They have widest achievement disparities among different groups, including racial ethnic groups and economic groups."
Takanishi chaired the committee behind the report, which found that it takes an average of five to seven years for a student to become proficient in English. On top of the academic challenges that presents, the report showed that many English-learners continue to struggle once they enter the workforce.
1 in 7: That's the number of long-term English-learners in California. Long-term English-learners are those who enter kindergarten as English-learners and don't speak English fluently for more than six years.
Chula Vista Learning Community Charter School: A local trilingual immersion school highlighted was in the report for its effective multilingual education program and its sophisticated approach to instruction, which includes problem-solving and project-based learning.
The Cajon Valley Union School District has nailed personalized learning.
The approach gives more control to students and lets them build on their own strengths with the help of technology tools and a flexible curriculum.
This week, hosts Scott Lewis and Laura Kohn talked to David Miyashiro, superintendent of Cajon Valley, about how the district is working to meet individual students' needs.
Miyashiro also discussed his district's refugee demographic. He said roughly 900 refugee children entered the Cajon Valley District last year.
"The newcomers to our district and the diversity of our community really add to the experience of every student and every person in our city," he said. "I think the strength in diversity has made us stronger, has allowed us to open our eyes to bigger things that just standardized test scores and I think we're better because of it."
Lewis and Kohn also dug in to the layoffs happening at the San Diego Unified School District.
About 1,500 district employees will be cut, but not much is known of what comes after and who will take on all the responsibilities of the educators and other staffers who are being pushed out.
13: That's the number of meetings students who sign up for TED-Ed Clubs go through. The meetings help students identify and research ideas, then put them into a quick TED-style talk.
Community: Miyashiro said getting city and community leaders together to talk about important issues is what works best when building strong schools and neighborhoods.
The controversies surrounding Betsy DeVos' strong support for school choice hit home just as she took office as secretary of education.
When Diane Ravitch, an education researcher, suggested that DeVos visit successful school districts like San Diego Unified, local teachers unions were furious to find out that the invitation was actually extended on behalf of the district's board of trustees. Outcry from local teachers eventually caused that invitation to be rescinded.
In this week's podcast, co-hosts Scott Lewis and Laura Kohn talk more about DeVos and concerns about funneling education funds from traditional public schools into private schools and charter schools.
Voice of San Diego's education reporter Mario Koran also joins the podcast to explain how San Diego Unified's impressive 92 percent student graduation rate brings up concerns about the district's connections to credit-recovery charter schools.
"If a kid is coming up to graduation time and they're not on track to graduate, we see a number of those same kids leaving the San Diego Unified schools and going to these credit-recovery high schools," he said. "It gets those students off the San Diego Unified graduation rolls. So they don't count anymore. They're virtually excluded when they go to the charter school."
Koran said this leads to a bigger question – how prepared are students when they graduate and what is the district doing to help those who are struggling?
Five: That's the number of states that provide school choice vouchers just for low-income students.
Hosts Scott Lewis and Laura Kohn discuss Betsy DeVos and what her nomination as Secretary of Education could mean for in California. In the second half, Lewis and Kohn speak with Miles Durfee, Managing Regional Director of the California Charter Schools Association.