Education potpourri: Middle school, lawsuit battles, custody, and the sports obsessed


By Marsha Sutton

After moving sixth grade into middle school beginning this fall, the Rancho Santa Fe School District will join most other school districts nationally that group sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders together.

A 6-8 middle school configuration is now commonly accepted, over the 7-8 combination we see locally or even the 7-9 combination that I grew up with.

It makes sense on so many levels. Both students and parents can form deeper attachments to their schools when three years are spent there rather than two. Two years is more like a holding pen than an institution that fosters long-term school spirit and meaningful connections.

Curriculum is often written with sixth grade at the middle school level. For example, textbook publishers commonly divide World History into two parts – the first half in sixth grade and the second in seventh. Attending one school or school district for sixth grade and a different one for seventh can mean poor integration of material. It can also mean lack of rigor in sixth grade where history is taught by homeroom teachers rather than middle school teachers who specialize in history.

And with the new Common Core State Standards (required by 2014) that organize material in three clusters –for grades K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 – the middle school grade realignment becomes more pressing.

Even though she had reservations, Rancho Santa Fe School District superintendent Lindy Delaney said sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders need to begin working together.

“I actually resisted it because I like the idea of sixth-graders remaining young,” she said, “but not at the sake of education. So we made the change.”

Delaney said she did a study four years ago, and found no compelling reason to move sixth grade into middle school. “There’s a big difference between a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader,” she said.

But positive outcomes have resulted from the decision to create a 6-8 middle school, she said, including a cohesive body of instructors from the economy of scale and parents excited about the change.

“We’ll find ways to take care of our sixth-graders because they’re young,” she said. “Overall it’s good.”

So what to do about Del Mar and Solana Beach, which are K-6 districts? San Dieguito Union High School District serves grades 7-12 and needs to find a way to incorporate sixth grade into its embrace.

But because this is a major change in the way school districts function and because funding is affected, what’s best for kids is likely to be derailed by inertia and bureaucratic stumbling blocks.

The K-6 grade configuration is a relic from the past. But it may take an act of Congress to make what’s right happen.

Good for Rancho Santa Fe for leading the way.

Personal email accounts for public officials

The Del Mar Union School District wrapped up a lawsuit filed by Del Mar resident Michael Robertson who sued the DMUSD in 2011 for what he said were violations of the California Public Records Act.

Among other issues, he claimed that emails to and from elected school district trustees doing school district business on their home computers using private email addresses should be released as part of the public record. Sadly, he lost this argument.

Although the DMUSD won the bulk of the lawsuit, the school board voted at its April 24 meeting to pay Robertson $42,500 in attorneys’ fees, to settle the case.

According to DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg, the district was asked by the court to go back and search for additional documents that fit the original search request, and the district found more that had not originally been turned over to Robertson.

Because of this, the court ruled the district was responsible for partial attorneys’ fees. McClurg said Robertson asked for $155,872, and the amount paid was $42,500.

That Robertson lost this case, despite the minimal legal fee paid to his attorney, is remarkable. To allow elected officials to carry out the public’s business behind the improper shield of personal email accounts is a travesty.

According to an article in the April 17 issue of Education Week titled “As Communications Technology Advances, Sunshine Laws Lag,” policies can become murky when school board members use personal emails for public business.

When a reporter in New Mexico submitted a public records request for emails from five school board members in the Santa Fe district, he found that four were using their personal emails for school district matters.

According to the story, “The arduous process of obtaining [the emails] led the board to adopt a policy in February that bans the use of private email accounts for public business.”

This is a policy every school district should adopt without hesitation or discussion – and one that we the public should demand.

Give parents those tests!

Speaking of Robertson lawsuits, his challenge to the San Dieguito Union High School District to release tests and quizzes so parents can review their child’s progress at home is one every parent should get behind.

There is no excuse for teachers to withhold these vital pieces of information that track progress and comprehension of the material being taught. Even teachers who allow tests to be reviewed at school clearly present an undue hardship on working parents.

Those teachers who restrict access to tests are hiding behind the lame excuse that tests can be copied and distributed if tests go home. This is certainly true. But there’s no problem with sending tests home if teachers are willing to create new tests.

The overriding question is whether the system is set up to support teachers who don’t want to do extra work by making new tests, or to support students whose parents want to monitor how their children are doing in school and aid their progress.

Children first? Not presently. Let’s see how San Dieguito handles this one.

Custody battle spills into taxpayer territory

In other lawsuits against the DMUSD, McClurg said the district has spent more than $8,400 on legal fees to two law firms involving a temporary restraining order against the father of students in the district who is embroiled in a custody battle with his ex-wife.

On the case, the DMUSD has paid about $6,330 to date to Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz and $2,100 to Atkinson Andelson Loya Ruud Romo.

The restraining order, which court documents state was filed “for fear of a credible threat of violence,” was denied by the court April 30, according to San Diego Superior Court records. The father is now fighting back, asking for sanctions against the district.

The threat of Communism

In my search in the California Education Code for something related, I came across Section 51530 which I found very interesting:

“No teacher giving instruction in any school, or on any property belonging to any agencies included in the public school system, shall advocate or teach communism with the intent to indoctrinate or to inculcate in the mind of any pupil a preference for communism.

“In prohibiting the advocacy or teaching of communism with the intent of indoctrinating or inculcating a preference in the mind of any pupil for such doctrine, the Legislature does not intend to prevent the teaching of the facts about communism. Rather, the

Legislature intends to prevent the advocacy of, or inculcation and indoctrination into, communism as is hereinafter defined, for the purpose of undermining patriotism for, and the belief in, the government of the United States and of this state.

“For the purposes of this section, communism is a political theory that the presently existing form of government of the United States or of this state should be changed, by force, violence, or other unconstitutional means, to a totalitarian dictatorship which is based on the principles of communism as expounded by Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.”

Hmmm … wondering if lawmakers still see Communism as the greatest threat to American democracy today.

Coach abuse

After learning that a San Dieguito Union High School District baseball coach at La Costa Canyon High School was just jailed, with bail set at $105,000, “on suspicion of hit-and-run, drug possession and obstructing an officer” (according to a July 6 U-T San Diego article), I was reminded of comments from many parents who have asked me over the years to report on the appalling behavior of athletic coaches.

To be fair, appalling behavior of athletic coaches is not confined to San Dieguito but is a chronic problem in many school districts with top-notch sports programs.

The concern persists in part because children and parents are too intimidated to speak out for fear the students will either not make the team the next year or will be benched all season long, their potential careers as future Michael Jordans or Mia Hamms destroyed forever.

Anecdotal stories are appalling. Here’s one about a coach for some girls’ sport (I get them all confused – something with a stick, ball or net) who likes to chant on the bus after a victory, “F--- yeah! F--- yeah! F--- yeah!” – with her fist pumping the air.

There’s the story of a local coach who, after receiving a second-place trophy, broke it in half and scattered the pieces on the field in front of both teams and the spectators. How gracious is that?

How about the coaches who regularly call players retarded, ass----, or even use the N-word (F-words are too commonly used by coaches to even deserve a mention) to pummel African-American students who might be having an off day.

No wonder kids bully other kids, when adults do it to them so viciously.

The obsession with sports in high school has reached a fevered pitch, and crazed competitors – parents, coaches and even student-athletes themselves – need reminding that high school is about learning in the classroom, not mental or physical abuse on the field.

Send me your athletic tales of woe. Anonymous is fine if you must. Just tell me your sports horror story, the sport and the school. Let’s expose the outrageous, scandalous behavior of many coaches and pressure districts to raise basic standards of decency and respect for student-athletes.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at