2022 election: Q&A with District C San Diego school board candidate Cody Petterson | #education | #technology | #training


There are three candidates on the June 7 ballot for the San Diego Unified School District Board of Education race in District C to represent coastal San Diego — parent school advocate Lily Higman, educator/parent Cody Petterson and charter school businesswoman Becca Williams. The two candidates with the most votes in the race will advance to a Nov. 8 runoff.

The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board sent each candidate an 11-question survey. If you have comments or questions about the election or any of the candidates after reading this interview, please email Editorial and Opinion Director Matthew T. Hall at matthew.hall@sduniontribune.com.

Below are Petterson’s responses and a link to the other responses.

Q: Give the school district a letter grade for its response to the pandemic and explain why.

A: It will be years before we have a full picture of the relative success of the district’s pandemic response in relation to student academic, social and emotional outcomes, but we can make preliminary observations. The fundamental question is, “Has the district kept its students, staff and families healthy, safe and learning in the face of COVID-19?” And the answer to that is, “Yes.” The San Diego Unified School District adopted sound, science-based policies in collaboration with UC San Diego’s panel of epidemiological, pediatric and infectious disease experts. It closed schools rapidly in March 2020, reopened in April 2021 on the recommendation of Dr. Howard Taras and other experts, and implemented comprehensive policies and school site upgrades to ensure the continued safety of students and staff.

Did the district successfully transition to remote learning? As a parent of two SDUSD elementary school students, I think the district and its teachers, administrators and other staff, as well as its students and parents, did a remarkable job of adapting to the extraordinary challenge of transitioning first to remote learning and then back to in-person instruction. The district distributed nearly 80,000 laptops. It delivered more than 5 million meals to students and their families and fundamentally changed its mode of instruction and engagement. Statewide, initial data suggests that younger students, low-income students and English learners suffered the most significant learning losses. A major test of the next cohort of trustees will be the district’s ability to close the achievement gap that the pandemic has substantially widened. I would give the district’s response a B.

Q: How would you try to assist students who fell behind during the pandemic because of distance learning, connectivity issues or poor nutrition? And what will you do to improve the achievement gap overall?

A: Initial data suggest that all students have suffered some degree of learning lag and that intervention will be necessary across the board. Pandemic-related learning lag, however, is not evenly distributed. Low-income, English learner and Latinx students have been disproportionately impacted. One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic on student learning appears, in fact, to have been an exacerbation of the long-standing, underlying disparities in student achievement. The evolving research on addressing pandemic-related learning lag/loss recommends additional investments in many of the established best practices for reducing the broader achievement gap. These include “high-dosage” tutoring (one-on-one or small group tutoring with specialists multiple times a week), extended school hours with engaging activities related to core instruction, learning acceleration (using supplemental instruction or tutoring to “feather in” foundational material that may have been missed, while working to maintain normal student progress relative to peers), implementation of community schools to address the social and economic context of learning (support services, meals, family and community partnerships, etc.), health and mental health services, and enriching summer learning programs. Fortunately, federal and state governments have committed to funding these priorities. President Joe Biden’s proposed budget commits nearly $18 billion to Title I schools that have large concentrations of low-income students. Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature are aligned in providing additional funding for both recovery from pandemic-related learning losses and closing the broader achievement gap. In addition to allocating billions to summer learning and extended instruction, Newsom’s 2021-2022 budget increased Local Control Funding Formula concentration grants by $1.1 billion, providing more aid for schools with mostly low-income students.

Q: The pandemic affected teachers’ mental health and worsened a teacher shortage. How would you stabilize teachers’ working conditions?

A: Recent research suggests teachers’ work hours increased substantially during the pandemic and have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. Most teachers are women and many are parents of school-age children and are wrestling with the same work-life challenges as their students’ parents. Teachers deserve a supportive, collaborative school environment. They deserve opportunities for professional development and advancement. They deserve a greater role in school site and district decision-making.

The politicization of science-based decisions on closure, masking and vaccination has had a detrimental effect on morale and left many teachers feeling like their health and well-being are not valued. Furthermore, while California has made major strides in per pupil funding since the dark days of 2012 — when we were 47th in the country — we are now 30th in the country for per pupil funding. California has the second worst teacher-to-student ratio in the country — 1 teacher to 23 students versus the national average of 1 to 16 — and reducing class size is essential not only for teacher well-being but for student achievement. Teachers in California are still paid less than workers with comparable levels of education, experience, responsibility and stress, in spite of soaring increases in cost of living. Housing prices in San Diego, for example, rose 15.1 percent last year alone, making our region the least affordable place to live in America. Teachers deserve a board that is committed to protecting their jobs, salaries and benefits and to fiercely advocating for additional state funding for our schools.

Q: What do you think of the district’s decision to de-emphasize standardized tests?

A: I am a strong supporter of the transition from No Child Left Behind’s high- stakes, punitive federal testing to the Every Student Succeeds Act. Likewise, I support a well-planned, carefully implemented transition to mastery-based grading. The objective of testing should first and foremost be to ensure that students are receiving high-quality instruction tailored to their individual strengths and weaknesses that maximizes their academic improvement and achievement. Grading should be weighted to reflect progress rather than averaged over the course of a module or semester.

If I can express my personal feelings as a parent who is actively engaged in my children’s education, who sits two nights a week working with my daughter on Common Core math and doing word flashcards over breakfast with my son: I obviously want our schools to assume significant responsibility for my children’s academic development. But more than anything, my wife and I want our children’s schools to help us prepare them for a life that is rewarding and fulfilling — to help them become assets to themselves, their families, their community, their country, their world. We want our kids to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency, but we also want our kids to achieve self-knowledge, self-motivation, self-control and respect for themselves and their peers, and to learn cooperation, problem-solving and responsibility for their actions. We want schools that teach life skills and that build character and resilience and self-confidence. And I think, honestly, that’s also what the public wants from its public schools.

Q: How would you ensure college readiness with changing admissions criteria?

A: The elimination of SAT, ACT and other standardized tests from the University of California, California State University and other university systems’ admissions factors was motivated both by research that showed that they were less predictive of first-year student performance than grades and by their inequity (favoring affluent students whose families can afford expensive tutoring and prep courses). My informed guess is that the actual impact on school curriculum and instruction will be minor. The main effect of the change will be to increase the importance of other traditional factors in admission, including grade point average in A-G courses, number and outcome of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and UC-approved honors courses, special talents or achievements, community projects, etc. These factors have always been mainstays of district instruction and will remain so. That said, there are well-established ways to increase college preparedness, including dual high-school/college enrollment. For low-income students and students of color, it is vitally important that we increase A-G completion rates and that we improve access to AP, IB and honors courses in neighborhood schools. Given the importance of these advanced courses to university admission, their inaccessibility can be a major impediment to academic advancement. I should also note that in addition to college readiness, many students would benefit from a significant expansion of Career and Technical Education programs, which are linked to apprenticeships and certifications that can provide students with well-paying jobs immediately upon graduation, with opportunities for professional development and advancement.

Q: What is your philosophy on student discipline and how do you ensure that it’s equitable?

A: Numerous studies have demonstrated not only that harsh disciplinary tools like suspension and expulsion are ineffective at altering behavior and academically harmful (loss of instructional time, higher rates of both grade repeat and dropout, etc.), but that there are stark racial disparities in their application that widen the achievement gap and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. A promising alternative disciplinary model is “restorative practices,” which have already been adopted by some schools in the district. The term “restorative practices” is somewhat misleading, since the core insight and intervention of the paradigm is not what happens after conflict or misconduct, but what happens before. Restorative practices involve the establishment of relationships in a classroom and campus that are strong, intimate, empathetic and resilient. Properly implemented restorative practices promote communication and trust, reduce conflict, foster a sense of mutual responsibility, and provide students with cognitive, behavioral and social skills to resolve tension and conflict before they escalate. Restorative practices, however, are challenging to implement, and districts and school sites must commit to and adequately invest in the change of paradigm, since it involves long-term changes in school climate and community building, professional development for teachers, administrators and other staff, and additional counseling services.

Q: What role, if any, should law enforcement have on school campuses?

A: School policing reform is a long-standing issue at San Diego Unified, as it is in districts across California and the country. In large measure in response to the George Floyd protests that began in May 2020, the district convened a Reimagining School Police Working Group, which proposed a set of reforms that were adopted by the board at the end of 2020. These included additional training for teachers and administrators on what forms of misconduct warrant referral to law enforcement, additional training for officers on de-escalation and community engagement, changes to officer uniforms, and assigning the district’s 30-plus officers to clusters rather than particular schools. I’m supportive of efforts to resolve student misconduct with nonuniformed, civilian school staff, with offsite school law enforcement reserved for incidents that involve violence, sexual misconduct and other incidents of clear criminal nature. All students deserve a safe, supportive environment that is conducive to learning, and disciplinary measures are sometimes necessary, but the data clearly demonstrates that Black, Latinx and Native American students, as well as students with disabilities, are disproportionately suspended, expelled, stopped and arrested, with substantial, long-term, avoidable impacts to their education, and police reform will continue to be a part of reducing those disparities.

Q: The district has been criticized on issues of transparency ranging from email retention to public comments at public meetings. What, if anything, should the district do to be more transparent?

A: The district has the legal responsibility to protect the privacy of personnel and student information. Where legally permissible, however, there should be a strong presumption of public entitlement to information and a commitment to providing requested information in a thorough, timely manner. In relation specifically to public comment, as a senior adviser to a San Diego County supervisor, I’m acutely aware of the technical challenges of facilitating open public comment in an environment of extreme political polarization. The county has attempted to be as accommodating as possible, and this has sometimes resulted in meetings that are so astonishingly lengthy and vituperative that staff leave stunned and demoralized. Nonetheless, I believe that maximum openness is the right decision for a public body. More broadly, from my current vantage point as an engaged parent serving on the Site Governance Team of my children’s elementary school, it’s clear that the district needs to be much more proactive in communicating with student families and local communities. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for English learner or housing-insecure parents if an educated, affluent, connected parent like myself has difficulty obtaining district information online; receiving clear, timely notification of deadlines, opportunities and events; or finding resources that explain, for example, curriculum, state education budgeting, district budgeting, ethnic studies implementation, statistics on student achievement, A-G requirements, the Individualized Education Program process and the California state teachers’ and public employees’ retirement systems. We need to make meaningful investments in deepening district communication with our parents and communities.

Q: District officials are considering changing the school calendar. What should the school year be?

A: There has been active, largely inconclusive discussion of calendar changes since I was a San Diego Unified student back in the 1980s and early 1990s. In recent years, these debates have been framed around the potential of extending the school year or switching to a year-round (or “balanced”) calendar to close the achievement gap. With regard to the former (extending the school year), research does not generally support its cost-effectiveness. Modest increases are not associated with significant academic improvement and large increases (of 30 days or more) are prohibitively expensive, especially in proportion to the small potential gains. The research on year-round calendars is more mixed. “Summer slide” is certainly a well-established phenomenon, particularly in relation to math and particularly for low-income students who do not typically have access to the enriching (though typically non-mathematic) summer activities and programming that more affluent students have. Some research has shown that year-round calendars can modestly reduce summer learning loss, while other studies have been inconclusive. One solution that has shown clear benefits in reducing the degree and disparity of learning loss is the use of high-quality summer learning programs, taught by certified teachers and aligned with grade-level curriculum. For that reason, rather than supporting dramatic changes in the calendar, I’m enthusiastic about additional investment in programs like the “Level Up SD” summer learning partnership with The San Diego Foundation, now in its second year.

Q: Describe your view of charter schools and their place in the school system.

A: Charter schools are a part of the district structure. As such, there are many charters currently serving students in San Diego, delivering academic results that are comparable to public schools serving similar student populations. Some of our smaller charters, like Elevate Elementary or Old Town Academy, are achieving notable success with pedagogies from which the district can learn, as originally imagined in the 1992 Charter Schools Act (Senate Bill 1448). That said, unmitigated growth of charter schools can have negative fiscal impacts on the district, since charters take the full per capita share of student funding, leaving impacted neighborhood schools to cut variable costs and be left bearing the fixed costs, which ultimately can’t be reduced without painful cuts — to facilities, electricity, libraries, counseling, nursing, performing arts, etc. Charter operators are entitled to apply for a charter, and district boards are required to review and make a decision on their application. In general, San Diego Unified and the local charter industry have established a modus vivendi, and the district has largely escaped the brutal political conflicts in which districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District have been embroiled over the last decade. So long as existing charters are providing equitable, academically adequate instruction to their students, I can’t imagine that I would be part of a scenario in which the board would attempt to revoke a charter. Given the steeply declining enrollment across the county, I don’t foresee the district becoming fertile ground for a dramatic proliferation of charters.

Q: Why are you the best candidate for this position?

A: I am a native and lifelong resident of District C, with deep roots in our communities, a parent of San Diego Unified students, and active in school site governance, and am myself a product of San Diego Unified. I have a fierce commitment to the district and to public education more broadly. I am the only active educator in the race, and I wrestle daily with remote learning, pedagogy, lesson planning, grading, and maintaining student engagement and motivation. I hold a Ph.D. in anthropology from UC San Diego and a master’s in fine arts in creative writing, on which I can draw to work with students and staff to deepen our commitment to science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics education and strengthen our pipeline to the region’s universities and burgeoning tech and biotech industries.

I’ve served on numerous boards and committees, including the Sierra Club San Diego Executive Committee, San Diego River Conservancy governing board and La Jolla Town Council, and am experienced at navigating board-staff dynamics. As a senior adviser to the district’s county supervisor, I’ve helped conceptualize, draft and guide the adoption and implementation of transformative legislation at a public agency with a $7 billion annual budget. I have deep knowledge, experience and relationships in legislative advocacy, particularly in the California Legislature, where the lion’s share of our district’s financial fate is decided. I have worked for many years helping to train and inform school board members across our region and have a detailed understanding of the historical, funding and policy elements of local school board governance.





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