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Price to oversee La Jolla, University City schools

A school board-authorized reorganization of the San Diego Unified School District two months ago restructured the district into nine areas, each with its own area superintendent. The move, driven in part to save about $2 million, consolidates the organization into geographic groupings and replaces School Improvement Officers.

Area 6, which encompasses La Jolla and University City, will be supervised by Mike Price, currently principal of University City High School. Before that, he worked for three years as a principal on special assignment in the district’s finance division, and eight years prior as the principal of Pt. Loma High School.

Price, 57, assumes the position of Area 6 Superintendent on July 1, although he will be dividing his time over the summer between his new role and finishing business at UC High. All area superintendents will report to an as yet unnamed deputy superintendent, who will report to the district’s newly named superintendent, Bill Kowba.

This is Price’s third year as principal of UC High School, a school he opened 30 years ago. He has been with the district for 35 years.

“I have seen a lot,” he said. “This will be Superintendent Number 9 for me.”

Price, married to his high school sweetheart for the past 36 years, has two grown sons, both graduates of Scripps Ranch High School.

He will oversee La Jolla High School and University City High School, and all the middle and elementary schools that feed into the high schools. This includes five schools in each area, for a total of about 9,300 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 1,850 students attend UC High, and LJ High has about 1,700 students, he said.

“My primary job is working with the principals to help improve instructional programs and improve student achievement for all students,” said Price, explaining his job description.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Price, who expanded upon his views of the new position, student achievement, challenges and goals.

Q: Improving student achievement is a rather broad goal, isn’t it?

Price: Very broad. How that rolls out is going to be dependent upon each school because they’re all unique. They all have ongoing instructional programs now. They’ve all had varying degrees of high success, and they all have populations of students that are struggling a little bit or struggling a lot.

So my charge from the board will be to work with the principals, the school staffs and the communities to assist and support them in providing high student achievement for all students.

Q: Will you impose particular methods or approaches?

Price: No. My position is going to be a resource. I’m not a fix-it person. If there’s something that needs to quote-unquote get fixed, I work with school staffs. They’re there in the school every single day, with students every single day. (They will have) my support, and I can contribute ideas.

There may be a time in the future where I just have to say (that) you need to do it this way because the board has said this is the way we’re going in the school district. Hopefully, we’ll be able to have the flexibility to work that into the unique culture of each school.

Q: Can you talk about the La Jolla and University City clusters?

Price: The UC cluster I know pretty well. ... (and0 I know all the principals in the La Jolla cluster. I’ve worked with them before as the finance person, and I’ve worked with almost all of them on the Administrators’ Association one way or another in the last 10 or 12 years. All the principals of both clusters [will] report to me.

There’s a University City cluster advisory group. (School board member) John Lee Evans got it started. Our structure is a principal, a teacher and a parent from each school, so we have 15, and we will be adding students for the secondary schools.

What I will need to know about La Jolla is how their cluster organization works and what the purpose is.

Q: How important are the clusters?

Price: I think they’re really important. Many years ago we were organized into clusters, and they were around the high schools. I thought that gave us the best opportunity to be able to look at the students enrolled in the schools ... and say, “What do we want the experience of these students to look like once they enter our schools, and what should the experience be like once they graduate?”

Going back to this now is, I believe, the right move at the right time. What do we need to start doing? And what experiences, curriculum, instructional strategies can we use, K through 12, that build on each other as the students stay in the cluster and move from school to school and then finally graduate their high school experience?

Advanced Placement classes are not just a high school experience. Advanced Placement classes begin with curriculum choices and experiences in the elementary schools, because the class is a culminating experience of a large number of years of skills development and knowledge that you should have by the time you reach that class — just like you do by the time you enroll in college.

The cluster advisory groups ... will bring together parents and teachers and administrators. ... When you get those three groups of people together, you have a different viewpoint and you get different ideas on the table than if you just get administrators together.

Q: How is the organization currently structured?

Price: In the University City community right now, I’ve got a boss, my middle school person has a different boss, and two of my elementary schools have one boss and one has another one. So we’ve got four SIOs (school improvement officers) who interface with our five schools. It’s not efficient at all because they don’t necessarily share common philosophies or how they do business.

The whole organization is changing. We are losing the business kind of focus in terms and terminology and going back to what people are very familiar with in the schools – deputy superintendents, assistant superintendents, area superintendents. So you get the school flavor now rather than the business community flavor.

Q: When was it organized like this before?

Price: It was organized that way when I was principal of Roosevelt which would have been 1993, through the first part of Alan Bersin’s term. (Bersin) changed the order around, and it’s been changed several times since then.

Q: What kind of confidence do you have that this will stick with the new superintendent?

Price: Pretty high confidence because this structure was designed by the board. And one of the superintendent search questions and one of the things superintendent candidates had to agree to was that the structure they were coming into was going to stay in place. ... They were going to have to work within it because the board recognizes that every superintendent who has come in wants to put his or her own stamp on what is going on.

This causes disruption. It causes problems up and down the organization. And if people don’t stay around very long — i.e., our last two superintendents — then what you wind up with is change on top of change on top of change, and the organization never ever settles down into a rhythm that allows work to go on across the entire system that’s coordinated.

You may get pockets of it in clusters. You may get individual schools that are doing well. But you won’t see the entire system across the district rise because it’s always trying to catch up to itself.

Q: Do you have many English Language Learners in your area?

Price: I have 174 in University City right now ... about 8 or 9 percent [of total enrollment].

Q: How are they faring?

Price: They are starting to fare much better. We have put some programs together for them. We have raised their test scores. We redesignated 47 students this year to fluent English proficient students using (a number of) measurements that we have. So we’re making some great strides.

Our CAHSEE (high school exit exam) scores for our 10th-graders came back in, and there was monumental growth in both English and mathematics for the English language learners. So the things that we’re doing here appear to be working at UC. Whether they can be replicated some place else we’ll have to see.

Q: Will you be working with the teachers’ bargaining unit?

Price: I don’t think I’ll be directly involved aside from maybe being called on to mediate something or as part of a grievance or a complaint. Obviously, I will get to know who the association reps are on the sites, and I have a very good working relationship with SDEA (San Diego Education Association, SDUSD’s teachers’ union).

I’m currently the president of the Administrators’ Association, but I have to resign that position at the end of the month so I can assume the area superintendent (position).

Q: Your area is more affluent than some other areas of the district, which are all diverse. Do you feel you’ll have the autonomy and independence to do what you need to do for your particular area?

Price: I would hope so. I would hope that we have the flexibility to take the board’s directions in programs and in other areas and say, okay these are the goals ... (and) this is where we want you to go. And then the area superintendents would have the flexibility to work with the principals and (ask), “What does that look like at (each school)? How are we going to get there with this group of students and this staff and this community?”

Q: Do schools ever all need to operate in a particular way?

Price: I would be supportive of a common instructional language across the school district. For example, a common theory of language acquisition, a common theory of ... teach(ing) mathematics combining the best of skills and the best of critical thinking. But realistically it needs to look differently at different schools because schools are different places.

Q: Do you see yourself as an instructional leader or as more of a business manager?

Price: I’m pretty good at both. I have a very strong background in curriculum instruction and a very strong background in business operations.

Q: So the position would entail a little bit of both?

Price: Yes.

Q: Do you feel your principals will be receptive to an instructional leader?

Price: I think they will be. I think the way that I work is ... “You know your school. That’s what you’re being paid to do and that’s what your work is. Tell me what you think you’re doing. Tell me how it fits into what I see for achievement data. And how can I help you?”

Once I move on the first of July into this other position, I’m not the principal of any school nor do I want to be. That’s not what I’m being paid to do. I’m being paid to support, I’m being paid to lead, I’m being paid to generate ideas and resources and support the teachers and the principals in those schools.

One of the deals I will make with my principals is, “If you ever believe or if you ever feel like I am trying to be the principal of the school, I need you to tell me that because that’s not my role.”

Q: Priorities?

Price: To learn the community, to learn the school, learn the people who are in the schools. As I said, I know the principals by name. I know them as friends. But I need to know them a bit more by what they’re doing in school and what their communities look like. I know a great deal about the University City community. But I need to know a bit more about what’s going on in La Jolla.

Q: Challenges? What are the tough spots ahead?

Price: One of the challenges is maintaining the high level of achievement that all the kids have, in the face of the changing demographics of the school district and of the clusters. Student mixes change.

The only school in both clusters that doesn’t have at least an 800 API (Academic Performance Index) is University City High School, and we’re within reach of it this year. I think we’re probably going to get there this year. And with that comes a responsibility to make sure all kids maintain, and in the populations that aren’t by themselves at 800 (that those students) get to improve to 800.

The schools look good on the whole, and they all are doing very well. But are there groups of students that are not doing well within those high-performing schools? That’s the challenge.

Q: You’re speaking of the achievement gap?

Price: Yeah, that’s the easiest way to say it.

Q: What are your thoughts about the school board? What about John Lee Evans who represents the University City area and John de Beck who represents the La Jolla area?

Price: I’ve got a good relationship with both. I know John very well. John and I worked together for the 11 years that I was in the Pt. Loma cluster, three years as principal of Correia (Middle School) and eight years as principal of Pt. Loma High School. (But) I tend to stay out of the board races.

Q: Do you anticipate as an area superintendent having a lot of interaction with the board?

Price: Yes ... but that doesn’t scare me. As president of the Administrators’ Association, in my role there, I’ve had a great deal of [interaction]. When I was working downtown, I had weekly, sometimes daily, interaction with board members.

Q: What are your thoughts about taking this new position?

Price: I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been kind of prepping myself for 35 years to take on this role, and I think I bring a lot to the table, in terms of experience, in terms of knowledge, in terms of communications skills, and the ability to bring people together around a common goal and move forward.

It’s ... going to be interesting to be part of it. I just wish the financial climate was a little bit better. That’s going to be the joker in the deck.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at SuttComm@san.rr.com.