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September 5, 2006 > If at first you don't succeed

If at first you don't succeed

by Steve Warga

In early July, Hayward's new mayor, Mike Sweeney, spoke of his vision for the city. Mincing no words, Sweeney argued that unsafe and academically inferior Hayward schools hurt all residents, not just students. "If schools improve in the areas of safety and academics, it bodes very well for our community. If we don't, I think we'll have great difficulty making the kind of progress we all want to see." It's a persuasive argument. However, this is not Sweeney's first time making it. He was mayor once before, from 1990 to 1994, and his efforts then were short on results.

Will his good intentions go further today than they did 12 years ago when the state of the schools was only slightly less deplorable? The answer to this question depends heavily on the extent of cooperation from the superintendent's office. Sweeney says the superintendent did little in the '90s with ideas offered by a committee of public officials, district personnel and concerned citizens. He says that the group produced some useful proposals, but "sadly, the district chose not to listen." What is different between then and now? Well, the superintendent, for one thing.

Beginning the second year of a three year contract, Hayward Unified School District (HUSD) Superintendent, Dr. Dale Vigil, lists the same priorities as the mayor: safety and academic performance. Before he could tackle these critical issues, however, Vigil (pronounced "va-heel") had to stop HUSD's financial hemorrhaging. Since his 2005 hiring, he has pulled the district out of an $18 million hole dug some three years ago. "We had 35 schools operating like districts. We're not control freaks by any means, but they are in the district." Having returned the district to solid financial footing, Vigil seems ready to tackle the mayor's priorities. Their common goal is to reverse HUSD's continuing loss of students to neighboring Castro Valley and New Haven districts. To do so, they must improve safety and academic achievement.

True to his campaign promises, Sweeney convened a mini-summit with Vigil and City Manager Jesus Armas within days of his opening remarks July 11. The parties agreed to commence regular meetings involving district and school board personnel, city officials and representatives of Hayward Area Recreation and Park District (HARD). Bringing HARD into the mix reflects a mutual interest in producing more after-school activities appealing and safe enough to compete with the false allure of street life and so called "gang-banging".

For this approach to work, HUSD must finally change a key policy in their high schools. All parties involved agree that it's time to return to a "closed campus" model of schooling. Sweeney says, "It's something I supported; actually we recommended it back in the early '90s.  Closed campuses make both the school district and the police department's jobs a whole lot easier." Under current open campus policies, students are free to come and go to classes all day. For some students, this means little more than a chance to catch a quick lunch at nearby fast food restaurants. For others, however, open campus means a chance to leave early and never return. Police officers confirm that if kids aren't in school, chances are they'll be on the streets causing problems both mild and severe.

It's only a start on a long, tough road for HUSD. Vigil and Sweeney are likeminded. "At the core of all this is, I think, raising expectations," Sweeney asserts. Vigil agrees, adding, "How do you make an environment where kids feel, not only physically safe, but emotionally." And he's adamant that parental involvement is the real key to success. "It's the parents providing leadership with teachers that make schools strong."

Admittedly, eight weeks of brain-storming should not be expected to produce substantial changes yet. HUSD's problem will take years to resolve. Plans must be carefully drawn and options considered, but it's all just words on paper without action. Public officials too often substitute words for actions, promises for results. Acknowledging this, Mayor Sweeney has invited TCV to visit this issue again in a couple of months. We agreed.

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