By Billie Jo Jannen
For East County Magazine
September 22, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) -- The principals of Campo and Potrero elementary schools in Mountain Empire Unified School District were reassigned by the superintendent without warning on Sept. 9; shocked parents were issued hasty letters of explanation five days later.
Campo Principal Diane Yops was informed that she was being removed. A janitor was dispatched to collect her keys and, in the presence of parents and staff members, moved her office items to Potrero Elementary. There, the non-Spanish speaking educator will supervise a student body that is mostly made up of native Spanish speakers. Witnesses said she was forbidden to speak to anyone at the time of her removal.
At the same time, Potrero principal Barbara Cowling, a fully bilingual resident of Potrero and supervising principal of four other district schools, was informed that she was being removed from Potrero Elementary to focus exclusively on far-flung schools in Descanso, Pine Valley, Boulevard and Jacumba.
According to MEUSD Superintendent Steve Van Zant, the sudden move was intended to benefit district schools. “Their test scores are really low (at Potrero) and Diane was Title I Administrator of the Year, last year,” he said. Campo’s scores went up 70 points in the first year she was there, he added.
However, Campo parent Heather Sepulveda is skeptical of Van Zant’s motives: “If the intent was simply to put a new principal at Campo, wouldn’t that be done before moving this one? Why put the students through three different principals?”
Sepulveda said the friction between Yops and Van Zant has been noticeable to both staff and parents: “I think he doesn’t like that she’s a strong female. He is … a personality that likes to be right.”
Potrero parent Edward Barker is adamant that the move is ill-considered and will hurt students. “The principal (Cowling) should have stayed where she was. She was doing a great job,” Barker said. “The biggest concern (among parents) is to have a bilingual principal.”
Barker pointed out that having family conferences with a translator removes all privacy and that language barriers will make interaction difficult for both the principal and parents.
Worse yet, he added, what if a student has a problem, like molestation or other abuse? “She (the hypothetical student) needs to have confidence that she can talk with someone private and trustworthy,” Barker said. Trust, he added, is difficult to establish without the ability to communicate.
Van Zant was dismissive of the language concern, saying Yops would use a classroom aide or teacher to translate conversations with parents and students, a response that prompted Barker to wonder what impact that would have on classroom instruction.
According to a district employee, the daytime instruction staff at Potrero has been sharply reduced from last year’s two full-time and six part-time teaching assistants to two full-time and one part-time assistant – a loss of five part-time teaching assistants. The employee asked to not be identified out of fear of retaliation from the district.
The current staff includes 13 teachers, two special education aides, and a computer lab aide during school hours, and serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Additional aides are employed for its after school program, which is paid for from a separate fund than the daytime staff, Van Zant said. The current student population of Potrero Elementary is 254, he said.
Yops has been temporarily replaced by an interim principal, Dr. William Hall. The addition of another principal to the district’s stable of administrators brings the total to seven districtwide, according to the district’s salary schedule. This does not include the teaching assistant principals at Descanso, Pine Valley, Boulevard and Jacumba.
In a Sept. 14 letter to Campo parents, Van Zant admitted that though the additional principal position “…runs counter to the district’s attempt to shrink administrative costs, the fact that Potrero has grown to nearly 250 students means that a greater leadership presence there is necessary.”
Van Zant said that a permanent principal will be hired within a month to six weeks and input on the hire will be accepted from parents.
Barker has circulated a petition requesting the return of Cowling to Potrero Elementary and has visited Van Zant to present the request in person. Barker said the petition had been signed by 194 of the school’s 266 parents.
Barker said he has since called several times, but has yet to receive a response from the superintendent.
The principals were moved the day after the district’s regular school board meeting, leading some to wonder if the board of trustees had made the decision, but Van Zant said he had made the decision himself. The board of trustees approved a three-year renewal of Van Zant’s contract on June 23.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of the MEUSD board of trustees is at Jacumba Elementary at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 13.