OCEANSIDE —- Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan has been called everything from a savior to a sellout.

Noonan —- the controversial Latino superintendent who helped eliminate bilingual classes in the Oceanside Unified School District —- said he is somewhere in between.

“People have called me a lot of things,” said Noonan, 60, who celebrates his four-year anniversary with the district today. “But if you’re going to do what’s best, you sometimes have to make radical changes. I did. That doesn’t make me a hero or a vendito, a sellout. It just makes me a superintendent doing his job.”

The $156,000 job has included “radical changes” that rocked the district and garnered national attention.

Noonan’s most controversial move involved strict enforcement of Proposition 227, a 1998 voter-approved mandate to end bilingual education. While superintendents in other districts approved hundreds of waivers that allowed students to remain in Spanish-based classes, Noonan placed all Spanish-speaking students into English-only classes.

State test scores for Oceanside’s limited-English students skyrocketed after the switch, doubling in some grade levels since 1998.

Even so, Noonan’s strict approach to Prop. 227 angered some Latino parents,
who called on the California Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate the district’s implementation of the measure.

An investigation by the Office of Civil Rights initially found that the district failed to consistently follow its own policies. But last month,
after the district implemented a master plan for dealing with English-language learners, the Office of Civil Rights ended its investigation and found the district had adequately addressed parents’

The state education department’s investigation continues, and the department will send representatives to visit school sites sometime this school year,
said district spokeswoman Cindy Sabato.

For months before and during the probes, parents and activists protested outside board meetings, and photocopied fliers of Noonan began appearing on telephone poles in Oceanside’s Latino neighborhood.

“(The fliers) said, ‘Ken Noonan, you can’t hide; you’re the sellout of Oceanside,'” said Concha Hernandez Greene, who works at Chavez Resource Center in Balderrama Park, where she tore down dozens of fliers last month.

One angry parent who supports bilingual education called Noonan’s actions
“disappointing to a lot of Latinos.”

“We thought when he was selected that he would strengthen bilingual classes and work hard to preserve them,” said father Ismael Avilez, who continues to lead a group of parents fighting for the return of bilingual classes. “It was the opposite, which saddened a lot of us.”

Noonan, who spent 25 years supporting bilingual education as a member of the California Association for Bilingual Education, says Avilez and other angry parents should blame the law, not the superintendent, for slashing bilingual education.

“Prop 227 was a catalyst,” Noonan said. “I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t bring it in here. But I had to implement it. I wasn’t going to try to find a way out of it. It’s my job to follow the law.”

The district hired Noonan to improve education, not to make friends, said assistant City Manager Jose Aponte, who served on the selection committee that hired Noonan in the 1996-1997 school year.

“The world these kids will enter after school is not an easy, soft,
huggy-huggy place; it’s a place where you have to work hard to get somewhere,” said Aponte, a Latino who has a child at El Camino High School.
“Ken was a no-nonsense risk-taker who wasn’t afraid to make unpopular choices that would prepare our kids for that world.”

Noonan, who began his tenure in 1997 with a list of blunt criticisms of the district, said the district needs to teach students —- especially Latinos —- to aim higher than expected.

“We’re teaching these kids for the University of California system, not to become assistant managers at fast-food restaurants in the barrio,” he said.
“It’s a scandal. If the same number of white, middle class kids were dropping out or not going to college, we’d all be out of our jobs.”

Rising scores

When it comes to test scores, Noonan’s blunt approach to Prop 227 paid off.

Since 1998, elementary school students’ reading and math scores have doubled on the Stanford Achievement Test-Ninth Edition, the test the state uses to rank schools.

“If you read well in English, you test well in English,” said Laurel Elementary School Principal Kimo Marquardt. Laurel, which teaches some of the district’s most economically disadvantaged students, showed the greatest test score gains in Oceanside last year, jumping 120 points in the state academic index. Oceanside schools averaged a 47-point gain.

About 90 percent of Laurel students are poor enough to qualify for free or discounted lunches. For about 65 percent of students, English is a second language.

Laurel’s rising scores are an example of what schools can do when they stop making excuses for low test scores, Noonan said.

“Before I came, every time test scores were reported, a spokesperson at the district would say, ‘Our kids never do well because they’re Latino, they don’t speak English at home, they’re poor or they’re in military families that move too often,'” Noonan said. “We were blaming the kids for not learning. That doesn’t make any sense.

“If you don’t speak English at home, that doesn’t matter. You still have to be able to read the same stuff everyone else reads. Under this administration, all children were going to be held to the same standard.”

Test improvements were not as dramatic at the high school level, where scores improved by 1 to 12 percentile points since 1998.

Noonan said even he was surprised by the high elementary test scores.

“In light of 25 years of supporting bilingual (education) and believing this couldn’t be done, then watching it happen before my eyes, I have to say I was wrong,” he said.

“It’s not an easy thing to say. They don’t teach you how to say that in
‘superintendent school.'”

Zero tolerance

Nixing bilingual education isn’t the only hard-line decision Noonan has made in his four years with the district.

Noonan also implemented a zero-tolerance discipline policy that lays down mandatory suspensions for students who commit —- or even threaten to commit —- violent acts on campus.

“We had developed a culture of tolerance at schools —- tolerance of bullies and threats, which are every bit as violent as acts of violence under the education code,” Noonan said. “Parents said to me, ‘We’re tired of our kids coming home scared.'”

The policy requires a five-day recommended suspension for any student in third grade or higher who fights, attempts to fight or threatens another person. For second offenses, the district recommends mandatory expulsion.

“The district wants every student to feel safe, and I do,” said Principal Shelly Morr of Palmquist Elementary School.

That safety comes with a price of nearly 400 expulsions from district schools in three years.

Expulsion rates more than doubled after the zero-tolerance policy was implemented in 1997. The new policy led to 182 expulsions and 2,150 suspensions during the first year.

“We don’t like kicking kids out. But we’ll do it,” Noonan said. “If kids are violent on campus, the other kids can’t feel safe and they can’t learn. That won’t be tolerated.”

The suspension and expulsion rates dropped substantially in the 1999-2000 school year, from 230 in 1998-1999 to 183 last year. To date, suspensions are on track to drop again, with 73 suspensions as of Friday.

Such a hard-line policy is reassuring but can be cumbersome, said Morr.

“Well, if we had every kid shove somebody on one day, it wouldn’t work,” she said. “But how likely is that?”

Ironies and contradictions

Personally and professionally, Noonan is a mass of cultural contradictions.
Part Irish, part Mexican and part Papago Indian, he grew up speaking both English and Spanish at home.

When his wife of 34 years, Colleen, isn’t dragging him to the opera, he said, he kicks back to old-fashioned country music.

The ironies spill over into his professional life. He has an easy smile that draws people into his corner office, but he puts on a critical,
down-to-business face as soon as he sits down.

Educators say he always listens to suggestions but won’t always follow them.

“You always have a forum with him,” said Morr. “He doesn’t always agree with you, but you know he’ll sit down with you and listen.”

The president of the Oceanside Teachers Association, Aaron Marcy, agreed.

“He works really hard to be receptive to teachers,” said Marcy, an El Camino High School shop teacher who leads the union. He and Noonan meet weekly to discuss teacher morale and concerns. “He tells us over and over again,
‘We’re all in this together.'”

Contact staff writer Erin Walsh at (760)433-0704 or e-mail at ewalsh@nctimes.com.

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