His kind of school

Critics charge that Sloan hand-picked high-achieving students

Debbie Nuzzo says there is something almost cult-like about the support that Jeff Sloan has in the Marsh school community, referring to the school as “Sloantown.”

Nuzzo, the registrar at Bidwell Junior High School, has been with the Chico Unified School District for 32 years and at Bidwell since 1977. She is convinced that Sloan turned on his charisma only for the kinds of high-achieving, well-behaved students he wanted to come to Marsh.

Marsh’s lack of diversity and discipline policies have recently come under scrutiny, and some believe those issues played a role in the school board’s decision to oust Sloan as Marsh principal.

Nuzzo said Sloan attempted to keep underachieving students out of Marsh, including the special-education students who tend to drive down a school’s test scores, while trying to attract high performers.

Bidwell has five special-ed teachers, while Chico Junior has four and Marsh has two. Marsh has more students in its Gifted and Talented Education (G.A.T.E.) Program than Bidwell and Chico Junior combined.

Nuzzo spent one day of her work week during the 2000-01 school year in the Marsh office, where she observed prospective students and their parents’ visits. Nuzzo said she was soon able to predict, based on a families’ dress, body language and behavior, what sort of reception they would get from Sloan.

“I could tell the ones who would get the golf cart tour [of the campus] and the ones who would leave with a Form 10 [intra-district transfer request] in their hands,” she said.

In spring 1999, Sloan visited Bidwell to talk to its seventh-graders who would be in the Marsh attendance area when the new junior high opened the following fall. Nuzzo said she attended that meeting and heard Sloan make some outlandish claims in a bid to lure students to Marsh.

Sloan told the seventh-graders, she said, that at Marsh as eighth-graders they would get to choose what the cafeteria served for lunch, and that Marsh would have an outdoor theater and an Olympic-sized swimming pool, among other promises. When a student wondered how he could possibly accomplish so many things, Nuzzo recalled, Sloan’s reply was: “I don’t ask permission; I ask forgiveness.”

Another allegation that has been leveled against Sloan is that he was heavy-handed in running students with behavior problems out of Marsh. However, statistics reveal that claim to be “unfounded,” said Bernard Vigallon, the district’s director of alternative education.

Vigallon said that, for the five years that Marsh has been open, Bidwell students were involved in a total of 41 expulsion hearings, while Chico Junior had 35 and Marsh 23. Statistics for student suspensions over the same five-year period show that Bidwell averaged 212 per year, while Chico Junior averaged 183 and Marsh 102.

Marsh science teacher Anne Stephens said Sloan is “by far the most effective disciplinarian” she’s ever been associated with.

“When I worked at Bidwell, behavior was a revolving door” between the Principal’s Office and the classroom, Stephens said. “Jeff deals with it” by giving students consequences, calling their parents and, if necessary, referring them to other programs.

Marsh has fewer non-whites than the other junior highs despite the fact that Chapman School, with the district’s highest minority population, is supposed to be one of its feeder schools. In fact, two out of every three Chapman students transfer to Chico Junior or Bidwell. Part of the explanation for the exodus may be family tradition, but another reason is that Chico Junior has a Spanish immersion program and Marsh does not.

“Each of our sites has a fundamental responsibility to make kids in their attendance area feel welcome and accepted,” said district Superintendent Scott Brown. “If Spanish immersion is an answer [for Marsh], good, but if there are other answers we need to keep looking for them.”

Marsh teachers attribute the school’s lack of diversity to community demographics and to district policies that allow students to transfer outside their attendance zone. Even with a majority of Chapman students going to a junior high other than Marsh, more students want to transfer into Marsh than there is space available.

“We’d love to make our campus more diverse,” said history teacher Lisa Reynolds, adding that any claim of racism at Marsh is “a bunch of horse you-know-what.”

School board President Steve O’Bryan wants to see Marsh start to look more like the population it is supposed to be serving. “I think that the concentration of wealth [currently at Marsh] … would be better spread out among the parent-teacher associations of the other junior high schools.”—D.W.