"I told them our expectations are very high and to put their own personal politics aside," Serna recalled. "It was going to take a lot of hard work on their part, a lot of diligence to turn the district around in a positive way to benefit the children."
The new school board appointed Sweeney, then a deputy superintendent, to the top job.
At the urging of its staff, the board adopted Open Court in May 1997. That same month, the board reassigned to the classroom four principals and three vice principals whom Sweeney believed were unable to effectively manage their campuses--the first of 13 such reassignments over three years.
Sweeney also reorganized the district's downtown headquarters, reassigning 25 administrators, some to lesser jobs.
The staff changes came to be known as the May Massacre.
The district's actions have triggered 13 lawsuits from school and downtown administrators, and a storm of criticism from community leaders, who accuse Sweeney and the school board of targeting minority administrators, a charge the school officials deny.
Despite the turmoil, school district leaders have moved forward with reforms. Last year, they adopted their ambitious, three-year plan to improve test scores, attendance, graduation rates and other measures of achievement.
In the process, Sacramento has suddenly become a model for other districts eager to duplicate its success. Droves of teachers and administrators from Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno and other cities around the state have begun flocking to its classrooms for insight. Los Angeles Unified is especially interested in Sacramento's use of just two reading programs and is considering a similar approach.
The state, which has already mandated phonics in textbooks, also has studied Sacramento's accountability system in designing its own measures to hold schools responsible for student improvement.
The excitement in Sacramento was apparent this month at a retreat the district held for its elementary principals at Lake Tahoe.
Sweeney and his assistants handed out awards for school performance on the Stanford 9. Principals cheered one another. They hugged. They sang. They even poked fun at Sweeney, who closed the evening with a short pep talk.
"When you do the right things," he told the 60 administrators, "you get results."