Tonight’s meeting was another long one . . . items get backed up late in the year because of meeting cancellations during the holidays; we had our long-scheduled report from the CAC for Special Education, a great discusion about the group’s longstanding recommendations to the district, and a presentation from Special Education director Clare Davies about inclusive practices in the school district (as a way of commemorating National Inclusive Schools Week). It was gratifying to hear Commissioners request that the Superintendent and staff finally answer the long list of recommendations the CAC has been making for as long as I’ve been paying attention. We need to close the loop – either commit to implementing recommendations, describing how and when we’re going to get there, or definitively say we’re not going to implement particular recommendations, and describe why.
Still, I’m sorry to say that the important discussions of special education and inclusive schools were overshadowed by the big topic of the night: the continuing turmoil at Cobb Elementary School over the fate of the Montessori and General Education programs. Supporters of continuing a General Education (GE) program at Cobb mobilized again to show the school board how strongly they feel about keeping Cobb the way it is; there was also a contingent of families from the Montessori program. GE supporters wore orange stickers; Montessori supporters wore yellow baseball hats with red stickers (“Oh no!” one board member whispered to me when she saw the color-differentiated groupings. “This is supposed to be one school!”).
For the most part, comments were respectful, but anger definitely spilled over. It’s clear that the GE supporters feel disrespected; and that they view the Montessori program as an alien presence rather than a welcoming or workable option for their students. From the Montessori side, there is clearly bewilderment at the backlash — the Montessori supporters view their program as so good and so necessary that it’s hard for them to understand that the GE families and staff view them as insensitive interlopers.
I don’t subscribe to that view, and I stand by what I told the Chronicle this week: public Montessori in San Francisco was conceived with the best of intentions – to offer a high-quality, high-impact curriculum that has a good track record with a African-American students in other urban districts AND represents a significant opportunity to increase diversity at a racially-isolated site. But I acknowledge that the community outreach and inclusiveness of the Montessori program at Cobb has been deeply flawed — and I’m not sure there is a way to go back and do it over, because of all the anger, bitterness and misinformation swirling around on all sides.
So here are our options, as I see them:
- Continue with the plan that was originally approved by the district’s Program Placement Committee last spring, which calls for gradually phasing out GE at Cobb and gradually expanding Montessori to encompass Pre-K through 5th grades. I need to be clear about several important aspects of this option: first, NO child currently enrolled in Cobb GE would be displaced from his or her school – so today’s kindergarteners in Cobb’s GE classrooms would be able to continue on at the school through the 5th grade. Second, opportunities to transfer IN to Montessori would be limited after the primary grades, and the expectation is (based on the existing waiting list for Pre-K and K Montessori at Cobb) that space would be very limited anyway. So children who are currently at Cobb would probably not be able to transition to Montessori after Kindergarten, but their younger siblings could be given priority in the program for Pre-K or K. This option would also require GE teachers at Cobb to either become Montessori-certified (a rigorous, expensive and time-consuming process), or gradually be consolidated out of Cobb to find openings at other schools, based on their seniority. (Some have questioned whether an all-Montessori Cobb would continue as an inclusion school, and I have been assured in the past that inclusion and Montessori fit together beautifully; in addition I would strongly argue in favor of retaining the Slingerland-themed Special Day Class at the school, with the caveat that the SDC students be fully integrated into the school community and school events).
- Figure out a way to accommodate both programs at the school, something both sides tell me is impossible because of space needs and overall rancor between the two groups.
- Move Montessori to some other site, at an as-yet unknown cost to the school district and leaving Cobb back where it was before the Montessori program was placed there: an underenrolled and racially-isolated program struggling to fill its classrooms. It’s also important to be honest about Cobb’s track record in student achievement: African-American students at the school have generally outperformed the district-wide average for African-American achievement, but the school has lagged in moving African-American students from basic to proficient , compared to the same measurement for all students at the school and African-American students district-wide. It has an API of 700 (in 2008-09 there was a 30-point drop after several consecutive years of API gains) and the school is in Year 2 of Program Improvement.
- Move Cobb’s GE students and teachers to another site. This could keep them together as a group but would no doubt introduce great inconvenience, hardship and stress to families that are already struggling.
- Close the Montessori program because we can’t convince African-American families that it is a high-quality option with a good track record for their children and because we believe it’s not equitable to put resources into programs that attract middle- and upper-middle class families of any race (which Montessori undoubtedly does, even if Maria Montessori never intended to build an “elite” educational model). I call this the “here we go again” option, and in my opinion, going for it is like throwing in the towel on the whole idea of innovation in this district.
- A fifth option? I’m open to ideas.
The administration is expected to come back to us with a recommendation in January, and at that time we’ll have a full discussion of the various options. Until then, I’m left feeling
- Sad – because it feels like the road to hell is paved with good intentions;
- Angry - because I feel there has been manipulation and bad behavior on both sides, making a bad situation much worse; and
- Frustrated - because there are no good choices here. I remain convinced that this district should continue to implement a public Montessori program, but it’s crazy-making that we are having these basic discussions about community engagement that should have been the starting point three years ago.
Other actions from tonight:
- The Board unanimously passed a resolution requiring all teachers to obtain appropriate certification to teach English Learners by next year;
- We unanimously passed a resolution (authored by yours truly) supporting The New Day For Learning initiative in our district and calling for the Initiative Director to put together a plan for expanding community schools in our district;
- We unanimously passed a resolution in support of the 2010 Census — which is key for California and for San Francisco County, both historically undercounted areas;
- We also unanimously passed legislative principles for the Board, which also clarify the role of the Rules, Policy and Legislation Committee in adhering to those principles when it takes positions on legislation on behalf of the entire Board of Education.