Category Archives: Improving schools

The problem we all live with

I finally listened to Part II of This American Life’s two-part series on desegregation in America, and I highly recommend taking some time to listen to the series if you care about school assignment policy and diverse schools.  Part I is about the benefits of integrated schools, and has some truly awful-to-hear excerpts from public comment at a Missouri school board meeting after a white-majority district learns that students from a black-majority school in a neighboring district will be coming to their community.

Part II is fascinating. It’s about Hartford, Connecticut, a majority high-poverty black/latino district, and how after a long court case, the district is trying a voluntary desegregation program. There are several important ways that the Hartford situation differs from San Francisco, and some important parallels.

In many ways we are already trying a voluntary desegregation program  here in San Francisco and failing badly. Maybe the attractions of the new Willie Brown MS will help us turn that corner — building a program that clearly will attract white and asian families. Maybe. But if these programs make one thing clear, it’s that desegregation policy is not easy.

Listen to the programs (free if you stream them from the web site) and let me know what you think.

Let’s celebrate inclusive schools week!

Every year, the first week of December is Inclusive Schools Week. More than anything else, Inclusive Schools Week is about inspiring all of us to think bigger about who we are, which students our schools serve, and how we can serve every student better.

So, to help get you in the mood, here are some stories I find incredibly inspirational:

Including Samuel is a documentary made by a photojournalist whose second son, Samuel, was born with a disability. Samuel’s family believes strongly he should be included in mainstream classrooms, but they also understand the trade-offs that full inclusion can require.

Here is Samuel’s father, Dan Habib, giving a TED talk:

Harper’s Playground came to be after  Harper’s parents learned they would be parents of a child with a disability. They immediately wondered: how would they help Harper play with other children and find friends? From that, a movement toward more inclusive play spaces for children was born.

Big news on student achievement

The school district’s Academic Performance Index (API) for 2012 has been released, and it breaks through an important psychological barrier: 800. The state has set that number as the target for all schools, and last year the district fell just shy at 796. This year — 807.

“Surpassing the 800 API mark is a huge milestone for our city and our schools,” Superintendent Carranza was quoted as saying in the school district’s press release on the API data (PDF). “San Francisco can count itself among only a few large urban school districts in the State that have exceeded the 800 target for academic performance.”

Out of 98 schools reporting, 51 have an API score of 800 or above; of the schools with an API of 799 or less, most met their state “growth targets” — the minimum level of improvement expected by the state.

Of course, it’s important to keep these things in perspective –many schools did not meet their growth targets for all subgroups — African American students, Latino students, Samoan students, students with disabilities–and the school district continues to have a broad gap in achievement between different racial groups, between English speakers and English learners, and between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers.  Still, the state has set the yardstick: an API over 800 means that more students are achieving at grade-level than not, and that is something to pause (briefly) and celebrate.

Download district schools’ 2012 API scores (PDF) >>>>>>>>

SFUSD posts strong academic results for 2011-12

Last Friday, President Norman Yee and I were proud to stand alongside Superintendent Carranza and other district leaders to announce the district’s scores on the 2011-12 California Standards Test (CST or STAR test). The scores added another data point to the trend of gradual improvement for all SFUSD students in English/Language Arts and Math.

English/Language Arts:
Overall, 60.5 percent of all students in grades 2-11 scored proficient or above, up from 50.5 percent in 2008. In the Superintendent’s Zone, fewer students scored proficient (35.5 percent) but compared to just 19.4 percent proficient in these schools in 2008, the gains were impressive. The nine SIG schools (those receiving three-year Federal School Improvement Grants ending in 2013) increased to 36.6 percent proficient compared to 18.2 percent proficient just four years ago.

Overall, 67.6 percent of all students in grades 2-7 scored proficient or above, up from 59.4 percent in 2008. In the Superintendent’s Zone, fewer students scored proficient in Math (48.8 percent) but compared to just 25.1 percent proficient in these schools in 2008, the gains were impressive. The nine SIG schools (those receiving three-year Federal School Improvement Grants ending in 2013) increased to 50.4 percent proficient compared to 23.5 percent proficient just four years ago.

More data and charts are posted here, and at the Committee of the Whole on Sept. 18 the Board will receive an in-depth presentation on our 2011-12 achievement data. Stay tuned!

Gearing up for a new school year

Over the weekend, the Board and the district’s new leadership team met in retreat to set our priorities for the new school year (the first day of school is just about three weeks away!). Though most people know our new Superintendent Richard Carranza, you may not know our new Deputy Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero (until recently the Assistant Superintendent in charge of the Mission Superintendent’s Zone schools).  With his promotion, Guadalupe will now oversee all of the Area teams supervising school sites, Academics and Professional Development  (APD), Special Education, Early Education and Student Support Services. We have also hired Luis Valentino, a LAUSD veteran, to run APD as our Chief Academic Officer (DeeDee Desmond, who has been the interim CAO for the past two years, will now be running the Bayview Superintendent’s Zone schools — Dr. Patricia Gray retired from that position in June). General Counsel Don Davis is also newish — he joined the school district in January.

At the retreat, Luis, Guadalupe and Richard told the Board that all of the work this year will emphasize strengthening what they call the “instructional core” — the three interdependent components of teachers, content and students — to expand teachers’ knowledge and skill, provide academically challenging content, and fostering highly-engaged and joyful learners. To do this, they will focus on a group of interdependent, high-priority actions:

  • Beginning to implement the Common Core state standards in English/Language Arts and Math;
  • Building teachers’ and administrators’ capacity to access and use student learning data to better inform instruction and meet each student’s individual needs;
  • Build professional learning systems to expand the capacity of all staff;
  • Provide tiered levels of support and intervention to support all students;
  • Provide students with disabilities specially designed instruction in the least restrictive environment;
  • Create a coherent and cohesive alignment between preschool and elementary school.

Richard told the Board that he has several longer-term priorities, including trying to advance the long-discussed plan to move Ruth Asawa School of the Arts closer to the City’s cultural and arts hub at Civic Center, as well as transforming our student nutrition program.  Finally, Board members discussed communication protocols with Richard — how do we want the Superintendent to communicate with us, how does he want us to communicate with staff, and what in general are the “ground rules” for the Board-Superintendent-Leadership relationship.  One thing I’m very pleased about is that our new Superintendent is  open to experimenting with social media and will be tweeting using the handle @SFUSD_Supe.  This will get the  Superintendent out of the central office “bubble” a bit, and will  help build his relationship with the broader district and City residents. 

For anyone interested in the learning more about the district’s progress on various initiatives, I highly recommend downloading the latest strategic plan progress report, “Walking the Talk,” which was released in June. It’s a very comprehensive overview of where the district is today and where we seek to go next.

Finally, tomorrow (August 1)  is another big day: administrators report back to work for the 2012-13 school year, beginning with the two-day Administrator Institute. It’s a professional development extravaganza that seeks to set the tone and frame the work for the coming year; it’s sometimes tough to strike the right tone between being honest about the many challenges the district faces (budget, gaps in achievement between groups, etc.) and getting people “pumped” for the work ahead.

Recap: A new Superintendent!

Richard listened as Carlos and members of the Board said lots of nice things about him; his daughter sat at the staff table and recorded every word for posterity.

The big news from tonight’s meeting is that the Board unanimously voted to confirm Richard Carranza as the new Superintendent of SFUSD, beginning in July 2012. He will receive a $245,000 annual salary each year for the term of his three year contract.

Richard has never been a Superintendent before, but he has served as Carlos’ deputy for the last two years and has proved himself more than up to the job of Superintendent of SFUSD. He is smart, hardworking and focused on the job at hand; we like that he has school-age children (two lovely and poised daughters) who are attending (and excelling at) SFUSD schools.  In his remarks this evening, Richard told a story about a time in his life when he wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college. His father took him to work at his job cutting sheet metal in 112 degree Arizona heat, and told him: “I don’t want you to work like me. Work with your head, not your hands.” That was the lesson that set him on the road to being an educator, Richard said, as his proud family looked on (one thing I learned tonight — Richard is an identical twin, and you would be hard-pressed to tell him from his brother Ruben –four minutes younger — if they dressed and combed their hair alike).  Carlos was visibly moved as the Board voted, because having Richard succeed him has long been a dream for him.

The bottom line is that Richard is the right man for the district at this moment. We have made a lot of progress since Carlos arrived, and Richard has proved himself to be a person with the vision, skill and the drive to carry the district to the next level even as he has a deep and first-hand knowledge of where we have been. In addition, I will always be personally grateful to Richard for the way he has championed the special education overhaul.

Other items of note from tonight’s agenda:

  • Board members unanimously passed a resolution authored by several student delegates, articulating a broad bathroom access policy for students. Though each school will be able to craft their own specific rules about bathroom access, the new policy makes clear that bathroom access is a right, and students should not have to explain their bodily functions or restrain them at the order of an adult. Bathrooms should remain unlocked during the school day, and students should be allowed to access them as needed as long as that right to access is not abused.
  • We also passed updates to the Board’s comprehensive health education policy, and heard a presentation of data about some of the health challenges that still affect our students. The updated policy makes clear that health education is a priority for SFUSD students and requests that the district redouble its effort to be sure all students are receiving the recommended number of lessons each year.
  • Large groups from Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy and Buena Vista Horace Mann each came to discuss their principal leadership (the Harvey Milk group spoke in favor of their current principal while the Buena Vista Horace Mann group spoke in favor of a past administrator taking the soon-to-be vacant principal’s job). We heard from teachers who are affected by the Board’s authorization of layoffs back in February, and were urged to rescind those layoffs as soon as possible. A group of non-English-speaking parents came to advocate for more Transitional Kindergarten sites.

Unscientific survey: TV and movies in the classroom?

I received a heartfelt email recently from a parent who has decided, with regret, to  leave SFUSD for private high school next year. There are a lot of reasons for the decision, but one particular thing really rankles:

Both of my children have watched dozens and dozens and dozens of hours of film and video that is often totally content free, and as a rule, unrelated to curriculum.

The parent went on to offer one concrete suggestion — keep track of and limit the amount of television and videos that are being shown in classrooms.

I’m not opposed to using TV and movie content in the classroom if it can be directly related to the standards and the curriculum being taught, and that is also the official district policy, as I understand it (I don’t know if there are specific limits on how much TV is too much).  Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Henry V is a case in point — if this doesn’t bring Shakespeare alive, I don’t know what does!

News clips from CNN, “The Daily Show,” documentaries or other content can really enliven a lecture and engage kids in discussion.  Personally, I think the “Daily Show” report on the Ethnic Studies debate in Tucson is the sharpest social commentary I’ve seen in quite a while and would spark a great discussion in any high school or middle school classroom.

When my kids were in elementary school, teachers occasionally showed movies in class — usually on the last day before a vacation or at the end of the day after a class party when everyone (kids and teacher) was fried. I didn’t/don’t love the practice but I never felt it was so widespread or common that I had to protest.  I’m not aware that my daughters’ middle school teachers are using much, if any TV or movies in the classroom, and officially it is district policy for such content to be directly related to what is taught.

When I was in middle school, my beloved biology teacher Ms. Pensky used to have Friday movie day and show us reels of educational science films (some of them admittedly pretty hokey but still with legitimate scientific content).  But showing “House” and calling it science? (I’ve been told this recently happened in a high-performing high school but haven’t personally verified the claim).   Last year I was visiting a very low-performing school with an assistant superintendent and we came upon a math class watching the movie “The Blind Side.” (The teacher was aware enough to be embarrassed when we walked in).

So, here’s my unscientific survey for current SFUSD parents: what are your kids’ experiences with TV and video in the classroom? Do not name schools or teachers in the comments — this is not a “gotcha” exercise but instead I’m trying to get a sense of how widespread these practices are and whether a clarification of district policy is needed. I’d also love to hear from teachers about how you use TV and video in your classrooms — as I said above, I think there are some very legitimate uses.

You can answer in the comments or send me an email if you would rather comment privately: comments “at”