Category Archives: Improving schools

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.

Mathematics
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” rachelnorton.com

Feb 28 meeting recap: layoffs will skip Superintendent’s Zone schools

Despite some tears and a few tense exchanges between Board members and union leadership, the Board tonight voted 5-1 (Fewer, Mendoza, Norton, Wynns and Yee in favor, Maufas opposed, Murase absent) to:

  • Issue preliminary layoff notices to 123 administrators and 210 instructional staff (teachers, nurses, counselors, etc), as well as 35 early education employees and 106 paraprofessionals (91 others will see their hours potentially reduced);
  • Conduct layoffs according to seniority but skip certain high-need credential areas (math, science, bilingual or special education) and all teachers working in the 14 Superintendent’s Zone schools (they are: Bryant ES, Bret Harte ES, Cesar Chavez ES, Carver ES, Drew ES, Flynn ES, John Muir ES, Malcolm X ES, Paul Revere K-8, Horace Mann/Buena Vista K-8, Everett MS, Mission HS, Thurgood Marshall HS, and John O’Connell HS).
  • The HR department presentation with data/logistics is here.

No one likes layoffs, and authorizing the issuance of layoff notices is the toughest vote the Board takes each year. The process is flawed in many ways — the state doesn’t pass a budget until June (or often later) and yet state law requires districts to notify employees in March if they might not have a job in August.  Uncertainty is bad for individual employees, for the administrators who don’t know who will staff their classrooms in the coming year, and for students who don’t know if their teachers will be there for them when they come back after the summer. 

This year, the annual layoff discussion came with the added twist of skipping the Superintendent’s Zone (SZ) schools. The Superintendent created the SZ in the 2010-11 school year, in an attempt to better focus resources on the district’s lowest performing schools and most underserved neighborhoods. The correlation isn’t perfect — there are a number of low-performing, high-need schools (El Dorado ES and Cleveland ES come to mind) that aren’t in the SZ, and some of the SZ schools are not low-performing (Malcolm X). However, the general idea behind the SZ is that schools (and students) in the Bayview and Mission neighborhood need extra attention and resources.

There has been confusion over the SZ, partly relating to the fact that our SIG schools — designated by the state and Federal government as some of the state’s lowest-performing schools deserving of highly-restricted but generous restructuring grants — are a subset of SZ schools. So, SIG schools get money that other SZ schools don’t get, and that money is governed by a separate (and strict) set of rules. In addition,  after the passage of Prop. A in 2008,  the Superintendent is allowed to unilaterally designate 25 schools “hard-to-staff” and offer teachers in those schools additional salary for teaching there.  All SZ schools are hard-to-staff, but not all hard-to-staff schools are SZ. Get it?

Still, the bottom line for the Superintendent in making the proposal to skip the SZ schools from layoffs was that we have invested millions of dollars in additional salary, professional development, and other resources in the chief asset of the SZ schools: their people. To simply drop them into a seniority-based layoff, he argued, would represent a waste of that investment.

The union leadership had its deeply-felt arguments as well: the annual layoff dance is akin to fighting over crumbs, when the real fight is better waged in Sacramento; and seniority is a bedrock issue for teacher unity — dividing the district’s teacher corps across schools is a strategy that demoralizes staff across the district and doesn’t address the real problem, which is that schools improve when we invest resources in them. Besides, there are many other struggling schools (the aforementioned El Dorado and Cleveland being excellent examples) which will now suffer a greater impact from layoffs because their equally-junior colleagues down the road will be skipped. To the teacher’s union, the Superintendent’s arguments were simply a divide and conquer strategy that represent a shot across the bow in yet another tough contract negotiation year.

Make no mistake, the decision to ask the Board to approve a wider authority for skips this year was provocative — the district created the SZ in 2010-11 but did not at that time articulate a plan to use it to make a case for “special skills and competencies” (the legal standard required under CA law to skip a teacher in a seniority-based layoff).  In February 2011, when we were asked to approve the layoff criteria for the current school year, SZ schools were not established as a skip criteria. There has never been a clearly-published criteria for what makes a school an SZ school, nor one for determining when a school has improved to the point that it is no longer eligible for the SZ.  Putting all of this together, tonight’s vote was a very bitter pill for the union to swallow, and the leadership let us know that they did not appreciate it.

So . . . my reasons? I had a hard time with this and spent a lot of time today trying to find a way to remain true to my commitment to support teachers in all of our schools, as well as my commitments to the students in our lowest-performing schools and poorest neighborhoods. I thought hard about a potential compromise — skipping just the nine SIG schools rather than all 14 SZ schools, but realized that such a move would create a disproportionate impact on four Bayview schools in the SZ — Charles Drew, Malcolm X, Bret Harte, and Thurgood Marshall. In the end, I found I accepted the need for layoffs should our budget picture become the worst case scenario, and decided to go with the lesser of two evils: a layoff strategy that preserves our investments in 14 of the district’s most struggling schools, as opposed to a layoff strategy that could, when all is said and done, put those investments at risk. Hopefully, if the district accesses the City’s Rainy Day Fund and reaches agreements with our unions that put additional money on the table, few or no layoffs will be necessary; but we won’t know that for a few more months.

Finally, I want to commend my colleagues for their respectful, thoughtful and heartfelt discussion on this very difficult issue tonight. Commissioner Fewer deserves special mention for going first and taking the most heat for her passionate and forthright stance. Her actions tonight took great courage, and made it a little easier for everyone else to stand with her.

But wait there’s more! Transportation policy update

We were all pretty much in a daze after taking the required four (count ‘em, four!) votes on the various aspects of the layoffs, so it came as a surprise to me that a lengthy update on General Education transportation policy had also been scheduled for tonight’s meeting — somehow I missed it in the agenda!

But this was an important update as well — many more schools will see transportation cuts next year according to the schedule first announced in December 2010.  The following elementary schools are expected to lose transportation entirely in the 2012-13 school year, subject to final approval in mid-March: Alamo, Argonne, Buena Vista, Cleveland, El Dorado, Glen Park, Hillcrest, Lafayette, McKinley, New Traditions, Ortega, Parks, Redding, Sheridan, Starr King, Stevenson, Taylor, Tenderloin, Ulloa, Vis Valley.

A number of other schools will gain routes, in order to maintain or expand access to specific citywide programs (language immersion, K-8) from CTIP-1 neighborhoods.

For those seeking more information about ongoing transportation cuts/realignment, here is the Powerpoint presented to the Board this evening.

News roundup – Oct. 2-9, 2011

Some very interesting education-related news this week:

There were also some great blog posts/news articles about how the late Steve Jobs created technology that has really benefited children with disabilities, particularly the iPad.  This one, by Tim Carmody in Wired, is the best. 

Finally, hot off the presses, Governor Brown came through and signed SB 946 (Steinberg), which introduces a limited mandate for health insurers to pay for autism treatment — at least until the Federal health care bill is fully implemented in 2014. This is great for families who have been struggling to pay for autism treatment, or fighting with their insurance companies because autism treatment should already have been covered by California health insurance policies under AB 88, the state’s mental health parity law. It’s a big step forward and should provide the state budget with some relief, because schools and regional centers will no longer be the payers of last resort for autism treatment.