Category Archives: Not so great things going on

Gateway HS’ velvet rope

Another update: I am shutting down comments on this post as they are getting out of hand on all sides. Suffice it to say that some people are very angry at Gateway and some people are very angry with me for calling out Gateway in the way I did. I had a very good, frank discussion with Sharon Olken this morning and apologized to her for questioning her integrity and motives. She graciously accepted my apology and explained what Gateway is trying to accomplish. I credit the school for having the best of intentions but I still strongly disagree with the policy — I don’t think it will accomplish what they want it to. We agreed to disagree on this issue for now, and I am coming to visit the HS for the first time in a while in a few weeks. I will write a longer post later when I have more time.

Update: I just spoke to Jill Tucker of the Chronicle, who is writing about this issue for tonight. She confirms that Gateway will hold two lotteries: one after Oct. 4 and one (assuming there are any seats unfilled) after the regular January deadline. Gateway HS has not yet responded to my emails so that’s all I know — I’ll be waiting to read Jill’s reporting. 

In the past I’ve been an admirer of Gateway Public Schools, a charter school operator that runs Gateway HS and Gateway MS here in SFUSD. Gateway MS’ charter barely squeaked through in 2010 on a 4-3 vote — I was in the majority.

Tonight, I’m sorry I voted for them. I learned today that Gateway HS has set up an “early application deadline” of October 4, 2013 for the 2014-15 school year. Yeah, this Oct. 4– as in 25 days from today.  The only reason that makes sense is because when we approved the middle school’s charter three years ago, the Board made very clear that Gateway MS students would not have priority enrollment into Gateway HS. Now, the first class of Gateway middle-schoolers is ready to enter high school, so the schools have quietly set up a two-tier enrollment system with an insanely early deadline that was only publicized to current Gateway MS students.

Gateway HS is very small, and incredibly popular. Someone (I can’t remember who) told me last year that they had crunched the numbers and based on the ratio of applications to seats, that Gateway is more selective than Harvard. So giving the MS students a leg up is no laughing matter — it’s a serious advantage over the rest of students across San Francisco who are interested in attending Gateway HS. What’s worse, we know that the earlier you set an application deadline, the more you disadvantage families who are not connected to the Internet or parent networks and/or who don’t speak English. So setting an earlier deadline isn’t just advantaging current MS students — it’s advantaging families who are savvy enough to check the Gateway web site in September.

How Gateway has gone about it is seriously sneaky. I never would have approved their charter if I’d thought this was the way they would honor their commitments. I’m ashamed of them and hope they will change this misguided admissions policy.

Scarier than Halloween . . .

Tonight the Superintendent sent a memo to the Board listing the effects if Prop. 30 and/or Prop. 38 don’t pass. It’s not good, and includes $10 million in additional forced closure (furlough) days this school year — school would end with a half day on Thursday, May 23 instead of a half-day on Friday, May 27–as well as $6.5 million in additional mid-year cuts. And then there’s 2013-14.

Though many school advocates feel Prop. 38 is better for schools in the long run (here is a more detailed comparison of the two measures as well as a fact sheet), the measure has never polled above 50 percent. Prop. 30 had polled above 50 percent until recently, but because of negative advertising the measure is now supported by less than a majority according to polls.  Though I have long advocated a “yes/yes” position on the two measures, with the reasoning that asking voters to choose between the two dooms both to failure, I think now during the stretch it is imperative that education advocates impress on voters who care about our schools that Prop. 30 must pass.   In other words, do whatever you want with Prop. 38 (I’m voting yes) but please, whatever you do, vote YES on 30. 

Student assignment and unintended consequences

Did you know that the district has acknowledged making a mistake in the way it has handled 6th and 9th grade assignments for 2012-13? To catch it, you would have had to be listening very closely last Tuesday evening (June 26) as the Superintendent read his Thoughts for the Evening. Here is an excerpt from Carlos’ prepared remarks on the issue: Continue reading

NOW it’s summer!

Most people — my children among them — think SFUSD let out for the 2011-12 school year on last Friday, May 25.  Nope! Today was actually the last day of the school year, but all the schools and district offices were shut due to budget cuts.  If you emailed the Superintendent or other member of the central office staff, chances are you got some version of the following autoresponder:

Thank you for contacting me.  I will be out of the office until Wednesday May 30th. All SFUSD schools and central services departments are closed for the Memorial Day holiday on May 28th and for a forced closure day on May 29th, caused by inadequate state funding for public education.

It’s important not to let forced closure days go unnoticed — there have been eight of them in the past two years, representing thousands of dollars in pay cuts to teachers and other staff, and close to two weeks in lost education for students.

To learn more about how schools are [un]funded in California, and some possible short- or  long-term solutions to the problem, here are some great reports to read:

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

Meeting recap: March 13, 2012

Update: I was so tired last night I completely forgot to mention another bright spot from the meeting — an update from Peer Resources on the programs they provide in 13 schools ( high schools and middle schools). This is a fabulous program that teaches teens conflict resolution and leadership skills, and it has changed a lot of lives! It’s a program of the San Francisco Education Fund that needs to be in every high school and middle school. Thanks to Peer Resources for an uplifting report. 

Anger over the Board’s Feb. 28 vote on layoffs continues. We had a large group of UESF members and other labor supporters address the board to oppose the layoffs, and the Board’s 5-1 decision to skip teachers at 14 lower-performing schools.

Some of the arguments were economic: do we really need to do layoffs? What about the district’s reserves? My answer to those questions is that the reserves aren’t enough for the worst case scenario if the tax proposals currently headed to the ballot fail, if the state’s revenues continue to falter and negotiations on the new contract do not produce any savings over projected costs for 2012-13.

Some of the arguments were political: We should be arguing with Sacramento, not amongst ourselves; The district’s layoff strategy is divisive and represents union-busting; Other schools are just as needy as those the district chose to skip. I agree that we should place the blame with Sacramento, but I don’t agree that skipping the SZ schools is union-busting. In voting for the skip my intent was not to weaken the union, but instead to support — in a limited way– schools that have under-performed for generations.  My friends at UESF strongly disagree. Are there more underperforming schools that could benefit by keeping their teachers? YES. But skipping the 25 hard-to-staff schools would have presented an even greater challenge to UESF and I believe for that reason, the Superintendent chose not to go there.  Still, several of us quietly agreed with the El Dorado staff when they told us we had not gone far enough to do anything for their school.  (And I must give an annual shoutout to the El Dorado staff for the way they stand up for their school and for each other. They don’t think much of the Board or district leadership, but anyway I do appreciate their efforts and their advocacy. People are listening, even if maybe you think they aren’t.)

Several members of the Martin Luther King Jr. High community came to talk to us about discipline, leadership and personnel issues at their school; we also heard from several parents of children who are eligible for Transitional Kindergarten and remain unhappy with the district’s decision to go ahead with opening two TK programs — one in Visitacion Valley and one in the Bayview.

Board members unanimously passed a resolution in support of the SF Botanical Garden Society’s plans to upgrade its educational programs through the construction of a “Center for Sustainable Gardening.” These programs benefit thousands of SF public school students each year and I was glad to author a resolution that brings  the Society’s dream of a true education center at the Botanical Garden a bit closer to reality.

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.

Bad news from Sacramento: June election is dead.

The June special election is dead, officials in Sacramento agree. They disagree on who was more unreasonable in their demands, and therefore who should be blamed for the failure to JUST LET THE VOTERS WEIGH IN on whether the state should raise taxes.

What does this mean for SFUSD? I haven’t received updated guidance from the Superintendent, but last month the Board was told that without voter-approved tax increases, we would be looking at a $330 per student, or $20 million, cut for 2011-12.

I’ll keep you posted on the options.

Update: Listen to the Governor on the decision to end the negotiations:

A bad week for school boards

This has been a bad week for school board members in California and across the country — starting with a terrifying incident where an desperate member of the public threatened school board members in Panama City, Fla. with a loaded gun. Here’s the video:

Reader, I promise never to sneak up behind an armed gunman and hit him with my purse (school board member Ginger Littleton is being lauded for her bravery but acknowledges her act was “stupid”);  I have asked Superintendent Garcia to simply dive under the desk rather than argue with said gunman if we are ever — cross your fingers — in a similar situation. Still, the bravery and calm under pressure shown by all of these public officials in a terrifying situation is nothing short of amazing. The whole incident is sobering in its depiction of the desperation and hopelessness some people are feeling today — the easy availability of guns makes such an incident possible.  At almost every Board meeting, people come before us who are feeling very angry, desperate and hopeless — I am not sure we are fully prepared for what could happen if one of them were armed.

I fear what we saw in Panama City — the gunman was reportedly bipolar, and upset because his wife had been laid off by the school district — is just the tip of the iceberg. Last night school officials in Mt. Diablo Unified, just to our northeast, contemplated the desperate steps of closing up to seven schools, and the district is asking its employees for millions of dollars in wage and benefit concessions. District officials told the public that without the proposed cuts, they are on the road to bankrupcty and state takeover.

The same day, Governor-elect Jerry Brown had nothing but bad news to impart in a well-publicized education budget summit in Los Angeles:

The Democrat called education and public safety the pillars of a civilized society but warned that the magnitude of the deficit problem facing California is “unprecedented in my lifetime” and that the state must prepare for drastic changes.

“I can’t promise there won’t be more cuts, because there will be,” he told a gathering of school administrators, teachers union representatives and other public education officials from across the state during a special budget forum in Los Angeles.

Brown implored those at the forum, which focused on education spending, to “please sit down” when they see his budget proposal on Jan. 10. “If you’re in your car, fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a rough ride, but we’ll get through it,” he said.

Insiders say that the cuts being contemplated for the 2011-12 budget could reach $500- $750 per student — which could translate to an additional $20-$35 million reduction for San Francisco Unified (that would be on top of the $113 million in cuts we made this past year, which reduced the length of the school year by four days in 2010-11 and in 2011-12, along with many other painful cuts).

So what I think is that we are in for a very difficult year — maybe even more difficult than the one we have almost completed.  In the words of our aging diva Governor-elect (channeling aging diva Bette Davis in “All About Eve”): Fasten your seat belts.

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In other news: I was suffering from some kind of virus last night, so I missed the Board meeting (which is why there’s no recap). But yeah: the Board voted to slash transportation by several million dollars (the cuts will be implemented gradually between 2011-12 and 2012-13).  I wrote at length about the proposal in my recap of the December 13 meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment.

The Board also voted to deny a charter to the C-5 International School, which was seeking  a Reggio-Emilia inspired K-8 school.

The appalling failure to include Eliza Schaaf

Today I learned the appalling story of Eliza Schaaf, a 20-year-old woman with Down Syndrome who enrolled in an “Introduction to Ceramics” course at Southern Oregon University as a non-credit student (the university calls this “non-admitted status”) this Fall.

According to her mother, Deb, “Eliza has always been included with her typically developing peers throughout her educational career and through that has developed a very strong work ethic and sense of appropriateness in class. She thrives on watching and learning from others.”  But despite every apparent effort by her mother to prepare the university and assist in a smooth transition for Eliza,  administrators abruptly asked Eliza to withdraw from the course with just two sessions remaining.  Today, the southern Oregon newspaper Mail-Tribune reported that Laura O’Bryan, the University’s dean of students, upheld the decision in a letter to Eliza and her family:

In the letter, O’Bryan stated that Schaaf’s enrollment at SOU was a “novel situation” for the university.

“The non-admitted policy was not designed or intended to provide an avenue for participation to individuals who are not otherwise qualified for admission to SOU,” O’Bryan wrote.

I hereby wish to invoke the power of the Internets to show Southern Oregon University how wrong-headed they are by failing to see the benefits (let alone the moral imperative) of including a person with a disability. Stories abound of students with Down Syndrome, like Eliza, who are now attending college — Katie Apostolides of Massachusetts is one example (she’s been profiled in The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report); former prom king Zach Wincent of Illinois is another.  Last year, our own CSU-East Bay announced plans to create a college program for students with autism.

It’s happening, Dean Laura O’Bryan of Southern Oregon University — 35 years after the signing of IDEA, students who have experienced inclusive environments throughout their K-12 educations are now knocking on the doors of colleges like yours. Eventually, they’re going to gain access. Wouldn’t it be better if you figured out a way to welcome them?