Category Archives: Not so great things going on

I hate this: State bungles CAHSEE policy, hurting students

UPDATE: Here’s the California Department of Education’s response: “Our hope is that the few students who find themselves in this situation will only have to defer their dreams of attending the college of their choice for one semester,” said Keric Ashley, deputy superintendent at the state Department of Education. “In the meantime, there are other options available to these students, including our California Community Colleges. I received excellent preparation at my local community college before attending university.”

Last night, several students from International High School, along with their principal and several teachers, came to talk to us about a really confounding and desperate problem. Details are in tomorrow’s San Francisco Chronicle, but essentially, here’s the story:

Last spring the state Legislature eliminated the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) as a graduation requirement. It wasn’t aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Anyway, the CAHSEE was never good education policy, unless you believe that one standardized test is a better gauge of high school academic achievement than four years of requirements and alignment with the UC/CSU’s required A-G course sequence for admission. Most members of the class of 2015 had already passed the CAHSEE, so for them the elimination of the test as a requirement was a moot, if somewhat annoying, development. But for newcomer students — those who came to the United States after being educated (or not) in other countries for most of their lives, the English Language portion of the CAHSEE represents a major barrier.

In San Francisco Unified, there are about 45 members of the would-be class of 2015 who had not passed the English language portion of the CAHSEE by graduation day. Per regulations from the State Board of Education, SFUSD (or any other district in California) is not allowed to issue a diploma without evidence that a student had passed the CAHSEE, even though the state legislature voted in June to dump the CAHSEE altogether.

There was supposed to be a July administration of the test, which our 45 students were counting on as their last chance to pass the CAHSEE and receive a diploma. But because the state isn’t recognizing the test, the July administration was canceled. And, because it went on vacation or otherwise decided to stop paying attention, the State Board neglected to update its direction to school districts to allow us to use our discretion — and rigorous graduation requirements–to issue diplomas to this group of students.

Watch the heart-rending testimony of our students here:

They’ve passed their classes. They’ve applied to college and been admitted. Their teachers, and their principal, agree they are ready to succeed. And yet the state, through either a bureaucratic bungle or a lack of concern, is saying that the San Francisco Unified School District may not issue a diploma.

I think we should defy the state and issue a diploma. What do you think?

You can help sway officials on this situation by contacting Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. His telephone number is 916-319-0800; or you can reach him on Twitter at @TomTorlakson . His email address is: superintendent “at” cde.ca.gov, or you can post a message for Superintendent Torlakson on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/torlakson . Finally,  you can write him a letter here:

The Honorable Tom Torlakson
State Superintendent of Public Instruction
1430 N Street, Suite 5602
Sacramento, CA 95814-5901

URGENT: SFUSD schools will be closed TOMORROW Dec 11

Due to forecasts for a very strong winter storm tomorrow, Thursday Dec. 11, the Superintendent has decided to close the schools for the day. Please visit sfusd.edu for further updates.

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