An interesting day

I had the opportunity to attend President Obama’s speech on immigration reform this morning — here is the most exciting moment of the day, when a young man interrupted the President to remind him of the plight of families who have been separated due to deportations. (I am in the back on the left).

Catching up: Notes from the Nov. 12, 2013 meeting

I have been neglecting the blog — I am so sorry about that. In my defense, though there is a lot happening, there hasn’t been much actually decided in the last few meetings — most of the big initiatives happening at the moment are in community engagement mode, or in the hands of the State Board, or just not quite cooked. Mainly, though, I’ve neglected blogging because I’m working full time and there is only so much I can juggle.

Anyway, let’s get a little caught up by reviewing events from last night’s meeting:

  • The Quality Teacher and Education Act (QTEA) — also known as the 2008 Prop A parcel tax — Innovation and Impact cash awards for 20 schools were announced last night. To receive the $15,000 prize for Innovation or for Impact, a school serving historically underserved student populations must demonstrate an impact on student achievement or innovative strategies and practices (some schools received two awards, including Paul Revere K-8). A  full list appears here.  Heartfelt congratulations to these 20 school communities: you are making a difference and I am very grateful for your efforts!
  • In his remarks for the evening, Superintendent Carranza noted that the Council of the Great City Schools (an advocacy group formed by the nation’s 50 largest school districts — of which SFUSD is one) is completing a study of outcomes from Federal School Improvement Grants (aka “SIG”) in their member districts. Though results aren’t yet final, SFUSD’s results are very positive compared to other districts, and our SIG work was highlighted at the organization’s most recent conference last month in Albuquerque.  Superintendent Carranza also noted that the number of books in circulation in SFUSD libraries has reached 1 million — pretty impressive!
  • The Board discussed the charter renewal petition for Creative Arts Charter School, a K-8 charter currently co-located with Gateway Middle School at the old Golden Gate Elementary School campus on Turk and Pierce Sts.  Creative Arts (CACS) is one of the oldest charter schools in SFUSD and no Board member seriously opposed renewing the charter, though several (notably Commissioner Wynns) noted the lack of racial diversity — the school is 45 percent white and 9 percent decline to state — compared to the district as a whole (11 percent white and another 10 percent not-reported).  Commissioners also pointed out that the school’s academic scores rank it as a 2 among schools with similar demographics — meaning it is underperforming based on its demographics under the state’s (very imperfect and now moot) API accountability system.  Nevertheless, the Board voted unanimously to renew CACS’ charter for another five years.
  • We heard a report from the Indian Education advisory committee, a Federally-mandated advisory committee that advises the Board on the education of students who are of American Indian descent. One of the bigger issues for this group of students is that there is no permanent space for the many cultural artifacts and curriculum materials the advisory committee maintains. The Superintendent pledged to make a recommendation for permanent space and to make sure that the group has access to the materials it needs to function.
  • We also heard an update on the district’s implementation of Behavioral RtI (Response to Intervention, a major component of the district’s strategy to reduce the number of African American, Latino and Samoan students being referred to special education). Teachers and the principal at Lakeshore Elementary demonstrated new, positive discipline strategies they are using in the classroom, with good results. Overall, the 25 schools in the first cohort of school communities trained in Behavioral RtI have seen a 33.5% decrease in referrals to special education, compared with a 23.9% percent decrease for schools not in the first training cohort. Referrals of African American students to special education have declined 14% at schools in the training cohort, compared to a 5% reduction at schools that have not received training.
  • We heard a very short update on the district’s Vision 2025 process — a large group of parents, students, educators and community leaders are meeting over the next few months to help the district envision its goals for 2025 — the next frontier for our strategic planning. It’s been exhilarating and sobering at the same time: there is so much to do and really so little time and resources to do it with; and it is so exciting and energizing to think about where we can be in the future.
  • Finally, the Board voted to extend the district’s contract with the Friends of School of the Arts (FoSotA), a nonprofit that raises funds for the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (RASotA) and has over the past few years administered the essential Artists in Residence program at the school. The Superintendent said he will move this program back under district control starting in the 2014-15 school year but needs a bit more time to put the necessary structures are in place to be sure that the transition is smooth.

There’s a lot more to dig into– the plans for the A-G graduation requirements for the class of 2014 are slated for a Board discussion on Nov. 26, and the Board must also have a discussion soon about the plans for reauthorizing the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF, also known as Prop H), which expires at the end of the 2014-15 school year. In addition, there are community conversations going on about the possibility of combining PEEF with the reauthorization of the Children’s Amendment in some way — the Children’s Amendment is up in 2015 and currently provides upwards of $200 million in funding for all manner of children’s services from childcare to nutrition to violence prevention  in San Francisco (including $5o million in annual funding for the Department of Children, Youth and their Families).  Commissioner Haney is currently drafting a proposal to ban “willful defiance” suspensions, which disproportionately affect African Americans. While no one really disagrees with the proposed ban, it will require some careful analysis and discussion to be sure we really address the root causes of disproportionate suspensions of African American students.

Also, hopefully you heard that there are big changes coming to student assessment. Because of the adoption of the Common Core, students won’t take the CST this year — instead the district will pilot new computer-based assessments.  There are still a number of very key questions to be answered about the implications of this change — like the effect on Lowell admissions for the 2015-16 school year and beyond, since in the past Lowell admissions for SFUSD students have used  CST scores to help determine academic ranking;  in addition our cohort analysis that determines which schools get what services under the multi-tiered systems of support adopted this year is based at least in part on CST scores.

More next time.

Why I support the sugary beverage tax

Last week, you might have read that Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced a proposal to tax sugary beverages (defined as drinks with 25 or more calories that have added sugary sweeteners and are less than 50 percent fruit or vegetable juice) sold in the City and County of San Francisco.  If approved by a majority of Supervisors, the proposal will go to the voters in November 2014, and since it is a new tax, it will require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Supervisors Eric Mar, Malia Cohen and John Avalos have also been working on similar measures, and they are working with Supervisor Wiener to craft a joint proposal that all of their colleagues will support. Because the stakes are so high — both in terms of the support needed and because of the public health crisis represented by over-consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages –I’ve decided it’s important to pledge my personal support for their efforts NOW, even before a final proposal is approved for the ballot. Two other California cities, Richmond and El Monte, have tried and failed to enact similar measures — amid an onslaught of money spent by beverage manufacturers to defeat them. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt at an outright ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces has been blocked in the courts.

Consider these facts:

  • Since 1980, obesity among children and adolescents has tripled nationwide. As recently as 2010, nearly a third of children and adolescents in San Francisco were obese or overweight.
  • Sugary foods are bad enough for health, but sugary beverages are even more extreme in their health effects when consumed regularly. These beverages, though they can contain hundreds of calories in a serving, do not signal “fullness” to the brain. Studies show that they flood the liver with high amounts of sugar in a short amount of time. This “sugar rush” over time leads to fat deposits that cause diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems.
  • Sugary beverages represent, on average, 11 percent of daily calories consumed by children in the U.S. A recent survey found that California teenagers are consuming more sugary beverages
  • One in three children born today will develop Type II diabetes in their lifetime if sugary beverage consumption does not decline.
  • Diseases connected to sugary beverages disproportionately impact minorities and low-income communities. According to Head Start of San Francisco, 18 percent of 3-4 year olds enrolled in its programs are obese.
  • UCSF researcher Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo has calculated that even a one-cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could cut sugary beverage consumption by 10 percent — with corresponding reductions in future cases of diabetes , obesity and heart disease, as well as the cost of treating them. Other research has established that spending $1 on nutrition education saves $10 in future health care costs.

I have two teens, and I know how hard it is to control teenage eating habits once they have a little independence and spending money. Eating habits and tastes are formed at a young age, and I’m forever grateful to my mother for setting a nutrition-conscious example I’ve been able to (more or less) follow with my own children. I also know, as a school board member, how important it is for kids to have enough healthy food so that they can learn at their highest potential.

Supervisor Scott Wiener’s proposal for the November 2014 ballot would create a two-penny per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, with the proceeds dedicated to nutrition, physical activity, and health programs in public schools, parks, and elsewhere.

I fully support the tax as an effective strategy to drive down consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, increase access to and expand physical activity programs, and expand health nutrition education.  Much like cigarette taxes did to drive down rates of smoking and increase public awareness of the dire health consequences, a soda tax will help reduce consumption and increase the growing public awareness of the negative health impact sodas have on growing and adult bodies.

We will be reading and hearing much more about the sugary beverage tax in the months to come. I hope I can count on other parents and child advocates to support this measure — it’s time for San Francisco to take a strong stand and create disincentives to purchasing and consuming a product that represents a serious health challenge for our children.

P.S. I know it’s been quite a while since I blogged — working full time has really cut into the amount of time I have available late at night to write and post updates from the Board meetings. After tomorrow’s Board meeting I will have some breathing room to catch up. As always, there has been a lot happening! 

Clarification to the Ruth Asawa SOTA community

It’s come to my attention that members of the Ruth Asawa SOTA community are planning to come to the Oct. 8 Board meeting this Tuesday out of the mistaken idea that the Board has made changes to the school’s Artist-in-Residence program (working artists are paid as consultants to work with students in their artistic disciplines as part of the school’s arts-focused program). I’m asking members of the Ruth Asawa SOTA community to share this widely to correct this misapprehension:

To: Members of the Ruth Asawa SOTA community

From: Rachel Norton, Board President

I want to reassure you that the Board of Education is not interested in curtailing or reducing the Artist-in-Residence program at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, nor have we taken any actions to change the program. In fact, on September 24 the Board unanimously approved the Superintendent’s request for Artist-in-Residence funding.

No cuts to the Artist-in-Residence program have been made or will be made this year. The Artist-in- Residence program with its full annual funding is included in the district budget that the board passed in June of 2013 and no change to that budget has taken place.

In recent years, Friends of SOTA has served as the fiscal agent for the district in administering the Artist-in-Residence program. The agreement that the district has with FoSOTA has been under review because the Board is interested in making sure that the district improves its internal administrative functions; we also take seriously our fiduciary responsibility for the democratic oversight of the expenditure of all the public tax dollars that we spend on behalf of the citizens of San Francisco. The Board has asked the Superintendent to investigate the question of what is the best and most publicly-accountable  way to pay these school district contractors, since we have several parallel programs that are paid through district processes—not a fiscal agent–efficiently and accountably. 

The Board remains more committed than ever to the program at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. We will make certain that there is no delay in the payments made for the artists as we are well aware of what an integral component of the school program they represent.

Gateway HS: Part Deux

So this morning I had a frank, productive and cordial talk with Gateway Public Schools Director Sharon Olken. I was again reminded how much I like Ms. Olken — I have in the past seen her as a “straight shooter” who tries every day to run a network of schools that are great for kids. I need to say first off that I apologized to her for casting aspersions against her character or questioning her integrity. I should not have done that and I was wrong to do that. I have been told in the past that sometimes I let my temper get in my own way and certainly being “livid” yesterday was part of that tendency.

Ms. Olken explained that the Gateway administration is saddened each year by families who *know* the school is right for their child, but are devastated when their child is not admitted. In addition, while application rates for the HS have remained steady, she has noted a gradually decreasing rate of matriculation — meaning that more students are being admitted off the wait list later in the spring when larger numbers of students who are admitted in the main lottery decide not to enroll.

She also reminded me — and I don’t dispute this — that while she has always understood my strong feelings that Gateway MS and Gateway HS are separate schools for the purposes of enrollment, she has always maintained that she would welcome the chance to work with kids from 6-12 grades. In the end, she said the decision to create a second early lottery was motivated by the school’s desire to work with students who are truly committed to Gateway and spare them the anxiety of going through a highly competitive lottery. As proof, she mentioned the school’s decision (despite some flak) not to participate in last weekend’s independent school fair — largely seen as a starting point for parents looking for options outside the regular SFUSD lottery.

I heard her out and I have no reason to believe–after talking to her– that Gateway made its decision with anything but the best of intentions, even if I continue to think they are seriously misguided.  I told her — half joking but with a big grain of truth too — that if there is one thing we know at SFUSD, it’s all the ways an assignment system can lead to unintended consequences.  “Learn from us,” I pleaded. What Gateway wants to accomplish–as stated by Ms. Olken–is laudable but it will not happen with their current policy. (Or really, any policy. In an environment where seats are in such high demand, it’s impossible to devise a way of allocating those seats that makes everyone happy if the only tool you have is a lottery or multiple lotteries).

I have two chief objections: first, setting an early deadline will just make in-the-know families apply earlier. What’s to stop them, since it’s obvious that odds will be better in the early round? I commended Gateway for making its application simpler — another long overdue improvement — but now it’s easier than ever to apply to Gateway, hold on to a spot, and wait to see how one does in the SFUSD and independent school lotteries. I’m glad Gateway isn’t touting itself to the independent school audience so far, but I am also certain it won’t take long for anyone who is interested and motivated to find out and utilize the early deadline if they have even the slightest inkling that Gateway might be a good fit for their child (and by inkling, I mean even something as flimsy as overhearing other parents say that Gateway is a good HS).

My second objection is the delicate subject of the MS students. It’s just not credible that Gateway MS won’t have all the information they need about applying to Gateway HS for the early round. Of course they will — Gateway MS would be derelict to its own students if it didn’t make sure they know that IF Gateway HS seems to be a good option, they should apply in the early round.  Gateway has employed a full-time outreach coordinator, and Ms. Olken assured me today that they are being very thoughtful and purposeful in recruiting students in underserved schools. (We both laughed when I told her that the new Gateway deadline had gone out on at least one middle school’s SchoolLoop site yesterday–some of my colleagues at SFUSD do not want any charter school recruiting at district schools.) But reaching parents who are not connected to the Internet or to parent networks, and/or who don’t speak English is not an easy thing to do. Most organizations that are doing this work successfully have coordinators who speak multiple languages and maintain extensive community partnerships — and even then, the outreach work is very hard.

Finally, this decision sets a precedent, as I told Jill Tucker of the Chronicle yesterday. There is nothing, now that Gateway has thought of it and actually implemented it, for other charter schools to simply set multiple lotteries and publicize them to different preferred constituencies. The genie is out of the bottle, whether Gateway intended to set a precedent or not.

In the end, we agreed to disagree, and Ms. Olken said she would consider making changes either this year or in subsequent years. She also agreed to share with me the outcomes from this year’s lottery — whatever they are.

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.

A recap, some data and more data

First, a recap: We had a Board meeting last night, August 13. Not much actually happened but we had some very good conversations and comments. Rev. Amos Brown of the NAACP came to remind us that the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, and Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech will occur on August 28 (read full text here and video appears below):

We introduced the negotiated Project Labor Agreement for first reading — the agreement incorporates the district’s new Local Hire policy for the 2011 facilities bond measure and was completed in record time — hat tip to the Building Trades Council and David Goldin, the district’s Chief Facilities Officer.

We also had a long conversation about the decision to re-bid the district’s security contract, previously held by Securitas and now offered to ABC Security. I don’t know that Board members have strong feelings about the company we bid to — both companies are signatories to an agreement with SEIU to pay union wages and benefits, but there are some concerns that ABC will not honor its obligations under its agreement with SEIU. We do have strong feelings about their employees, whom we know well from their presence at the front desks of 555 Franklin and 135 Van Ness (Johnnie, Vao and colleagues– we’re looking at you!). The upshot of the evening’s discussion was that we will be vigilant that our security guards are being treated fairly, regardless of whether they work for us as employees or on contract.

Commissioner Wynns honored the late Ruth Asawa with a tearful tribute at adjournment,  and Commissioners decided to withdraw a slate of nominees to the Quality Teacher and Education Act (QTEA) oversight committee in order to give staff better guidance about the desired qualifications and diversity of the group. This group is incredibly important as an oversight body for the spending of our parcel tax, and because we have a dedicated and relatively diverse (but parent-heavy) group already in place, we have a bit more time to think more deeply about whether there are specific groups we should be sure are represented (e.g., retired teachers and homeowners, just to name a few).

Second — data. Oh how much data at tonight’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment.

A lot of the data is here, in this presentation, so if you are really a geek, download it and pore over it after you read this very brief summary. I have asked for a tape recording of tonight’s meeting and I will eventually (see  * below) post the audio that has all the detail you could possibly want.

* When I request the audio it comes to me on a regular old cassette tape — I had to buy a special digitizer that allows me to convert magnetic audio tape into a digital file. It takes a LONG time to a)get the tape b)find time to convert it and c)edit the file into something you, my loyal blog followers, would actually spend your time listening to. If you hate waiting for info, I suggest you come to committee meetings. The Board attempts to stay on the posted committee meeting schedule , but no meeting is legally scheduled until a notice is posted under the “Upcoming Meetings” column  on the  far right of the school district’s home page.  If you want a transcript, sorry — I can’t help you. :-)

So — it’s very hard to summarize the  Student Assignment Committee report this evening. The easy parts: There will be some minor changes to the CTIP 1 areas for the 2014-15 enrollment season. Our demographers have incorporated changes to census tracts from the 2010 census, and based on that have been able to refine some of the CTIP 1 census tract areas. Several tracts in the Western Addition and one in the Bayview will be reclassified as non-CTIP1; another tract in the Tenderloin will become a CTIP 1 tract. (Download the presentation — there are detailed block-by-block maps).

I learned more about how we actually determine the “average test score” for each census tract. It’s an average of all scores posted over seven years. So let’s say Student A is enrolled in SFUSD and took the test five out of the seven years averaged, while Student B was enrolled in SFUSD and took the test three out of the seven years averaged. Student C was enrolled in SFUSD and took the test seven out of the seven years averaged. That gives us a total of 15 test scores out of seven years to average — as opposed to three or fewer scores in any given year to average. According to our demographers, they are confident this gives us a less random and more stable average test score figure to use.

When we analyze the people who are using the CTIP preference, it appears that the vast majority are African American and Latino. Based on figures presented this evening, five percent of CTIP 1 applicants are white and nine percent are Chinese. 44 percent are Latino and 25 percent are African-American.

Interestingly, there is one census tract –  230.3, in the Bayview neighborhood (again, look at the presentation — it gives you a detailed map) that has increased so high in achievement that it no longer qualifies as CTIP 1 (or CTIP 2 or 3 for that matter).  Most of the students from that census tract are Chinese students who have chosen schools that are higher-performing than the school they would have been assigned in their neighborhood.

The demographers have also updated their enrollment forecasts to take into account the building boom that San Francisco is currently experiencing. These forecasts predict that we will continue to experience enrollment growth in areas where affordable or below market rate housing is being built — a tiny bit in Mission Bay but mostly in Bayview, Hunters Point and other HOPE SF projects. This is a pattern that –according to our demographers–is visible in most urban areas and/or areas where there is a wide disparity in income –affordable housing yields much more public school enrollment than market rate housing.  By contrast, areas (like suburban areas) that have more income-level homogeneity or uniformly high test scores regardless of income do not exhibit this pattern of public school enrollment. In other words, in areas where test scores are uniformly high, everyone goes to public school, regardless of income. But in areas where there are very affluent and very low-income people, and a corresponding disparity in test scores, people who cannot afford market rate housing go to public school;  people who live in market rate housing either do not have children or do not send those children to public school. I’m curious to hear how families who are “on the bubble” interpret this phenomenon — it’s also important to note that even our demographers admit that their forecasts would be wildly inaccurate should this observed pattern — residents of market rate housing don’t send their children (if they have any) to public school — shift suddenly in San Francisco.  And shouldn’t we want it to? How would we — San Franciscans — make such a shift come about?

Finally, the demographers have uncovered a trend they say is “unprecedented” in their previous analyses of SFUSD data. More high school students are staying in school and fewer are being held back for lack of credits — this will greatly affect our forecasts for high school enrollment in future years. The demographers (and board members in attendance) urged the district to conduct an internal analysis to understand why our high school attendance/enrollment patterns have changed so dramatically in such a short time.