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.

What’s up in SFUSD? Lots.

Welcome back! School starts August 19, and our first Board meeting of the new school year is tomorrow evening, August 13.

Administrators returned to work on July 31, and heard this rousing speech by  Superintendent Carranza to set the stage for the 2013-14 school year. I know it’s long, but it’s worth listening to in its entirety. Some will reject the message completely, and feel it doesn’t speak to them or to their children. That would be missing the point: really, the Superintendent is talking about ALL children — about living up to what we say we’re about as a diverse, high-quality public school system:

Then, a few days later, we heard our district and seven others across California were approved for a waiver from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)  — the law formerly known as NCLB. This is big too — the waiver means that we will be able to recapture money that has been controlled by Federal policy directives: paying for private tutoring services that have little oversight, for example, or spending on additional compliance activities after schools or districts haven’t been able to meet arbitrary test score targets.  There is good information here and here — you will be hearing more about this waiver so it is good to understand the basics now.

And how did we do on those tests, anyway? Okay, but it depends on where you look. Here are some different perspectives:

Finally, some very sad news: SFUSD arts education champion Ruth Asawa Lanier passed away on August 7. Ms. Asawa was a world-renowned sculptor who took on the challenge of making sure that every public school child in San Francisco had access to excellent arts education — she succeeded beyond many people’s wildest dreams (though Ruth herself was never satisfied — she always knew we could do better).  Two years ago, Commissioner Wynns finally convinced Ruth to allow the school district to name School of the Arts after her– christening it now and for always the Ruth Asawa School for the Arts. I can think of no better tribute than to finally realize the dream of bringing the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts to Civic Center, to its rightful place as another jewel in the crown that is the corridor occupied by the San Francisco Opera, SF Jazz Center, the SF Ballet, the SF Symphony, the Herbst Theater, and many other arts organizations.

And we have a budget!

Just getting home after a long meeting, but a substantive one: the Board had a lengthy budget discussion and passed the 2013-14 district budget unanimously.  The district will receive $360.58 million in unrestricted general fund revenues and spend $378.424 million, drawing down the beginning balance of $34.102 million to  about $700,000 after the required $15.566 million reserve.

There are a lot of big questions the Board has about the current direction of the district, including:

  • The special education budget is bigger than ever, representing about 25 percent of the general fund when special ed transportation costs are included — Commissioners are increasingly worried that the annual growth in special education spending is unsustainable and asked for more clarity on how the district expects its current investments to pay off in reduced future costs and better academic outcomes. The CAC for Special Education has posted some great analysis and data on its web site;  committee members spoke at the Board meeting and expressed concern that the district’s plan to invest in professional development and coaching for teachers — while needed — might divert too much money away from the classroom. My personal feeling is that while accelerating expenditures are alarming, it’s not time to change course: we have been identified as significantly disproportionate in how we identify students of color for special education, and are now required to spend 15 percent of our Federal special education allocation on interventions in general education. General education teachers desperately need more tools to help students who are struggling achieve, so that special education is not the district’s only safety net for students who aren’t achieving at grade level. Coaching and professional development are the best ways to provide general education teachers with the tools they need. We’ve reduced our spending on out-of-district private school placements for students with disabilities, by almost $5 million since I got on the Board.  But our choice-based student assignment system increases our special education transportation costs, and one of my goals over the next year or two is to look at ways to maintain equitable treatment of students with disabilities in our system while decreasing our exposure on transportation.  Overall, though, I think the request for more clarity in the district’s expectations and strategies for the next few years would be a good thing and I support the need for vigilance in gauging the return on our increasing investments in educating our students with disabilities.
  • One of the Superintendent’s centerpiece initiatives — Multi-Tier Systems of Support, or MTSS–is still confusing for board members and members of the public. Essentially, the initiative seeks to place resources where they are most needed, so that schools that need more supports get more supports even as all schools get a base “package” that includes ample counselors, nurses, librarians and other support staff.  Fully-realizing this vision will take more money than we currently have, but there have been significant investments in the current budget in social workers, counselors and nurses for many schools.  Elementary area teams will now consist of an Assistant Superintendent, and Executive Director, a Family and Community Engagement Specialist, two teachers on special assignment who can provide instructional support to principals and schools, as well as clerical support and a small discretionary budget. The expectation that goes along with this is that area teams will be more effective and proactive at problem-solving so that complaints are less likely to languish and fester. Some Board members worry, however, that this represents a big expansion in central administration, and that it represents a dismantling of site-based autonomy and decision-making.
  • Board members also expressed concerns about the perception that there is a lot of “new money” represented by the passage of Prop. 30 and the state’s rapidly improving economic outlook, and asked where this “new money” could be seen in the budget. The answer to that question is complex, because you first must accept the Superintendent’s argument that we are climbing out of a deep hole represented by the cuts of the last five years (see cartoon below). It helps if you remember the general fund revenues vs. expenditures I cited at the top of this post: even with the “new money” from Prop. 30 and additional taxes, we still expect to spend about $18 million more than we take in in revenues in 2013-14. That $18 million deficit represents people, programs and instructional days that otherwise would have had to be cut in the coming year. The “new money,” is simply helping us climb out of the hole rather than sink deeper:  gasping fish 2
  • The 7-period day for high school: Tonight Commissioner Haney introduced a resolution urging the district to expand A-G qualified course offerings at high schools; the Superintendent introduced a proposal that would lessen the credit requirements for students attending continuation or county high schools. Both resolutions will be discussed in August when the Board reconvenes after its July recess. Most of us agree that our students will have a much easier time meeting the more stringent A-G graduation requirements in place for the Class of 2014 and beyond if we are able to offer a 7-period day, but it’s expensive and Board members wanted to know how the Superintendent proposes to get there.  Similarly, common planning time for teachers is a widely-endorsed way to improve student outcomes, and Vice President Fewer introduced a resolution last summer asking the Superintendent to implement common planning time at all schools by the end of this year. However, the Board has not voted on this resolution as yet because transportation and other logistical issues make it daunting to fund and implement.  Board members also asked how to make common planning time a reality in coming years, given our belief that it is a best practice in improving achievement.

That’s it for now: I’m going fishing for the month of July (metaphorically, not literally.  As my husband likes to say, fishing is boring until you catch a fish–then it’s disgusting. And sorry for all the fishing references).  I’ll start blogging again in August. Happy summer vacation everyone!

On tonight’s agenda: June 11, 2013

This evening is shaping up to be quite busy — we’ll  issue a final vote on the Superintendent’s proposed Local Hire policy and discuss the newly-introduced district budget, as well as the state budget deal announced earlier today.

Local hire has been in the works for many months, and last week the Board had an intense discussion on the final proposal at the monthly Committee of the Whole. The Superintendent and staff have incorporated a lot of Board feedback on how the policy should be structured and overseen, and the main components in the proposal the Board will vote on tonight (assuming there are no major amendments) are:

  • Primary responsibility for implementation of the local hire policy will reside with contractors bidding on any Proposition A 2011 Bond projects with a contract value of $1 million or more;
  • Contractors must agree to hire at least 25 percent local residents in each of the seven major construction and building trades (plumbers, iron workers, carpenters, laborers, electricians, painters and carpeting/soft-floor layers) when bidding on 2011  bond projects — if, after verification, they have not satisfied this requirement they will be subject to a number of suggested sanctions or remedies for non-compliance;
  • Compliance with the district’s local hire policy will be reviewed biannually by the Board’s Buildings and Grounds committee;
  • The above and other provisions of the district’s local hire policy will be implemented through a negotiated Project Labor Agreement for the 2011 Facility Bond program.

This has been a challenging proposal to work on, since school bond construction projects are complex and governed by a whole set of arcane laws, rules and labor agreements. In addition, our bond program is truly a jewel in the SFUSD crown — it’s pretty much unheard of for a school building program to be issued an audit with no findings whatsoever, and it shows how well-managed and efficient our $1 billion bond program has been over the years. Some, including our citizen’s bond oversight committee, fear that a local hire policy will raise our costs and decrease efficient management of the program, but it’s also true that the economic benefits of millions of dollars in financing provided by local taxpayers should find their way back into the local economy. In the end, no one completely knows what the effects of a fully-implemented local hire policy at the City or the school district will be, and the job of the Board in future years will be to make sure we don’t do anything to diminish the excellence of our bond program.

On to the 2013-14 budget: School districts are required to submit a balanced budget to the state by June 30 or face consequences, and tonight the Superintendent will introduce his proposal for first reading and discussion by the Board. The document is a work-in-progress, but I am very pleased with the work the staff has done to make the budget document a little more user friendly. The first 36 pages of Volume 1 are a great overview of how the district spends money, where revenues come from, and generally how the school district is organized — the rest of the book breaks out various Central Office department budgets.  (Volume 2 contains school site and early education department budgets).  We’ll conduct a hearing on the district’s plans for “flexible” Tier III categorical funds (read the overview section referenced above for a full explanation of what that means) and also hear about the budget deal just reached today between the Governor and the Legislature on the Local Control Funding Formula. In a nutshell, the deal gives districts a higher base grant but reduces some of the supplemental grants the governor had initially proposed. The controversial “concentration grant,” for districts with high concentrations of low-income students, will remain, but the threshold for qualifying for a concentration grant will rise.   I’m not clear exactly on how the deal will shake out for SFUSD, but we’ll hear a staff presentation tonight.  In conjunction with our budget discussion, I have introduced a resolution asking the Board and the district to formally support the Local Control Funding Formula proposal, so we’ll also vote on that.