Meeting recap: SpEd overshadowed by Cobb turmoil

Tonight’s meeting was another long one . . . items get backed up late in the year because of meeting cancellations during the holidays; we had our long-scheduled report from the CAC for Special Education, a great discusion about the group’s longstanding recommendations to the district, and a presentation from Special Education director Clare Davies about inclusive practices in the school district (as a way of commemorating National Inclusive Schools Week). It was gratifying to hear Commissioners request that the Superintendent and staff finally answer the long list of recommendations the CAC has been making for as long as I’ve been paying attention. We need to close the loop – either commit to implementing recommendations, describing how and when we’re going to get there, or definitively say we’re not going to implement particular recommendations, and describe why.

Still, I’m sorry to say that the important discussions of special education and inclusive schools were overshadowed by the big topic of the night: the continuing turmoil at Cobb Elementary School over the fate of the Montessori and General Education programs. Supporters of continuing a General Education (GE) program at Cobb mobilized again to show the school board how strongly they feel about keeping Cobb the way it is; there was also a contingent of families from the Montessori program. GE supporters wore orange stickers; Montessori supporters wore yellow baseball hats with red stickers (“Oh no!” one board member whispered to me when she saw the color-differentiated groupings. “This is supposed to be one school!”).

For the most part, comments were respectful, but anger definitely spilled over. It’s  clear that the GE supporters feel disrespected; and that they view the Montessori program as an alien presence rather than a welcoming or workable option for their students. From the Montessori side, there is clearly bewilderment at the backlash — the Montessori supporters view their program as so good and so necessary that it’s hard for them to understand that the GE families and staff view them as insensitive interlopers.

I don’t subscribe to that view, and I stand by what I told the Chronicle this week: public Montessori in San Francisco was conceived with the best of intentions – to offer a high-quality, high-impact curriculum that has a good track record with a African-American students in other urban districts AND represents a significant opportunity to increase diversity at a racially-isolated site. But I acknowledge that the community outreach and inclusiveness of the Montessori program at Cobb has been deeply flawed — and I’m not sure there is a way to go back and do it over, because of all the anger, bitterness and misinformation swirling around on all sides.

So here are our options, as I see them:

  • Continue with the plan that was originally approved by the district’s Program Placement Committee last spring, which calls for gradually phasing out GE at Cobb and gradually expanding Montessori to encompass Pre-K through 5th grades. I need to be clear about several important aspects of this option: first, NO child currently enrolled in Cobb GE would be displaced from his or her school – so today’s kindergarteners in Cobb’s GE classrooms would be able to continue on at the school through the 5th grade. Second, opportunities to transfer IN to Montessori would be limited after the primary grades, and the expectation is (based on the existing waiting list for Pre-K and K Montessori at Cobb) that space would be very limited anyway. So children who are currently at Cobb would probably not be able to transition to Montessori after Kindergarten, but their younger siblings could be given priority in the program for Pre-K or K. This option would also require GE teachers at Cobb to either become Montessori-certified (a rigorous, expensive and time-consuming process), or gradually be consolidated out of Cobb to find openings at other schools, based on their seniority. (Some have questioned whether an all-Montessori Cobb would continue as an inclusion school, and I have been assured in the past that inclusion and Montessori fit together beautifully; in addition I would strongly argue in favor of retaining the Slingerland-themed Special Day Class at the school, with the caveat that the SDC students be fully integrated into the school community and school events).
  • Figure out a way to accommodate both programs at the school, something both sides tell me is impossible because of space needs and overall rancor between the two groups.
  • Move Montessori to some other site, at an as-yet unknown cost to the school district and leaving Cobb back where it was before the Montessori program was placed there: an underenrolled and racially-isolated program struggling to fill its classrooms. It’s also important to be honest about Cobb’s track record in student achievement: African-American students at the school have generally outperformed the district-wide average for African-American achievement, but the school has lagged in moving African-American students from basic to proficient , compared to the same measurement for all students at the school and African-American students district-wide. It has an API of 700 (in 2008-09 there was a 30-point drop after several consecutive years of API gains) and the school is in Year 2 of Program Improvement.
  • Move Cobb’s GE students and teachers to another site. This could keep them together as a group but would no doubt introduce great inconvenience, hardship and stress to families that are already struggling.
  • Close the Montessori program because we can’t convince African-American families that it is a high-quality option with a good track record for their children and because we believe it’s not equitable to put resources into programs that attract middle- and upper-middle class families of any race (which Montessori undoubtedly does, even if Maria Montessori never intended to build an “elite” educational model). I call this the “here we go again” option, and in my opinion, going for it is like throwing in the towel on the whole idea of innovation in this district.
  • A fifth option? I’m open to ideas.

The administration is expected to come back to us with a recommendation in January, and at that time we’ll have a full discussion of the various options. Until then, I’m left feeling

  • Sad – because it feels like the road to hell is paved with good intentions; 
  • Angry – because I feel there has been manipulation and bad behavior on both sides, making a bad situation much worse; and
  • Frustrated – because there are no good choices here. I remain convinced that this district should continue to implement a public Montessori program, but it’s crazy-making that we are having these basic discussions about community engagement that should have been the starting point three years ago.

Other actions from tonight:

  • The Board unanimously passed a resolution requiring all teachers to obtain appropriate certification to teach English Learners by next year;
  • We unanimously passed a resolution (authored by yours truly) supporting The New Day For Learning initiative in our district and calling for the Initiative Director to put together a plan for expanding community schools in our district;
  • We unanimously passed a resolution in support of the 2010 Census — which is key for California and for San Francisco County, both historically undercounted areas;
  • We also unanimously passed legislative principles for the Board, which also clarify the role of the Rules, Policy and Legislation Committee in adhering to those principles when it takes positions on legislation on behalf of the entire Board of Education.

15 responses to “Meeting recap: SpEd overshadowed by Cobb turmoil

  1. Dear Rachel,

    Below is the statement I almost was unable to deliver to the Board.

    Honorable Commissioners:

    My name is Nea Hanscomb. I appreciate this opportunity to speak to you about special education services in San Francisco. I nor several other parents I know, who’s children are placed outside the district in non-public schools, were on the mailing list to receive the parent survey that was conducted by the CAC as part of the report submitted tonight. I had to make a special request to get one.

    My 9 year old son has severe autism and since March, he has been commuting to The Bay School in Santa Cruz every day for his education. He is doing incredibly well and loves to go. I would love for him to be able to be educated in an inclusive setting, however, without an adequate support system, that is impossible at this time.

    ABA is a methodology proven to be most effective for children with autism. The Bay School, delivers an evidence based ABA program in the classroom, which is the only way son, and other’s like him, can learn. He was placed at The Bay School because there do not exist any special education classrooms or non-public schools in or around San Francisco that implement an ABA program.

    For several months, The Bay School in Santa Cruz has been attempting to expand and open a new campus here in San Francisco. Last March, talks began between the new S.F. special education administration and the Director of The Bay School, Dr. Ethan Long. There was support for creating a new non-public school here, until after only one month in office, the newly appointed SELPA director, unexpectedly left in September. Since then, there has been no collaboration or support for The Bay School to come to San Francisco.

    The Bay School is owned by The May Institute which is a non-profit organization based out of Massachusetts. The May institute services the needs of all aged people with both neurological & developmental disorders and the mentally ill. They have resources to share with the school district and can offer resources to our children when they become adults. San Francisco and California in general has so few options for children with severe autism. I am frightened for the welfare of my son when he becomes an adult.

    The district has an obligation to educate my son in his community. I request to the Board of Education to appeal to the San Francisco Unified School district to support the presence of effective programs like The Bay School and The May Institute. In the short term, efforts to collaborate with qualified service providers can be cost effective in the long term. Solutions need to be considered for the future sake of all our children.

    Thank you.

  2. middle class parent

    “because we believe it’s not equitable to put resources into programs that attract middle- and upper-middle class families of any race”

    I’m troubled by this post, can you please explain further? I was already feeling this bias against middle class families when my school was closed (“they have other options besides public schools”) and would hate to think that this current board also feels the middle class families are not important.

    It bothers me that the discussion in student assignment meetings is about balancing the racial makeup of schools, which many feel is tied to socio-economic status as well, yet it is not important to balance having various levels of socio-economic status as well?

    Middle and upper middle class families bring their own positives into the schools, including the ability to contribute financially and physically, since one parent may not be working full time and so can volunteer time in the school. They also bring a perspective of education that imho would be important to have in every school – that education is important.

    San Francisco has a high cost of living so even though your income is considered good or high anywhere else, you still “scrape” by. Why should the public schools only be for those who make less than a certain $$ amount? Just because the majority of the students are lower income doesn’t mean that it should stay that way. Public schools should be for everyone, not just the ones who can’t afford private school.

  3. For more information take a look at
    Dr. Angeline Lillard has written an informative comparison between traditional and Montessori education. At Cobb we were urged to take a look and inform ourselves rather than base our decisions on hearsay.

  4. Nervous_Cobb_Parent

    Can we at the very least get some kind of timeline for changes at Cobb?

    Something along the lines of your stated personal goals:
    “As a Commissioner, I will: . . . Demand a clear process that sets timelines and establishes a detailed transition plan up front, in order to minimize the impact on families affected by a school closure” (from the “Issues” page of this blog).

    Thank you! We do appreciate that you have immersed yourself in our school’s situation.

  5. Nervous_Cobb_Parent

    Ms Norton:

    Thanks for all the energy you are putting into the situation at Cobb. We really need your help.

    I think ALL the parents would be greatly relieved if we could just get a decision soon! Is there any way to get a decision before the January 8 Round 1 application deadline? Most of us are wondering how we can plan for next year (and the following years) and we have no idea what would happen if our program were cancelled/relocated. Can you fill us in?

    Is there any way to expedite a decision? – call an emergency meeting to get a decision maybe? What exactly are we waiting for, and why have we been waiting so long, anyhow? What information does the board need that it doesn’t have now?

    Much of the stress at Cobb is about parents not knowing what the future is and feeling totally powerless. We’d like to at least be able to apply (albeit crap shoot) for a school that we’d like, if our program is cancelled, so can’t we know before the January 8th deadline?

    Please respond – we all feel like pawns and we all feel under attack. That’s not right! – thank you!

  6. San Francisco Parent

    I have not heard or read any reference by board members regarding the culpability of the district and the board in this mess. There seems to be an underlying assumption that the parents have some kind of control over the future of the GE and Montessori programs. Instead of claiming culpability, there are remarks referencing how board members are surprised by parents representing their program at the last board meeting by wearing stickers or hats, and how the “Cobb turmoil” overshadowed the Special Education portion of the meeting.

    Since parents do not know if their children will have a school next Fall, with no information forthcoming, and none promised in time for the 2010/2011 application deadline, what else would one expect? Why would a special meeting not be held to deal with this issue? Instead, parents patiently waited (some with their kids and babies) for 2 hours in a hot and packed room to speak on behalf of their program.

    The Montessori program has been in operation since 2005 with the first K class starting in Fall 2008. It is not new. What is the holdup?

    My child started in the Montessori K program this past Fall and since then we have been given virtually NO information from the district. What information we have been given proved to be completely erroneous. There was a single Cobb parent meeting in September. Associate Superintendent Kevin M. Truitt spoke and told us that the board would be considering moving the Montessori program to the Jackson Street location at the September 14th board meeting. He stated that a decision would be made by October 1st. Despite this, on October 6th, Rachel Norton posted this comment to the SFKfiles Blog: “…when I asked Superintendent Garcia about this rumor back in late June he clearly and definitively told me there were no plans to relocate Cobb’s Montessori program at Jackson St.”

    District representatives and board members: Please take responsibility for the situation you have created. Put an end to it by giving us the long overdue decision/s about the future of our respective programs. And please- provide clear and accurate information along the way.

  7. Dr. Fagan,

    thank you. I appreciate your sentiments and I am glad to hear you say that BOTH sets of families and staff care deeply about their children’s education. I agree. It means a lot to hear my feelings echoed by someone so actively involved in the GE community. We are not enemies, we are neighbors… and we do not deserve to be pitted against one another any further. All of our children are losing the more this goes on.

  8. Dr. Yvette Fagan

    Please do not pit the two program against each other in such a comparative fashion …”from the Montessori side, the issue is supporting innovation and quality programs. From the GE side, the issue is communication, community engagement, and responsiveness.” BOTH programs believe in supporting innovation and quality programs. BOTH programs believe in communication, engagement and responsiveness. BOTH programs care about their children and their children’s education. This has been difficult for every family and staff member at Cobb. When the issues are summed so simplistically it is not helpful.

  9. Anon, while there’s been some bad behavior I don’t think the issues here are trivial – from the Montessori side, the issue is supporting innovation and quality programs. From the GE side, the issue is communication, community engagement, and responsiveness. For both sides, keeping promises is a key argument. In any event, I doubt that we’re going to stop trying to keep/create attractive programs in our schools.

  10. I think the parents are acting like brats here. This is going to make the district extremely unlikely to want to put attractive programs in schools, if the parents immediately start squabbling like 6-year-olds. Can’t we all just get along?

  11. This is a very unfortunate time for Cobb. It seems that no matter what the Montessori families say or do to the contrary, we are perceived as being the reason for the closure of Cobb GE. All I can say is that I am very, very sorry that those families are fighting for the survival of their school, just as I am sorry to be fighting for the survival of my daughters program. The facts are that we simply are not against them, but it feels impossible to get that point across. I fervently wish that the GE families could hear me when I say that ALL of us deserve a place for our children to go to school, with a methodology we want and can believe in.
    We are not advocating for the closure of their program. We ask that they please, please stop advocating for the closure of ours. Why keep attacking our program, instead of demanding that the district do right by yours and give it the resources it needs to grow and thrive? No one should have to tell their kids that they have no school to go to anymore. I understand anger, but at some point there should be some empathy and compassion for the Montessori children as well. We did not make the decision to phase out GE, the district did. We are asking the district to honor their commitment to our children and to us to grow an AMI Montessori school through 6th grade. We were more than willing to relocate, despite the obvious hardship of uprooting our kids, and are still advocating for that result. Our children deserve to know where they will go to school next year.
    As I write this I am incredibly distressed. It certainly seems as though my daughters school is going to be dismantled because of a political mess that she had no part in. How fair is that? How fair is it that Montessori administrators are being blamed for the districts lack of communication? Montessori parents feel pretty lonely right now. We are not being given information from the district, the media is presenting many inaccuracies and myths about the program which are painting us as something we are not, our administrators are being removed and scapegoated for failures much higher up… at this point many of us are terrified we’ll walk in to Cobb one morning to find our school just disappeared. Perhaps I am naive, but I always thought the school district was supposed to serve children. ALL children. People keep talking about theoretical children here, the children the Montessori program was theoretically conceived to serve. What about our ACTUAL children? Who is thinking about those 75 kids and what they need? Who is thinking of the hundreds of San Francisco families who want this type of education for their kids and are asking for a choice in educational programming like this outstanding and successful program?
    I just wonder what folks want me to tell my daughter. That she is not worth it?

  12. Why is the term TURMOIL used instead of CHANGE? Change that displaces another group is not change but rather injustice. If you are deciding to bring injustice to a particular group, then yes that would bring TURMOIL If you really thought what was taking place was for the best, it would have been presented in a more positive light, which, is not how Ms. Norton presented it.

  13. Mom that supports GE

    I can not help but to feel that general education, at Dr. Cobb, was set up to fail. I was informed that Pat Forte, previous principal, was kicked out by concern parents from two other schools. I feel that the district placed Forte at Dr. William Cobb to undermine the general education. As Forte did not provide guidance or direction for general education. Forte did not promote Dr. Cobb, and I was told that she had told prospective parents that enrollment for General Education ws closed. Nor did she reach out to the parents of the GE students attending Dr. Cobb.

    I do not buy or believe that the district intended to provide an inclusive ‘special program’ for GE students. There was no proper and aggressive outreach to include the GE students.

    Montessori is an exclusive program that is being paid by working parents, like myself, for parents that want their children in a PRIVATE program that they can not afford. As a taxpayer, I do not feel it is correct that tax payer money supplements a small group of (Montessori)students at the expense and sacrifice of a larger group of (general education) students.

    It comes down to money and real estate. The state wants to bring in more with this pilot program, and keep the Pacific Heights location to attract parents for its ideal location.

    I am now convinced, that Montessori and General Education can not be under the same roof. Twice, it was brought to my attention that ‘guides’ locked out children from their classrooms. The children, two of them, stood outside of the door bangingwith their fists and kicking it while SCREAMING “Let me in! Let me in!” For over ten minutes respectively. That kind of ‘guidance’ is very disruptive and confusing to the General Education children. As a parent, I was so upset I called the district and complained.

    Montessori papa is right. The Montessori program is very unique. Imagine, if college was modeled like Montessori where there is NO teaching, NO homework, NO testing and NO structure. Universities adhere to traditional method of teaching, I value the education our professionals, such as doctors, receive under traditional teaching. I will do everything I can to support general education.

  14. I couldn’t agree more with “A Worried Mom”. As a Montessori parent, I feel the district has, through neglect, inadvertently pitted the GE school against the Montessori school. I know of no Montessori parents that desire the Cobb GE school to be closed. In fact, we were gladly expecting to relocate in 2010 — a move that was described as all but a done-deal by Assistant Superintendent Kevin Truitt at a public meeting.

    Really, I would simply like some resolution on this. We are very happy with Montessori, but feel we will be harming our children if we send them to a school that does not have the support of the District, or worse, send them into a hostile environment. With the lottery approaching fast, one way or the other, please make a decision!

  15. I too was saddened at last nights meeting. And I want to express my thanks to you for trying to look at this situation logically and fairly. But I am sad that despite many, many attempts to reach out to the board for information about the future of our school by members of both the Cobb GE and Cobb Montessori communities, there continues to be no response to any of us from the board. I was am sad that although my family is a working family who could never dream of sending our daughter to a private school… and although I treasure our daughters relationship with her dearest friend at Cobb Montessori, an african american from the western addition whose family has attended Cobb for two generations and calls my daughter her sister… despite this I continue to be accused in public of being a “have” and as you so aptly put it an “insensitive interloper”.
    My trouble Rachel is that this debate has become so focused on the anger of some parents and teachers that it seems to have no place for my daughter and what she needs from the school district where she lives. You write here that “… because we believe it’s not equitable to put resources into programs that attract middle- and upper-middle class families of any race”. I must ask you what, as a working middle income family who wants to raise my kids in the city but cannot afford to stay here without a quality public school for them to attend, I am to make of such statements? Do YOU believe that? Are you saying that, basically, the board feels that the SFUSD is only there to serve low income families? That middle class families don’t deserve an opportunity to access high quality public education in the city they live and work and pay taxes in?
    Forget for a moment that there are, actually, a huge number of low income and impoverished children in the Montessori program. 60% in fact. Forget that there are, also, an almost equal number of children who identify as african american, latino, asian american and caucasian and that there are also plenty of families from the western addition. You folks know all this. But let’s just say that for the sake of argument that SFUSD Montessori is MY daughters school, that it matters to her and is serving her and is the place where she has been going to school for three years and THAT is the only thing at stake… does she not matter? Does she not have a right to a public education because she comes from a “middle class” family? Really. I would really like to know.
    I appreciate the dilemma you and your fellow board members find yourselves in. This situation has become a racially charged political nightmare, and you all are after all, politicians. Nothing worse for politicians than an angry mob. But two things are important to point out here. One is that it is not accurate that “From the Montessori side, there is clearly bewilderment at the backlash”. We are not bewildered at all, we have been experiencing this anger and hostility directly and firsthand for the better part of a year. And we are fully aware that it exists because the district has pitted these two programs against each other and created a vacuum of information for concerned parents on both sides about where our children will be going to school next year. Until someone from the district points out to the GE community that the Montessori community has never advocated for the closure of their program, their anger will continue to be inappropriately directed at my child, and not at decision makers in the district. The other is that if, as you suggest is possible, the district eliminates the SFUSD Montessori program entirely MY daughter really WILL have nowhere to go to school. Because for three years she has been educated in a methodology that is not available in any other school or program (public OR private) here in San Francisco. SFUSD Montessori is not a ‘special program’, it is our childrens school. If you close it, you are closing our childrens school. Whether the Board of Education feels that my daughters future as a student and a citizen of San Francisco is important is something I would really like to know, because at this point it is looking like that is sadly not the case.