What a night!

Well, I have to hand it to Commissioner Kim, who led her first meeting as the newly-elected Board President. (Commissioner Mendoza was elected VP). The agenda was incredibly long, but somehow we adjourned just after 10:30 p.m.

Still, tonight was one of those meetings that felt full of drama. The meeting opened with the annual tasks of electing new Board leadership and re-adopting the Board rules, then the awards and commendations we do at every meeting. There were a large number of people waiting to speak on the district’s Ethnic Studies pilot program, and another large group waiting to talk about the Superintendent’s recommendation regarding the locations of the General Education and Montessori programs at Cobb Elementary.

The Ethnic Studies group went first, discussing the importance of including Ethnic Studies as a 9th grade social studies course. The proposal for the pilot would create the two-semester class at five high schools; many students came to tell us they found the proposed class to be more relevant to their experience than other history courses they had taken. Teachers also stressed the importance of connecting history to the actual life experiences of our students. The underlying idea behind the pilot would be to empower students who come from marginalized groups, and address the lack of a 9th grade history course, and lackluster scores in the 10th grade California Standards Test in World History. It has a community service component and a course of study that examines the role of race, ethnicity and culture in history.  The Superintendent told us he is still examining the plans for the pilot and will bring us a proposal in the coming months, one that aligns the $300,000 proposed cost with our strategic plan and our new A-G graduation requirements.

But the big news of the night was the fate of the Cobb General Education and Montessori programs. Families in both programs have been in agony in recent months, uncertain whether their school would survive what best resembles a contentious divorce. Originally, the district placed the Montessori program at Cobb in an effort to offer an innovative curriculum to the school’s predominantly African-American students. But the program never caught on with the Cobb families, perhaps because it wasn’t what they wanted or perhaps because the engagement of the African American community was flawed.  The issue came to a head when the district’s Program Placement committee approved a plan to expand the Pre-K Montessori program into a full Pre-K through 5th grade program — a plan which called for phasing out the General Education program at Cobb.

At that point, the General Education teachers cried foul. While there were attempts to inform and engage the broader Cobb community about the Montessori plans, in retrospect those attempts were not enough, and mixed messages were sent. The community organized around the General Education program, and the rest is history.

There was no ideal solution before the Board tonight. Over the past few months, I’ve been convinced by the robust community support that we should give the Cobb General Ed program more of a chance.  And yet I’ve remained a strong supporter of Montessori and our efforts to bring a high-quality program to our public schools.  Still, the divisions between the two communities were so deep, and so bitter, it became increasingly clear that they could not co-exist on the same campus. And in any event, Cobb is scheduled for construction next year, so it physically would not have space for both programs.

What made the decision worse was a long-overdue fiscal analysis of the costs of both programs. While Cobb GE is currently under-enrolled, a relatively small increase in enrollment would keep the school fiscally viable. Montessori, on the other hand, costs more money to operate because the model requires more adults in the classroom than a traditional program — a fact that Board members realized we were not clear on until now.  In addition, moving either program would cost the district additional money.

In the end, the Board voted 6-1 to keep Cobb’s General Education program where it is and move Montessori, on a temporary basis, to the district’s Jackson St. property six blocks away (at an estimated cost of $235,000). There was discussion of “fiscal irresponsibility” by opening up a new school, but any solution that involved moving a program would have cost us money — and there was no other site the staff could identify that would be able to accommodate seven classrooms on the ground floor (required under fire codes for students younger than 7 years old).  In any event, part of the point of keeping the Montessori program is that it is wildly popular, with a long waiting list. If it ends up boosting overall enrollment in the district, we will probably come close to recouping those costs.  On the other hand, if we continue to hem and haw every year about where the program should be located, that would take away from its popularity.

Still, I’m hoping we learned something about planning and community engagement from this experience.  We shouldn’t just plop programs down in schools that didn’t ask for them or participate in the program placement decisions. And district staff needs to be much clearer with each other and with the Board about the potential costs of new programs.

There is, however, much to be happy about. The Cobb GE community should be proud of the strong advocacy they did for their program, and I look forward to seeing them take it to the next level. And the Montessori parents can breathe easier, looking forward to a fresh start in a new site next year. Hopefully, we will be able to craft a longer-term solution before June so that this program, too, has a sense that its future is secure.

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6 responses to “What a night!

  1. I’m a CACS parent and would like to point out that Rachel is a friend of mine and I think she is committed to helping us find our school a good new home …
    so I wish you’d please quit sounding so angry at her…
    Perhaps the Newcomer Campus did not meet the criteria listed on our facilities request?

  2. Rachel-
    I’m afraid you didn’t really address my question. I will repost what has also been posted on the SFK Files blog by another poster:

    “CACS’s annual space request was given to the school district last November, but as you are well aware, the relocation of CACS has been a board agenda item for several years now. Please shed some light why there continues to be a delay in relocating CACS. At CACS there are amazing kids, families and teachers who would appreciate a slice of your energy and concern for their education and needs.”

    Our community has been in agony for many YEARS now in our rundown location without knowing when and where we may move. Aren’t the kids at CACS, many of whom live in the neighborhood, just as important?

    As the San Francisco Cobb parent above commented:
    “Who wants to go through this every year? as a working parent in san Francisco, I want to focus on what spare moments I have on making my child’s school better, not on it’s mere survival.”
    Well, we feel the same way.

  3. It’s not a question of “preferential treatment,” it’s a question of what building could accommodate the program. The situation between Montessori and GE had deteriorated to the point where they were not going to be able to co-exist, and no one on the Board thought that Cobb GE should be made to move. So once the decision was made to move Montessori, we needed a facility that could offer seven ground floor classrooms, because it is a Pre-K as well as a planned K-5 (the fire code requires that PreK-2 children be housed on the ground floor, or have a dedicated exit stairwell). Jackson St. was the only location staff could find that would accommodate that many young children on the first floor.

  4. I’m a parent at Creative Arts and I voted for you.

    This is all well and good for the Montessori folks, but WE have been requesting a new facility for many years now. Our facilities are shameful. We love our school and are getting fed up with being shuffled around instead of allowed to grow and take root somewhere permanent.

    Can you please tell me why these folks were given preferential treatment over our already established 15 year old school?

  5. i’m happy! we are on the waiting list and we care more about the montessori program than the location. hoping this means we move up the list if it scares others off. jackson street is a much better locale than cal/divis.

  6. San Francisco Parent

    I listened to the radio broadcast of the board meeting last night with great interest, as my child’s educational fate was to be determined by the board’s decision regarding the Cobb GE & Montessori programs.

    It was a breath of fresh air to hear the board being much more responsive to the parents (many with small children) in attendance by moving the agenda item up. I appreciated the open debate and frank discussion of all of the issues and complex factors that affect the decision making process, though this debate should have occurred a long time ago and before the 2010 application deadline.

    Although one board member admonished parents at both programs (which is passing the buck), I was heartened to to hear most board members taking some responsibility for the turmoil and uncomfortable environment created at Cobb over the past year.

    Despite all of this, the TEMPORARY relocation of the Montessori program to the Jackson St. location will dissuade some parents from staying, and I’m sure many others from applying. Who wants to go through this every year? I don’t. As a working parent an San Francisco, I want to focus what few spare moments I have on making my child’s school better, not on it’s mere survival.