Recap: Lots of public comment

Not a lot of weighty business on tonight’s board agenda, but we always manage to make our meetings interesting!  The meeting began on two uplifting notes:  a Superintendent’s Resolution commemorating the Week of the Administrator and commendations to a few of our hardworking administrators; then an announcement from the Superintendent that SF Mayor Ed Lee has agreed to release the Rainy Day Fund to SFUSD for 2011-12 – a lifeline of $8 million for next year.

Then on to an earful of public comment — about an hour’s worth — from several different school communities: SF Public Montessori, Bryant, Buena Vista and Lakeshore. First up, UESF and some of the parents at SF Public Montessori are upset that several of the preschool teachers received notices that they would not be retained next year; one was relieved of duty immediately due to issues with her credential. This school has had a troubled history in its few short years in the district, partly because of strong personalities with strong opinions for and against the project, and partly because it’s just challenging–not impossible, but challenging!– to fit the Montessori philosophy into a traditional public school model. The irony is that the current group of warring parents and staff at the school all truly love the program and are committed to building a great K-5 Montessori program in San Francisco. It’s just that they differ on how this should best be done, and with whom.

Next up: a group of parents and one teacher from Bryant Elementary, one of our SIG schools that will utilize the “turnaround” model as part of its reorganization plan (the model requires, among other things, that 50 percent of the current staff at a school find new jobs within the district).  Most of the parents spoke against the turnaround strategy, and were advocating against losing any of their teachers. Others spoke in support of the principal, including the Instructional Reform Facilitator, the school’s on-site teacher coach.

After that, Buena Vista parents and staff spoke about their misgivings in the wake of poor communication and shifting plans for their planned move to Horace Mann to form a K-8 Spanish Immersion school in the Mission.  They were unhappy to learn that 6th graders would be admitted to the school’s GE strand for 2011-12, having been under the impression that only 7th and 8th grade GE students would remain at the school next year; BV families are also upset to learn that the leadership of the new school remains in flux, subject to an open hiring process that will commence this month (many had hoped that the current principal of Buena Vista would automatically move into the leadership position at the new site, but the Board and Superintendent have decided that the fairest thing would be to conduct an interview process as we would for any other school community).  As it stands, the current Assistant Principal at Horace Mann, Adelina Aramburo (formerly the principal of Cesar Chavez ES, another SIG school!) will lead a planning team made up of staff and parents from each school, and will manage the transition until a site leadership team is selected.

Finally, Lakeshore parents came to express their unhappiness that their school would feed into Denman MS under the revised proposal for the middle school feeder plan. They have a point in that Denman is  further from their school than Aptos or Giannini, but I was a little put off when one parent said it didn’t feel “equitable” to be sent to Denman rather than Aptos or Hoover or A.P. Giannini. Equitable to whom? Her point, of course, was that the offerings of various schools differ. They do — the most obvious difference between middle schools being the presence or absence of a GATE or Honors track (it’s arguable whether that presence or absence is the most important difference, however).  Lick and Denman both do not have an Honors track, while Presidio, Hoover, A.P. Giannini, Aptos, Marina and Roosevelt all do (I am not sure about the status of an Honors track at Everett, Francisco, Horace Mann, Vis Valley or Martin Luther King — some of these schools are extremely under-enrolled, and it’s hard to support two tracks in that situation).  It’s late, and I don’t want to write a treatise on the subject, but I do think we are long overdue for a discussion about the role of Honors classes in this district (not to mention the sham that GATE is in elementary school, but I digress).

The treatise, in a nutshell:  Some people think we should just do away with Honors altogether — that it’s a leftover from a time when college was the goal for only a few and great jobs could be found without a college education; now, they argue, the Honors track is simply a sorting mechanism that introduces higher academic expectations for some and lower expectations for others. Another group argues that Honors classes challenge high-achievers and allow teachers to move faster on material than they otherwise would be able to in a GE population.

My question is:  which is it? As it stands right now, we are kind of having our cake and eating it too — saying that it’s possible to challenge high-achievers without Honors in some schools, and in other schools saying, no, Honors is the only way to make sure high-achieving students are receiving rigorous content. To me, it’s all about expectations and rigor. Can you have universally high expectations and acceptable levels of rigor if you have multiple tracks? But I’m also sympathetic to the argument that some kids need a faster pace of material than others. I actually know that is true, since I have two kids who learn at drastically different paces; the 5th grader is handily doing math that completely escapes the 6th grader.

I don’t know the answer yet, but I am continuing to ask the question, because I think it is hugely relevant to the middle school debate. I’ve asked that we bring this topic to a future Curriculum Committee meeting, because I’m interested in the pedagogy of GATE/Honors — What do we know about the benefits of tracked vs. differentiated environments? Now that we have opened Honors and AP classes to everyone, what have the results been?  I am not sure when the topic will hit the committee’s agenda, but I’ll post an update when the date is set.

Last, but certainly not least, we ended on a another uplifting note. At my invitation, staff from the Parent Education Network came to present to the Board about their organization, and their upcoming conference — EdRev 2011.  EdRev is an event that seeks to support several different swaths of the LD (Learning-Disabled) world — parents, who are looking for ways to help their kids be the successful, smart people they know they can be; students, who know they are smart but have felt stupid most of their lives because they learn differently; and teachers, who know their students can learn but need help and resources to assist their kids with LDs.  I can’t do the conference justice so go here to learn more (registration for parents is $60 with scholarships available; students and teachers may attend for free).

PEN has existed through sheer energy and determination over the past decade, and is finally growing into a bona-fide clearinghouse of information, resources and networking for parents, teachers and students (several student members of PEN’s SAFE Voices student to student mentoring group also spoke poignantly about their experiences). I was so pleased to finally host them in the Boardroom!

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20 responses to “Recap: Lots of public comment

  1. I pondered this comment for a long time, and I think there’s another way to view it:

    “2)The “put a language strand in and they will come” approach has not held when it comes to middle school. For whatever reasons, middle class parents are more willing to come to an underperforming elementary school for immersion; for middle school many bail in favor of programs that are perceived to be stronger academically.”

    I think there’s a flaw in that reasoning. The willingness of young parents to enroll their kids in an underperforming elementary school because their desire for immersion is so strong appears to be a new attitude among the current generation of parents, maybe those of children in second or third grade and younger.

    That attitude was much less perceptible some years ago, when I knew parents (for example) trying to get into Buena Vista’s Spanish immersion, assigned to Leonard Flynn’s then-fledgling Spanish immersion instead, and very upset about it. They didn’t have support in terms of peers willingly choosing Leonard Flynn. (It worked out well for them in the end, but they were not open to it, fought hard and bitterly, and enrolled only grudgingly, expecting to transfer at the first opportunity. They’re now middle-school parents.)

    In other words, it’s my observation that the parents just a few years older than the current K parents weren’t so impassioned about immersion that they would willingly enroll in an underperforming school — and there has been a really significant attitude shift, not a subtle one. Of course the fact that peers are making similar choices, adopting similar attitudes, fuels that willingness. Parents a few years ago didn’t have that peer support.

    So, those parents of younger children haven’t reached the point of making middle school choices yet. The fact that they had a successful experience in an underperforming (or formerly underperforming) elementary school would seem to make this generation of parents more open about middle schools.

  2. Rachel,
    Would it be possible for the district to make their real objective clear instead of putting everything under “Quality Middle School”, something as lofty as can be? It seems clear that the real objective of the district is to create more equitable schools to deal with the upcoming bubble issue. If they made this clear, then everything all of a sudden makes a lot more sense. Some parents will be upset no matter what, but most will understand where the district is coming from.

  3. Publicschoolmama

    The District needs to do a better job articulating the transistion process for this feeder plan. We all know if every family went as assigned to their MS, the demographics for 6th grade would change, fairly wholesale. But with choice, this gets messy… and even messier if the District fails to convince majority of parents to go to assigned school.
    For example, take Denman – capacity of 577 — if the 3 higher performing ES feeders (and higher is all relative) of Lakeshore, Miraloma, Sunnyside went there, they make up roughly speaking 2/3 of the 577 capacity…
    so what is the Denman administration going to do to adapt to the needs of the changing demographics? If most of these students are ready and able to take honors, want Band elective or whatever it is, is the Administration going to accomodate or try to fit these new students into an existing paradigm of “what is right” or existing theories of education. If the Administration cannot adapt, then SFUSD needs to find someone/bodies who can (at 12.4% unemployment in CA, not difficult). I use Denman only as an example, I have heard the current Principal is excellent.
    I would expect once the feeders are in place that there will be lots, LOTS,LOTS of interaction and reaching out of from MS to ES, and between the feeder ES to work on transistion.
    I’m not hearing this aspect. In fact, I went to one MS meeting and parents were tearing at each other as to why their ES was “displaced” from great MS to horror MS.

  4. I watched the meeting on television and it sure seemed like “warring” to me!
    I hope the community can heal and move on.

  5. @SFPM Mom – thanks for the positive spin (I mean that with no sarcasm). But I have to say, if you saw one or two of the emails I’m getting privately, or the comment that was submitted last night that I’m refusing to post, the word “warring” is more than apt. Still, I appreciate that both groups love the school and want what they think is best for their children. I would just rather we moved forward without ultimatums or lines in the sand or convictions that one person or another is the root of all the school’s problems.

  6. Rachel,
    I think it’s a misrepresentation to describe the families who are speaking out in support of SF Public Montessori as “warring.” For too long, the Board has had it’s ear bent by angry parents. There are TONS of happy parents, and they are finally speaking up. I don’t know of any of the happy parents who are at war with the angry parents. I’m a happy parent and simply want the excellent teachers and the excellent program maintained.
    Thank you

  7. I grew up in Germany, as a gifted student at a time when tracking was strongly discouraged. I spent most of my days reading books under my desk, because the material came so ridiculously easy to me. When I hit college, I had to that point never learned to apply myself and to work hard, something that in my eyes is one of the teaching responsibilities of primary school. It took me several decades and a number of detours to teach myself. Today I am finally in grad school, where I belong. Germany of the 70s (when I received my education) had dramatically less differences in student ability. I don’t want to give up on struggling students. But I also don’t want my kids, if they end up in a similar situation as I did, to have to hope for the luck of a teacher smart and creative enough to actually provide differentiated instruction, given the huge abyss between high and low achieving students in this city. And I agree with a previous poster. The argument that low achieving students will be motivated by the high achieving ones does not make sense to me at all… Are there any data on this, or is this just wishful thinking????

  8. I probably should have mentioned that my daughter would not have been eligible to take Honors Chemistry at most schools because she struggles in math. I am doubly proud of her for taking the class and doing well in it (and no, sitting next to higher achieving students would not help learn math more easily, or would it help her self-esteem — she bust a gut laughing when I asked her!)

  9. Michelle Smith

    We are a new to SF family (arrived at the end of August ’10) with a 5th grader. We are awaiting our ms assignment with baited breath.

    In the end we only elected schools that have both an orchestra program and an honors program that starts in 6th grade (knocked Giannini off our list…) Orchestra because there is no way I could afford 5x a week music lessons for our daughter who plays cello, and honors because she has been bored silly in 5th grade despite repeated visits to the school and reassurances about “differentiated instruction.”

    That said, I toured a bunch of less sought after schools, including Denman, Lick, and Everett. On those tours I was told that Denman and Lick no longer have honors classes, not because of funding, but for reasons relating to social justice and so that the kids who need extra time to learn will benefit from the presence of the other students in their classes. Everett did not seem to have enough students performing “proficient” much less “above proficient” to warrent separate tracks.

    Differentiated instruction has some benefits, and can be done, but it is a bit tricky and requires a particularly talented teacher, particualrly in math. In social studies, a heterogeneous group can all learn about ancient Egypt, for example, and have different depths of assignments associated with it depending on the skills/needs/intersts of different students. In math, it’s trickier — if 1/3 of the class has *gotten* a concept and is ready to move on, but the other 2/3 isn’t, instruction gets complicated — especially with larger class sizes being predicted.

    So, for now my fingers are crossed for Aptos, Hoover, or Roosevelt. Aptos gives us the best transportation options, and Hoover and Roosevelt are equally difficult to get to, but we’ll work something out. If she’s assigned a different school than those 3? That’s what the second round is for, no?

  10. I like the way my daughter’s private high school does honors — they have an opt-in based on the motivation of the student, rather than test scores. They will also let kids give it a try, and then change them to a non-honors class if the class proves too challenging or the child is not willing to do the work required. Faculty and administration really encourage kids to give honors classes a try — my daughter was really worried about taking Honors Chemistry, but with a nudge from her biology teacher, she took the class. She’s really glad she did because she’s enjoyed it way more than she thought and done very well. I realize this may be more challenging logistically for a large public middle or high school, but I like the concept.

    Also, thanks for the term “meme” — totally new to me, but looked it up by Wikipedia.

  11. Katie Russell

    Rachel – thank you so much for your invitation of the Parents Educational Network to the SFUSD Board meeting. I had heard that in the past, when PEN approached the school district for some partnership opportunities, that the school district was not particularly interested. The seminars that I have attended through PEN here in the city have been key to understanding of my child’s learning differences and helped clarify the actions that I needed to take to remediate the issues. They have had nationally renowned speakers on learning issues, such as Sally Schwitz on dyslexia, Nanci Bell on reading comprehension, and David Berg on math for children with processing problems.
    I went two years ago to their EdRev event at the ballpark and the keynote speaker (Jonathan Mooney, a young man who had dyslexia and ADD, who graduated from Brown and has become an author and activist) completely turned my head around about how I should perceive my daughter’s learning issues. If you have a child with any manner of learning difference, I could not recommend this event more highly for both you and your child.

  12. Yet Aptos wasn’t one of the “Big Four” when my oldest started there in ’02 — it wasn’t even close, and there was only a “Big Three.” So that demonstrates how things can change.

  13. Funny, the GATE/Honors debate is feeling like a meme. Today my CEC SmartBrief (highly recommended, btw) had a link to this story, out of Montgomery County Md. :

    Campaign against ‘Gifted and Talented’ label revives long-standing debate
    Some push for eliminating identification, while others call for school system to give it teeth
    http://www.gazette.net/stories/03092011/montnew184800_32540.php

    It’s an interesting discussion of the debate and particularly of note because Montgomery County Public Schools have been cited a lot around our district as an example of a school system that successfully closed its achievement gap.

  14. Special ed parent – you make some great suggestions but there are a couple of issues:
    1)In a few years there will be much less middle school “choice” than there is now, due to the sheer size of the bubble that is coming. I’ve asked for staff to do an analysis of what odds of admission would look like for the “big four” (Presidio, Hoover, Giannini, Aptos) if current demand patterns continue – but even without the hard numbers in hand, it’s safe to say those odds are going to go down, in a big way (the number of families getting one of their middle school choices is already decreasing every year). Right now, some people are upset because they feel the proposed feeder plan forces them into schools they wouldn’t choose. Well, in a few years, people are going to be upset because the unbalance of supply and demand is going to force them into schools they didn’t choose. And the worst part is: because schools are funded based on the Weighted Student Formula, higher-enrollment schools have more resources to support program variety than under-enrolled schools. We equalize this a bit — schools with needier students get more per student — but even that doesn’t make up for economies of scale that a larger school has and a smaller school lacks. In other words, we can’t build it (program variety) unless they (more families) come; they won’t come unless we build it.

    2)The “put a language strand in and they will come” approach has not held when it comes to middle school. For whatever reasons, middle class parents are more willing to come to an underperforming elementary school for immersion; for middle school many bail in favor of programs that are perceived to be stronger academically.

  15. special ed parent

    Rachel — I’m glad you realize how significant the differences in honors track treatment are in the middle schools, but maybe the better approach is to let what is going on continue to go on — that is, some schools have integrated approaches while others have separated tracks and let PARENTS make the decision as to which they’d rather have for their children. I have one child — admittedly in special ed — who I feel strongly benefits in an integrated classroom. By contrast, I have a younger child who I think would do much better in a school with a separate honors track. Rather than view the current set up as some kind of problem, why can’t we embrace the diversity of approaches we have, clearly communicate to parents their options, and let PARENTS decide? And I hear you and others that schools like Everett and Denman have a way to go to improve. On that score, I think there is a simple answer to attracting more middle class families to those schools — put in a language class for those schools. There are many non-immersion parents who want their kid to start a language in sixth grade. Put language in Everett and Denman and you will see parents RUNNING to those schools.

  16. Frances Taylor

    As a former SFPM parent I’d just like to say too bad you don’t mention the failed policies and underhanded practices of SF district administration when it came to derailing this program. The current ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign fits in with the stereotype of Montessori and people who look like you.

  17. Lauretta Komlos

    Thanks for this posting. I am a Fairmount mom that attended a recent meeting. We had a presentation from Fairmount parent Jen Fong (she’s awesome) who represented the Board’s “thinking” in the Middle School Feeding patterns. Most of we parents are just figuring out this Middle School thing. I was shocked to learn that there were no Honors programs in some schools. I honestly didn’t know that there was that kind of disparity. How can this ever be justified? Shouldn’t all bright students, regardless of whether they are at Lick or Denman, Everett or Aptos be challenged so that they can excel to the best of their abilities.

    What I took away from Jen’s presentation is that there is great hope for equity among Middle Schools, but no nuts and bolts. The answer appears to be feeding demographics throughout the City more evenly, but this doesn’t answer the underlying Q’s. I’m sure that if the school demonstrated that Denman or Lick or Everett would absolutely have an Honors track, would have equal opportunities as those going to Aptos, etc. there would be a lot less complaining.

    How can the District justify having such disparate opportunities? It’s no wonder there is such resistance to the feeder patterns. The fact is, good schools are about more than demographics. They require good teachers, good administrators, good facilities and supplies, and yes, helpful, motivated and involved parents can make a difference on top of that.

    Thanks for listening.

  18. Montessori Dad

    Thanks for your update and accurate assessment of the SF Montessori program. Most of the parents at our school would prefer to move forward in a positive and constructive manner. So many of us watch the school board meetings with breath held, hoping public comments will finally reflect the positive changes occuring at our school. The program has indeed had a troubled history but we’re fortunate in the fact that most of the parents there are able to disagree as adults. One important difference now is the fact that our program has effective, dedicated and pragmatic leadership whose flexibility and problem solving skills will go far in helping this program weather the current “storm”.

  19. re Buena Vista: Thanks for the update. I am a parent awaiting news about our child’s placement into a Spanish immersion kindergarten in the next few weeks. I am surprised to hear the Senor Alegre is not guaranteed to make the move, considering his tenure at BV. In many ways, he seems to be the heart of the school. Or if not the heart, a critical and vital organ (to extend the metaphor).

    I also wanted to comment, if it wasn’t said last night, that the fact that this announcement was made in the midst of the application process for kindergarten is quite disappointing. My wife and I toured BV twice in the past two years and ultimately listed it in our top 3 in the application process. Now, after submitting our application, all this change has come out of the blue. The facility we toured will no longer assist. We don’t know anything about the new facility or who the principal will be.

    The message from BV has been from the beginning that this is great news. I suspect it is. But on behalf of many parents in the same situation as my family, how are we possibly going to make an informed decision in two weeks if our child is indeed placed in Buena Vista?

    Thanks and keep up the great work. I value your regular updates and appreciate your dedication to the betterment of SFUSD.

  20. Without going into the efficacy of honors overall — it’s quite possible to create a separate honors track in a school, so if there’s demand and sufficient numbers, that can be done.

    The resource that I believe can’t be re-created is full band and orchestra programs in the middle schools that have lost them. To me, that’s the deal-breaker on the middle school feeder proposal. I think the younger parents tend not to fully grasped that, not having experienced middle school, but if they had, I’m convinced that most people would agree.