Board meeting recap: Sept. 27, 2011

(Advance warning: this post is long – it starts out as a recap of tonight’s board meeting but ends up covering a lot of ground: the current Prop A ballot measure, Transitional Kindergarten, summer school, SOTA admissions and the budget.  Also upcoming plans for a Curriculum Committee discussion on Honors/GATE in middle school. )

The absolute high point of tonight’s meeting was a before-and-after slideshow of schools that have been transformed by the 2003 and 2006 bond work:  Aptos MS has a gorgeous new auditorium; Glen Park ES has a more inviting playground; William Cobb ES, Martin Luther King MS and Wallenberg HS have new classrooms, new outdoor areas, and new entry facades; Civic Center Secondary and Principal’s Center Collaborative have been stripped down, ready for the makeover to bring the buildings into the 21st century (while preserving their historic facades). Most schools got repainted with vibrant colors (compare Cobb’s previous anemic green with its new dark red and white color scheme).

In 2003 and 2006, the voters of San Francisco passed facilities bonds for $295 million and $450 million, respectively.  The 2003 measure paid for upgrades to 30 sites, and was completed on budget and ahead of the deadline of June 30, 2010. The 2006 measure allowed upgrades and improvements to 59 more sites and is currently on time and under budget. Tonight’s presentation showed the results of the programs, clearly as a way to give voters the facts about past efforts –the third and final bond of this cycle is on the November ballot, for $531 million, and will allow the district to complete the work of making the remaining 50 aging buildings accessible to people with disabilities, seismically-safe, and upgraded for 21st-century learning. It’s illegal to use a public meeting or public resources to say it, but since this blog is neither paid for with public resources nor hosted on publicly-owned equipment, I can: The district’s track record with the 2003 and 2006 bonds (and the gorgeous buildings that have resulted) should assuage voters’ fears about supporting the remainder of the cycle. Proposition A has no meaningful opposition (even the Republican party is neutral) and deserves a Yes vote.  Here are resources for more information:

The district also held its annual hearing, as part of the Williams settlement, on the availability of books and supplies for students at every school. Last year was a debacle, for a number of reasons, so it was a pleasure to hear that most students (not all) started school with adequate access to books and supplies. High school science labs and health classrooms at a few schools were not adequately supplied, but most of these issues have since been resolved. In all, this year’s report was a huge improvement over last year’s, thanks to the work of Daisy Santos, the administrator in charge of the district’s supply of textbooks and supplies.

In other news:

  • 96 percent of SFUSD 7th – 12th graders have now received the TDAP vaccine — one of the highest percentages of any school district in California, according to the Superintendent’s report tonight.
  • The Board also passed a resolution commending George Washington High School on 75 years of excellence, on the occasion of its Diamond Jubilee celebration coming up next month.

Committee report

I’ve been meaning to give reports from the Curriculum, Rules and Budget Committees, which I attended last week.

Curriculum: We heard reports on various summer school programs that were implemented across the district, with some data on outcomes.  Thanks to Mayor Lee and the efforts of members of Coleman Advocates and other advocacy organizations, the City contributed $250,000 towards academic summer programs for credit recovery after large numbers of 9th graders failed core courses required under the district’s new A-G graduation requirements.  Here are highlights from the report given by Assistant Superintendent Janet Schulze to the Committee:

  • Approximately 25 percent of SFUSD 9th graders took part in a credit-earning summer program;
  • 90 percent of students taking English 1 or 2 received credit, with 79 percent receiving an A, B or C grade;
  • 94 percent of students taking Biology 1 or 2 received credit, with 79 percent receiving an A, B or C grade;
  • 88 percent of students taking Algebra 1 or 2 received credit, with 70 percent receiving an A, B or C grade.

Lincoln High School combined its city funding with site funds, and offered programs for all entering 9th graders, as well as older students who needed to gain credits to stay on a graduation track. Principal Barnaby Payne was on hand to talk about the program and pronounced it such a success that the school intends to fund the program again next year. 

The Curriculum committee also heard a presentation on the district’s planning for Transitional Kindergarten, the state’s new program to both raise the eligibility age for Kindergarten, while offering students with Fall birthdays a transitional program that blends pre-K and K to allow those younger students to progress at a different pace than older students.  The district is proposing to either a)place transitional K students in regular K classrooms but allow those students to stay for two years, with additional Professional Development and programming specifically for them; or b)set up standalone Transitional K classrooms that would house students for two years and then allow them to “graduate” to first grade at other schools.

Staff is recommending the first approach, but both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, cost impacts and unintended consequences for student assignment. The Committee was disturbed enough by the trade-offs in each proposal to recommend a hearing by the full board, as soon as possible. The current plan is to hear a presentation and gather Board input at the Oct. 11 Board meeting.

Rules: The topic of most general interest was an inquiry on the current policy and data on out-of-district students attending Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.  Very few people know that Ruth Asawa (SOTA) is allowed to accept 10 percent of its enrollment from out-of-district applicants, since it was originally conceived as a regional arts high school. In many ways, this works out well for everyone — the school is able to draw from a larger pool of talent (useful when you need, for example, a tuba player for Orchestra, or male dancers to partner their female counterparts); students in other districts are able to access an incredibly rigorous and professional arts-focused high school (see this Chronicle article about dancer Darius Drooh for an illustration of how SOTA’s out of district policy enhances both the school and individual lives). No one would argue (especially not me) that the arts achievements of SOTA students aren’t exceptional — they are, and the school is a credit to the school district.

Still, I would by lying if I said that the out-of-district enrollment is OK with me. I’m glad we attempt to make the school’s offerings available to a broader swath of students through the Academy program, which is co-located with SOTA and does not require students to audition or demonstrate artistic ability (it also does not accept out-of-district students unless there are fewer SF applicants than seats). Still, SOTA’s out-of-district enrollment policy makes me uncomfortable, especially after the Board received data that currently SOTA is currently enrolling somewhere closer to 15 percent out-of-district students (we do receive funding for these students from their home districts so this policy is not so much a money issue — it’s an access/equity issue). I had a long conversation with SOTA’s  principal, Carmelo Sgarlato, about this state of affairs, and after that conversation I understood better that the implementation of enrollment policies are more complex than they  appear. Many SF students initially accepted to SOTA end up choosing other comprehensive high schools where they can play sports and have access to a broader array of classes (my nephew is one of them – he’s a talented trumpet player but ended up attending Lowell so that he could run track and play soccer).   In addition, SOTA departments have different capacities — Dance is always looking for boys but Creative Writing is usually fully-subscribed. Lots of students play trumpet, violin and clarinet, but fewer play the tuba.

Still, 15 percent is not acceptable, and I let Mr. Sgarlato know I feel that way. At the Rules committee, Board members in general expressed alarm and asked whether we need to “tighten up” on the policy.  Right now, I hear clearly that SOTA faculty wants to remain in control of the school’s audition-related admissions, but the Board’s reality is that the percentage of out-of-district students must come back in line or (I’m guessing) the school risks losing this flexibility altogether.

Budget:  Remember how I said we would be closely watching the state’s monthly announcement of tax receipts to see how likely it is that the “budget trigger” will be pulled, yanking the rug out from under schools? Yeah. August wasn’t very good — a bit better than July but on target for revenues to come in almost $600 million under what had been “speculatively” anticipated.  If that shortfall gets to $2 billion, schools are in big trouble. We have three more months to make up the difference.

Coming up: On October 3 at 5:30, the Curriculum Committee will start the discussion on GATE and Honors in middle school. I don’t believe we will receive full data on outcomes or research, but it is an opportunity for members of the public to come and ask questions/share views on the district’s honors/GATE policy and offerings. This is a long, complex and sometimes emotional topic that will not be resolved in one meeting– it may ultimately require a full Board policy but we are not there yet. Anyway, I’m sharing this specifically because I know from the input I receive from constituents that there is a lot of interest/strong feelings on this topic, and I’m trying to begin the discussion.


12 responses to “Board meeting recap: Sept. 27, 2011

  1. To join Lorraine in beating that feeder system dead horse….I’m glad the Board is looking at the GATE/Honors equity issue for Middle Schools – just wish this had been thought through and a plan developed BEFORE putting in place a feeder system that takes away choice. Some parents/students want band, some parents/students want honors….

  2. hi Anne – Jeannie Pon is planning about 30 minutes for the following: an overview of GATE/honors in middle schools, information about what the research says about serving high achievers, John Burke from our research dept will present some outcomes data, and Michael Reimer and Bita Nazarian(principals at Roosevelt and Lick) will be on hand to talk about how GATE/honors works at their schools. The objective is to a) get a sense of the strategies we are using now, and identify questions the committee wants to explore as we look at serving high achievers going forward.

  3. Hi Rachel,

    Can you tell me what the goal of the Curriculum Committee discussion on honors and GATE is? Is it to standardize offerings across middle schools so that every child has access to appropriate programming no matter what their assigned middle school? Or is a philosophical discussion of what is the best way to serve high-performing students? I hope it will be a more nuanced discussion than GATE/honors = good or GATE/honors = bad but unfortunately there are people in powerful positions in our district that have extremely simplistic views of GATE. I would hope the discussion would be centered on student needs rather than ideology.


  4. @Dana, thanks. You’re right — David Goldin has done an incredible job and was clearly proud of “his” buildings last night. I should have publicly acknowledged him in my post, so thanks for doing it for me.

  5. Perhaps we could be doing more to “grow our own” for SOTA within SFUSD through the middle school arts and music programs — and to beat a dead horse on the subject — the middle school feeder plan does NOTHING to help in this area. If you are “fed” to Lick, you won’t ever be able to BE that missing tuba player because this school does not offer band or orchestra (unless your parents are affluent enough to pay for private lessons, of course.)

    Conversely, you may be lucky enough to be “fed” to a MS with a band and orchestra program and have the opportunity to explore this. But as I’ve yammered on about for years now – where is the plan to make sure ALL middle schoolers have access to the same programs?

    This is where the MS feeder plan completely falls down and nobody cares (except for students and families who deliberately sought these instrumental programs in middle school and KNOW what I’m talking about.)

    The MS feeder forums earlier this year never asked parents/kids who were already in middle school why they picked their school – if they had, they would have found that program options was a key driver to MS. Instead, the question was mainly put to younger elementary school families who haven’t yet faced any of these questions yet.

  6. middle_school_parent

    One thing SOTA could do to reduce the losses of strong applicants to Lowell and possibly other schools is to strengthen their science curriculum. Word of mouth is that it’s pretty weak (perhaps that’s not true, but it’s certainly a commonly held perception), and I’ve heard that as a common reason why students turn SOTA down.

  7. Much credit for the success of the previous rounds of bond-financed renovations should go to SFUSD facilities director David Goldin. Some of us have been involved with SFUSD long enough to remember when facilties was ground zero for corruption (a previous department honcho was reportedly still wearing the court-mandated ankle bracelet for house arrest when he passed away 18 months ago) but Goldin brought professionalism and a high standard of accountability to the district. His leadership should be acknowledged.

  8. And what I’m proposing would be even cheaper if SFUSD contracted to get e-readers instead of laptops or ipads. School districts seem held hostage by textbook publishers, it should be the other way around, if anything … the State of California has a lot of buying power, eh? Bulk discount e-readers shouldn’t cost more than 60 bucks each.
    And somewhat related: my 11 year old (who has already written the publisher) would like to complain that the picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on his Algebra textbook is BACKWARDS and it is DRIVING HIM NUTS.

    I bought the textbooks above on ebay so my son doesn’t have to lug the 8 pound thing thing back and forth … I paid 1.25 plus 4.00 shipping … Alex’s teacher says I should do the textbook purchasing for the school 🙂

  9. The question about what we spend on textbooks and materials is interesting. We haven’t adopted new language arts textbooks in a decade, but we do spend almost $2 million a year replacing “consumables” and aging or lost books. There is an internal debate going on about whether we should just bite the bullet and spend (around – these numbers aren’t gospel) $3 million to do a new adoption. We’d get up to date curriculum and spend the same amounts going forward. Anyway, it’s something we’ll take up in Curriculum in the coming months.

  10. Just a note from a longtime SOTA parent to elaborate: This model of arts school has traditionally been regional — the best known is NYC’s LaGuardia of “Fame” fame, but there are similar schools all over the nation, in places like Denver, Houston, Orange County etc. It’s normally easy to make them a regional school because they can be county schools, but since SF is a contiguous city and county, that doesn’t work — it’s a geopolitical quirk. It was utterly uncontroversial to do it this way when SOTA was founded in 1982 — I think it was viewed as good partly because the out-of-district students bring the funding into our district with them — and at the time was allowed to be as high as 25% out of district. It gradually became viewed as problematic over the years.

    My son, a 2009 SOTA grad, says, “Its about ART, not geography.”

    I’m still not sure what I think, though if my kids had been aced out in auditions by hotshots from Palo Alto or Orinda, I’m sure it would have become very clear what I thought at that point!

  11. I think it’s time SFUSD stood up to the textbook industry. Textbooks cost 60-80 bucks each (guessing the amounts). Students need several textbooks a year. The books are heavy and the students have to lug around 40 pound backpacks. This is the modern world. All textbooks should be available as e-books. I haven’t played with the numbers, but it seems that for what is spent on textbooks by SFUSD, SFUSD could supply each student with a laptop or iPad with all the textbooks uploaded onto them, and each year, the new textbooks would be uploaded. The textbook industry does not want textbooks to be available electronically, they are greedy, and they are not thinking of the children.
    Anyway, it’s time for the state of California to stand up to the publishers and demand that their textbooks be made available electronically, and SFUSD should lead the way. Think of the difference it would make to student’s backs and shoulders — I can’t believe how heavy my son’s backpack is, now that he is in middleschool!
    How much does SFUSD spend on textbooks per year? Or how much altogether? I know the books are used for several years, but sometimes they shouldn’t be — if e-books became the norm, switching curriculum would be more of a possibility… now decisions are made not because the textbooks are the best –but because replacing the books with better ones would cost too much.

  12. Marivi Lerdo de Tejada

    Can’t say I’m thrilled by either proposal for transitional kindergarten. Are those really the only choices? Isn’t one of the reasons for changing the cut-off date to give younger kids a more developmentally-appropriate experience? The first proposal would simply force them to endure two years of a curriculum and experience that demands too much of them and that Early Childhood Education experts do NOT necessarily think results in the best outcome (worksheets, sitting still for long periods, limited free play). Or is the kindergarten curriculum going to change dramatically? Teachers are already having a hard time addressing the needs of young 4 year olds and red-shirted 6 year olds. Is a professional development course going to change that?

    As for the second proposal, will there be enough first grade spots for these transitional kindergarteners later? Or will kids with Fall birthdays end up having more limited choices of schools? Will there be language pathways for children hoping to enter immersion programs?