Author Archives: rpnorton

Recap: Sept 13, 2016

I missed a good chunk of the longest discussion of the evening because I left the meeting for about an hour to attend the Potrero Hill Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting (and thank you, PH Dems, for the endorsement! The list is growing . . . check it out here).

Verizon is offering to donate $3 million in devices (iPads, with free data plans!) and other supports, to students and teachers at Hoover, Denman and Roosevelt Middle Schools. This is great, and the Board is appropriately grateful for the donation, but had a long discussion about whether the additional donation of  iPad cases and tote bags with scaled-back Verizon branding required a waiver for the Board’s Commercial Free Schools Policy (last seen at our August 9 meeting when the Board agreed to allow Golden State Warriors branding on a newly-refurbished basketball court at Willie Brown MS). The iPads need cases–middle-schoolers being the lovably clumsy half-kids half-teens they are–yet purchasing our own cases (which would probably come with some other company’s logo on them) would cost us $68,000.

Principles are pesky things sometimes. On the one hand, I am bombarded by commercial logos every day and I do manage to (most of the time) utilize critical thinking about the companies with whom I choose to do business. If a company is offering an expensive, desirable and useful device free to students, what’s the big deal about a small corporate logo on the case? After all, when I start up my own iPad, it always displays an Apple apple, and there’s an ever-present logo on the back. Won’t the kids be just as influenced by that logo as they would by the Verizon logo?

Probably. And yet. While it’s pretty much impossible to escape commercialization in this country, I applaud the school district and my colleagues on the Board for continuing to try. I appreciate it that we willingly have an hourlong discussion about whether it’s OK to accept a donation that comes with a small string that could have unintended consequences on the minds and opinions of the young people we are entrusted with educating. It’s why this work isn’t for everyone — the people who impatiently say: “oh my goodness, just accept the iPads and move on!” are missing the importance of carefully considering the impact of every decision, however tedious those discussions become sometimes.

Tonight, we finally agreed to accept the devices and agreed to hold an event with students, teachers and parents to celebrate and appropriately thank Verizon for the donation, but directed staff to ask the company whether they would be willing to donate cases without their logo. We agreed that Verizon-branded signage at the event is an acceptable string to attach, but cases that a student may look at every single day for his or her middle school years? Maybe not. Even when such a discussion makes a meeting that should be over at 9 p.m. end at 10:30, I would say it’s worth it. And, you’ve got me to blog it, so you don’t even have to be there — you can just read about it!

myong-first-meetingAnyway. I also need to appreciate Interim Superintendent Myong Leigh, who has stepped into this role like he has always owned it. I know he doesn’t want it forever — he’s made that abundantly clear — and he’s stepped up just the same. His Superintendent’s remarks at tonight’s meeting made clear that he is taking this new role seriously. I am so grateful to him.

We also heard from a lot of parents and (adorable, smart and articulate) students  at Francis Scott Key Elementary school regarding their concerns about a particular classroom. Because I cannot discuss personnel matters I will simply echo Superintendent Leigh in saying that parents have been heard and administrators are actively working to address the situation.  I understand the parents’ concerns and I expect a resolution very soon.

Other actions tonight:

  • Unanimously accepted the nominations for members of the Childcare Planning and Advisory Council (CPAC);
  • Adopted policies (updated to reflect current practice and state law) around our management of charter schools;
  • Unanimously endorsed  YES on Prop. 57 (to increase parole and good behavior opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes and allow judges, not prosecutors, to decide whether to try certain juveniles as adults in court);
  • Unanimously endorsed YES on Prop 56 (to increase the cigarette tax by $2.00 per pack, with equivalent increases on other tobacco products and electronic cigarettes);
  • Unanimously endorsed YES on Prop. N (to allow non-citizen voting in local SF school board elections).

History and school names

Last week President Haney posted an idea on his Facebook page (now private, due to threats and other bad behavior from people who should know better), suggesting that maybe certain school communities should have conversations about re-naming their schools if those schools are currently named after slaveowners.

In SFUSD, we have four schools named after historical figures who owned slaves: George Washington High School, Jefferson Elementary School, Monroe Elementary School, and Francis Scott Key Elementary School.

I want to be clear about two things: first, I have not seen any proposal to rename schools and I would be very leery about doing so unless such a proposal had broad support in the community and came from the students, faculty and alumni of a particular school. I believe President Haney feels the same way — he just suggested a conversation and I support that suggestion. In particular, I think George Washington, as the first President of the United States, still deserves to have a San Francisco school named after him.

I think we should have a deeper conversation about school names and when/how/why we decide to rename a school. We have many schools named after people or events or places, some of which are now largely forgotten (or at least less-remembered than they used to be). Below are some examples — without using Google, do you know for whom these schools are currently named and why? (Confession: without Google, I know the reasons for some names but not all).

  • Argonne Elementary School
  • Leola Havard Early Education Center
  • Everett Middle School
  • Claire Lilienthal K-8
  • Rooftop K-8
  • James Lick Middle School
  • Commodore Sloat Elementary School
  • Dr. William Cobb Elementary School
  • James Denman Middle School
  • Guadalupe Elementary School

My point is not that some of these names are becoming obscure, but rather that many/most of them had enough meaning at some point that an earlier school board/community decided to honor them with a school name. Sometimes ideas and values change (one of the schools above was renamed three or four years ago with broad community support after the NAACP reminded the Board that the previous name for that school honored someone who, a century ago, harbored and promoted racist ideas).

Today is the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and I thought about this question while watching the movie “United 93” — a drama about the passengers on the fourth hijacked plane who fought back and probably prevented more loss of life and destruction in the nation’s capital that terrible day. I would be happy to consider naming a school after Mark Bingham, the gay PR executive, UC Berkeley graduate and rugby player who is believed to have played a major role in the passenger rebellion (in fact, the gymnasium at Eureka Valley Recreation Center is named after Mr. Bingham). I could also see naming a school after Betty Ann Ong, a George Washington HS graduate and American Airlines flight attendant who perished in the attacks after providing key early information about the hijackers to authorities (a Chinatown recreation center is named after Ms. Ong).

I would also be thrilled to name a school after Maya Angelou (as President Haney suggested), another George Washington HS graduate and the first female African-American Muni conductor, among many other achievements. More people probably recognize Ms. Angelou’s name than Mr. Bingham’s or Ms. Ong’s, and yet most of us would be willing to recognize any of their contributions as historically important and significant. And 100 years from now, will anyone remember any of these people? I hope so, and I also wonder.

Whose responsibility is it to keep a historical honor like the reason for an institutional name alive? I would argue that this responsibility rests with the school district for names of schools. If we have a school named after someone that we no longer want to honor, we as a district should be brave enough to argue that point, and we should have a strong enough argument to convince the broader community that such a change is deserved and necessary. If not, we should be proud of that school name and be willing to promote broad and ongoing understanding for why we have a school named after a person, place or event.

Safe and supportive schools

That’s what we all want, right? Tonight at our Committee of the Whole the Board got our annual report on the implementation of the Safe and Supportive Schools resolution we passed in 2014. That resolution followed on the groundbreaking Restorative Practices resolution the Board adopted in 2009, which has completely changed the way the district approaches discipline.

I don’t want to minimize how much of a shift it has been, nor how much more has been demanded of teachers — sometimes without the necessary support and training. Passing resolutions and demanding change is one thing: you also have to back it up with dollars and training and support, and sometimes these resources haven’t been as available as they should have been.

Mainly what the resolution has accomplished is a big drop in suspensions. We have also seen much better tracking of out-of-school time–absences and also out of class referrals. We now have a much better idea of how much time students-especially students of color–are spending out of class, and while the picture is still quite depressing we at least are beginning to be able to trust the data.

No one should point fingers or be happy about this data: as a community we all own it and have a responsibility to improve it. Teachers are doing their best to manage sometimes difficult behaviors from students, parents are doing their best to get kids to school, and kids are doing their best to engage in class. And all of us can do better, if we support each other and figure out how to meet the most pressing needs in our communities.

Anyway, I highly recommend a close read of the latest report. It does a great job of detailing the district’s current approach and investments in safe and supportive schools, and is a good resource for anyone who wants to know more about the implementation of this very important and beneficial policy.

 

Meeting recap: change

richardLast night was Superintendent Carranza’s last Board meeting, and Board members and senior staff wished him well. However you feel about the end of the Carranza era in San Francisco, I think listening to this recording from the meeting is a good way to achieve closure: Board, staff and then the Superintendent himself all spoke about the accomplishments of the past seven years since Richard arrived in San Francisco.

Many of us will miss Richard, and even as I deeply appreciate what he accomplished for our students with disabilities in particular (when was the last time you heard a Superintendent talk about students with disabilities with the same passion Richard did in his remarks in the clip above?) I am looking to the future. Change can bring unease and anxiety, but it also always brings opportunity. So that’s where I am: looking forward to the future.

Two resolutions on last night’s agenda: one to make sure that San Francisco schools are gender-inclusive, asking for single-stall rest rooms to be made available at every school to accommodate transgender students and staff; the other clarifying rules for district employees and their rights for political expression during the school day and in the course of their work with students.

We also heard public comment from parents at several schools who are dissatisfied with the teacher assigned to their children’s classrooms. Without commenting on these specific situations,  I really think these kinds of issues are some of the most difficult issues that we deal with on the Board. Of course no one wants an ineffective or problem teacher in the classroom. And as an employer that is experiencing a severe shortage of individuals trained to be teachers, of course the district wants to support the people we already have and help them improve if they are struggling. The school district also must comply with employee privacy and due process rights when there is a problem. It’s very, very difficult to balance all of these imperatives, and sometimes administrators can’t be as forthcoming about everything that is going on to address an issue with a particular teacher or student. Patience, positive and proactive communication, and persistence are the best strategies to use in such situations.

The first day of school . . .

My girls are grumpily preparing themselves for a new year, as I imagine many teens are across San Francisco tonight. One went out and spent her own money (summer earnings) on just the right school supplies for the first day. The other went with me to the bookstore and picked out some novels for her upcoming coursework (she said she is tired of electronics!). They’re feeling jittery, and excited too — my oldest daughter will graduate next spring and it’s kind of amazing to realize that when I first ran for the school board they were in 2nd and 3rd grade. And here we are in the last two years of high school.

It goes fast, parents, and yet there is something so fresh and open and new about The First Day of School. The slate is clean, the possibilities are endless, and there is so much to do and learn.

It’s been fun to see Facebook posts from my teacher and administrator friends this past week. I think teachers feel the same sense of anticipation as they set up their classrooms and get ready for students. Administrators have been back for a few weeks, working through their budgets and master schedules, dealing with facility issues and a million other details. There was a massive district-wide professional development to assist administrators and teachers with alternatives to suspension and referrals for behavior challenges– almost 1,000 educators participated.

Let’s also acknowledge that it’s been a real slog to hire teachers for all the vacancies that exist. Many principals I know spent the last few weeks in nonstop interviews, and they did a great job (Sam Bass at Burton HS, I’m looking at you!! 100% filled!). Still, there are some classroom vacancies. As of Friday, the Board was told that there were 39 classroom vacancies, compared to 3 at this time last year. Overall, the district had 928 vacancies to fill for this school year, compared to 894 last year. Of the 39 classroom vacancies that exist district-wide, half are in our hard-to-fill subject areas, including 12 Special Education vacancies, 6 in Science/Math, and 3 Bilingual vacancies. There is a coverage plan, and central office staff (mostly teachers on special assignment) will fill vacancies on the first day and until we can either fill vacant positions with permanent hires or long-term substitutes. Not ideal, not what anyone wants, but this is where we are.

I don’t want to end on a downer, because the positives do outweigh the negatives. Tomorrow we start a new year. What do you want for your kids in this next school year? Teachers, what do you want to accomplish this year? As a Board member, what I want to accomplish this school year comes down to support and implementation of initiatives we already have under way. The Superintendent’s departure for Houston gives us an opportunity to pause, take a deep breath, look at where we are and decide where we need to go. We need to figure out a better teacher recruitment and retention strategy that includes compensation increases, and design a Superintendent search process that is inclusive of many community perspectives (the Board will begin this discussion on Tuesday evening at our Committee of the Whole — you can either attend the meeting or listen to a recording that I’ll post once it’s up). We also need to decide what we want in a new district leader — what qualities should we as a community prioritize?

Anyway, I wish everyone — students, educators, parents — a great first day of school tomorrow. Here we go!

Recap: Warriors logos and student assignment

Two substantive discussions at tonight’s meeting:

First, the Golden State Warriors organization and other donors have offered to resurface the basketball courts at Willie Brown Middle School. The proposal involved putting team logos on the courts, a retaining wall around the courts, and the backboards (see photo below for an illustration of how the logo might look on the finished court):

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The problem, if you want to call it that, is that putting a commercial logo on school property violates a 1999 Board policy entitled “Commercial Free Schools.” So the staff asked us to waive the policy to allow the donation to go forward.

It was an interesting discussion, and we all agreed that what we really need is an update to the policy to guide how we will and won’t recognize donors to the school district. This is especially timely because of the plan to rebuild 135 Van Ness to become the new site of the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. That project will require significant private philanthropy, and donors who give millions to projects like this rightly expect to have their contributions acknowledged in some kind of public and permanent way.

In the end, we agreed to the basketball court and retaining wall recognition, but asked for more consideration of the backboard idea. I’m very grateful to the Warriors for the gift and I think the students at Willie Brown will be thrilled with their new court. As the Superintendent said, “students at Willie Brown will know that the Warriors have their back, and that their heroes care about them.” And, allowing corporate logos like this, even for such a good and positive cause, is a bit of a slippery slope that we need to navigate very carefully.

We also made a significant change to the student assignment policy — one that will not in my opinion affect most people adversely, but is nevertheless significant. Watchers of our student assignment policy will recall that starting this year, the middle school feeder system was supposed to go to “initial assignments” for 5th grade students currently enrolled in an SFUSD elementary school and moving up to the 6th grade in the following year. So, for example, if the initial or automatic assignment policy were to go into effect,  a 5th grader at Lafayette Elementary school would receive a letter this October saying they are being assigned to Presidio Middle School for 2017-18, without the family having to file an application, because Lafayette feeds into Presidio.

However, in last week’s Student Assignment Committee (listen to the recording here), the staff and committee discussed a pending proposal that was supposed to offer students in language programs, and those at four Bayview elementary schools, more equitable options after the shift to initial assignments. But the options presented were very problematic:

  • Problem #1: Willie Brown Feeder Pattern. Currently, families at Carver, Drew, Bret Harte and Malcolm X have two feeder options: Giannini or Willie Brown for Drew, Aptos or Willie Brown for Carver, Martin Luther King or Willie Brown for Malcolm X, and James Lick or Willie Brown for Bret Harte. This is problematic if all other 6th grade students in the district are receiving an automatic assignment to their feeder schools, since we wouldn’t know what middle school families at these four elementary schools would prefer. We discussed a number of options at committee. I suggested asking 5th grade families at the four schools — there aren’t that many of them, maybe 100 total — which feeder they prefer for their children and letting the families choose. Others suggested assigning 5th graders at these schools to the highest performing feeder choice. The staff suggested feeding all four schools into Willie Brown, but the Board rejected that option due to the obvious segregated pathway this option would create.
  • Problem #2: Not enough Language Pathways. We have so many language pathways in elementary schools that it is not possible to feed students into a language pathway in middle school unless you create separate feeder patterns for language programs. For example, Cleveland and Guadalupe Elementary have Spanish bilingual pathways, but Visitacion Valley MS, where both schools feed, does not have the corresponding language pathway. We have already come up against staffing challenges for language programs that make it impractical to keep opening up new dual language pathways in middle schools, and yet providing equitable access and automatic assignments to dual language pathways in middle school would require just such a move. So the staff proposed instead proposed adding an additional tiebreaker — a language pathway tiebreaker — to the middle school enrollment process. All students would receive an initial assignment to the General Education pathway at their feeder middle school. Students in language pathways who want to continue in a language pathway in middle school would then apply to language pathways using the existing Round 1/March placement process. Students would receive a tiebreaker for the appropriate language pathway at any middle school, plus a tiebreaker for their feeder middle school if that school also offers the appropriate language pathway. Are you confused yet? I certainly was, and all of us on the committee felt this was a very drastic, confusing and unworkable change just so that we could continue the commitment to move to initial assignments as promised in the existing policy.

So here’s where we are: after a long discussion at the Student Assignment Committee, board members asked the staff to come back to us with a substitute motion that would instead delay initial/automatic assignments for at least one year, so that we would have more time to look at our options and engage families. I recognize that this decision kicks the can down the road, but it’s also probably the least disruptive change we could make at this late date because essentially, families will experience status quo in middle school assignment: the system will work exactly as it has in each of the last five years.

So tonight we agreed to remove the language requiring initial/automatic assignments from our Student Assignment Policy, and for this year waive the requirement that we make no changes to the policy within three months of beginning to accept applications.  (Aside: we seem to run up against that requirement a lot, which is probably an indication that was wise to include in the original policy language, since it discourages tinkering except when it’s unavoidable. In this case tinkering was unavoidable because complying with the policy — going to automatic assignments — was going to wreak more havoc than delaying the implementation of that last piece.)

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Here we go: 2016-17

A new year: school starts in two short weeks (August 15) and there is so much to do. Every year, I try to refresh my thinking in the month between the end of the old year and the start of the new — we vote on the budget usually a week or so before the fiscal year ends on June 30, the district shuts down for most of July and then the administrators come back, this year on July 25.

It’s very hard to take a deep breath and reflect in the short space between school years, but this year I  was more successful at it because I took a real vacation in July. I got out of town for a bit, and I read and thought and renewed my commitment to my school board work. (Here’s my ongoing reading list, for anyone who would like to follow along – in the comments, please suggest other readings you think are relevant and important!).

We’ve got big challenges for this coming year — the same old, same old ones like tight budgets and achievement/opportunity gaps; newish ones like the unprecedented teacher shortage in California; and brand new ones like the expected and likely imminent departure of our Superintendent for Houston.

The newest challenge–looking for a new Superintendent–is actually straightforward, though it isn’t at all simple. I’ll start by saying that I’ve always supported Superintendent Carranza, and I think he is a talented urban school leader. However, based on how events transpired, it’s now clear to me that he wanted to go for quite a while before he actually told the Board he was ready to leave. While I personally wish he had been more forthcoming with me and other Board members over this final year about his plans, I wish him well and I also know San Francisco will be fine.

I have been doing this work long enough–as a parent, then an activist and now as a policymaker–to see Superintendents come and go. No one is irreplaceable. We have a lot of strengths as a district, our Board is high-functioning and united, and we are high-profile enough to be an intriguing possibility for an ambitious urban education leader. I think the task of the Board will be to select for ability over ambition — I don’t care a bit for a “big name” and instead I want someone who wants to be here for the long term and continue to do the hard work of pulling together parents, administrators and teachers towards the common goals of excellence and equity.

In every district I’ve ever read about that has really moved the needle on achievement, the common thread has been a leader who stayed well beyond the average 3-5 year tenure of most urban superintendents. I want continuity and consistency of leadership, and yet I acknowledge that continuity and consistency are only meaningful when you find the right leader. This is our challenge.

Here’s what our community should watch for, and demand from the Board as the search gets going: a clear, well-defined process that balances input from employees (administrators, teachers, aides, clerks, and other key central office employees), primary stakeholders (parents and students), and elites (political leaders and funders). Everyone should know what input and involvement each group will have, and that input should be documented and public so that we know, as a community, how the Board is balancing that input and synthesizing it to narrow our search and select finalists. I think we’re up to the challenge and I hope we’ll be held accountable. This is the most important job we do as Board members.