Author Archives: rpnorton

Superintendent search update

Tonight the Board conducted interviews with two firms vying to represent us in our upcoming search for a new Superintendent. It was interesting to hear their perspectives and there was definitely more overlap than difference in their recommendations for how we proceed. For example:

  • Both firms recommended a confidential process (meaning only the Board interviews potential candidates) because they both said we will get more high-quality candidates that way. They said many good potential candidates might be willing to interview only if their current districts don’t know they are looking, out of concern for losing effectiveness or legitimacy if they are publicly a candidate and not selected (anyone who has looked for another job while having a job can kind of relate to that). On the other hand, I’ve committed to a real and substantive role for stakeholders in vetting our choice of a superintendent. Whichever firm we choose, I think we’ll have to design a process that includes important voices and input from outside the board (e.g., parents, students and teachers) while making sure that the process invites applications from as many qualified applicants as possible.
  • Both firms also recommended an extensive community engagement process prior to screening and interviewing candidates. Their proposed timelines included time with the Board as a whole and individually to identify key priorities and qualities for the next Superintendent, then spending time talking to stakeholders doing the same thing. My concern is that, having participated in the Superintendent Search CAC in 2007, before the Board selected Carlos Garcia, that the engagement the Board conducted at that time was pretty lacking. We had two meetings with the search consultant and the end result of our efforts was what Commissioner Wynns called a “walk on water” profile of the perfect, unattainable Superintendent. I liked Carlos a lot and I think he did a good job for us while he was here, but he would be the first to say he didn’t walk on water. And he probably embodied 70 percent of what our perfect profile laid out. So “extensive community engagement” had better look very different than nine years ago. Also, the Board is going to have to participate — fanning out to escort the consultants to meet with our various advisory committees, with PTAs and with advocacy groups, ensuring all meetings are conducted in English, Spanish and Cantonese, and really making sure we get out there and talk to as many people and stakeholders as possible to get their input and ideas. We cannot phone this one in or expect the staff and search consultant to carry it. An idea I had tonight was to hold additional community meetings in every Supervisor district with public school parents and teachers, hosted by the Supervisor and structured as a town hall so the consultants, the district Supervisor and the Board can hear input. Anyway, the process has got to be real, it’s got to be inclusive, and it’s got to be substantive if we are to have hope of building good will and trust for a new administration.
  • The timeline is likely to be four or five months at least. The Board will vote on a search firm selection Tuesday evening (name TBD, based on the outcome of negotiations) and then we will need to sit down and start calendaring the whole process: when consultants will meet with Board members, when they’ll be in the district talking to staff, parents and students, and how long they’ll spend advertising the position and inviting resumes. Then we get to pre-screening, background checks and interviews. There will be at least one new Board member, if not more, starting on the Board in January, so I also think we need to be sensitive to not making too many decisions until we know the makeup of the Board after the November election. It might not be the worst thing in the world if our new Superintendent is hired effective July 1 — just as planning for a new year begins. I am sure Interim Superintendent Leigh has some thoughts about that (he is in the sooner rather than later camp), but that timeline would ensure that we have the broadest and best choice possible. From recent experience I would not necessarily want a Superintendent who is willing to leave their district mid-year with little notice.

Finding a new Superintendent is a challenge for us as a Board and a community, but it’s also such an opportunity to come together and agree on some key goals and strategic direction. I feel optimistic after talking to the firms and I think this process will help us continue to move in a positive direction.

Recap (belated): Sept 27 Board meeting

Just a few items of note on the agenda for last Tuesday’s Board meeting (sorry it’s taken me so long to find time to write a recap):

  • The Community Advisory Committee for Special Education presented its annual report. As a member of this committee for several years prior to running for the Board of Education, it’s always important to me to make sure the Board hears from this committee regularly and acts on its recommendations. I am very grateful to this group of parent volunteers for the work and the advocacy that they do for students with disabilities in our schools. The group reminded us of its guiding principles, including the fact that 75 percent of our students with disabilities are served exclusively in general education, that parents are an integral part of each and every Individual Education Plan (IEP) team, and that the “I” in IEP stands for Individual. This year, the CAC will focus on monitoring staffing levels and vacancies at all school sites; broadening implicit bias considerations to include students with IEPs; improving evidence-based interventions for improving reading and writing, among other priorities. On October 27, the CAC will host a candidate information night to interview candidates on their views on improving special education (more information at
  • The Board adopted a series of revisions to our conflict of interest code, to clarify our rules regarding soliciting of campaign donations and required financial disclosures, and align them more closely to the City’s rules.
  • Affirming our current Board Policy banning all but law-enforcement officers from carrying firearms on district-property.
  • We heard public comment from parents of students in a particular classroom at Sunnyside Elementary whose teacher has not been present at work since the beginning of school. This is a very difficult personnel issue and I regret that I or district officials cannot be more forthcoming with parents. Rest assured that I am monitoring the situation closely and pushing for a resolution.

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!