Tag Archives: Honors

A mini FAQ, and a book review

Lots of email after last Tuesday’s Board meeting, and comments too. I got one comment I decided not to post because I thought it was too likely to be misconstrued. Still, I engaged in a great exchange with the author–a parent of a young child new to SFUSD–and based on that exchange I think it’s helpful for me to rephrase his comment as a series of questions and answers. After that, some thoughts on the book Mission High by Kristina Rizga. But first, the FAQ:

  • Has GATE been eliminated? GATE is not being eliminated, though new GATE identifications have been suspended for a time due to the lack of standardized testing data. Read my post on this topic, which goes into much greater detail.
  • Are all honors and AP courses being eliminated?  First, let’s be very clear up front that Honors courses are not the same thing as AP. Honors at the middle school level has been eliminated. Some high school honors courses for 9th and 10th graders will be eliminated. No AP courses are being eliminated that I know of. AP courses are overseen by the College Board, with a recommended curriculum and a test at the end. Honors courses do not have a standard curriculum from school to school, and prior to 11th grade a student receives no consideration from UC for taking most Honors courses. My opinion:  I am much more comfortable with the idea of expanding AP than I am with Honors, which seems to me to be somewhat arbitrary. I do, however, acknowledge that with the elimination of Honors in middle school, we need to be sure that teachers have the resources and the foundation they need to adequately differentiate curriculum for students at every point in the spectrum of learning. I also think we should begin to look beyond AP as a stand-in for rigor, and deepen our partnership with City College to expand dual enrollment in SFUSD and the College. Students who have real college courses, and credits, on their transcripts will be incredibly attractive to colleges.
  • Will the district turn Lowell and SOTA into ordinary lottery schools?  No.  It’s possible–for example, in response to my resolution last year that called, among other things, for examining the audition process at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts–the district may from time to time tweak admissions processes at these schools. My opinion: I do not expect, nor am I advocating for, any major changes in the competitive-entry admissions at either of these sites.
  • Is there a desire to remove any workaround (summer school, doubling up, validation exams) for students who wish to advance more quickly in math before 11th grade?  District policy does allow students to double up on courses and students who have either passed online courses or the validation exam have already been allowed to advance prior to the “decision point” that is envisioned as coming at the end of 10th grade looking forward to 11th grade. Those options aren’t necessarily recommended, but they are available. My opinion (not necessarily district policy): I see some equity issues, particularly with the online course that some students have taken, since it costs a considerable sum of money. However, I do not think that if an online course is accredited, and accepted by the UC regents as a CCSS Algebra course, that we should refuse to offer credit for it, and I also acknowledge that allowing students who can pay for such a course to move ahead doesn’t feel quite right if there are other students who want to take such a course but can’t pay.  (My children would rather poke their eyes out with hot pokers than take a summer math course online, but maybe that’s just my kids.)  I am discussing this issue internally and asking for some ideas and solutions to that problem.
  • Will students be forced to take non-math-based physics in 9th grade? No. The Board just heard a presentation on the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards in the Curriculum Committee and was told that schools will either choose Biology or Conceptual Physics for 9th grade OR every school will offer both Biology and Conceptual Physics as options. The final decision is still yet to be made–the Curriculum Committee strongly came down on the side of students having options at every school–but requiring every student to take Conceptual Physics in 9th grade is absolutely off the table.
  • How do the new the CCSS  Math for 8th grade and CCSS Algebra I course in 9th grade compare to the previous Algebra I taught in 8th grade?  Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s a handy graphic that shows the overlap between the old/new courses:

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 12.34.03 AM

And now a book review:

I’m really excited to recommend the book Mission High to anyone who cares about the future of public education, and in particular about the future of public education in San Francisco. Kristina Rizga, a writer for Mother Jones, spent several years “embedded” at the school, building strong relationships with students and teachers so she could tell their stories. Even before I read the book I was recommending Mission to people because of what I know about the teaching and leadership at the school. And the book just underscores my positive impression, giving a deeper and more detailed view of classrooms where teachers are working every day to encourage students to do more, learn more, and think harder. The book makes it so clear that much standardized testing only captures a fraction of what students know and can do (I knew that already but she makes a great case). I love social studies teacher Robert Roth’s focus on writing — “analyze, don’t summarize” he is quoted as saying over and over again to his students — because as a writer I know how much harder it is to write a good argument, citing evidence,  than it is to answer a true or false or multiple choice question.

I love the way the students at Mission High grow in confidence and ability and become powerful advocates for themselves and their school. I love the way they reject the label of “failing student” or “failing school” even though the school’s test scores aren’t stellar. The students, through the course of the book,  become writers and advocates and scholars. They go to college. They achieve. They lead.

Reading about the teachers and students profiled in “Mission High” makes you believe in the power of teaching to transform any life — not just the lives of those who have experienced incredible adversity–but also the life of any young person who has great potential and needs encouragement and instruction to reach it. I believe this kind of teaching is present in every school in SFUSD. Perhaps not in every classroom, perhaps not every day of every year– yet the ability and the potential is there. “Mission High” challenges me as a Board member to create those conditions where great teaching can flourish, for every student, in every school, every day. Have you read the book? Tell me in the comments what you think.


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.

Middle schools at the Curriculum Committee

Tomorrow night at the Curriculum & Program Committee we’ll be hearing several items of interest in the current middle school debate:  strategies for serving high-achievers and parent perspectives on middle school quality.

Serving high-achievers in middle school: Originally, I had asked staff to present a report on the various strategies we use to serve high-achievers, the research behind them, and the guidance, if any, we give sites as far as accelerated programming, ability grouping, and tracking to serve students of varying academic preparation and ability.  Unfortunately, several key staff members will not be available tomorrow, so instead we’ll start the discussion with a short staff presentation, and hopefully hear from members of the public with perspectives and questions on this issue.  As a result, we’ll have to return to the topic later in the year, but it will be helpful to have specific input and questions from the public and the board to shape the discussion. In the meantime, I’ve received this survey of programs at various middle schools; the K-8 schools serve students in heterogeneous groupings without specific “honors-only” programming. I’ve also been doing a bit of research on my own with respect to programs for truly gifted students; from the little I’ve read it seems clear that the two strands of conventional wisdom in our middle school debate (students must be tracked by ability vs. students can be served in heterogeneous classrooms with no additional resources or training for teachers) are both wrong.  If you are interested in exploring this topic further with an open mind, start here:

Parent perspectives on quality middle schools: A panel of PAC and PPS members will be on hand to share a variety of perspectives on quality middle schools after participating in the community engagement survey earlier this year.

The Curriculum Committee will meet tomorrow (June 6) starting at 5 pm in the Boardroom.



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!