School Beat: Excelsior and Denman Middle School Families Deserve Equitable Treatment

by Lisa Schiff on March 20, 2008

It’s happened again. Another school community is being displaced without adequate communication and support from the district. Despite all the public discussions about how the past school closure and consolidation process went wrong and commitments to not repeating those mistakes, here we are. This time the school is Excelsior Middle School, where parents were reportedly just being informed yesterday by fliers in the “Wednesday Folders” and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) auto-dialer system that their school will be moving from its current location to be housed on Potrero Hill, sharing a site with International Studies Academy High School.

For those weak on local geography, these neighborhoods are in completely different parts of town, potentially making it difficult to get to for some Excelsior families. To make it worse, it’s been reported that the new occupants of the Excelsior site, City Arts and Technology Charter School, have known about this move for over month.

That’s right. The first part of the school assignment process ends on Friday and Excelsior families have had no chance to ask what will be happening to their school in this move and have had no inkling that they could even consider moving to another school if they wanted.

And according to the timetable reported by supporters of Excelsior, the original plan from the district had been to meet with these families some time in April, after the deadline for submitting applications for the second phase of the enrollment process. Yesterday however, perhaps due to questioning by advocates for Excelsior, Educational Placement Center (EPC) staffers reported that the auto-dialer recorded message was going out to parents Wednesday night to tell them the school is moving and to invite them to the general EPC counseling session the next day (today, the 20th) for more info.

In other words, for all practical purposes, the Excelsior families are being totally shut out of the enrollment process, denying them any ability to meaningfully exercise any choices about where their children attend school.

Outrage and disbelief are the immediate reactions to this situation. How is it possible that there could be such an egregious breakdown in communication and such blatant disrespect for kids and their families? The outrage grows after taking a closer look at Excelsior, whose students, according to the school profile on the SFUSD website, are almost 80% Latino or African American.

It is no secret to anyone, that in general, African American and Latino students are the least served and the most disenfranchised of students within the SFUSD, as evidenced by the substantial and persistent achievement gap and continued segregation across schools and programs. It is to the district’s credit that they continue to push this issue to the top of the list of priorities. In fact, this year the EPC did an incredible job holding over 100 community outreach sessions to increase on-time applications for these communities, numbers which increased substantially this year.

But part of the strategy of achieving educational equity has got to be involving families as partners and that partnership can only take place in a climate of open communication and mutual respect. The manner in which the Excelsior Middle School families are being treated flies in the face of such requirements and serves to make all families wary of encounters with the district.

Last year, a powerful community engagement process took place that extensively involved families from all over the city. One of the themes running through the resulting recommendations was that parents want and need better, more reliable communication from the district. That is the only way in which we can advocate for our children and each other.

Sadly, it turns out that the lack of communication with Excelsior is not unique. The Denman Middle School community, another school with predominantly students of color, has also been left in the dark about its future, as the district has decided to collocate Leadership High charter school at Denman without consulting or collaborating with the community.

Documentation from Denman (see the letters) discusses how their school’s governing body (known as the School Site Council or SSC) was informed of the decision after the agreement had been made between SFUSD and Leadership. No consultation with Denman families took place, some of whom might have expressed concerns about the impact of another program at their facility and the mixing of middle and high school students.

The Denman community is currently asking the SFUSD to rescind this agreement, based on the fact that they were excluded from the discussion. Stopping this move is the right thing to do. The SFUSD is obliged to find Leadership a home, but if that home already has tenants, then they must be involved in any negotiations, not ignored. The solution for Denman should also be the solution for Excelsior. The district should stop the move of City Arts and Technology, waiting to move them until space has been found by working with all affected parties.

Such a pause is necessary to give parents what they asked for so clearly the last time closures and mergers took place—information and counseling about their options so that they can make the best choices for their children. Now is the time to let families know what will be gained and lost in these transitions and what the implications are for their children. In some cases, perhaps most, families will want to stay with their school communities and will see opportunities in the new arrangements. But may have questions about what they district will do to make sure those communities stay intact, and they deserve to have those questions answered. In other cases, families may want or need to find new schools, because of transportation requirements or concerns about new configurations.

To support all the options of these parents, Round 2 of the enrollment process needs to be extended for middle school applicants. This is the only way that the Excelsior and Denman families will have the chance to consider other middle schools. In addition, apart from the recorded auto-dialer message that went out yesterday, the district should commit to contacting all of these families directly with information about the transition process and the availability at all of the schools.

Finally, supporters of Excelsior have been told that families wanting to leave that school will be put into a priority cohort in the Round 2 assignment process, since they were given no opportunity to participate in the regular process. The same opportunity should be extended to Denman families too.

While both of these moves are being triggered at least in part by the requirement to meet the needs of charter schools as established in Proposition 39, the lack of communication and support for affected families and schools is entirely the fault of the SFUSD. Common decency alone required that these families be involved before, not after, the fact.

We, as public school supporters, as engaged parents, and as fellow residents of this city, have to pull the emergency brake and make sure that SFUSD’s new administration shows that it isn’t business as usual in how they make decisions, especially hard decisions with as big an impact as school mergers, moves and closures. Fundamentally, it really is a question of equity.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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