School Beat: Schools and the Civil Grand Jury

by Lisa Schiff on July 28, 2005

Public education advocates, like all social change activists, have a lot of work in front of us. Because of this, we need to harness whatever resources we can to use in our analytical and organizing efforts. Reports and studies abound in the education arena, but they are not always about our own district. One lesser-known resource that does frequently cover specifically San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) issues is the Civil Grand Jury.

Civil Grand Juries are required to be in existence in each county in California. Their purpose is to “.investigate the operations of the various officers, departments and agencies of the government…” of the given county in which they exist. Because San Francisco is both a city and a county, the scope of our Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) covers all operations of City and County official entities.

The CGJ has no more specific mandate than that described above. Each year, a new group of volunteer members is assembled, and together they decide on which areas and topics to focus. In one year, the CGJ looked at professional services contracting, homelessness and billboards, which are quite divergent topics, but are all significant to the residents of San Francisco. After their investigations, the CGJ summarizes their findings and makes recommendations to the responsible agencies, which in turn must respond to those recommendations. The reports and responses are all available on the CGJ website, going back to 1994.

In the past several years, the CGJ has devoted some of its time to issues in the SFUSD, looking at such topics as conflicts with Proposition 227 and truancy. As with other CGJ investigations, every report has an associated response (though the responses to each report are concatenated into one long document), which provides a fascinating and informative opportunity to observe a virtual dialogue and debate across the SFUSD and City agencies.
The CGJ investigations and responses are quite substantial and detailed, and thus complete synopses of each cannot be presented here. Below are brief descriptions of and links to each report that should help parents and other public education supporters find the items in the areas with which they are most concerned.

. In 1996-1997, the CGJ examined the impact of the Consent Decree on efforts to reduce both segregation and the achievement gap, finding improvements in the former, but much work still being required in the latter. Recommendations include much of what we are doing and working towards today, such as more parent involvement and early enrollment into school (e.g. universal pre-school). (Response)

. In 1998-1999, they examined the conflict between Proposition 227, which severely limited bilingual education, and the Consent Decree, which required SFUSD to provide bilingual instruction. This investigation was undertaken during the tenure of Bill Rojas, and one of the most remarkable aspects of the report were the difficulties the CGJ felt they had in getting information from his administration. (Response)

. In 1999-2000, two issues were examined. The Proposition 227 conflict was returned to, because the previous CGJ did not feel that they were able to complete their work. The CGJ explicitly contrasted the past difficulties with Rojas with the significant cooperation on the part of the then new Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman. The second issue looked at was special education, looking at the implementation of programs in response to a California Department of Education report about SFUSD’s special education programs. (Response)

. In 2002-2003, truancy was the topic of concern for the CGJ. Of specific interest were: tracking attendance, enforcing attendance via better parent notification and counseling, using the District Attorney’s office to help with truancy mediation, and expanding the School Resource Officers program. Response.
. In 2003-2004 the CGJ addressed the need to put more educational resources into the Bayview Hunters Point community, including the opening of more schools and programs and solid outreach about the Dream Schools.

A second investigation examined the state of the County schools, which serve students in grades 6-12 who are expelled, referred for dropout prevention or who are on juvenile probation. In this report, the CGJ recommended relocating some sites to more appropriate locations; more financial transparency and equity in the funding of these schools; and greater public education about the programs, including highlighting the many successes the CGJ found. The responses to the reports from this year are not yet available.

The work that the Civil Grand Juries have engaged in over the years touches on so many of the issues that are important to parents and the broad community of public education supporters. While we won’t all agree with all of the conclusions and recommendations in each report or in each set of responses, this work still provides signification information for those of us trying to understand these concerns more clearly, so that we can help make the changes that are needed.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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