School Beat: A Report from the Consent Decree Monitor

by Lisa Schiff on April 14, 2005

Within the space of one week, supporters of San Francisco’s public schools were given both reason to celebrate and reason to contemplate. On the happy note first, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) once again outperformed all other California urban school districts, as measured by the State’s standardized test, aggregated into an Academic Performance Index (API) indicator. Although these tests and scores are not the robust indicators many of us would prefer to use, they are the measure enforced by today’s officials and cannot be ignored.

The sad note, or rather the one that will continue to spur us on, is the latest Supplemental Report from the Consent Decree Monitor, Stuart Biegel, which acknowledges the gains for the district in general while identifying continued serious challenges for African-American and Latino students.

This duality is a sad but natural outgrowth of our society, where some are encouraged to flourish, and others are not. However, what distinguishes the public education arena from other areas is the agreement amongst all engaged parties that this state is not acceptable.

Disagreements abound regarding how to address the inequities in our school systems, but we all share the same goal. This is more, significantly more, than can be said in other areas, such as housing, employment, or even food distribution, where there is no such assumption that everyone is actually entitled to these life necessities.

Our common ground is a good place to work from in looking at some of the challenging issues facing our district as detailed in the Consent Decree Monitor’s latest report. These reports are one authoritative reflection of how well we as a community are meeting the educational needs of all our children. While no voice is impartial, the voice of the Monitor can be taken as a concerned, yet relatively unaffiliated one as Mr. Biegel was appointed by a court and does not sit on the school board or in the district’s central office.

As a refresher, the Consent Decree is the legal agreement the district is party to as a result of a lawsuit brought by the NAACP in the mid 1980s and a later lawsuit brought by a group of Chinese-American families in the 1990s. In both instances, the issue of race was central, in that there was a pattern of segregating African-American students in some schools, and that the racial limits later used to prevent this then constrained the number of Chinese American students who were allowed to enter highly sought after schools, particularly Lowell High School.

The goal of the Consent Decree has been to address these tensions by eliminating racial segregation across and within schools and improving academic achievement without limiting a student’s attendance at a particular school because of his or her racial/ethnic background. The Consent Decree Monitor’s reports assess how well the district’s school placement plans, academic programs, initiatives such as the Dream Schools, and other efforts are at achieving these goals.

The full report of the Monitor, along with previous reports and the original court agreements, can be found at this link: http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/courses/edlaw/sfrepts.htm. The key message from the latest report though, is that while overall students in the district are doing very well, the situation for African-American and Latino students is much more mixed.
The first point made is that resegregation of schools has increased, meaning that there are more schools where 60% or more of the student population is comprised from one racial/ethnic group, and that this number has been increasing steadily each year.

The second area of the report is an overview of segregation within schools. In this regard, African-American and Latino students continue to be disproportionately placed in special education and similar programs. Within Special Education programs, African-American students are more likely to be considered “emotionally disturbed” or suffering from “specific learning disability.”

The report notes that these designations are controversial because they are subjective. But there are other dimensions of this issue not covered in the report that are important to keep in mind, such as the social stresses on students that manifest as disruptive behavior, and likewise, the social structures that cannot encompass behaviors that are mechanisms for coping with discrimination in the larger world. These dimensions are beyond the scope of the schools, but they are still a reality with which schools must contend.

In regards to Advance Placement courses, African-American students are more likely to be in Special Education than Advance Placement classes at the high school level. However, this is not true for all schools, such as Wallenberg, Mission and ISA where there have been improvements and the same for Lincoln, Mission and O’Connell for Latino students.

Finally, as required by the Consent Decree, the report looks at academic achievement as reflected by the API scores mentioned earlier. To Mr. Biegel’s credit, the report comments on the importance of using API scores in conjunction with other data, such as grade point averages and dropout rates. The results here are mixed.

The scores of African-American students have risen, but the gap between those scores and the district average is still quite wide, wider in fact than the other major urban school districts. At the same time, a number of elementary schools and high schools have shown gains for both African-American and Latino students.

Additionally, many of these schools have improved in their similar schools ranking, meaning that these schools are doing well when compared to other schools across the State with similar demographics. The report indicates that the area of greatest challenge in terms of achievement gaps is at the middle school level.

The Consent Decree Monitor’s Supplemental Report is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in understanding the equity issues facing our district. Concise and full of information, it provides a rich backdrop from which to consider issues such as student place, school closure, resource allocation and special programs.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).

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