School Beat: Community Voices Sought in the Search for a Superintendent

by Lisa Schiff on March 8, 2007

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is in the midst of a potentially rich period of reflection, analysis and, hopefully, growth. Within weeks we should see the release of a report summarizing the numerous community engagement meetings that took place over the past several months. This effort involved many small, intimate events in which over 1,000 parents, students and community members gathered to discuss their concerns, hopes and expectations regarding our public schools.

Concurrent with this ambitious effort has been work on the equally important task of finding a permanent superintendent. The SFUSD has been fortunate to have an excellent interim superintendent in Gwen Chan. She has been attending to leadership responsibilities since the middle of the last school year. For the most part, Chan’s tenure has been notable for its cooperative, pragmatic approach most visibly apparent in the change in dynamics between district administration and the Board of Education (BOE).

But the interim nature of Chan’s position makes it a weak one, regardless of the strengths she as an individual brings to it. To move our district forward strategically and confidently, we need someone at the top who feels she or he is in that job securely, or as securely as any superintendent ever feels.

Luckily for all of us, the process of finding a new superintendent has not stalled out due to the many other events of the day. Careful steps have been taken to find an appropriate search firm to ensure that we will develop a solid, well qualified, well-matched pool of candidates. Now the BOE and district administrative staff have put into place several avenues for parents and community members to share what is important to all of us in the next leader of our district.

First, two community meetings will take place on Saturday March 17th at different times in different parts of the City. Each event will last two hours and will include light refreshments. The morning session is scheduled from 10am to 12noon at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School at 350 Girard Street (near Bacon/Burrows). The afternoon session will be from 2pm to 4pm at School of the Arts High School (SOTA) 555 Portola Drive (at O’Shaughnessy).
Flyers in English, Chinese and Spanish can be downloaded from the SFSUD website – Child care can be reserved by calling 415-249-9293.

Second, everyone is encouraged to complete an online survey, also available at the SFUSD website in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Folks planning on attending the community meetings might want to take a look at the survey first, as the questions are likely to generate some ideas about the desired qualities and skills to look for in candidates.

Answering the survey is trickier than one might think. It is a wisely short combination of questions prompting us to evaluate the importance of particular skills and to provide our own independent thoughts about what is most crucial. We are asked, for instance, to pick the two or three most important strengths of the district, as well as the two or three most important challenges or issues. It’s hard to pick, both among the strengths and the challenges.

I can develop a long list of what I love and hate about public education in San Francisco, but struggle to identify the few things that are the most important. Some of the strengths are the many fabulous teachers, principals and other educators who I see working to great effect every day; the variety of good options for families all over town; the incredible involvement of parents; and the innovative programs that are offered throughout.

The weaknesses are obvious—the lack of funding; the achievement gap; declining enrollment; the incomplete spread of programs and schools (this despite the fact that there are good schools everywhere, just not enough or the same amount everywhere); the life stresses on families that have a profound effect on what happens at school; standardized testing and curricula that get in the way more than they ensure consistent quality; insufficient access for kids with special needs and so on.

The challenge here is in picking the two or three most important items, because so many of them are inseparable. Much is tied to the lack of funding, but sufficient school funding wouldn’t erase the problems of lack of housing or jobs, nor would it mean that we had gotten past the ever-present challenges of racism and poverty class that go into creating the achievement gap. Presumably there will be enough variability if a sufficient number of us submit these surveys that a broad spectrum of strengths and weaknesses will be covered.
The questions asking respondents to evaluate the state of the district set the context for assessing the importance of a set of qualities one might want in a superintendent. In this group of questions, we are asked to rate each possible attribute as “Very Important,” “Important,” “Neutral” “Unimportant.” The qualities span from interaction skills (as in the unfortunately crafted leading statement “Ability and willingness to deal directly and fairly with faculty, staff, students, and parents” which can only be rated as “Very Important”) to attitudes on quantitative data from standardized assessments (“Belief in data-based decision-making that focuses on the individual needs of students.”) to experience with public governance (“Understands the respective, yet complementary, roles of the Board and the Superintendent.”).

These are all significant questions and the opportunity for community members to weigh in through the survey and/or in person is a welcome one. We should each avail ourselves of this chance, as one can only hope that the next superintendent is an individual who will want to stay here awhile. To that end, the most hopeful question on the survey asks “Do you know someone you feel would be a good candidate for the superintendent’s position? If so, please write his/her name and address or phone number here.”

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 the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (

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