School Beat: Community Voices Unveiled—the CACSERR Final Report

by Lisa Schiff on March 29, 2007

Early last week, the Community Advisory Committee on Student Enrollment Recruitment and Retention (CACSERR) unveiled to the Board of Education (BOE) the informative and inspiring findings of six months worth of community discussions. Coming in the midst of tense negotiations over the nature of City contributions to the school district, the report and presentation were welcome reminders of what we’re working for and how we really want to be going about that work.

Many may recall that the CACSERR was created in response to the need for a long-range plan imbued with a rich understanding of community priorities and desires. The BOE and district recognized at the end of last year that not only were community voices an essential part of the formal planning process, but that the multiplicity of those voices in San Francisco required a significant amount of time and attention in order to meaningfully and accurately uncover what people are thinking. Thus was the CACSERR created and now we have the results of its fantastic work. The CACSERR had several primary goals:

• Gaining “a better understanding of diverse community members’ aspirations for SFUSD schools;”

• Creating “shared knowledge about key issues facing the District”; and
• Involving “many members of the community in addressing these issues.”
Instead of taking the familiar approach of having members of the committee serve as proxies for the community, the committee set about achieving its mandate by convening more than 80 intimate, facilitated parent and community discussions in every part of San Francisco (only one zip code, in the Embarcadero area, was left untouched). This approach was instrumental in ensuring that community voices, which are rarely singular in any given defined community, were not represented by one or two people, but were expressed by many members.

The CACSERR process resulted in the participation of more than 900 individuals, including over 180 youth. Great efforts were made to reflect the diversity of both San Francisco and the district, as the socio-economic profiles of each group are not the same. Meetings were in multiple languages, at varying times, in all parts of the City and in a many different types of settings, from schools to the offices of community organizations to private homes.

While most of the sessions were organized by the CACSERR, some individuals did avail themselves of an open invitation to invite a CACSERR facilitator to come to them. This type of responsiveness and flexibility ensured that parents and concerned residents came in significant numbers feeling optimistic about the likelihood of being taken seriously.

The presentation at the BOE meeting kept the spirit and approach of the CACSERR process itself, as a diverse grouping of students, parents and community members presented different aspects of the report’s findings, clustered into six general areas. The full document is available online (, but some of the highlights for each of the points are the following:

1. Quality Schools—Refreshing in this day and age of the standardized test score, parents identified quality schools as places where their children would receive adequate individual attention resulting in a strong academic foundation in math, reading, science and writing, along with solid exposure to art, music and physical education.

Special programs were seen as very important in high schools, and generally attractive and worth traveling to at all grade levels, but not necessarily more so than being confident that the schools near them would be well rounded, meet an acceptable standard of quality and would be safe and welcoming.

The most difficult point captured in this section, and other sections, concerned teachers. Parents expressed a desire to support their teachers and were worried that staff are leaving the profession and experiencing burnout. At the same time, both parents and students also felt that principals should have more local ability to hire and remove teachers.

2. Safe Schools and Neighborhoods: Physical and emotional safety was a recurrent theme. Participants wanted students to be safe at school, in the surrounding neighborhood and in taking transit. Such literal safety was seen as integral for enabling students to take academic risks.

3. Strong School Communities: It’s no surprise that parents and students want to be part of strong school communities, places that are supportive and that they feel inspired to support in return. Key ingredients for this were a uniting vision and effective and frequent communication.

Diversity, defined along many axes (cultural, racial, orientation and economic, for example), was described as a highly valued school attribute. Complicating this, though, were parents’ desires to ensure that a given school had students and teachers who also reflected their children’s experiences. And although diversity was seen as a strength, families felt that it was trumped by a school’s proximity, its quality and the degree to which students were able to connect to others with whom they identified. Parents recognized not only this tension, but the added difficulty of achieving diversity in a segregated city.

4. A System that Works for Families: Greater transparency and communication in the assignment system, more support in finding and enrolling students in a school that’s a good fit and having to surmount fewer hurdles were all highlighted by participants. Finally, after-school programs were highlighted as an important and, for some families, necessary component of the school solution in terms of safety, enrichment, homework and time with friends.

5. Parents want a Fair System: Parents care not only about their own children, but about other people’s children and so want a consistent, predictable and equitable system. A key component of this is feeling more confident in the schools everywhere in the City. Some parents expressed concern that their local schools don’t serve their students well and wanted successful schools to have their programs and approaches replicated.

Teachers were again were cited as a key ingredient in ensuring good schools across the City. Parents were concerned about how the “best” teachers were being distributed, including concentrations of first year and newer teachers in lower-performing schools.

6. Effective leadership: Participants want to see clear, proactive leadership from the BOE and district administration, particularly in creating and implementing a long-term plan focused on ensuring the existence of quality schools everywhere. Parents are frustrated with negative approaches and want to see more visionary thinking, not just modifications, that will help move us ahead. Parents also want to see more leadership coming from the City and more cooperation between the City and the district.

A worrisome finding, however, was that parents don’t really understand the relationship between declining enrollment and the decreasing budget. Parents see extra space as possibilities for new approaches. In a reasonable world, this would be true, but making that a reality is a challenge.

The CACSERR report provides stronger evidence for understandings that have been felt or suspected for quite some time, from the need for better communication to improving schools in all neighborhoods. Two points, however, are of special note.
First, families on the whole favor solid, engaging general academic programs over specialized programs. Related to this, families all over San Francisco want the schools nearer to them to be acceptable options, where a basic well-rounded education with caring teachers will be reliably found.

Second, while families desire diversity, they see and are caught in a two-dimensional conundrum, which has us all entangled—we all value diversity, yet for some communities, ensuring that their community is solidly reflected in a school is a fundamental requirement and additionally, since we live in a segregated City, achieving diversity requires that students be distributed around the City.

The CACSERR project’s process itself is as compelling as the full set of findings. From the extensive, inclusive, meaningful engagement discussions, which so well reflected the profiles of the City and district populations, to the deep and productive collaboration between the district and community based organizations, there is much to be impressed with, to learn from and reuse. A new, more productive problem solving approach has evolved, one that involves the community and parents in fundamental ways, making them part of the conversation. This is a welcome change, one that hopefully will permeate throughout our entire district.

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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