School Beat: First School Board Candidate Forum and More Student Assignment Decisions

by Lisa Schiff on September 30, 2010

It’s been a busy week in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). The first public forum of candidates for San Francisco’s three contested Board of Education (BOE) seats was held this past Monday and on Tuesday the BOE finalized the new student assignment policy by officially adopting new elementary school boundaries and, after much public input, delaying the implementation of middle school feeder patterns.

Monday’s BOE forum was presented by YouthVote, a project of the City’s Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families (DCYF). YouthVote’s goal is to engage kids in the electoral process by holding mock elections that parallel the statewide elections; conducting a student survey to provide organizations serving youth with information from the youth population; and by supporting the election of student leaders who serve on the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Student Advisory Council and as Student Delegates on the Board of Education (BOE).

The BOE panel was an example of YouthVote’s effort to make the BOE elections relevant to students and to highlight student concerns to those who make policy decisions about their education and was an impressive success on the part of the young organizers. For those of us in the audience, it was a wonderful opportunity to get a first in-depth look at the pool of candidates and to learn about some of the priorities of the students we are trying to support. It was an excellent forum whose only disappointment was the sparsity of the audience, especially of adults. This was a unique moment missed by many in our community to pause in our flurry of activity as advocates and listen carefully to our kids.

Ten of the eleven candidates showed up (Tom Chan was a no-show) allowing for quite a thorough comparison of their priorities, knowledge, differences and similarities. (A full list of candidates, their websites, and other issues concerning the race can be found in a previous School Beat column.)

The well-thought out, prepared questions went right to the heart of key issues in the district and were asked by students from schools including Burton, Lincoln, and Marshall. Topics covered and highlighted responses include:

The well-thought out, prepared questions went right to the heart of key issues in the district and were asked by students from schools including Burton, Lincoln, and Marshall. Topics covered and highlighted responses include:

Proposition D, which would allow non-citizens over 18 who are parents or guardians of SFUSD students to vote in BOE elections: everyone except Omar Khalif and Winifred Dajani supported this.

Promoting under-enrolled schools: to which most candidates suggested strategies for students to talk to their peers to dispel myths and to publicize the great programs at these schools, though surprisingly Winifred Dajani didn’t seem to realize that the SFUSD has already had an enrollment fair for years. In contrast to the marketing focus, Omar Khalif posited that it was a question of making sure that those schools had the same high quality educational staff available at highly sought after schools. Emily Murase called for establishing an annual review of the district’s resource allocation, an idea she credited current BOE member Jill Wynns with proposing. The review would be similar in spirit to what the water district currently does, and would be sent to every household as a way of being very specific about which schools are getting which type and how much of various resources.

Equity issues from access to college and SAT programs to counselors to the uneven allocation of highly skilled educators, materials, and other resources: all of the candidates referenced needing and wanting stronger student voices at the BOE and wherever decisions are being made. Both Natasha Hoehn and Omar Khalif discussed the need to lay the foundation for college preparedness early on in elementary school. Current BOE members Hydra Mendoza and Kim-Shree Maufas referenced policies passed last year requiring University of California A-G requirements to be available at all schools. Mendoza noted the importance of Prop. H in helping to fund counselors and Maufas also highlighted her co-authorship of a policy making AP and Honors classes open to any high school student anywhere. Margaret Brodkin referenced the annual audit idea as a way of seeing who has what.

Greening and environmental programs in schools, especially given cuts to those programs: most candidates enthusiastically responded to students’ participation in these programs and vowed to do more. Margaret Brodkin discussed the need to incorporate this into the curriculum at all grade levels and described an environmental service learning initiative for high schoolers that she had initiated at DCYF. Hydra Mendoza described a Sustainability Master plan that she and BOE President Jane Kim have developed. Emily Murase noted the uneven access to such programs across schools.

Visions of education in the future: this question was addressed only to the incumbents Mendoza and Maufas, who shared similar answers regarding more expansive use of technology and more emphasis on second language development for all students.

Decreasing the drop-out rate and encourage students to come back to school: again directed only to the incumbents, Maufas said schools need to be places that students wanted to come to and cited the restorative justice program as an effort to keep students with discipline issues in school. Mendoza concurred on making schools interesting, noted that this was a national problem and that social and family issues were contributing factors.

Budget cuts that are hurting all schools, but devastating some: answers to this included: getting more private funding; more and better lobbying for city, state and federal dollars; a suggestion by Starchild to put all financial and other decision making in the hands of teachers at school sites; and a call by Omar Khalif for students at schools like Marshall High, where the cuts are huge, to walk out until the “adults” fix it, although he did not discuss how he would fix it if he were on the board.

Unequal distribution of resources is demoralizing to the students at affected schools: the sitting BOE commissioners apologized for this and said that equity was a priority for the board, a sentiment echoed by the rest of the panel. Margaret Brodkin noted that at the rate things were going, it would take decades to address the achievement gap, which is not acceptable, and reiterated the need for an annual report to flush out inequities in resource allocations.

Those who weren’t able to attend this first event will have at least two more opportunities to compare the candidates in action. Two community forums (sponsorship is still being worked out), each with childcare and interpretation, are coming up towards the end of October:

* Friday, Oct 22 from 6:30-8 at Tenderloin Community School (Turk at Van Ness)
* Wednesday, Oct 27 from 6:30-8 at Lincoln High School

In keeping with the seemingly relentless stream of important issues and events in the public education arena this year, on Tuesday the BOE formally — and finally — approved the last component of the new student assignment policy (video of the vote is available, and according to SFUSD parent Carol Lei, the discussion begins at 22 minutes, with the vote at 44 minutes). Given both complexities of any such system and the amount of community feedback that will hopefully continue, such an adoption can in some ways be viewed as provisional, in the sense that the results of this round of assignments will have to be deeply and carefully scrutinized to see how well the process worked to advance the district towards meeting its goals and where things fell down.

In that spirit, district staff presented final recommendations for elementary school attendance areas that took community feedback into account. The approved map, also revised after much comment, was released on Tuesday and no doubt will be revised again, based on the outcomes of this year’s process. For this year, the middle school assignment for over-subscribed schools will be based on sibling priority and then whether or not the student is in a CTIP-1 (i.e. low-test score) area. At this point, there is really no other way forward than implementation and a willingness to honestly evaluate results against prioritized goals.

Still, some aspects of the plan are from the outset known to be less than adequate. One of those is the placement of students requiring special education services. Consistent with past practice, this component of the assignment system is still undeveloped. Katy Franklin, parent of a 5th grader and Chair of SFUSD’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education commented:

“SFUSD still has not yet had the conversation with the Community about Special education placement and assignment. This conversation has been repeatedly promised to us, most recently at the August 20th, 2010 Board of Education Meeting, so we are eagerly waiting to be heard.

I am hopeful that the Board of Education will adhere to the recommendations given in the recent Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative’s audit on special education, which stated clearly that children receiving special education services should attend the schools they would attend if not disabled.”

This hope for transparency and equity is a theme that appears in almost any discussion regarding our school district. A challenge to all of us, and particularly to the current and new BOE members, whoever they may be, will be to make some dramatic progress on this front this year.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children 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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