School Beat: Welcome Back to School

by Lisa Schiff on August 30, 2007

If ever the first week of school felt like a fresh start, this was it. On Monday our children entered new classrooms and our district’s new superintendent of schools, Carlos Garcia, had his real first day on the job with the wheels of the school district fully in motion. Now the real work has begun and it’s safe to say we are all hopeful, eagerly watching, and ready to join in.

The challenges facing our district this year are once again familiar and large—the achievement gap between African-American and Latino students on the one hand and Caucasian and Asian-American students on the other, insufficient funding, and declining enrollment, to name some of the top contenders. But what’s different now is the climate, which in contrast to the daunting issues before us has an optimistic and energized feel to it. Some of that is no doubt attributable to the presence of a new top administrator. But fortunately there is more to it than that, both in terms of Garcia himself and in terms of where the entire community of public school supporters is positioned.

In regards to Garcia, unlike past superintendents he is more of a known entity, having been a successful principal of Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission district earlier in his career. Principals, teachers, staff and administrators have worked with him. In this way, we have the best of both worlds—a leader with a track record who also has the potential to take us in new directions.

In addition, Garcia seems to be taking a smart, disciplined approach to the daunting tasks his new position presents. Specially, he has mentioned prioritizing challenges and focusing attention on a selected set of critical problem areas. Choosing among these issues will be difficult. The achievement gap is of particular concern to everyone, and no doubt will be at the top of the superintendent’s mind as it is for everyone else.

Other issues may force themselves to the top, such as the student assignment policy, which has been worked on extensively but was tabled while the Supreme Court deliberated on the use of race in student placement. That leaves some other strong contenders, such as funding, declining enrollment, the equitable distribution of programs and quality schools, revamped technology systems, better teacher recruitment and retention, not to mention various academic initiatives. Picking will be hard, but concentrating efforts is a wise strategy, without which little progress is likely to occur in any area.

An early success may provide the energy to see this first selection of tasks through. On Monday, the teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) and the district held a press conference to announce a settlement in these most recent contract negotiations, which includes a 3% raise starting this coming January. This is a major victory for the district as a whole, reflecting significant, hard work on the part of the Board of Education (BOE), district staff—including the new superintendent–and UESF leadership. This agreement is further evidence of a more collaborative period in general in our district and bodes well for Garcia’s ability to meet future challenges.

The feeling of a new start is not just due to the presence of a new superintendent though. In the last several years, public school supporters in San Francisco have been through a lot. We’ve joined forces with folks across the state to fend off incredibly severe budget and policy attacks. We’ve struggled with and against each other over heartbreaking decisions within our own district. It’s been an exceedingly difficult process, but one from which we have learned a commensurate amount. A strong piece of evidence towards this is our relatively new school board, which not only reflects a diverse constituency among so many different axes, but has come to approach their work in a palpably more collaborative and constructive way.

One of the most encouraging but so far least noticed products of this new environment is the staff report to the BOE regarding student enrollment, recruitment and retention. Incorporating and developing from the findings of last year’s extensive community engagement process that brought to the foreground the hopes and priorities of public school parents, guardians and youth, the staff report identifies seven areas of recommendations that together work towards meeting three critical goals identified by the BOE: closing the achievement gap; providing all students with equitable access to high quality educational opportunities; and building student enrollment. The areas of recommendation span from “Quality Schools” to “Portofolio of Schools” to “Facilities,” with each containing specific recommendations, significant findings to support each recommendation, required implementation steps, estimated costs, and suggested implementation time frames.

This is a significant document for our district. Its proposals are based on solid research, are organized around the priorities of the BOE, and provide realistic assessments of what it will take to realize them and what kinds of gains can be expected from implementing any given recommendation. While it is carefully distinguished from a comprehensive academic plan, and has yet to be presented to the BOE and the superintendent, this report provides a solid starting point for agreeing on shared goals and quickly taking action.

The 2007/2008 school year then is off to about the best start that could be imagined in this day and age. We have a broad and deep community of public school activists and advocates who are steeped in the issues of our district. We have district administrators who understand the concerns of the families they serve and who have implementable ideas about how those concerns could be met. We have a school board that is about as unified in purpose and approach as any elected body in San Francisco is likely to be. We have a new superintendent who seems focused, realistic and hard-working. We aren’t unstoppable, but we are certainly in position to make headway on some of the things that matter most to us and that will mean quite a bit for all of us.

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 Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA.

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