School Beat: What to Watch Out For in 2009

by Lisa Schiff on January 8, 2009

2009 will keep public education supporters on their toes with lots of new challenges and opportunities to keep track of, plus a few ongoing spots of trouble just to keep things familiar. Closest to home we have our Board of Education (BOE), for which the new and newly returning members were sworn in yesterday. The BOE election was almost as exciting as Minnesota’s Senatorial contest between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, with incumbent Jill Wynns edging out newcomer Barbara Lopez at the last moment – and with Rachel Norton eventually moving to the bottom of the list of the four winners in terms of vote count.

At the end of the tallying exercise, San Franciscans ultimately choose the two incumbents, Norman Yee and Jill Wynns, and two parents of currently enrolled students, Sandra Fewer, Director of Parent Organizing at Coleman Advocates for many years up until this election, and Rachel Norton, an active parent volunteer. Both Fewer and Norton have also been active on district-wide committees and at their children’s schools, so while they do not have the “on the BOE” experience of their fellow winners, they certainly have a wealth of personal experience and deep knowledge of the concerns and struggles of families from all sectors of the City.

All in all, this seems like a board that will be focused on getting things done and working in a deliberate and sufficiently paced manner to keep up with the energy we’ve seen from Superintendent Carlos Garcia and his team. One of Garcia’s team’s significant activities has been strategic planning, which got off to a promising start but has been in an apparent stasis period, as defined by the lack of specifics coming from the top, giving rise to some doubt about its potential success. The new strategic plan is being built around the balanced scorecard model, which is designed to allow a telescoping connectivity between the differing levels of oversight within the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), in other words, school sites, central office, and the BOE. Schools are currently refactoring their academic plans into this new structure, and presumably the outcome of this year’s school-site community meetings will be organized similarly.

While a consistent and more logical structure for strategic planning is certainly needed and welcome, the biggest problem with such activity to date has been the lack of a coordinated and well-thought out approach to the programs being offered across the district and how they are made available. From the outside, the current planning effort feels like so much window-dressing without the substantive changes that schools and students need. What are the programs and resources that schools can implement to address needs identified by the school community? How is the district going to distribute those equitably? Beyond the comparison of outcomes that can be calculated using the Balanced Scorecard approach, how will the implementation of these programs be rigorously evaluated and modified where necessary? These are essential questions that need answers if we are to have confidence that this new planning process will result in meaningful changes.

In addition to district-wide planning, there are other policy decisions coming up for both the BOE and district administrators. One high-profile effort has been the possibility of significantly changing the school year calendar starting in 2010. The gist of the proposal is to start and end school a few weeks earlier. The first day would be August 10th as opposed to the 19th and the last day would be during the last week in May. One of the goals of the change as described by the district is to time the semester’s end with the beginning of winter break, so that high school students in particular get real time off as opposed to having to worry about end of semester assignments and exams over the vacation. Other reasons include giving families more time to travel over the break (although this seems a weak point since the total break time isn’t significantly different) and the ability for high school students again to possibly take courses at City College.

The new calendar proposal has strengths and weakness, but its most unfortunate aspect is the way it has been presented (or not presented, to be more accurate) to San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) families. Instead of laying out the proposal, including the motivation for the proposed changes and clearly indicating how a new schedule could be helpful to achieving progress towards any such goals, parents and community members found out about the plans indirectly, thus resulting in frenzied debates in an almost complete vacuum of official information. As of now, no firm dates have been released, so the first day of the 2009-2010 school year is still an unknown.

It wouldn’t be a new year without discussion and planning about a revised student assignment policy. This year will be unlike all others though, as the district and the BOE have actually committed to a timeline, are taking into account past work and are scheduling in a significant amount of time for community feedback. A page on the district’s website has been set up outlining the timeline. It also includes an email address for offering comments and ideas well as links to the reports from the several significant past initiatives on student assignment. One particularly interesting document is a comparison of these major reports, which serves as both a quick overview for those who don’t have time to read the full versions (although they are very informative and interesting). For those anxious for the punch line, focus groups and surveys about possible approaches will occur from January through March and a first reading of a proposed plan will take place at the April 14th BOE meeting.

The change in presidential administrations is no doubt the biggest news of the upcoming year, even with the relatively low-level of attention education is likely to receive from President-elect Obama due to the snowballing economic downturn. Already making waves with his appointment of Chicago Public Schools’ CEO Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education, Obama appears to be striking a middle ground with education policy. Duncan, who has no education background apart from his on the job training in Chicago, is very focused on standardized tests as a primary metric of educational achievement, yet has signed on to very thoughtful and thorough critiques of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the most vigorous embodiment of such an approach that we’ve seen to date.

What Duncan’s vision might be is anyone’s guess at this point. We can only hope that it will be highly shaped by the knowledge, experience and passion of Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, the head of Obama’s Education Transition team. We can all join her in the larger effort to ensure that Obama and his administration don’t lose this opportunity to transform education by signing the Will We Really petition that is a call to Obama to keep true to his campaign promises and vision.

Last but never least in any year’s list of important public education issues is the financial situation. Although education funding has been abysmally low and enmeshed in a web of unproductive restrictions for longer than we might want to remember, this year’s budget crisis is unlike all others. The economic meltdown nationally and statewide is of a magnitude not seen for decades. Going nowhere fast, Governor Schwarzenegger and the California legislature continue to wrestle over cuts and taxes. And all of this is taking place at a time when the prioritization of individual personal gain over the needs and general welfare of society as a whole is well-entrenched in our culture. Obama’s inauguration provides some hope that these values will get re-evaluated and re-adjusted, but whether he follows through in pointing us in that direction or not, it’s clearly where we need to go.

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 and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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