On a Tuesday morning, Alba Perez was the only student sitting inside of a classroom at Civic Center Secondary School, but she wasn’t alone. Two teachers and a social worker engaged the 14 year old as she constructed a marble run out of paper.
“In other schools, you don’t sit in a classroom and do stuff. You sit in a classroom writing and listen all day to people telling you what to do,” Perez said. “Here, they give me options. And if I don’t want to do anything, I don’t have to. It works for me, because why would you do something you don’t want to do?”
With a new curriculum that values social and emotional learning over rigid schedules and grade points implemented at Civic Center Secondary last year, the school at 727 Golden Gate Ave. has managed to cut the average number of school days missed by students in half.
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In the 2016-17 school year, Civic Center Secondary students were absent 6,010 days out of a total of 9,396 days, or 64 percent of all days enrolled. By April 5 this year, the number of average daily absences had dropped by half, from 2,718 days out of a total of 8,405 days enrolled.
Emotional support, student choice and autonomy are a new focus at the school, which serves some 70 students from seventh grade to 12th grade who are truant, homeless, pregnant, suspended, expelled or on parole or probation. As a county community school, Civic Center Secondary has a legal obligation to accept students who have not succeeded elsewhere.
Attendance is the biggest indicator of the new curriculum’s success, according to Alysse Castro, executive director of San Francisco Unified School District’s alternative high schools.
“Disengaging completely is the easiest thing to do,” Castro said. “Struggling, getting up and coming here and taking one more stab at a system where maybe you experienced a lot of pain and rejection is a really effective vote with your feet.”
Prior to the curriculum overhaul, Civic Center Secondary operated more like a traditional public school and was plagued by many of the same problems, including chronic absenteeism. Educators and district leaders decided to “wipe the slate clean” by designing a new curriculum in which learning is centered explicitly on improving social and emotional skills.
“We thought to ourselves, ‘Let’s stop thinking about how we do traditional school and … look at the kids who are in front of us and [ask] what they need,’” said Castro.
Starting in fall 2017, incoming students were required to meet with teachers and on-site social workers to create individual learning plans. They were prompted to write autobiographies, express their struggles and indicate areas in which they would like to improve and subjects of interest.
Classes are structured as cohorts of 15 students or less and are taught by a general education teachers, a special education teacher and a social worker. The students remain with their peers throughout the day, taking subjects and daily field trips out into the community together.
“At other schools, the classes are just so big,” said general education teacher Fernando Portugal. “These students get lost in the crowd.”
Richard Marquez Douglas said he was suspended for falling behind on his homework and for getting into fights at James Lick Middle School. The 13 year old said he decided to show up for class regularly while at Civic Center Secondary because the classrooms are “quiet.”
For freshman Raimon Lewis, the shorter school days at Civic Center enable him to accommodate an after school job.
On Tuesday, Portugal worked with both boys on goal-oriented lesson plans that each had chosen for himself. Expressing a desire to to move out of his home, Douglas was busy researching rents and employment opportunities for his “living project,” while Lewis was brushing up on his algebra.
Each classroom is outfitted with multiple chess boards, and Lewis has become a proficient player.
“It’s about strategy and having a poker face and thinking steps ahead,” Lewis said. “Because if you can’t think multiple steps ahead, you might end up making the wrong move and losing, and not even know that you are losing.”
The new curriculum structures schedules around projects and activities, such as morning conversations circles or meditations. Students may break for lunch or a snack whenever they choose.
“I get to eat when I want to eat,” said Principal Maurice Harpin, adding that he measures his students’ success by growth and by follow-through.
“[The goal] is for the students to balance out their lives and if they do return to a comprehensive school, to say, ‘How am I going to do it differently?’ said Harpin. “Because the system they are going back to is not going to respond differently. It’s going to respond the same way.”
Conflicts inevitably arise at Civic Center Secondary, but students are rarely sent home.
“The message is, ‘We want you to be here. So if you can calm yourself down, you are welcome to stay,’” said special education teacher Chris Albert. “That’s the social-emotional learning at it’s finest — when students are able to take that level of behavior, turn it around and get along with that person for the rest of the day.”