At the San Francisco Unified School District, we are dedicated to putting students first and to upholding certain standards of service in every interaction, not only with students, but also with their families and the staff who work with our students and schools.

We have core values, a mission and vision but we hadn’t actually articulated what our service standards are until now. Last week, we shared them with the S.F. Board of Education and today, I want to share them with you.

Why we need service standards

When I first arrived at the SFUSD last year, I focused on hearing from as many people as possible about the SFUSD’s strongest assets and our greatest opportunities for growth.

I heard there was wide variability in the level of service received from some people, schools and departments. It is sometimes difficult to get in touch with staff and to get a timely response. Even for those who work here, it can be tricky to ascertain who to go to with a question and people are sometimes bounced around from department to department.

You may say these experiences are unavoidable for an underfunded public agency such as ours. I say we can do better. It starts with having common language for what we expect and support for delivering on these expectations, along with an approach to tracking customer experiences and feedback.

Why these standards

As you have likely experienced first-hand, there are a lot of businesses — including hospital, retail and even a few other school districts — that have clearly articulated their service standards and trained all of their employees to deliver on these standards.

I have said, “We want to be the Nordstrom of public school districts.” While I do not have any intention of doing product placement — no, we’re not going to sell shoes and you don’t have to have any money to access our services — I want people to understand that even small changes in our behavior can improve the experience of thousands of people who interact with SFUSD staff every day.

We’ve taken the time to learn from organizations with a proven track record of providing measurably consistent and high-quality service to a diverse community like ours. One lesson we’ve learned is that it’s best to establish broad universal standards our employees can apply to their work in different contexts. Whether a janitor, a school clerk, a meal service provider, budget analyst or school principal, our new service standards apply to all our employees.

Our Nine Service Standards

Honor. This means:

  • Communicate positively and proactively
  • Respond in a timely, professional, and accurate manner
  • Respect ideas and feedback from people of all backgrounds & positions

Understand. This means:

  • Seek to understand concerns by listening and asking questions
  • Empathize and consider different perspectives
  • Offer options and differentiated support

Guide. This means:

  • Be solutions-oriented
  • Collaborate and share responsibility to solve challenges
  • Clarify agreements and follow through on commitments

What’s next

We’re beginning to provide tools and training for employees in our central service departments, starting with those who serve the most families and staff. While our teachers and principals are constantly invited to participate in professional learning, our administrative assistants, cafeteria workers and central services staff rarely have access to training. It will take some time for new practices to take hold. Please know that we always welcome your feedback on how we’re doing.

Vincent Matthews is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

Vincent Matthews
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