SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews chats with students of the S.T.E.A.M. class during a tour of his alma mater, Herbert Hoover Middle School, on May 12. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

New beginnings for SFUSD students, staff

Who’s back today? Many people! It’s a day of new beginnings for the 56,000 students who attend our public schools, and the 3,500 teachers and 5,000 support staff who serve them. Many people in lots of places with fantastic learning taking place.

Today marks the first day back to school for SFUSD. At 124 PreK-12 schools across The City, students are learning each other’s names, teachers are going over syllabi, and parents of kindergartners are hugging their babies and sending them off to be scholars.

I have the great fortune of visiting schools several times a week. I sit in classrooms to see what and how our students are learning, and I talk with principals and teachers about each school’s strengths and challenges. Being there in person not only helps guide my decisions, it also inspires me and reminds me why we do the work we do.

Today, I’m headed to two schools — Hillcrest Elementary School, situated between the Portola and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods, and Francisco Middle School in the North Beach/Chinatown area.

Lessons from Japan

Hillcrest is one of a group of SFUSD schools working to deepen its math practices by studying first hand the ways that Japanese teachers encourage students’ problem solving. The method is called Teaching Through Problem Solving and it is similar to teaching strategies already in SFUSD classrooms.

In many of our math teaching strategies,  students solve novel math problems to which no solution is known in advance in order to build critical thinking and conceptual understanding. I’ll be visiting a third-grade classroom where students will conduct a “dot talk,” where they share their different ways of counting dots.

Teachers across the district are excited about these approaches to teaching math. They are so enthusiastic, they’re willing to take time out of their summer vacation to learn more. In fact this summer 30 teachers travelled to Japan to learn more firsthand, and hundreds of teachers attended math seminars, institutes, and professional development on these teaching strategies.

A little encouragement goes a long way

During the last school year, Francisco focused on improving its culture and climate among teachers and students by using more encouragement and constructive feedback. As a result, overall suspensions have dropped, with the highest drop among African American students — by 15 percentage points.

I’ll be visiting a sixth and eighth grade classroom to see team-building activities that demonstrate how teachers are building a positive school climate from day one.

Francisco is one of five middle and high schools that saw a big drop in student suspensions by implementing more strategies to encourage positive behavior. As evidenced by Francisco’s academic growth, the benefits of a more positive school culture are multiple.

I plan to visit many more schools this year and share more about what I see and learn with you .

Happy first day of school to all of our students, staff and families. I’m excited for a great year of learning and community!


Vincent Matthews is the superintendent of SFUSD

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