Rodents scurrying across the classroom, mold piled up in windows, crumbling steps, electrical shocks and tiles dropping from the ceiling. This Grey Gardens-like scene is the everyday reality of students and staff at Buena Vista Horace Mann, a bilingual school in the Mission District.
That reality may be coming to an end.
Families and staff have been frustrated for years about the state of the school building, where kindergarten through eighth-graders are predominantly Spanish-speaking, immigrant and low-income. Multiple formal complaints have been filed, citing insufficient instructional materials or hazardous facilities.
Rat droppings are a common sight in the classroom and are around even as kids eat, said Fatima Ticas, a parent of two children attending BVHM. Toilet paper and soap have been in short supply, even toilet seats. Pigeons are sometimes spotted in the hallway.
“That’s all they know,” said Ticas, a single parent and longtime resident of the immediate area, of her kids. “At this point, that’s all we have. The teachers make it so it’s a community in the classroom. It’s a safe haven and it’s stability for them.”
In May, a fourth-grader plugged in a laptop and was shocked by the electrical outlet, the district confirmed. A student fell on a broken floor and had to get 12 stitches, said Supervisor Hillary Ronen. A gas leak in August, first attributed to the smell of rats or mold, was the final straw.
After protests and increased pushback from parents and school staff, the San Francisco Unified School District will be making a recommendation to reallocate remaining funds from a 2016 bond to renovate BVHM. The school board is expected to vote Tuesday.
An estimated cost of the renovation will be determined during an upcoming design process, said district spokesperson Laura Dudnick. But based on a rough estimate from staff, school board member Matt Alexander is prepared to push to allocate $55 million for a BVHM renovation should the staff recommendation fall short of the amount.
“SFUSD has the oldest school buildings west of the Mississippi, and over the years, the district has been steadily renovating and modernizing every one of our schools,” Dudnick said. “In each bond supported by voters, there are more projects listed than come to fruition, which allows for flexibility in circumstances such as this. In the immediate future, BVHM will go through a design phase for its modernization project and see near-term health and safety improvements.”
Parents and educators are also demanding an independent assessment of the building, short-term repairs and regular reports on how fixes are made.
Trust in the district to inspect BVHM is hard to come by. When people smelled gas, district officials allegedly did nothing until the principal called PG&E, which led to an evacuation. Allison Matamoros, a fourth-grade teacher at the school, couldn’t sleep for two nights, and only half of her students showed up the following Monday. She has trouble telling one student with high anxiety that it was safe again.
“They missed something huge, something that could’ve been deadly,” Matamoros said. “The sheer amount of gas in the courtyard could have been catastrophic. I’ve spoken to parents who have wondered, ‘Should I put my kids in another school?’ They love the community and we have so much to offer, but I don’t blame them.”
Ronen, whose district includes the Mission, held a hearing on BVHM facilities’ conditions at a recent Youth, Young Adult and Families Committee meeting in which students testified to conditions and asked for a renovation. One fourth-grader worried the kindergartners nearly died as a result of the gas leak, and a parent demanded an end to broken promises. Supervisor Ahsha Safai called it the “most horrendous hearing” in his time on the board.
“It has gotten to a whole new level recently,” Ronen said. “This school is on its last legs and needs attention now. We’re trying to see how we can up the urgency of fixing this crisis at the school district as well as working to fix it from The City side.”
Ronen will introduce legislation at the next Board of Supervisors meeting on Oct. 19 to relocate infrastructure funding so the Department of Public Works can immediately assess what repairs are needed. “We haven’t protected you like we should and that is wrong,” Ronen told the BVHM students on Friday. “I’m sorry that we have failed you.”
A map included in a recent presentation shows that many schools in need of renovations that remain unfunded are concentrated in the Mission District.
“We’ve seen in a lot in the Mission, where brown and Black kids get put on the back burner,” said Ticas, a first-generation Salvadoran American who grew up in the neighborhood. “Most of these immigrant families are scared to speak up because of their immigrant status. We’ve been trying to get the school remodeled for years, but SFUSD has just brushed us off.”
Ronen and Alexander agree.
“When we think about systemic racism, a lot of it is unintentional where communities aren’t seen,” said Alexander, a former principal. “I think what they’ve experienced is unacceptable. The good news is that, thanks to the leadership and advocacy of the BVHM community, this is finally getting the attention at the higher levels of the district staff.”