School board candidates debate solutions to SF’s achievement gap

San Francisco Unified School District’s persistent achievement gap emerged as a hot-button issue — and a “community school” concept offering additional resources at school sites as a preferred solution — at a forum held Tuesday featuring nine candidates in this November’s school board race.

A total of 18 candidates are actively campaigning for three open seats on the board with no incumbent opposition in the Nov. 6 election.

Most participants in the debate, held at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, agreed that addressing disparities among marginalized student groups— namely African American, Latino, Pacific Islander students and those with special needs — is a priority, but gave varied approaches to tackling the district’s long standing problem.

SEE RELATED: Campaign contributions pour into school board race

“The achievement gap is why I am running,” said Faauga Moliga, a behavioral health therapist and the first Pacific Islander candidate running for the school board. “When we talk about the gap, we are talking about Latinx, African American and Pacific Islander students. A lot of the things happening to our communities today is because of pure neglect.”

Moliga said he would focus on student “wellness” through ramping up mental health services at school sites and ultimately advocate for “community schools” that offer wrap-around services to students and their families — emulating a concept he helped build out at Burton High school some years ago.

“We opened the school on weekends, evenings, had adult classes, Tai Chi — we had everything,” he said, adding that through a partnership with the YMCA and Department of Public Health, the dropout rate at Burton decreased by 50 percent and the school’s enrollment grew by 400 students in just four years.

Former Dean of University of San Francisco’s school of law, John Trasvina said he would focus particularly on disparities facing the district’s 27 percent of Latino students. He said that he would like to see the African American Leadership Initiative, which holds SFUSD departments and city agencies accountable the outcomes of African American students, expanded and emulated for Latino students.

“I would make both initiatives focus on pre-K through 5 — It’s a critically important time,” said Trasvina, also a proponent of community schools, who offered a recent effort at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 School to house homeless families in the school’s gym as a prime example of how the concept could work.

Monica Chinchilla, one of several Latino candidates, said closing the gap must start with rebuilding trust among Mission and Bayview district families who are “hesitant to engage with our schools because they have been let down time and time again.”

Chinchilla also hailed the community schools concept as a possible solution to SFUSD’s disparities — “it’s wrap-around support services for our families on site, so families experiencing homelessness violence and food insecurity have their needs met.”

But Lex Leifheit, who is employed with San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said that she would not support using school district funds to implement community schools.

“I don’t support increasing the budget for community schools in the SFUSD budget, because so much funding for these services is available through The City … and through connecting the dots with getting affordable space for these organizations supporting these schools through community benefits from private development, ” said Leifheit.

“I very much support increasing the resources for these schools,” she added.

Li Miao Lovett, an academic counselor at City College of San Francisco who is trained in marriage family child counseling, agreed that meeting students basic needs is vital in closing the gap, and said she would advocate for all schools to be equipped with wellness centers.

Michelle Parker, a long-time parent advocate and former president of the District PTA, counts expanding early education as one of her priorities to set all students on an equal footing.

As the mother of a student with a disability, Alida Fisher said she turned from “active parent to parent activist” when she was told her son’s school could not offer him the services he required.

Now chair of the district’s Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, Fisher said that she would advocate for in-classrooms support, such as paraeducators, for teachers in meeting diverse student needs.

“We are in a teacher crisis. We lost close to 500 teachers last year. A lot of it was teachers being frustrated for not having support in classroom,” Fisher said. “We need trained adults to support our students and include them. You can take special education out of that and you can plug in any other marginalized population in the same correlation there.”

Teacher supports and development were also hailed as a solution to ensuring equity for San Francisco’s public school students by candidate Phil Kim, a former life science teacher at KIPP charter schools in the East Bay.

Kim currently works as a project manager of the Research, Evaluation and Partnerships for Personalized Learning Initiative at KIPP Bay Area Schools and as a consultant for the KIPP Foundation.

Kim is the only candidate who said he would oppose a moratorium on new charter schools pending policies calling for more oversight of their operations, which will head before the school board in the form of a resolution next week.

“We can go on and on about what closes the gap. Research shows the primary level in closing the gap is quality of curriculum used in classroom and the ability of high qualified teachers to implement it,” he said.

Kim pointed out that the SFUSD are privy to just “one to two feedback cycles” each year.

“I don’t know any employee that meets with their manager one to two times a year for formal feedback. Teachers need feedback, “ he saidd, suggesting “dedicated school site coaches” in classrooms.

He was quickly challenged by Alison Collins, a SFSUD educator and advocate who is in support of the proposed charter school moratorium on the grounds that charters lack oversight and divert resources from San Francisco’s public schools, who pointed out that Phil has never taught in an SFUSD classroom.

Collins has worked directly with parents and district leaders to rally for additional resources for schools in underserved communities, including securing $1.9 million for much-needed renovations at a Bayview elementary school.

Collins, who is African American, called for culturally sensitive and implicit bias training for teachers to help marginalized students succeed.

“We need to start talking about race in our schools to make people feel safe and that will also lead to achievement,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to indicate that Monica Chinchilla is not the only Latina candidate in the race.

Dire water warnings confront San Francisco and beyond

‘We will face challenges that I don’t think modern California has ever really seen before’

By Jessica Wolfrom
Debate over $150 million San Francisco school district windfall

‘We’re looking at the ways to boost morale’

By Ida Mojadad
Charlotte Mailliard Shultz, San Francisco’s longest serving chief of protocol, has died

‘Her warmth and verve are irreplaceable.’

By Catherine Bigelow