School merger unites communities

When the San Francisco Unified School District proposed last winter to merge Rosa Parks Elementary with another elementary school to save money, single mom Eva Coverson spoke out in protest at a community meeting.

The school was in danger of closure, since its 233 students filled less than half of the facility.

Almost one year later, Coverson is now among parents that have embraced the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program, or JBBP, which moved to Rosa Parks’ campus on O’Farrell Street near the Fillmore district and Japantown. She described them as being two programs, but one school.

For the most part, students from the two schools take separate classes, with the JBBP students receiving daily instruction in the Japanese language and culture. The two groups of students take integrated art and music classes and join together for all assemblies, meals and play time. In addition, Rosa Parks students participate in a weekly Japanese program.

Nearly half of the Rosa Parks students are African-American, according to district data from last year; one-third of JBBP students are Japanese.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, who visited the school on Friday, said the combined schools presented a “remarkable” opportunity for students to share cultures.

“I think it adds a social context, which allows kids to grow up, especially those in the Western Addition, to see a world much larger than the one they’re living in day-to-day,” Newsom said.

Due to declining enrollment and budget restraints, San Francisco’s school board has closed seven schools in the last two years. It also voted in January to merge four elementary schools into two sites: Rosa Parks and JBBP, and John Muir and John Swett.

The process of closing and merging schools was an emotional one involving lengthy meetings. Members of the John Swett school community continued to protest their planned merger after the school board decision, staging rallies, walk-outs and filing a lawsuit.

In contrast, many parents and teachers from Rosa Parks and JBBP saw opportunity for both schools in the merger. In the spring and summer, the schools held meetings, a barbecue, a garden party and other events to bring the two communities together.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, whose district encompasses parents from three of the four merged schools, said he’s been impressed with the effort.

“The way that they have intertwined themselves, I believe, could teach other schools that possibly merge in the future, should it come to that,” Mirkarimi said. Conversely, he blamed the district for not doing enough to support the John Swett merger, which he called “a failure.”

JBBP parent Emily Murase said the school lost more than half of its enrollment by moving away from its cramped site in the Sunset district to Rosa Parks. She’s confident, however, that eventually the school will build its enrollment back up.

“We came out of the Japanese community, we felt like it was right to come back,” Murase said.

beslinger@examiner.com

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