SF school leaders, advocates wary of Silicon Valley group aiming to tackle achievement gap

A Silicon Valley-based education reform nonprofit promising to tackle the achievement gap in San Francisco’s public schools by empowering parents has drawn the ire of district leaders and advocates, who criticize the group for its track record of advocating for charter schools.

Citing student achievement data obtained from the California Department of Education, a report published in October by the San Jose-based Innovate Public Schools called out the San Francisco Unified School District for being “one of the worst districts in the state for low-income African American and Latino students.”

Among the report’s findings was that the SFUSD performed worse than 96 percent of California’s school districts when it comes to serving black students on state English tests between 2011 and 2017.

But both the report and Innovate’s motives have been criticized in recent months by members of the Board of Education and public school parent advocates.

The latter groups said they have long worked to improve black student outcomes, and that initiatives such as the African American Achievement and Leadership Initiative are in place to address longstanding disparities, with some successes.

They also contended Innovate is undermining those efforts in a bid to push for new charter schools with corporate funding.

Innovate promises to move more quickly than the district on solving a systemic problem that, according to SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, has plagued the school
district for at least “a quarter of a century.”

Founded in 2012, Innovate has paved the way for privately managed charter school networks, including Rocketship and Navigator, to gain footing in Santa Clara County. Members of its Board of Trustees include the CEO of another charter school advocacy group, a charter school consortium executive, corporate consultants and a Woodside Elementary School District trustee.

Advertisements featured on social media channels such as Facebook and Instagram in recent months invite parents to “See how SFUSD is serving its black students.”

Innovate CEO Matt Hammer confirmed that among the nonprofit’s list of high-profile donors are the Walton Family Foundation — a philanthropic organization launched by Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton. Since 1997, the foundation has invested more than $407 million to grow charter schools, according to its website.

Innovate aims to organize parents to advocate for higher quality education, research and publish “easy to understand” reports on school district data, and help “failing” schools improve their outcomes, according to Hammer. He said Innovate also provides “direct support to districts and to people who want to start charter schools.”

Hammer has a history of organizing parents around improving schools and starting new ones. His activism led to the addition of new charter schools and a better reputation for Oakland’s public schools in the 1990s.

Hammer’s vision for Innovate is to try “to help families to get better schools.

“We through [our] research found that San Francisco Unified didn’t have just a ‘normal’ achievement gap — that there was a particularly huge, dramatic and persistent one in The City, [in this] bastion of progressivism,” Hammer told the San Francisco Examiner.

Innovate’s October report is meant to create a sense of urgency around addressing this gap, he said.

But those stewarding the SFUSD say Innovate has yet to offer new solutions on how to do just that.

Board of Education President Shamann Walton said that other than “feeding me data I have seen 1,000 times over,” he has “not seen any evidence of [Innovate] wanting to support current SFUSD schools.”

“Everything I have seen from them is arbitrary to solving the problems that exist in our schools and [is] more about using black and brown families to support their propaganda and to stigmatize students who need more support,” he said.

Education leaders in November took an explicit stance against opening new charter schools in the district, which are independently run but compete with public schools for state-allocated per-pupil funding.

Despite Innovate’s push to support black students, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) last year called for a moratorium on charter school expansion.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at Sacramento State University and the education chair for the California NAACP, called Innovate’s practices “astroturfing.”

He said, “They are meant to look like grassroots organizations but are funded by dark money outside of the community in which they are supposed to organize. It’s just a matter of time before Innovate pivots in San Francisco to talking [about] charter schools.”

It’s no secret the SFUSD’s achievement gap is systemic, and that parents from low-income communities often feel they have little control when it comes to their children’s education.

School board members have expressed concern that the SFUSD’s school assignment system, which gives preference in school choice to students who live in areas with the lowest test scores, has in some ways failed to diversify The City’s public schools.

Innovate’s report has served in rousing local advocates and parents around holding the school district accountable for prevailing academic inequities.

In October, the NAACP’s San Francisco chapter urged San Francisco school board leaders to declare a state of emergency on black student achievement.

A few weeks later, Matthews laid out new strategies to level the playing field at schools with high achievement gaps, including leveraging additional resources, but didn’t offer a timeline for implementation.

“Parents want to be heard — even affluent families are frustrated,” said Alison Collins, a parent advocate and member of the African American Parent Advisory Council.

Collins is also co-founder of SF Familles Union, an organization of public school families working toward racial equity and integration in the SFUSD.

Schools with more organized Parent Teacher Associations and parents who are economically stable often have the ability to raise more funds for their students, Collins said.

By hosting parent forums organized by the SF Families Union, Collins said the group helped parents in the Bayview rally the school district to install doors at George Washington Carver Elementary School, where students previously learned in a less desirable pod-like setting.

“Real parent empowerment is what we did at Carver,” she said.

When Innovate “showed up in San Francisco” sometime last year, Collins was skeptical. “I heard that they were cold-calling kindergarten parents,” she said.

She questioned Innovate’s practice of sending its community organizers to churches in low-income communities to present their data and gain parent buy-in.

“In some ways, I think they are taking advantage of people,” she said. “They are positioning themselves as doing parent empowerment when their real purpose is to create more charters.”

Despite those concerns, some parents have found a voice through Innovate.

Bayview resident Geraldine Anderson said she first learned about Innovate during a presentation at her local church, where she and other parents were — for the first time — presented with data on student performance at the Bayview’s schools.

“Everyone was shocked,” Anderson said.

Working with Innovate, Anderson said her duties include “calling parents to get them to come to meetings at school.” The single mother views Innovate “as an avenue” to improve the Bayview’s public schools, and said they pay for places for Anderson to meet with parents.

“They make it convenient,” she said.

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