Superintendent Richard Carranza has had five first days of school as the top administrator of the San Francisco Unified School District, but this one was his last.
On Monday, Carranza slicked back his hair, donned a golden watch and wore his black suit for one last lap around the playground before departing to Texas, where he is expected to head the Houston Independent School District beginning in early September.
“It feels nostalgic and it feels a little bittersweet,” Carranza said while standing in a dimly lit hallway at Martin Luther King Middle School, one of three schools he visited before lunchtime on the first day of the 2016-17 school year.
Each school — MLK Middle, Thurgood Marshall High School and Bryant Elementary School, which all sit along U.S. Highway 101 — was meant to represent a different achievement made throughout Carranza’s tenure, including the district’s changed use of discipline, expanded computer science curriculum and focus on reading literacy.
Because Carranza talks about race and class as the superintendent, Principal Michael Essien said he can teach “interrupting systematic oppression” at MLK Middle, where students learn about topics like the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and gentrification in San Francisco.
At his school, Essien treated the high-suspension rate as a civil rights issue and cut referrals from the classroom down to 560 last school year from more than 2,000 the year prior, he said.
That matches the downward trend experienced throughout the district, where despite a small uptick in 2014-15, the most recent year that data is available for, suspensions fell over 40 percent compared to three years prior.
“We’re trying to do education differently and one of the biggest difficulties is people have fear about change,” said Essien, who altered the language teachers use around students to avoid escalating situations that lead to suspensions and also had students set academic goals for themselves.
At Marshall High, students are able to get a head start on learning to code through a video game-design course.
Sitting in a classroom that peers out over the Bayview and symbols of the historically underserved community that lives there, like the smokestack of a retired power plant, students learn about internet security and how to create 3D graphics from a former Zynga Inc. employee.
“I don’t let them leave the room with a blank page,” said teacher Angie Hoffman. This is the third year the course has been offered under a partnership with the San Francisco-based tech company, which created games like Words with Friends.
This summer, students received paid internships there, Hoffman said.
“Because they’re at Zynga, they’re working with billionaires,” she said.
Mayor Ed Lee joined Carranza at Bryant Elementary, the first stop on his school tour. An innovation lab grant helped the elementary school reorganize its classrooms and purchase new books so that students could read based upon their own interests.
“Not every child gets the same book,” Esther Adames, the elementary school’s assistant principal, told Carranza and Lee, “Because you’re interested in education and you’re interested in the wellbeing of the entire city.”
In one classroom, calming music played while fifth graders sat reading, too engaged to turn their attention to the mayor or members of the media who had just entered the room.
The school is in Potrero Hill near a park, hospital and freeway overpass — where there was a homeless encampment until recently. Tents and shopping carts still line streets in the area.
“It’s not just what happens at school,” Lee told the students. “It’s what happens before school and after … We can probably do a better job on the park next door.”
Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh also took the school tour with Carranza. The school board chose Leigh to temporarily succeed Carranza while it searches for a replacement.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified tech company Zynga as the creator of Angry Birds. Angry Birds was created by Rovio Entertainment. Bryant Elementary SchooleducationMLK MiddleRichard CarranzaSFUSDThurgood Marshall High School