Some parents, teachers call foul on SF school 'special zones'

At Malcolm X Academy, a small elementary school on top of a hill in the Bayview, more than 90 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. The school is surrounded by housing projects, and the neighborhood has one of the highest rates of violence in The City.

For a chart listing grant amounts awarded to Superintendent's Zone schools, click on the photo to the right.

Although test scores have climbed in recent years, students at Malcolm X still face obstacles that families in other parts of The City do not. Some are homeless, others are in foster care. Some are traumatized by neighborhood violence. Others have families that cannot afford the eyeglasses they need to see the chalkboard.

“Those are some of the issues that we face on a day-to-day basis,” said Imani Cooley, who is in her third year as principal at Malcolm X. “It took lots of work to get things to where they are now.”

Arguing that schools like Malcolm X need more attention and resources than schools with more affluent populations, San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia last year formed the Superintendent’s Zone, a group of 14 schools in and around the impoverished Mission and Bayview neighborhoods that are receiving more resources.

“How could you feel good when you have such low proficiency rates at those schools?” Garcia said. “This is about access and equity and social justice.”

Although it’s too soon to say whether the model will be successful, the district-within-a-district concept is becoming popular in urban areas, including Detroit, Houston and Las Vegas.

In March 2010, as Garcia was creating the program, the state serendipitously put 10 district schools on a list that made them eligible for federal funds to turn them around.

“I thought, how lucky can you be?” Garcia recalled.

Those schools, all in the Superintendent’s Zone, received federal School Improvement Grants of up to $2 million a year for three years. The money pays for extra staff, teacher training, consultants and special programs.

Although the other schools have not received such cash infusions, their teachers and principals get special training sessions and the support of extra central office staff.

The Mission and Bayview neighborhoods each have their own assistant superintendent, along with math and reading specialists, a school-community liaison and an administrative assistant. In general, schools there also receive more money, thanks to an array of state and federal programs and more generous per-pupil funding from the district.

“We really want to double down,” said Deputy Superintendent Richard Carranza. “These are schools that are so much in our focus that we’re going to devote extra resources — both human capital resources and fiscal resources.”

But in an era in which state cuts to education are squeezing public schools, some parents and teachers reject these funding priorities.

“To handpick a few struggling schools while ignoring the rest is unfair to the kids,” said Matthew Hardy, spokesman for United Educators of San Francisco, the teachers union. “It does create a system of winners and losers.”

Parent Victor Chao, who chairs the School Site Council at Alamo Elementary in the Richmond, agrees. “The majority of students are not in the zone, and I really have to say I think they’re going in the wrong direction,” he said. “You can’t just keep shorting 70 to 80 percent of your population because they’re doing good enough.”

Chao noted that Alamo’s PTA was forced to raise money to pay the salaries of a guidance counselor and a fifth-grade teacher.

“What about the schools that can’t raise that kind of money?” Chao asked. “Is this public education? Does it fit in with Carlos’ idea about social justice?”

But Garcia believes this effort will eventually benefit other schools.

“I see them as the incubator for the rest of the district about what can and will work,” he said. “School districts are horrible at trying to do too much. We decided, why don’t we start with a small enough group that we can be successful? Then we can scale it up.”

Cooley, the principal at Malcolm X, said being in the zone helps. Although it’s too early to say whether it will affect test scores, her teachers appreciate the extra time and training to collaborate on lessons, both in the school and with other teachers in the zone. She said they are getting better at using test scores to determine what children need more help with and how to plan lessons that reach every student.

Parents and teachers at other schools should not complain about the added attention Malcolm X and the other zone schools receive, she said.

“It’s not a walk in the park because of the challenges that we face,” Cooley said. “Students who have more needs get more. That’s the equity.”

No cakewalk for schools in the zone

Although being in the Superintendent’s Zone has many advantages, transforming a school can be tough on a community, putting added pressure on students, parents, teachers and administrators to bring up test scores.

At Paul Revere K8 School in Bernal Heights, the reform agenda forced a popular principal to resign, leaving many parents upset about his replacement.

About 20 parents rallied earlier this month to demand the removal of Principal Sheila Sammon, alleging that she had instituted a harsh and unfair discipline policy. The parents, many of whom did not speak English, said that Sammon, who is white, seemed to discriminate against minorities.

Patricia Gray, the assistant superintendent in charge of the Bayview section of the Superintendent’s Zone, which includes Paul Revere, said that the charges against Sammon were false, but she acknowledged that the school’s first steps toward improvement had not been easy.

“I attribute it to change,” Gray said. “The district is trying to put in place restorative practices that will keep them in school, and parents are misinterpreting that. … Children of color do have more discipline issues.”

Matthew Hardy, spokesman for United Educators of San Francisco, said reform can also be hard on teachers. Federal School Improvement Grant requirements, which in some cases include replacing the principal and half the faculty, have damaged teachers’ morale, he said. And too many meetings and training sessions mean long, hectic workdays.

“Every two years or 18 months or so, there’s a new, shiny reform model they’re forcing on these schools,” Hardy said. “It really winds up fraying the nerves of teachers.”

Per-pupil spending

Though not every zone school received a School Improvement Grant, in general they get more money per pupil than schools elsewhere. (These numbers do not reflect every source of funding, such as Student Improvement Grants and PTA fundraising.)

In the zone
Malcolm X Academy: $9,379
Paul Revere K8: $7,033
Chavez Elementary: $5,233
Mission High: $5,749

Zoned out
Alamo Elementary: $4,176
New Traditions Elementary: $4,778
Rooftop K8: $4,378
Lowell High: $4,710

Source: SFUSD, 2011-12 budget

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