School Beat: It’s A Whole New Year Again

by Lisa Schiff on August 31, 2006

Monday morning brought yet another year’s fresh start to students, teachers and parents throughout San Francisco. For many, the new school year means progressing on to the next step in a successful academic career. We can see those successes mirrored in report cards, parent teacher conferences, classroom work, and yes, even standardized test scores.

In an ever-present contrast, for some students and their families the week marks another year of struggle to get access to a quality education. The driving force behind that struggle, what we’ve come to call the “achievement gap,” is reflected in grades, test scores, and drop-out rates. And so for public education supporters the excitement of a new school year is strong, but is tinged with the reality of the familiar challenges that we continue to work at and that we will someday work through.

Like last year, our energy and attention will initially be captured by important ballot matters. This November we will be electing three Board of Education (BOE) members. With a field of 16 candidates including one incumbent (http://www.sfusualsuspects.com/upcoming_elections.shtml) the campaign season is sure to be intense. In a refreshing change, a number of the candidates are parents of children currently enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Only one school board member, Eric Mar, has a child in school and as this perspective is one the BOE has been weak on for awhile, more parent voices would be a good addition.

Another community that has lacked strong representation is the African-American community. While it is outrageously simplistic to think that any one person can speak to the concerns and interests of an entire, heterogeneous population, the fact that the diversity of our schools is not well-reflected on our district’s policy making body is not desirable. While that may not change with these elections, at the very least the pool of candidates is more representative of our student body and that in itself is significant.

The public will have several opportunities to hear from prospective board members, including at three candidate forums being organized by community groups and scheduled for October 3rd, 12th and 17th. Details are still in flux regarding time and place for these events (check www.ppssf.org for updates), but some of the questions to ask never really change.

At the top of that list must be how to obtain sufficient funding. BOE members have an important role to play in pressuring the federal government to fully fund programs to which they have committed (special education is a prime example of this), in working with state elected leaders to strategize about increasing total state funding and in promoting such efforts as a local parcel tax that would provide dedicated monies to SFUSD.

As voters, we will want to know how each of these candidates sees his or her role in tackling the funding issue and others. From student assignment philosophies, to stances on the High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), to ideas for addressing the achievement gap, to skills around planning, financial management and community involvement, this fall will be our opportunity to contrast how these individuals could lead us through the next several years. Parents for Public Schools will collect questions to pose to candidates through September 11th–email yours to info@ppssf.org.

Beyond school board seats, another school facilities bond measure will also be on the ballot. Many will remember the most recent bond, which passed several years ago (Proposition A) and for which projects are currently underway. This new bond continues that upgrade work by focusing on the next set of schools. Both the previous bond and the proposed bond are the result of a lawsuit (the Lopez settlement), requiring phased facilities improvement.

Failure to complete the work would raise the possible of federal intervention and loss of local control over resource allocations. Construed more positively, this bond could be an opportunity to work on an issue for which the school board has already expressed support –attentiveness to environmental health as a construction guideline. Factors such as lighting, indoor, air quality, making schools easier to clean by providing adequate storage and more could potentially be included in the plans if the concern is raised.

Apart from electoral issues, there are other important matters facing the district. For instance, the search for a new superintendent continues. The committee that had been formed to work on this has issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) to find consultants to guide the search process. Clear criteria have been established, from a proven ability to get community input to a well-articulated method for recruiting potential candidates (see the full RFP at http://www.sfusd.edu). This effort is one to keep an eye on, as the selection of a new superintendent is something in which parents and guardians will want to have a voice.

Information about the long-term planning process that got kicked off at the end of the 2005-2006 school year should be available anytime now. A Community Advisory Committee (the CACSERR) was formed to provide feedback about data collection and analysis and to guide community engagement. Given the problematic process regarding school closures the last two years and the difficult decisions that may be in store for this year, details about that committee’s work will be important to all of us.

Finally, one item that isn’t in store for this year is a new student assignment plan. Although the BOE had originally hoped to have a revised assignment policy to put in place for this year, the complexity of the issue combined with pending Supreme Court decision about the use of race in making assignments have been wisely seen as reasons to slow down the effort.

This year like all other years will be full of challenges and we will address them as best we can, knowing that each effort is part of a larger collective project to construct an education system that is strong yet flexible enough to meet the needs of all students.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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