Friday, September 03, 2010

An open letter to SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia

Dear Superintendent Garcia,

I was going to copy your Associate, but I seem to have misplaced his card and I would appreciate it if you could forward this email to him. While I had a chance to talk with him at the tail end of the meeting, I had to leave to go over to Everett for the session there before talking with you.

First, thank you for taking your time to meet with the Second District PTA. It's always nice to interact with people leading the SFUSD. As I am the PTA president of McKinley Elementary, many of our families are deeply concerned about the new feeder program, and I had some follow up questions.

1 - I like that there will be 4 million dollars coming from the SIG to infuse into Everett. When you have the plan outlined as to what that money will be used for, I'm sure that the various families entering Everett would like to have a look at it (the sooner the better). We want to see what kinds of improvements are planned as many of our children will matriculate through Everett.

2 - What is the plan to sustain the changes implemented over the next four years once that money evaporates? In five years, the heavy fiscal burden will shift, but to where? It would be important for people with children now in Kindergarten to know that they will not be taxed or asked to make up the short fall in some way. How will the four years of four million dollars be supplemented with another sustainable revenue source so that Everett will not be heavily dependent upon the PTA for raising the million dollars a year to continue whatever programs are in place at that time?

This is akin to McKinley's loss and draw down of STAR Funding over the last two years. As STAR funding evaporated, our PTA has had to take up the slack and fund various initiatives that were otherwise covered with STAR funding.This was very disappointing and felt a bit like a bait and switch as the programs & staff in place that drew many families into McKinley were no longer supported by any funding. Fortunately, our McKinley PTA is very healthy and we were able to resuscitate many enrichment programs that families came to expect under star funding. With the Everett situation, it would be critically important to not only know the SFUSD pans for the next four years, but what will you do to continue to support the school beyond that time frame in a fiscally responsible way.

3 - When I was talking with your assistant superintendent (I think that's his title), he mentioned that with the 4 million dollars going into Everett over the next few years, the SFUSD was planning to do some things that will allow District staff to experiment and try out new approaches. What might those be?

4 - Given that the SFUSD is already hosting & fully funding several educational experiments in the form of the various charter schools, what is your plan to infuse any best practices into Everett and other mainline schools across the SFUSD?

What we have is a disconnection between what the promise of charter schools are and the learning that is supposed to move back into the mainstream schools. While the City and it's taxpayers have been supporting the various charter schools, and allowing them to invent new ways of delivering education, there hasn't been any corresponding transference of learning from those best practices back into the mainstream schools that I'm aware of. This seems to be a collapse of the two way street promise of charter schools - in other words, there appears to be learning and growing at the charter schools, but there's no transference back to mainstream schools.

5 - Finally, if we can't learn from existing experiments at charter schools, how do we expect to improve what we have existing? It appears to me that we could save time, energy and resources, by simply replicating charter school best practices at mainline schools. If there is a plan, which I think you wouldn't operate without, then the sooner it is opened for viewing, the less backlash you will see from the public.

The Everett forum on the feeder program, on the same Tuesday evening as our second district reception, was at times caustic and some times sane, but I'm afraid the messages promulgated by the parents & guardians assembled will be dismissed as rants from an ill informed public. We are dependent upon you for disbursal of accurate information and plans, and as with all change, it's better to opt for frequent and informative missives rather than one time forums that come after policies are put in motion.

One other observation from the Everett evening. It appears that there is a special interest based on the feedback I heard from families sending their children through the different immersion programs. They are a loud and vociferous group, and justifiably disturbed on the prospect of having their children funneled from an immersion school of their choosing, into a school with none. Perhaps the SFUSD should reconsider the funnel pattern to allow this special interest to go to the usual schools that they traditionally matriculate with after elementary school. There is an existing, subliminal, quasi-feeder program already in operation which gets those in immersion programs fed to the right immersion middle school.

Perhaps like the groundskeepers at a new campus are wise to let the students trample the grass and then put in sidewalks, perhaps there are more natural patterns for those in immersion programs that should be honored. It may reduce the flak, but my finer point is that we shouldn't let those who are the most loud dictate the direction for the whole operation. It's debatable as to if the immersion program is really not just a native language program for students who experience English as their second language (which if you observe the bulk of the immersion students, might there be an overabundance of native Chinese or Spanish speakers in them, for example? This is not a fact based question, but something I've wondered for a while).

Suffice it to say, at the Everett program on Tuesday evening, there were some heated opinions launched at your staff, but in the mix, were also some cooler heads. I would hate for any reactions to be knee jerk in the wrong direction that offer concessions to any one group for simply the fact that they are the most vocally vociferous.

I would be happy to talk about this email or any aspect of your plan over coffee any time. I work at Powell and Market and could easily meet you at Blue Bottle on the Mint Plaza. If you have time, I will bend my schedule to meet yours.

Regards and best of luck solving this concern as all our children's fate is in your hands.


KC said...

As a veteran SFUSD observer and parent, please indulge me for a second.

You are right to push for more transparency and more frequent communication. One of the biggest keys to school improvement is to get the whole school community involved and empowered. You've already lived through this at McKinley, right? There is raw energy there, and it can be harnessed to move the school forward, or not. So keep pushing and keep demanding, but keep an open mind.

But when it comes to charter schools, I lose you. What schools are we talking about? Which programs and which practices deserve to come out of the incubator? If you look more closely, I suspect you'll see that innovation and successful reform are in equal abundance at charters and non-charters. SFUSD has made remarkable strides are reforming and improving so many schools throughout the district. Charters are no panacea. In fact, there are no silver bullets, no miracle cures. It comes down to a lot of hard work by a whole school community working together. The ingredients are right there in front of you.

About specialty programs like language immersion: this is a moving target. They are trying to reconcile the feeder school approach with these important, vital programs. The same concerns hover around SpEd too. But this does not change the larger picture where the district seems committed to trying the feeder approach as the norm.

Good luck. But do try and steer this energy into a positive channel. Seize the moment!

windspike said...

Because of character limit, I had to break my reply into two. This is PART 1:

Thanks for chiming in KC. Just wondering how you found my post? I'm not familiar with your blogs, but it seems like you have been steeped in it for a great long while.

The McKinley situation has turned out well, given that the base of parents have banned together to contribute great sums of money and volunteerism to make. It will take a similar effort to make to turn Everett around. The SFUSD budget is still wholly inadequate, and the four million infusion may only bring the Everett budget up to the very low par of funding for schools around the SFUSD.

I don't have a specific example to convey regarding the charter schools, but having visited one or two - there are small things that can be replicated (e.g. having teachers actually eat lunch with the children). Your point is well taken. If we can replicate good and best practice from both charter schools and mainline schools at Everett, we may win all around.

I may be wrong, but the original charter school intent was to unhook the school from specific regulation to allow them to move in different directions. Those experiments worth replicating advance those schools, but should also feedback to the mainline schools. The trouble is, we don't know what is working well and what is not, do we?

I'm curious to know what you and others think to be good, cutting edge innovation at any school that might work well to turn around Everett in particular. Turning the Everett pony in the proper direction can't rest with an infusion of energized families. There has to be something specific, and I'm seriously hoping the SFUSD has a plan and that they don't wait to let us know what that plan may be.

See Part 2 for continuation.

windspike said...

This is part 2 continuation from above...

Personally, I like Everett Middle School. It's a beautiful location, and newly renovated. It's got potential. I would rather be a part of an up-and-comer effort as many of those at the top have become complacent. The bar being low (almost in the basement according to all reported assessments) make it easy to see large wins.

But, we have another hidden, less spoken about concern. Really good, high quality education is customizable - to meet the student where they are, not force them into wrote, standardized curricula. The trouble with that is that such pliable curricula are very expensive. Treating all students as if they were the same is, as we see in many school districts, harmful to students overall.

When society fiscally abandons public schools like has happened in CA over time, we see that the fortunes of schools (public and private) tend to bend with the economic wherewithal of the families involved and engaged. This sets up a situation that, pragmatically, the poor SES (socioeconomic status) schools tend to produce poorer performing schools & students. The trade off of increasing performance is a decrease in diversity as we have seen at McKinley. With the uptick in performance, we see a corresponding bumb in SES and a decrease in diversity; more homogenization or at least an isomorphic tendency toward those coming into the school from the same SES. The ambitious goal of heterogeneity may be defeated as those who tend to be actively involved and engaged tend to be those who come from more financially well off end of the spectrum. This allows wealthier families to tilt the game in their favor as there is enough slack in their budgets to allow them the luxury of time to become engaged. How does a single parent family come into a school like Everett and become engaged in the conversation when s/he has to work two or three jobs just to stay in this city?

What we end up with is a disproportionate representation of opinions from people in the upper strata. Those people are so far removed from the reality facing homeless families that they don't know what solutions can improve schools so that they area also good places for kids from such backgrounds. Hence the tag line for my blog here - there is a dramatic difference between an equal opportunity for education and an equal opportunity for an equal education.

How we integrate the opinions and ideas from our less well off families is a critical aspect of the solution to the Everett equation. Our kids’ futures depend on it, and the future of the good State of California does as well. Until we address the fundamental flaws of the fiscal model for funding public education across the board, we may not see improvement. Yet, I'm still hopeful.

windspike said...

P.S. there are a few typos in the two above comments. Apologies all around. I found them after posting - hopefully readers will forgive them and focus on the ideas not the typos.

KC said...

From my SFUSD blogging days I have a Google alert set up for the search term "SFUSD" -- which is how I came here.

You raise so many interesting, deep veins for discussion. I'd encourage you to bring this to the sfschools yahoo group. We could definitely use an infusion of new voices and energy.

For now, indulge me in more rambling...

Know that the link between money and school performance or improvement is really weak. About as weak as the link between price and quality with good wines. Its there, but it ain't the most important thing. So much money has gone towards high SES, Title I schools that has not solved anything. The schools that do serve the high-needs kids well do so because of the people on site, not because they have $$$. Money does not buy customized, individualized teaching. That comes from the teachers -- working as a team with appropriate support to meet thier students' needs. Use the transient cash windfall to make up for neglected resources, professional development, anything that will endure and help build the staff that will be there in a few years when the money runs out. Understand that in the end, in this dysfunctional state with these budgets, if it can't be sustained by the staff and the school community under lean budget conditions, the $$$ infusion will be for naught.

Middle school is a culture shock no matter what. Try and separate that shock from the policy issues specific to Everett. MS gets less $$/pupil than ES or HS by a long shot. Class sizes go way up. Curriculum is much more rigid. Testing, standard and otherwise, becomes even more dominant. All that's probably more true of the "desireable" places like Hoover or Giannini than places like Mann or MLK. Or Everett. And the disparities between kids who are thriving and those who are not grows wider and wider as time goes by. Diversity and community take on different meaninngs. Its not one big Kumbaya-we'r-all-together vibe, but its as important as ever for the kids to learn what diversity and respect and community and social justice are all about. We make a choice to raise our kids in the city, and that includes teaching them to share their lives with all their peers. Scary for parents watching their kids become more and more independent, for sure. But not as risky or fraught as you might think.

Parents pay less and less of a role in their kids daily lives and in the daily routine at the school. It is hard to accept, especialy for parents like yourself who've labored long and hard and successfully to build strong parent communities in small, nuturing schools. You're mostly right that more affluent parents are going to be more inovlved, more vocal. But they their diminished presence in the kids daily routine at school helps prevent the inequities you allude to of some kids getting more support and benefit from parental involvement than others. Justice and equity are up to the staff, regardless of the disparities among the grownups. And don't be so sure about the lack of involvement and support among low income families. My understanding is that Sanchez ES has a very involved parent community, for instance. You might want to build some bridges there to help brings some balance and diversity to the controversies and dialogs at hand.

I'll get off my soapbox for now. I wish you and your peers at McKinley all the best. I get how gut wrenching this must be. I have significant doubts about the decision to move from choice based enrollment to a more location based approach. Choice has been good for the district and good for my kids over the past 15 years. Times have changed and the viability of the choice based enrollment makes change inevitable and quite possibly a sign of even better times ahead. Know that your kids will thrive, probably no matter what or where. So try and make the most of it and keep it on a positive, constructive wavelength.

KC said...

One quick point about charters:

You're right that they were conceived as a way to foster innovation. To some extent that has happened. But the track record of charters is not, on average, significantly better or worse that regular schools. Which probably means that some innovations are really working well and others are a bad idea. So sure, lets look for charter successes and try and replicate them. But understand that they aren't the only agents of change and the only source of successful innovation.

windspike said...

KC - been busy with getting my course up and running. Last night was the first session. Should be good going forward.

Re: dollars and quality - you are right, in many respects people mistakenly fork over large sums of money so that they can escape the need to become intricately involved in the school operation and attribute that to getting more for the money. Smartly spent dollars are way better than dumping funds and hoping for a solution. This is why I'm asking for the plan (which I have yet to hear a reply from the SFUSD officials, btw, and I'm not expecting one).

Middle school is educational purgatory and the teachers who perform well at that age level are saints, should be knighted, and are worth their weight in gold - which brings us back to dollars - I've always wondered why we pay baseball players something like 10K per swing for hitting a small ball and we aren't willing to pay teachers what they are worth, or to attract really good people. The public doesn't have the stomach for higher salaries for teachers - which in the end don't necessarily get good teachers, but may attract people who otherwise wouldn't move into teaching because they can't live in this city on such small stipends.

In the process of child rearing, my father has always said and does to this day "that you don't raise your children, they raise you." I believe him. We are not in the business of raising children. We are in the process of raising fully functioning adults such that one day they are both independent and interdependent. Watching them flourish is, I think, one of the joys of parenthood, but the letting go is always challenging.

At some point, our schools fail our children as they come to hate it for the academic standardization and love it only for the social aspects. When education and learning become wrote rather than expeditionary, students fire for learning is extinguished, not ignited. Which is a flaw in all these standardized tests and teaching to them. Perhaps one day, we will revert to a system that encourages expeditionary learning and exploration rather than rigid conformity to a standardized curriculum that treats all students as if they think and learn in the same modalities.

As to contributing to the SF Schools use group, I'm a member, but I've found it to be rather inflammatory and lots of trolls commenting, plus it's a closed group - if you are not a member, you don't get the email updates, which is why I like a blog; that you found me is proof of the power of open space dialogs.

P.S. I'm not suggesting by any stretch that charter schools are a panacea, but merely say we should apply all things that are working rather than retrofit and reinvent the wheel - although, reinventing the wheel may be necessary in these dire times. One of those wheels that has come off is how we finance education in America - it's broken. Who's fixing it?