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Hard Lessons 

Students without textbooks. Crumbling facilities. Rats. Spending time at Balboa High School can be a real education.

Wednesday, Oct 11 2000
At Balboa High School, Alondra Sharae Jones is known for making herself known. In the five minutes between classes, the 17-year-old senior, clad in bright orange pants, moves through the hallways like a party hostess, bellowing a greeting to a friend a few yards away, then running to embrace another with a shriek. Weaving her way to the stairwell, she bounces up, two steps at a time. On the third floor, Alondra's social cycle begins anew, as she calls to friends she sees in the distance.

"I am not a shy person," she declares. "I like all eyes on me."

Alondra is no less outgoing in class. She is quick to raise her hand for class discussions or offer under-the-breath commentary on the proceedings, making her presence felt.

Teachers at Balboa High consider Alondra one of the brightest and most inspiring students in a school long known as one of the worst in San Francisco. Alondra's English teacher says she is a "teacher's dream" because she is "like a plant that just grows and grows." Indeed, the honor roll student has her aims set high. She hopes to attend Howard University and plans to become an actress.

Even so, Alondra is struggling to graduate this spring. She has had to take summer school and night classes to meet the basic requirements for graduation because the public school system has played hooky with her education.

The conditions at her school are so unpleasant, she says, that it has hindered her ability to learn. In some of her classes, she is not even allowed to take textbooks home to study because there aren't enough for all the students. Other classes lack basic supplies. Rooms are missing ceiling tiles, wallpaper is peeling, window shades are unusable. The gym has rats, and the bathrooms are so vandalized and disgusting that students must be escorted to them by security guards.

But Alondra's biggest complaint is that in her four years at Balboa she has taken multiple classes with long-term substitutes. In Spanish class last year, for example, her regular teacher fled to Mexico in the middle of the school year to evade an arrest warrant, forcing Alondra and her classmates to spend the rest of the year with a rotating cast of substitutes. Though the school searched tirelessly for a replacement teacher, qualified Spanish instructors were hard to come by so late in the year. But the subs could not control the classroom and disregarded lesson plans provided by the administration. Instead, they played popular movies like Rush Hour and Entrapment during class.

At the end of the year, the class was given a final exam, which Alondra failed.

"The only people that passed were native Spanish speakers," Alondra says indignantly. "That's cool, but it's not my fault. I told them that if they wanted to test me on the movies I had watched, that would be fine. But I had to drop that class because I couldn't take a bad grade for something that was not my fault."

To meet the language requirements for graduation, Alondra now takes night classes in Japanese at San Francisco City College.

Alondra, however, has done much more than complain about conditions at Balboa High. Last August she became a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against California's Board of Education, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 100 schoolchildren in 46 public schools.

The suit, Williams vs. California, alleges that "too many California schoolchildren go to schools that shock the conscience. ... Schools lack the bare essentials required of a free and common education."

The ACLU contends that California has allowed a dramatic inequality to develop among schools in the state. The "substandard" conditions at many schools affect primarily poor and minority children, the ACLU says, which violates several clauses of the California Constitution, including the Civil Rights Act and the equal protection clause.

Balboa is one of three San Francisco schools cited as examples in the suit, along with schools from most other Bay Area counties and throughout California.

The state, in its written response to the court, calls the ACLU's suit vague and incomprehensible. It sees no discrimination in the way it runs schools and says it already has strict regulations for public schools. The state also says that local districts are responsible for problems at individual schools.

But the ACLU believes California is shirking its responsibilities. "If we have schools, we need to stock the schools," says ACLU attorney Katherine Lhamon. "And I'm not talking about an iMac in every classroom. But how can you call these things schools? You can't call a classroom that has no books a learning place. There has been unbelievable underfunding by the state. This suit is about ensuring that everyone has a minimum opportunity and every essential tool for an education."

For Alondra, the decision to join the lawsuit was more personal. "I'm mad [about the conditions]," she says, "but why pout? The only thing I can do is fight for the kids who are in ninth grade now, so they won't have to go through what I went through."

What Alondra and her classmates go through becomes apparent in following Alondra through her daily classes. It is an education in the realities of life at one of San Francisco's lowest-performing schools.

Alondra strolls into her first-period class at 8:13 a.m. -- two minutes before the bell rings -- and slides into her desk in the second row. Tim Gabutero, her health education teacher, looks at her with surprise.

"I'm on time, Mr. Gabutero!" Alondra boasts.

"I know, I can't believe it," Gabutero says, laughing.

Alondra has been tardy twice already this week because she was late catching the bus to school. Alondra lives with three other people, including a cousin who acts as her legal guardian, and "it's a struggle for the bathroom and the iron," Alondra says. Because of stricter tardy policies this year, her guardian was supposed to come with her to school to sign off on her tardies before she would be allowed back on campus. But her guardian couldn't take time off from work, so Alondra, determined not to miss a full day of school, sneaked through the school gate with her face hidden behind a binder.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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