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Friday, August 10, 2007

SF Schools: High-level talks result in ... progress!

Posted By on Fri, Aug 10, 2007 at 11:22 AM


Snitch Benjamin Wachs cares about kids, maybe a bit too much. (Little bastards.) Anyway, he's trying to figure out what's up with SF schools, and part of it evidently includes city government Big Kahunas not meeting with the schools' Big Kahunas. Elaborate, Benjamin. -d2

You live in San Francisco too, Gavin?

After all these years, the City and its School District are finally getting to know each other


This Saturday, in a historic Bay Area summit, the Mayor of San Francisco, the Superintendent of the San Francisco School District, and the chairman of the Board of Supervisor’s committee on education, will sit down at the same table for over 2 hours to talk shop.

In most cities in America, this would be a scheduling issue. In San Francisco, it’s a small miracle, tantamount to the Berlin Wall falling.

“This is really exciting,” said Hydra Mendoza, the Mayor’s senior advisor on education and a school board member. “This will be the first time we’ll ever have had the top representatives of the three organizations come together to talk about policy.”

Seriously … it’s never happened before.

The district offices are so close to city hall that the mayor could bring the superintendent a cup of hot coffee, but the obstacles to city-school district communications have never been practical. They’ve been about identity, they’ve been about turf … this is San Francisco after all, where throwing up roadblocks means showing you care.

But right now high level talks are taking off. The city’s select education committee – a joint committee sat on by three Supervisors and three Board of Education members – had barely met since its founding about three years ago. “It was supposed to meet once every two months, and it couldn’t even meet that often,” said school board President Mark Sanchez.

But this year, they changed its schedule to meet twice a month.

Not that they’ve done that – it’s only met five times this year, so far. But city and school district alike are still thrilled with the progress.

“The fact that they met 5 times this year is a drastic improvement over previous years,” said district Director of Communication Gentle Blythe.

Similarly, in April, the school board and the mayor’s office formally signed an agreement, “The Partnership for Achievement,” which specifically outlines what the city and schools plan to partner on. Granted, the Partnership for Achievement leadership committee hasn’t actually met yet … four months later … but it’s at least considered a green light to district and mayoral staff that making connections is now official policy.

“We’re moving in the right direction is the feeling from all sides,” Blythe said.

What changed?

District and city officials emphasize that there was never radio silence between the two entities (three entities, when you take into account that the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors barely talk, either), but that communication only happened at the staff … and often lower staff … level. In fact, Blythe said, the district has long had several full time staff positions whose principle job is to keep track of what the city’s doing with programs for kids. But leadership at the top simply never met, never coordinated, and progress was stymied as a result.

School Board President Sanchez said a change in personnel at the school district – including school board members and a new Superintendent – made a huge difference on their side.

“With the former superintendent there was just more kind of a bunker mentality in the district, offices where people felt for good and for bad reasons that the city shouldn’t have a lot of ‘say’ in district operations, and so looking myopically … I think … at the district and the city’s relationship,” he said. “It had always been a priority of some school board members to reach out, and recently that became the majority. When I became president I was able to push it more.”

Mendoza said the city realized it needed to initiate high level contact with the school district after the round of school closings about two years ago.

“The district didn’t talk to us about gang turfs, and if they merge two schools what that means, or what the impact would be on a local economy or the housing market,” Mendoza said. “Those are all important factors that should be taken into account when a school closes. It impacts the larger community, and so the mayor decided we needed to open our doors to the school district.”

Has all this new top level talking actually accomplished anything?

Wellllllllllllll … not so much. But there are a few success stories. At last month’s meeting of the joint city/school district committee, DCYF Director Margaret Brodkin pointed out that, for the first time ever, not a single student was arrested during summer school this year. There weren’t even shots fired.

Last year in summer school, by way of comparison, five students were arrested on the first day.

“This is one of the safest summer schools we ever had, and it came because everybody came together and said we wanted a safe summer school,” Brodkin said.

Yet the committee meeting also showed just how far there is to go. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, a member of the committee, wanted to know why the district’s truancy program is stalling. Brodkin outlined a long list of progressive things they’ve accomplished, but Mirkarimi pointed out that they couldn’t answer basic questions.

“When a police officer gets a report of a truant child, and picks them up, where are they supposed to take them?” he asked. “The police are telling us they won’t pick up kids during the day because there’s no place to take ‘em! Where should they take them?”

That’s being studied, Brodkin said; it’s being looked at; possible sites are being examined. “I can come back to you in a month and tell you what kind of plan the district and DCYF is putting together,” she said.

“That’s such a cop out,” Mirkarimi responded.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty, the committee chair, agreed. “This seems too loosy-goosy,” he told Brodkin. “It’s hard to figure out: what’s the complexity here? We’re not talking about a $5 million complex, we’re talking about using an existing facility. We have a school year that’s starting in a month, what is it that prevents us from starting this?”

They went back and forth … with increasing defensiveness … until something remarkable happened. District Superintendent Carlos Garcia… who was attending the meeting even though he’s not required to … got up, took the microphone from Brodkin, and made a promise:

“There will be at least two pilot programs set up and running by the time school starts, in two places,” he said. “I don’t have all the details, but we will figure it out, and it will be in place when school begins.”

Suddenly the air cleared. The supervisors were satisfied, and a definite benchmark for progress had been set. It was the kind of progress that can only come from having the people at the top talk directly, instead of through intermediaries.

After the meeting Mirkarimi said that, for the first time, he’d been satisfied with some of the answers. “We got down to brass tack,” he said. “I’m glad that we have a forum or a process to drive those requests and needs home, or else we’re going to continue to go our own merry way with the feeling that we’re accomplishing something but not getting anywhere.”

Right now, however, all the conversations are triangular: the Mayor talks to the Superintendent, the Superintendent talks to the Supervisors, the Supervisors talk to the Mayor (sort of).

This Saturday may change all that, putting the three men (Newsom, Garcia, and Dufty) together in a room. Will they actually talk?

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David Downs


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