Policy Debate Highlights Undercurrent of Racist Bias
The School Board’s most recent October 13 meeting was the first one I ever attended. I was struck by the Board’s arrogant and dismissive demeanor towards parents who had come out to learn about and discuss the drastic departure from Lowell High School’s long-standing merit-based admission policies. As a parent in the SFUSD, I felt disrespected, brushed off, and not heard. I had been under the impression that we could talk constructively, and hopefully find creative and workable solutions to problems? Not so.
At one point, Commissioner Allison Collins’ had a hot mic moment inadvertently admitting that she was “listening to a bunch of racists.” That appropriately sums up the Board’s attitude. Yet there were many parents there who seriously felt the policy change is hasty and ill-conceived. We were surprised at some board members’ enthusiasm for lottery-based admissions at Lowell and that they want to continue it beyond this year — making them permanent.
I understand the pinch we’re in. COVID-19 has turned everything, including the district’s finances, upside down. We need a workable plan for managing Lowell’s admissions - that doesn’t break the bank and doesn’t require a level of manpower the district doesn’t have right now.
Applying the existing high school admission lottery system to Lowell this year only would probably be simpler and cheaper than trying to use the limited data we have for trying to maintain some form of merit-based admission at Lowell. However, the rhetoric from the Board and their supporters stirs many parents’ worst fears that this is not, as it is being presented, a sincere attempt to temporarily cope with challenging circumstances. There is an obvious power grab designed to attack Lowell’s long-term academic status, that provides a unique service to a unique student population, just as School of the Arts does. The calls for permanently dismantling any and all merit (whatever that may mean) - based admission at Lowell, both by the Board and the (rather few) parents who support the proposal, made it clear that this is about more than just the 2020/21 admission.
There is an obvious power grab designed to attack Lowell’s long-term academic status, that provides a unique service to a unique student population, just as School of the Arts does.”
Equal Opportunity Enrollment
SFUSD’s 2019 fact sheet shows a total of 7% of African American kids enrolled in SFUSD. Only 2% of Lowell’s students are African American. Even considering the same fact-sheet’s proficiency data (and, yes, I do know that those numbers are based on standardized testing and that such testing has problems with cultural bias), we find severe lack of proficiency in both literacy (80%) and basic math (88%) among our districts African American students. This doesn’t mean they are less smart than other kids in the district, but challenges may be due to income differentials — differences in opportunity and support, starting in early childhood. Still, even if Lowell would admit only the highest scoring 20% of African American 8th grade students, we would end up with roughly 6.4% African American kids in each Freshman year, far closer to the overall number in the district. We are nowhere near close to that.
However, if we confound, confuse, and entangle these two very different issues, (a) desperate attempts at a temporary, money and resource-saving COVID-19 emergency admission process and (b) greater equity for African American students at both Lowell and in San Francisco overall, we risk prettying up our statistics right now, but may in the long run, cause more harm than good. There are several issues at play: 1) common misconceptions about the nature of Lowell’s exceptional academics as supposedly teacher and policy-driven; 2) more promising, but slower and more tedious means for achieving equity, which those who are obsessed with “finally sticking it to those elitist Lowellites,” may overlook; and 3) we risk forgetting about other inequities (that overlap with, but are not identical to racial injustice) when misguided by a sense of hurry and hampered by a lack of self-awareness about racial biases.
The push for more African American students’ admission into Lowell, will also require extra academic support for them, because most of our failing elementary schools don’t have the resources to prepare even the brightest students for Lowell’s rigorous academic expectations. Current students of Lowell will be happy to tell you that many of their teachers fail to present material in an inspired, engaging manner. Lowell teachers are used to students who pay attention and work hard, regardless of how dry and lecture-based any teaching may be. The exceptional learning environment at Lowell is not due to superior teachers, superior teaching methods, or superior resources, it’s the result of a critical mass of motivated, well-prepared students. Putting students who have not previously had the support they deserve into the hands of teachers who are not accustomed to lower performing students, means throwing these students to the sharks. No one wants to see students become discouraged or overwhelmed at Lowell’s expectations.
Ethnic equity in San Francisco cannot be solved quickly and haphazardly. Truly making a difference will require…
• targeted literacy and basic math support in elementary and middle schools
• avid instruction to teach administrative functioning and work methodology
• support for under-served families’ specific needs (rather than one-size-fits all solutions)
• a special ed system that serves all kids through proactively and accurately identified behavioral issues and learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, depression, and childhood PTSD—as opposed to dismissing such issues as quirks
• solutions for current transportation issues, and
• extra counseling and intense academic support for kids who come from failing elementary and middle schools, regardless of how bright and motivated those kids may be.
Many parents have reported (both online and during the Board meeting) a toxic undercurrent of ‘Anti-Asian’ sentiment. People who accuse all Asian families in our district of being “privileged,” “entitled,” and “elitist,” forget that 36% of students at Lowell (of all ethnic backgrounds, many of them Asian) come from low-income families (identified through qualifying for reduced-cost or free lunch). Not all Asian families are middle class and thus privileged. Yes, some of them are, but many struggle with the same social and economic obstacles as other students.
When we look at recent immigrant kids whose parents barely speak English, and whose academic family support consists in their being pushed to work extremely hard, we know parents want newcomers to have better opportunities than their parents did. Asians are aware that many consider them some kind of “menace taking over high-quality schools.” Those kids have to, indeed, work extremely hard, with very little support, and they do. Blaming them for our city’s structural racism and using that blame to justify making their access to educational resources even harder than it already is, simply trades one injustice for another. Blaming these kids is blaming the victim.
I have also witnessed instances of Asian immigrant families’ parents being arrogantly excluded from public discussions about this and other issues concerning our school district. I have seen those, whose English is less than perfect, being ridiculed and quickly shut down by people who proudly think of themselves as anti-racist. Many, for whom English is their second or even third language, don’t know how to skillfully juggle the subtle, linguistic codes and politically correct terminology that our Board of Education members seem to consider the price of admission for being taken seriously and heard. Parents who fail to use these “correct” and expected verbal “secret handshakes,” in order to identify themselves as worthy of having a voice in this process, are labeled racist haters and undeserving of being listened to. These parents come to a Board meeting trusting that they can simply speak their minds. If they misunderstand the complexity of the situation, members may kindly educate them. But include their experience into Board decisions. Don’t shut them out and punish their kids.
Those Asians who attended the meeting were offended when speakers called Chinese parents “White supremacists.” Or when others merely implied that they are hostile or racist without explicitly saying so. We are humans, and nobody is perfect. We can all listen and learn from each other.
Please view this as the sincere plea of a person concerned - not just for the well-being of my own kids — but for all the kids in our district. This is not a disguised pitch for an “all lives matter” attitude. Fighting for one’s own family at the cost of other families never works in the long run and, as Dr. King wrote in 1963, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
A concerned, frustrated San Francisco parent.
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There is urgent need for planning and implementing crisis learning, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) teachers had until Monday evening, August 10 to vote on an agreement between the school district and the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) union. Their affirmative vote means school will begin on August 17th. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was agreed to by the SFUSD leadership and UESF negotiators at 1 a.m. Friday morning. The agreement will remain in effect until June 30, 2021 or until the return to normal classroom teaching, whichever comes first.
Teachers have agreed to these and additional detailed conditions — school begins August 17th”
The negotiating parties affirmed that all provisions of AB77 and SB98 and the Educational Employment Relations Act (EERA) California Government Codes 3540 et seq. apply and remain in effect. Licensed teachers will begin distance teaching using computer or communications technology. Video and audio instruction will be the primary manner of communicating.
Communication between the pupil and teachers will include online interaction, instructional television, video, telecourses, or other instruction that relies on computer or communications technology. Teachers may also use written and oral materials. Teachers are required by law, to work at least 7 hours per day, which includes lesson design and preparation, meetings with colleagues, online teaching (synchronous) and ensuring that students do classwork assignments. Teachers who themselves are parents with children at home, can develop teaching that takes into account their own students’ studies and schoolwork.
There are several ambiguous elements in the MOU, but here is the general summary:
Crisis Distance Learning
Equipment & Materials
Teachers have agreed to these and additional detailed conditions — school begins August 17th.
K. Rolph Morales, Ph.D. is a certificated bilingual teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District, specializing in indigenous languages and cultures of the Americas. Please support local newspapers and radio stations
San Francisco parents and students have been waiting for information about the coming school year. Not much has been heard from central district leaders, who coordinate their plans with the Health Department, as well as state leadership in education and public health, and the governor. On July 17, the Governor provided directives about school reopening.
Everyone wants in-person classrooms but everyone must also be aware of the data on COVID-19. Distance education remains as the plan for now, based on information we have about the virus. San Francisco County, as does each county, makes its own a decisions about local conditions using guidelines provided by the Governor. In every instance, school districts will depend on county level departments of public health and follow the facts that are provided to them. The public can track COVID-19 public health data on the state’s COVID tracking website. Statistics are tracked county-by-county.
Teachers, who are already using their own money to buy school supplies are now also purchasing masks and materials in order to be prepared for contingencies, but too much is out of our control when it comes to classroom safety and productivity”
As difficult as it is, intensive individual instruction is required when there is no in-person teaching, a task that conscientious teachers must learn through working with students online. Educators quickly attended SFUSD online training in the spring, but rapidly realized the limits to the online model. School Superintendent Vincent Matthews has indicated he is working to “ensure community safety and compliance with state guidelines.” Plans for ensuring robust participation and learning for the coming school year will be determined by infection rates. Plans for when and how schools reopen for in-person instruction are yet to be revealed. Based on current understanding of the virus, students in 3rd grade and above will be required to wear masks throughout the in-person school day.
Case numbers are used to determine whether schools open — new infections per 100,000 residents of each county. Whether test positivity rates (the percentage of positive tests per total people tested) have gone up, remain similar, or have fallen are the important criteria. Hospitalization rates also affect the opening of schools. Counties are being monitored to ensure state benchmarks are observed, and met.
Local departments of public health can grant waivers to allow elementary schools to reopen - but this is an exception to infection rates and must be in consultation with the district superintendent, educators, parents and community organizations. Families can follow the California County monitoring data as it updates daily on the State’s website. For everyone’s safety decisions must be driven by scientific evidence.
As of late June, 79 school and central district employees had died of the coronavirus in New York City, which was hard hit with the virus. Another concerning vector for the coronavirus is daycare centers, where educators and children have tested positive for the virus. The Centers for Disease Control issues guidelines on daycare centers’ health and safety. A special area of uncertainty is the risk of exposure to pregnant women and newborns. In Nature Journal French researchers just published the most up-to-date information we have on the possible effects of COVID-19 infections on the mother’s fetus.
Teachers, who are already using their own money to buy school supplies are now also purchasing masks and materials in order to be prepared for contingencies, but too much is out of our control when it comes to classroom safety and productivity. I know many educators who are currently taking online teaching training in anticipation of continued distance teaching.
The Westside Observer will continue to provide updates on local education and the SFUSD plans for the school year.
K. Rolph Morales, Ph.D. is a certificated bilingual teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District, specializing in indigenous languages and cultures of the Americas. Please support local newspapers and radio stations.
July 22, 2020
On Tuesday, July 14th, 2020, the district announced that students will begin the fall semester with distance learning.
SFUSD schools must open in the fall without restrictions for the sake of student’s mental health and sanity, and parent’s schedules and time management. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, SFUSD, as well as many other school districts transitioned to online schooling. There are issues with these new systems, including how some aspects are unjust to students. Students are expected to complete assignments and attend online classes, however all of the social aspects of attending school are stripped from them. Students do not get help from peers in class, do not get to socialize at lunch or converse with their friends, and overall do not get the social interaction they need as humans. Students have already missed out on many activities, trips, and year-end ceremonies, and they will miss out on much more unless the district opens schools without restrictions. Here are some of the notes from one of the district’s PTA meetings with superintendent Vincent Matthews: The district is considering many options for fall instruction format including:
We have been under quarantine since March of 2020, and are growing impatient with the COVID-19 restrictions. If schools do not open this fall, it is likely to induce students to interact with one another outside of school. At school, students are in a somewhat controlled environment, and it is easier to enforce facemask and social distancing restrictions and procedures”
These plans are unjust. And they can be detrimental to students. From my experience, during online classes students usually have their microphones muted, and do not speak unless they are sharing answers. We do not get a chance to speak with each other, and all classes are recorded by the district, limiting our right to privacy.
If the district continues to use the unhealthy system of distance learning — students expected to participate in online classes and complete assignments without learning any social skills will proceed. Students need to socialize and converse with friends in order to maintain good mental health and happiness. Some argue that students do get social interaction through online classes, I have not found that to be true.
Having a staggered schedule will cause major scheduling complications and cause parents a lot of trouble. Many students rely on their parents to take them to and from school, and a staggered schedule will cause a lot of conflict and force parents to adapt quickly. Many parents have to work, and do not have time to pick up/drop off their children in the middle of the day. Some parents may have multiple children in SFUSD, all attending school on different days. The staggered schedules will leave parents struggling to find childcare and manage their time in order to incorporate taking their children to and from school. Students also will not get to socialize with their friends, as they will likely have separate schedules and separate lunch times.
The concept of traveling in “bubbles” would also be unjust and ineffective. Students may not get along well with those in their group, providing a feeling of separation and isolation from others. Students have the right to choose who they socialize with. Even if this restriction is put in place, it would only be effective for those in grades 5 and under. Middle and High School students are not likely to obey these restrictions, and it would be very difficult for staff to enforce. Many students are choosing socialization over attending classes as it is, there is no way to expect that students will stick with their group every day.
It would be unreasonable to implement these new restrictions on students, especially after everything that has already been taken from them. As students we did not get a graduation, did not get year-end dances, did not get field trips, and did not get to enjoy the celebratory feeling and environment that comes with the end of the school year. We did not get a spring break, and effectively will not get a summer break. With everything that has been taken from us, it is completely unreasonable to expect us to comply with these harsh restrictions when returning to school. I believe continuing distance learning may even pose a greater public health risk than returning to classrooms. We have been under quarantine since March of 2020, and are growing impatient with the COVID-19 restrictions. If schools do not open this fall, it is likely to induce students to interact with one another outside of school. At school, students are in a somewhat controlled environment, and it is easier to enforce facemask and social distancing restrictions and procedures. Outside of school, students are to follow less likely for these restrictions, with the risk of an increase in cases. Continuing online school may do more harm than good.
Attendance is another major issue in distance learning. From my experience, attendance is around 50-60% for P.E. and Elective classes, and around 75-85% for A-G courses. These numbers are unacceptable. If it continues, student attendance will be very low, and apathy will be rampant.
Attendance disproportionately affects minority students. For example, in LA, 50,000 Black and Latinx students did not regularly attend online classes last spring. From my experience, these disparities are even more common here in San Francisco where there are huge economic inequalities There are many houses worth millions of dollars, while other neighborhoods have median rent prices below the national average ($949). These economic inequalities highly impact distance learning.
Grading systems are another major issue when it comes to online school. Pass/fail seems to be the fairest grading method, as a letter grade system would not accurately measure a student's effort and improvement. Pass/Fail may also cause apathy and reduce student attendance, which is already low. Additionally, it will be very difficult for high schools and colleges to decide who they accept. It is uncertain what the district will do about grading, however it is clear that returning to classroom learning will make things easier for everybody.
SFUSD needs to return to classroom learning this fall for the sake of students, their families, and the public. Prolonging these restrictions on students will cause mental health issues, frustration, public health issues, and other complications. These restrictions further prolong the isolation that comes from not having proper social interactions. Parents will have to deal with scheduling conflicts and extra driving. They are harmful to students and parents alike.
Charles C is an 8th grade student at SFUSD. You may sign his petition to SFUSD here
July 22, 2020
I am an 8th grade student in SFUSD and I attend a public middle school. At my school, we have online meetings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, plus additional meetings if teachers organize them. We have many assignments every week (I have experienced 43 google classroom notifications within 48 hours). I have to get up early to attend online classes just as if it’s actually school. School has become more demanding due to the pressure of hands-on learning. We do not truly have a place where we can check what we need to do, therefore it’s very hard to keep track of the work. I spend an average of 2 hours per day on schoolwork.
Some parents lost employment due to the coronavirus and simply don't have the money to pay bills and pay for necessities. It is no wonder some are falling behind due to stressful factors and distractions in their home life.”
Mental health hotlines have seen up to 897% increases in calls, and I can only assume many are from students feeling isolated. I worry about my friends who, due to severe economic inequality, are unable to keep up with the pace of online classes. This inequality is amplified by distance learning. Some do not have easy access to electronic devices, some are not familiar with computers, or have no wi-fi access. A lot of the students at my school are not privileged to have a two-parent household, or a consistent schedule with their parents. Some parents lost employment due to the coronavirus and simply don't have the money to pay bills and pay for necessities. It is no wonder some are falling behind due to stressful factors and distractions in their home life.
How can SFUSD expect everyone to focus on schoolwork? This is not a few students — 55% of SFUSD students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. While I am not subject to child abuse myself, it is happening and it shouldn’t be swept under the rug. While long-term social distancing is enforced, the school district should not be causing additional stress to students. I do not think it is reasonable to expect students to continue completing work and attending all online classes.
At home, the quarantine makes me feel that I’m always getting in the way, and that I don’t have my own space. I have been taking walks and learning how to cook (a life skill that isn’t taught in schools, even online) to deal with it.
With study-at-home, SFUSD students lack social interaction with peers, do not get free time with friends, miss out on the entire social aspect of school, and most likely will not be able to participate in school dances and after-class activities or year-end activities such as graduation. While students have been stripped of many of their rights and privileges, yet the school district expects them to maintain all their responsibilities.
These are some of the reasons I have started a petition to allow for exemption from online classes and schoolwork, and I ask that the district stop mandatory online classes and assignments and make them optional.
The school district needs to take student's mental health seriously. It should discourage teachers from assigning excessive work and scheduling extra meetings.
For additional information about my petition, please visit its website. change.org/sfusdonlineCharles' Petition
Whether for better or worse, teachers are often on the front line. Now, teachers are — again — called upon to rise to the calling and ensure that San Francisco’s students are receiving the best possible education as Covid-19 leads us to implement distance learning at SFUSD.
I teach at a struggling Title 1 school in San Francisco. (Title 1 is a federally funded program that assists schools with the highest concentrations of poverty). At the elementary school where I teach, connecting with parents is a challenge because parents are struggling to make ends meet and provide for their children.
When a student’s parents are English speakers, it is somewhat easier ... But often our parents speak a heritage language with no standardized spelling. Dialects are common ... when parents speak Tzeltal (Mexico) or Mam (Guatamala) ... teachers must innovate ...”
District and school administrators in the SFUSD have done extraordinarily well at working to roll out teacher training and information sessions to provide continuous learning, so students don’t fall behind.
Most educators are adept in online navigating and using mobile apps for education purposes. As teachers, we report attendance and other issues through online data entry. But reaching parents is a challenge. Teachers must now teach parents how to access the internet from home, how to open email accounts, how to navigate browsers and search engines from a computer or borrowed Chromebook. We must also teach them what it will mean for students to work from home. It is fortunate that many teachers are certificated to teach Adult Education by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, because this, in fact, is what we’ve been doing since schools closed and we attempt to bring continuity to our students’ daily lives and routines.
When a student’s parents are English speakers, it is somewhat easier; general education and special education or dayschool educators can reach out and speak directly with families and guardians. But often our parents speak a heritage language with no standardized spelling. Dialects are common. When parents speak, read, and write languages such as Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, or Vietnamese, teachers work with translators to ensure we communicate. But when parents speak Tzeltal (Mexico) or Mam (Northern and Southern Mam of Guatemala are as different as Spanish and Portuguese), teachers must innovate and independently find ways to reach out and establish a sense of connection with families who may lack resources.
For better or worse, teachers are often the topic of support or derision. Attitudes towards teachers are often based on personal experience, anecdotal observations, and involvement with teachers, as parents.
Cultural responses to the pandemic and socializing vary
Educators may not recognize the hidden suffering of stigmatized ethnic and language communities. Challenges emerge, as teachers reach out by phone, to develop rapport and a sense of familiarity with families and their needs, often finding disconnected phones or family members reticent to discuss their problems. During the pandemic, community members think and act in ways that are consistent with their cultural customs.
In spite of challenges to educators in the SFSUD, based on language, and cultural customs and beliefs, there are many hopeful signs. Some parents now see this as an exciting opportunity to learn how to keyboard and use the Internet. Others are putting their trust and confidence in the teacher’s mission. Parents are often creative, seeking work-arounds to bridge language and cultural gaps with their children’s teachers. This confidence families give us, gifted to us from stressed, yet pragmatic parents, helps inspire our sense of dedication to society.
As we navigate the variables in our student populations, I am proud of the way our teachers are adapting to the technical demands, straddling the myriad cultural pitfalls and bringing their best to the worst possible circumstances our classrooms face.
K. Rolph Morales, Ph.D.
Ms. Morales is a certificated bilingual teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District, specializing in indigenous languages and cultures of the Americas. Please support local newspapers and radio stations.
Program Facilitates Large-scale Restoration Project and a Series of Public Events
The intersection of West Portal and Sloat Avenues is the site of a unique environmental educational program called The Outdoor Classroom Initiative, organized by faculty, staff, and parent leaders from the Waldorf School, brings students into the community to learn about natural history, ecology, and sustainability.
Once the home of the AT&T call center, Waldorf High School is a notable local example of sustainability in action. The school transformed the idle building in 2008 … visually integrated the surrounding eucalyptus grove, used recycled and repurposed building materials, replaced windows to provide for air flow and sunlight, and installed water saving features …”
One of the key projects is student restoration and beautification of an open space adjacent to our campus at Arden Wood. Students cleared approximately 200 yards of overgrown trails, removed invasive ivy and old pipes, hauled sand and silt from a spring-fed pond, and uncovered long-lost stonework — learning about natural history and ecology along the way.
The Outdoor Classroom Initiative also sponsored a series of outings last week for students in the school’s architecture class. Seniors set out by bus, bike, and foot to explore the City’s rooftop gardens, living alleys, and sustainable buildings, hearing from architects, city planners, and environmental experts along the way. The class is one of several required courses designed to help students understand their emerging place in the world.
In addition to bringing students into the community, The Outdoor Classroom Initiative welcomes the community to the school for a series of public events focused on sustainability issues. The events included a public lecture by David Sobel, renowned author of Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities, and a San Francisco screening of Symphony of the Soil, a documentary that explores soil as the foundation of life on earth. Upcoming events will be announced over the summer as The Outdoor Classroom Initiative launches its second year.
Once the home of the AT&T call center, Waldorf High School is a notable local example of sustainability in action. The school transformed the idle building in 2008 under the direction of David Bushnell, a Waldorf School parent and principal at 450 Architects, and became the first school in San Francisco to be awarded the coveted LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The school visually integrated the surrounding eucalyptus grove, used recycled and repurposed building materials, replaced windows to provide for air flow and sunlight, and installed water saving features such as low-flow toilets. The design of the school building itself is used in architecture, green building, and environmental studies classes.
The Outdoor Classroom Initiative is also active at Waldorf Grade School, located at Washington and Divisadero Streets. It facilitates outdoor education in such places as the Presidio and Point Reyes National Seashore. Info