Friday, September 30, 2011

Growing Pains at New K-8 Aiming to Be One


Removing the slash was one of Maria Dehghan’s first decisions as Buena Vista Horace Mann’s new principal.
“I said, please take that slash off,” said Dehghan, referring to how the school’s sign used to read: Buena Vista/Horace Mann. “A slash means division.”

Slash or no slash, there have been some initial growing pains at the newly merged elementary and middle schools that form the Mission’s only K-8 program. The merger brought together Buena Vista, a kindergarten-through-fifth grade bilingual school with an active parent association and improving test scores that made it the second-highest-ranked Mission District elementary school, with Horace Mann, a sixth-to-eighth grade middle school that only recently began to emerge from a difficult period.

“Everybody knew going in, it’s going to be a traumatic transition in many, many ways,” said former Horace Mann principal Mark Sanchez, who has started this year at Cleveland Elementary School in the Excelsior. Sanchez was a big advocate of the K-8 switchover, because stand-alone middle schools tend to fare worse than conjoined schools, he said.

The San Francisco Unified School district announced early this year that the two schools would merge. Last year Horace Mann was designated a high-need school and qualified for a federal School Improvement Grant of $1.3 million over three years.

Even though Horace Mann received the first installment before the schools merged, the new K-8 will have access to the funds, Vice Principal Larry Alegre said.

Some of the more immediate logistical concerns: a playground not big enough for all 600 students at once, which proves tricky in scheduling recess, and different start times for the middle and elementary school students, which is logistically difficult for parents with kids in both.

Another difficult issue has been the lack of student drop-off zones. The school’s influx of young children jumped, so the line of parents’ cars at drop-off and pick-up times can get out of control.

“It seems like a nightmare on Bartlett Street,” said Megan Windeler, the mother of a fifth-grader who bikes with her son to school.

“But it seems amidst all the confusion, both schools are working together to make it one community,” Windeler said.

Like other parents, Windeler was attracted to Buena Vista Horace Mann by the social and academic perks of a K-8. She transferred her son, who was in the fourth grade at Marshall Elementary School, to begin fifth grade here this fall.

“You have the continuity, and the pairing up of the older kids and the younger kids,” she said, explaining why she likes K-8 systems.

“It keeps the older kids grounded.”

Principal Dehghan said that the school plans to take advantage of the K-8 system by implementing programs that cross grades, like mentoring clubs and reading buddies.

“A K-8 provides the opportunity for people to work more in a community school,” Dehghan said.
Speaking at the school’s PTA board meeting, a parent agreed. “If you are an eighth-grader who reads at a third-grade level, you can still read to a second-grader. It works.”

Alegre said that parents from Horace Mann could opt to keep their children in English-only classes, and that 22 incoming sixth-graders also chose the latter.

As Mission Loc@l reported earlier this year, there was concern among parents about merging two distinctly different schools. Buena Vista had an active parent coalition, while Horace Mann typically had fewer parents at meetings. The demographics were also strikingly different.

Students at both schools were largely Hispanic, according to the California Department of Education, but there were many more white students at Buena Vista than at Horace Mann — 64 compared to 4.
But the demographic differences haven’t deterred parents from both schools from returning. Ninety percent of Buena Vista’s kindergarten-through-fourth-graders returned to the merged school, according to Alegre, and 70 percent of Buena Vista’s fifth-graders opted to start their middle school careers at the merged school.
Alegre now has a waiting list for all grade levels.

The adjustments continue, but the older students are getting used to the younger ones, and teachers are getting used to being in an environment with 400 more students.

Watching it from afar, Sanchez still thinks that K-8 is the best way to go.

“[In K-8] we have that knowledge of particular students. The education becomes more personal.”

He predicted that the transitions will smooth out after a year.

“Expect it to be hard,” he remembered telling Buena Vista parents as they toured the building in the spring.

“But at the end of the day, it will be brilliant school.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Calif school districts sue state over funding cuts

A coalition of school districts and education groups sued the state of California on Wednesday, seeking the restoration of more than $2 billion in funding they say public schools are owed under state law.

The lawsuit seeks the return of $2.1 billion in education funding that was cut from the 2011-2012 state budget. The plaintiffs say districts are owed that money under Proposition 98, a 1988 voter initiative that guarantees California public schools a minimum level of funding.

The complaint was filed Wednesday in San Francisco Superior Court by the California School Boards Association, Association of California School Administrators and the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Turlock school districts.

"California's schools and students were shortchanged in the last budget cycle," said Alice Petrossian, president of the school administrators association. "These cuts violate Prop 98 and are clearly unconstitutional."
The named defendants are the state of California as well as the state controller, director of finance and superintendent of public instruction.

In response to the lawsuit, H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance spokesman, said: "We believe the courts will find that the actions the Legislature took in this matter are legal and appropriate."

Palmer said K-12 schools are receiving about the same amount of funding this fiscal year as they did in the last fiscal year, while other programs were cut significantly to close the state's $26 billion budget deficit.

Carlos Garcia, superintendent of the San Francisco school district, said his district is receiving $20 million less than it is owed under the state funding formula. That money could be used to restore four cut school days, reduce class sizes, buy new textbooks and restore staff development.

"We've gotten to the point where we've trimmed everything, and we're not going to put up with it anymore," Garcia said. "There is no easy way out of this financial crisis, but they cannot continue to put the burden of this crisis on the future of California — its children."

California was also sued Wednesday by advocates for the developmentally disabled who claim the state has underfunded services for 245,000 residents.

Nancy Lungren, spokeswoman for the California Department of Developmental Services, said "given the size of the budget shortfall, difficult decisions are needed."

SF Students Get Free Dental Care On Campus

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

S.F. schools to test new U.S. math standards

Stanford University student teacher Sabrina Silverman 
works with students in a math class at Mission High School in S.F.
Four out of every 10 or so people say they hated math in school. 
They didn't like fractions, they've told pollsters - or formulas, polynomials or even pi.

Solving for x was as bad if not worse than a pimple on prom night.

Yet with the 21st century job market increasingly requiring proficiency in math - and the critical thinking skills that come with it - the country can't afford that many math haters.

With that in mind, San Francisco has signed up to be among the first districts in the United States to put new national math standards in its classrooms. Adopted by 45 states, the standards' purpose is to make math more relevant and interesting, less about getting the right answer and more about why one might need to get that answer in the first place.

The school district has received a $3 million, three-year S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation grant to carry it out.
"We're getting killed across the world in terms of mathematics," said Terry Bergeson, executive director of the San Francisco School Alliance, a district partner in the implementation of the grant. "Around the rest of the world, the kids are ... applying mathematics to real-world problems. We teach formulas. We teach algorithms. We teach math facts."

And we bore students to tears.

Sleep inducing math


"I just think it's boring slash hard," said Jason Byers, 14, a freshman at San Francisco Mission High School. "I fell asleep last year."

The new "Common Core" math standards are sleeker and more in-depth than the old ones. They build on key mathematical concepts like measurement, size and volume. Kindergartners might be asked to identify the smallest of three apples, for example, while high school students would be required to calculate the growth of a bacterial colony.

It will be important that the students get the right answer, but the how and the why will be just as essential, said Common Core advocates.

"Kids will still have to add fractions. That's not going to change," said Phil Daro, an author of the new national math standards. But if it's successful, math "will look different."

Monday, September 26, 2011

The solutions are changing in San Francisco's math classes

By: Amy Crawford | 09/25/11 10:54 PM
Layered approach: The Common Core approach to math instruction takes into account how well students reason, not merely whether they got the correct answer. (AP file photo)
The traditional math class may soon become obsolete as San Francisco school officials roll out a curriculum based on new national standards over the next few years.
“You’ll see a lot less teacher in the front, kids in rows struggling to write down examples,” said Kristen Hernandez, math coordinator for San Francisco Unified School District campuses in the Mission district. “It’s getting away from, ‘There’s one way to do it.’”

This month, the school district announced it had received a $3 million grant from the San Francisco-based S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation to help revamp its curriculum to match the math portion of Common Core, a set of national math and English standards California adopted in 2010.

“Standards are a tool that helps organize teaching and learning,” said Associate Superintendent Dee Dee Desmond. “We’re really excited about the Common Core; it’s sort of like a new and improved set of tools.”

Under the new math standards, Desmond said, students will be more likely to work on projects and in groups. Though the skills they learn, such as arithmetic, fractions and algebra, will mostly be the same, teachers will look at how well students reason rather than simply whether or not they get the right answers.
“Is this the only way you could get this answer? Why?” said Hernandez, explaining how teachers might approach a lesson.

Hernandez and Desmond said teachers are already beginning to use the Common Core approach in both math and English. The SFUSD recently bought new math textbooks, but it is three years overdue to buy new English books because of a budget shortfall. The state requires schools to finish the transition to a new curriculum by the 2014-15 school year.

Forty-four states and Washington, D.C., have adopted Common Core, yet few school districts are using it.

According to a report published this month by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, only two-thirds of school districts nationwide have a plan to put the standards into practice. Most said a lack of funding is holding up progress.

States also have yet to come up with standardized tests consistent with Common Core. In math, Desmond said, the tests would have to let students show their work, which would be more difficult to grade than the current computerized multiple-choice tests.

A new approach

A sampling of the skills Common Core expects students to learn:

- Kindergarten: Solve addition and subtraction word problems, and add and subtract within 10, e.g., by using objects or drawings to represent the problem.

- Grade 3: Represent a fraction 1/b on a number line diagram by defining the interval from 0 to 1 as the whole and partitioning it into b equal parts.

- Grade 5: Add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to hundredths, using concrete models or drawings and strategies … relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used.

- High school: Evaluate and compare strategies on the basis of expected values. For example, compare a high-deductible versus a low-deductible automobile insurance policy using various, but reasonable, chances of having a minor or a major accident.

Source: Common Core State Standards Initiative

Friday, September 23, 2011

More San Francisco students staying in class

By: Amy Crawford | 09/23/11 4:00 AM
Big consequences: Assistant District Attorney Katy Miller talks to parents about penalties for truancy. (Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)
Big consequences: Assistant District Attorney Katy Miller
talks to parents about penalties for truancy.
(Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)
Angel Carvajal has heard all the excuses.
Some students just feel like taking a day off. They oversleep. The bus is running late.

“Muni’s a big one,” Carvajal said. “Muni makes a lot of kids late.”

The student adviser at Everett Middle School in the Mission district is in charge of making sure kids are in class every day. Carvajal tells them there are only three valid excuses for being late or missing school: illness, a death in the family or a family emergency.

But being tough on students is not always enough. Since 2007, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office has been fighting truancy by targeting parents. To date, nearly 80 families have faced fines in a special truancy court the office created in 2008.

The efforts appear to be working: Chronic and habitual truancy — defined as missing 10 or more days a year — dropped by a third between the 2007-08 and 2010-11 school years.

In 2007, then-District Attorney Kamala Harris decided to start targeting parents after city officials realized 94 percent of young homicide victims were high school dropouts.

“We like to feel that we’ve had some role in motivating people,” said Assistant District Attorney Katy Miller.
Recently, Miller and officials from Everett Middle invited parents to a truancy mediation session to learn about the consequences of missing school. A citation starts at $100. But under a new state law, parents of kindergartners through eighth-graders also can be charged with a misdemeanor, which carries a fine of up to $2,000 or a year in jail.

“In California, it’s a crime for parents to not send their kids to school,” Miller told those in attendance. Though 45 families with truant children were asked to come, only two showed up. Carvajal said he would contact the families who did not attend.

“A lot of these kids come from single-parent homes or no-parent homes,” he said. “A lot of them are grandma’s kids.”

Beleta Ely-Taylor, whose son Tony missed 30 days of seventh grade last year, said she appreciated the approach.

Tony missed many of the days because he was sick, Ely-Taylor said, but other absences were due to bullying. Now, she said, school faculty are watching out for him.

“My son loves education,” Ely-Taylor said. “I think it’s going to be a lot different. I’m going to do my part to make sure he’s here every day.”

Effective intervention

Targeting parents and prosecuting truancy have led to a marked decrease in students missing school.
Students with 10 or more unexcused absences in a year:
  • 2007-08: 5,436
  • 2008-09: 4,982
  • 2009-10: 4,291
  • 2010-11: 3,605

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

San Francisco's Cleveland Elementary School seals next time capsule

By: Amy Crawford | Examiner Staff Writer
Time capsule
Superintendent Carlos Garcia and a student volunteer place the time capsule inside the wall at Cleveland Elementary School. (Amy Crawford/The Examiner)
Cleveland Elementary School was built a century ago to serve a city still recovering from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire. When officials buried a time capsule on campus, they included a letter hoping for a brighter future.

Current students and staff opened the time capsule in January, discovering the letter along with photos and pamphlets documenting school life in 1910.

And on Monday, they replaced that time capsule with a new one, which they hope will show children of the future what life was like in 2011.

“It’s a really cool thing, to represent the time capsule from our school,” said fifth-grader Pedro Palacios, 10. “I hope the people in 100 years find it.”

John Weidinger, the Cleveland Elementary volunteer who discovered the 1910 capsule last year while researching the school’s history, surveyed students and teachers about what the box should contain.

“A lot of the stuff that was in the old box was administrative,” he said. “I wanted something for the kids.”
The new box contains a baseball signed by the Giants, a package of Silly Bandz — trendy rubber bracelets — and a “Star Wars” comic book.

Weidinger, 70, a retired California Highway Patrol officer who was a student at Cleveland from 1947 to 1953, also slipped his own letter into the copper box, with some advice for the children who will eventually see it.

“It’s important that they study hard,” he said, summarizing the letter. “Listen to your teachers, read your books.”

Weidinger said he had a wish for public schools 100 years from now.

“I would like to see the schools totally funded,” he said. “I hope they spend their money wisely.”

Pedro, whose favorite time capsule item is the signed baseball, also had a wish for the future.

“I hope there are better Giants in 100 years, to win another [World Series],” he said.

Time stamp

Some of the items in the 2011 capsule:

  • Copies of documents and pictures from the 1910 box
  • Newspapers proclaiming the Giants’ World Series win
  • A baseball signed by the Giants
  • A “Star Wars” comic book
  • A package of Silly Bandz
  • Letters from former students and school and city officials
  • A May 2011 school lunch menu
Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Program to give San Francisco students a helping hand on the way to college

Guidance counselors hope the online program ConnectEDU will help their students through the complex process of applying for college. (AP file photo)
Guidance counselor Brianna Palmer wants all her students to go to college. And once they’re there, she wants them to graduate.  

“Getting students to college is half the battle,” said Palmer, who works at San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall High School. “It’s also getting students through college.”

She would like to match each student with the perfect college — and make sure they have a plan to pay for it — but Palmer has some 200 seniors on her docket. It’s impossible for her to hold every hand through the arcane process of applying for financial aid.

“We have a lot of students who are the first people in their families to go to college,” Palmer said. “Their parents don’t know what’s required, might not even know what a transcript is. The reality is that the college application system is so complicated.”

But beginning this year, an online program called ConnectEDU could help San Francisco students navigate that system. Like an online dating service, the program matches students with colleges where they’re most likely to succeed.

“That’s certainly an important part of it — building relationships,” said Craig Powell, founder of the Boston-based company that built the system, which is now in use at 2,500 schools across the country. “We get past the test scores and give the colleges a more holistic view of the student.”

In San Francisco, students will begin using ConnectEDU in ninth grade. They will use it to learn about colleges and careers that fit their interests, and over the next three years it will help them decide which high school courses they need to qualify for their target college. In 12th grade, students will use the program to assemble college applications.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Building a Nation of Nation Builders

Chief Education Correspondent, NBC News
When the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) announced last December that, compared with the students in 63 other countries, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, there were news stories and statements from lawmakers proclaiming dismay.

But widespread focus on the report was short-lived.

As a new school year begins, I'm not hearing much -- if anything -- outside the education establishment about the report's implications. As I took my son to school on his first day, I wondered why and what could be done to ensure he'll be able to compete economically in 15 or 20 years with children in Shanghai (first in math, reading and science), Korea (second in reading), Lichtenstein (sixth in math) and Canada (eighth in science).

In the U.S. we often tend to focus on education reform as a federal matter. Certainly, Washington can effect change, but true innovations also come from individual schools.

For example, there's San Francisco's Balboa High School. In the 1990s the school shifted the way it viewed the purpose of education, instituting the concept of small learning communities where students were divided into groups that focused on the students as individuals who had a responsibility to the community. Teachers assigned to the communities stuck with students through their years so progress could be easily measured. In other words, there was -- and still is -- a sustained commitment to standards and monitoring achievement. Balboa's system concentrates on the student as a whole person who will have a life after school and must be prepared for it; not only a test-taker to be simply passed along.

As a result, Balboa went from a place where failure was the standard, where students roamed the halls causing trouble, to one where success is the standard and students take pride in choosing the right college.

The entire U.S. system could benefit from a similar change. In the U.S., there's a notion that we can get by on reputation, that we don't have to compete because we've historically had a strong education system in comparison to other countries. In an increasingly globalized society, where students in emerging economies like China and India are chasing what we so haughtily refer to as the "American" Dream, this self-centered idea isn't working. The PISA scores show that.

Like the students and teachers at Balboa, more local, state and federal lawmakers should broaden their approach to education reform. There are two examples from which they can draw.

Finland is currently number three in terms of reading, six for math and two for science. That wasn't always the case, but, as Samuel Abrams noted recently in the New Republic, it became so after a 1971 government commission said Finland must reform its school system to reform its economy. After World War II, a decimated Japan undertook education reform as part of the country's rebuilding process. Japan is now eighth in reading, ninth in math and fifth in science.

The specifics of these two countries' long-term plans differed, but it's clear in those plans they both included a change in the way the country viewed education's end goal. In South Korea, teachers are referred to a "nation builders." In the U.S. we should view our children as "nation builders," the very foundation upon which our economic success depends. This idea may seem offensive, but it's time we see our children as our number one natural resource. After all, we don't only send them to school because education is good in itself; we send them because we want them to prosper, for their own benefit and the country's.

If the U.S. is to remain a great democracy, it can't rest on reputation alone. Democracies thrive only when constituents are engaged and educated. There are plenty of domestic and international examples for policymakers to use as examples for reform.

What we need is the will to change and the patience to see through a sustained program of change.

After all, reforming one school, Balboa, took years. Reforming the Japanese and Finnish systems took much longer. Dramatic change in the U.S. may take decades. Though our attention to last year's PISA scores was short-lived, I'm still optimistic. Radical change has worked elsewhere. If we can develop and maintain focus too, it can happen in the U.S.

Rehema Ellis is NBC's chief education correspondent. She will be moderating a panel on what the U.S. can learn from other countries during the network's upcoming "Education Nation" summit. For more information on "Education Nation," visit

SF students without vaccinations barred from class

San Francisco -- Some 2,000 San Francisco students who still lacked proof of a whooping cough vaccination one month into the school year were barred from class Thursday and told not to return until they got the shot.

A new state law requires all children in grades seven through 12 to have the vaccine by the first day of school this year, but districts struggling to get families to comply asked for and received a 30-day extension.

San Francisco, which had a mid-August start to school, was among the first districts in the state to enforce the new measure.

The law applies to both public and private school students in an age group that is most likely to spread a disease that is a racking three-month illness for adults and a potentially deadly disease for infants.

Despite phone calls to homes, several written reminders in multiple languages, daily in-school announcements and free community vaccination clinics, 10 percent of the district's 24,000 middle and high school students still hadn't complied by Thursday's deadline, district officials said.

SF Elementary School Receives Honor From U.S. Secretary of Education

By: Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

 An elementary school in San Francisco's Outer Parkside neighborhood was one of only 20 public schools in California to be named a national Blue Ribbon School Thursday by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Ulloa Elementary School received the honor, which only went to 305 schools nationwide including three others in the Bay Area, according to San Francisco Unified School District officials.

The Blue Ribbon program honors schools whose students achieve at very high levels or have successfully closed achievement gaps, particularly among disadvantaged and minority students.

About two-thirds of the students at Ulloa Elementary, located at 2650 42nd Ave., are Chinese and a third of its students are eligible for the state's free lunch program, according to the school district's most recent demographic data.

"We are thrilled to receive this prestigious award," school principal Carol Fong said in a statement. "This is due to the hard work of our team of teachers, and parents and, most of all, the students of Ulloa."

The other Bay Area schools to receive the Blue Ribbon honor are Peralta Elementary School in Oakland, James Leitch Elementary School in Fremont and Ruskin Elementary School in San Jose.

All 256 public schools and 49 private schools who were named as Blue Ribbon schools today will be honored at a conference and awards ceremony in Washington on Nov. 14 and 15.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

San Francisco students living ‘a dream’ at International High

International High School
There for the kids: Angelina Romano runs the wellness center at International High School, providing students advice on everything from birth control to their schedule. (Mike Koozmin/The Examiner)
Three years ago, Manuel Sola left his family in Honduras to come to San Francisco on his own. The soft-spoken teen planned to work and send money home.

“When you come to United States, you have a dream to help your family,” he said. “America is a dream — it’s a dream that everybody has.”

Sola soon realized that learning English was the best way to get ahead, and when he learned school was free here, he signed up.

“In our country, if you don’t have money, you can’t go to school,” he explained.

Sola, 18, is now a junior at the San Francisco Unified School District’s International High School, where he learns alongside fellow immigrants from countries as far-flung as China, Kazakhstan and Morocco. For its first two years, the school was housed in a section of Mission High School, but this year it got its own building, the former Bryant Elementary School in the Mission District.

“It feels like validation,” co-Principal Sonia Geerdes said.

Unlike other schools, International High focuses on teaching English to students who arrive knowing very little. But teachers — most of whom are multilingual — encourage students to keep using their native languages as well.

“I’m always amazed by how resilient our students are, how they work for their education, what that really means,” Geerdes said.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner: