“It’s the first productive thing I’ve ever done,” says one graduate
By: Trey Bundy
“I know I’m not perfect yet, but I’m trying,” he said.
Grandvoinet, who said he used to be on probation for fighting to protect a girl he knew, is one of more than 50 students graduating from San Francisco court and continuation schools this year. The programs cater to youth who have failed out of traditional schools or been ordered by a court to attend classes in non-mainstream settings.
“It’s one of those quiet successes, but clearly it’s indicative of the success of kids who have struggled in a traditional school environment prior to their involvement with the system,” said Allen Nance, assistant chief of juvenile probation in San Francisco.
For the students, the road to graduation has been tough, and success was anything but certain. Some got in trouble because they were bored in their classes. Others got involved with drugs or gangs, and many completed their high school degrees while they were incarcerated.
Rodolfo, an 18-year-old from the Mission District, has spent nearly two years in the juvenile justice system: 15 months at juvenile hall and seven at Log Cabin Ranch, San Francisco’s South Bay youth camp for young people who have committed serious offenses. Nance requested that only Rodolfo’s first name be used. As Rodolfo lined up Monday to walk onto the stage, he said he would rather talk about his future than his past.
“I got caught up just doing bad things,” he said, adding that he plans to join the San Francisco Conservation Corps when he leaves the ranch in five months. “This is the first thing I’ve ever been proud of in my life. It’s the first productive thing I’ve ever done.”
Nance, who spends much of his time overseeing Log Cabin Ranch, said his team has been partnering with the San Francisco Conservation Corps and other groups that teach teenagers life skills through experiential learning. The ranch program includes academics, computer training and sports, as well as vocational skills like horticulture, carpentry and, soon, forklift driving.
“These kids have built a fence around the orchard, complete with a gate,” he said. “They’re now working on the landscape design project and redesigning the picnic area.”
Jim Fithian — the principal of the Principals’ Center Collaborative, a school whose 40 students attend classes there by court order — turned away from the audience during Monday’s ceremony and addressed the students directly.
“You may have saved a life today,” he told the students. “You’ve certainly changed your communities.”
Half an hour before Monday’s ceremony, on a balcony overlooking the City Hall rotunda, Mayor Ed Lee honored Fithian with the Principal of the Year Award. In his remarks, Fithian recalled how he started teaching kids in the juvenile justice system by accident almost 20 years ago. He thought he was just signing up for a special education position.
“It turned out to be juvenile hall,” he said. “I didn’t know that until I got there.”
Fithian recently announced that he is leaving his post as principal of PCC to become a teacher at Log Cabin Ranch. The move comes with a 30-percent pay cut.
“I told the staff, ‘That’s how much I want to go down there,’” he said.
Grandvoinet, the student who spoke at Monday’s graduation ceremony, wants to be a teacher, too. He just completed his first semester at City College of San Francisco, where he is studying child development.
“I want to teach eighth-grade English,” he said. “In ninth grade, they start thinking they’re cooler than the teacher. That’s what happened to me.”
In an age when taxpayers are increasingly asking for schoolteachers to be held accountable for a child’s success, the San Francisco Unified School District offers struggling teachers a chance to improve.
The program, known as peer review and assistance, began more than a decade ago. It was expanded in 2006 to include additional teacher mentors and a voluntary program for those who thought they needed it even if they received satisfactory remarks on reviews.
If a teacher is put into peer review and assistance by receiving a poor performance review, the troubled teacher is assigned a coach — who is also a classroom teacher — and given one year to show improvements or face dismissal.
Union contracts make it hard for districts to fire the teachers. However, many teachers who are offered assistance and a plan for improvement instead choose to leave on their own if they don’t show progress.
Superintendent Carlos Garcia said at least 12 teachers have left the district of their own accord since the program was beefed up.
In addition to work on lesson planning, coaches help struggling teachers improve their ability to engage students and help them reflect on their own practices. Much of the coaching is focused on the teaching standards set by the state.
Debra Eslava-Burton, the district’s supervisor for teacher support and development, said as many as 40 teachers can be in the peer review program at a time. All teachers qualifying for peer review and assistance are veterans.
“It’s a changing practice,” Eslava-Burton said of the profession. “If you’re used to being autonomous with 30 students in and a closed door, it’s not that anymore.”
Eslava-Burton said teachers in the program are still in the classroom receiving periodic reviews and up to 150 minutes of one-on-one time with their coaches each week. They’re not given administrative duties.