Monday, March 26, 2012

SF schools try to mend problems without suspension

By Jill Tucker

Rosa Parks Elementary school Principal Paul Jacobson, stops 
to talk with students during lunch, Akese King at his side, in 
San Francisco, Ca. on Thursday March 8, 2012. Jacobson is 
using restorative justice practices to reduce suspensions and 
behavioral problems with his students. He walks around the 
school with restorative justice questions on a lanyard he 
wears around his neck, at the ready when a conflict arises.
For two decades, Principal Paul Jacobsen was known as a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase, hard-nosed school administrator who didn't hesitate to dole out strict punishment when students broke the rules.

Then the San Francisco principal learned about something called the restorative justice approach.

The restorative model, which the school board has encouraged schools to adopt, focuses on getting offenders and victims to talk about their feelings, to address what they were thinking when the incident occurred, and to work together on what could make things "as right as possible."

The first time Jacobsen tried it he saw an immediate positive response. He was also able to identify the causes of the bad behavior, something that wasn't evident when he simply doled out punishment without asking questions.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "The process of taking the time to give students a full opportunity to speak their minds ... was eye-opening."

Not a far-out idea

Jacobsen knows how all that might sound to outsiders.
"I'm not hippie-dippie," the Rosa Parks Elementary School principal said.

It was just that after 20 years in the business, he had learned this: Suspensions and expulsions don't stop rule-breaking students from breaking rules again and again.

"It's not that we've suddenly become lenient," Jacobsen said of the new approach. "We just recognize we aren't going to be able to punish away the problems."

State and federal education officials agreed last week after a national study addressed high rates of suspension and expulsion, especially among African American students.

In response to the report by the federal Department of Education, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson urged districts to find ways to address student behavior that don't require keeping children away from school.
In addition, two state legislators have proposed measures requiring schools to limit suspensions and expulsions. Assembly Bill 2242 would eliminate "willful defiance" as a reason for suspending or expelling a student. Senate Bill 1235 would require alternative behavioral and intervention programs in schools with high rates of suspension or expulsion.

State law would still require suspension and recommended expulsion for students who bring a gun or explosive to school, brandish a knife, sell drugs or commit a sexual assault.

San Francisco is a few years ahead of those state efforts to rein in suspensions and expulsions while addressing behavior problems.

In 2009, the school board adopted a policy to promote restorative practices, "an emerging field of study that enables people to restore and build community in an increasingly disconnected world," according to the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Pennsylvania.

SF Chronicle: Letters to the Editor, March 23, 2012

SF Chronicle: Letters to the Editor, March 23, 2012

As my daughter, a senior at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, decides which top college to attend, I'd like to publicly thank all of her teachers and principals in San Francisco's public schools and to encourage families who may be on the fence about their school assignment to "go public."

Alvarado was a fantastic school when we enrolled, but not well known in the community. James Lick was transformed by strong leadership and an infusion of arts (thanks to the Public Education Enrichment Fund) and is now a school of choice.

There are challenges with public education, but there is so much that is working. Public education is worth investing in - with your time and with your money - and I still believe that public school reform begins with enrollment.

Get a great education for your child - but have an impact on many other children, too. If you want to help but don't have kids, vote for a tax measure that would support public education, contact the San Francisco Education Fund to volunteer, make a huge donation, or just go to a school play.
Thank you to the San Francisco school district, to the PTA and to Parents for Public Schools.

Sandra Halladey, San Francisco

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lowell High School wins spot in national robotics competition

Lowell High School’s robotics team won a slot in a national competition, after scoring the “Rookie All Star” award in a regional round Saturday with its robot that could play basketball via a remote control.
Lowell High School's robotics team won a slot in a
national competition, after scoring the "Rookie All Star"
Award in a regional round Saturday with its robot that could
play basketball via remote control.

Lowell High School’s robotics team won a slot in a national competition, after scoring the “Rookie All Star” award in a regional round Saturday with its robot that could play basketball via a remote control.
Lowell High School’s robotics team won a slot in a national competition, after scoring the “Rookie All Star” award in a regional round Saturday.

The team, which entered the national FIRST Robotics competition for the first time this year, built and programmed a remote-controlled robot that plays basketball. Lowell recorded seven wins and three losses at the regional competition in Davis, the seventh best record among the 50 Northern California teams. Lowell’s was the only San Francisco team this year.

“No one expected our team to do so great,” said Lowell senior Walter Pan. “I was really impressed by what our team was able to achieve.”

Pan said that the team would spend the next month fundraising and preparing for the national championship in St. Louis, which runs from April 25 to 28.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Straight students at San Francisco middle school combat homophobia

SAN FRANCISCO — Several straight students at Francisco Middle School in San Francisco’s Marina district have created a program to address homophobia in their school.

Jessica Pullano, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Education Fund, which is involved with the project, said that since none of the students are openly LGBT, they’re not calling it a gay-straight alliance.

The eighth grade Peer Resources class has created Allied Allegiance, a weekly lunchtime club where students can work on projects designed to encourage acceptance. Activities include guest LGBT speakers. So far, there are 12 club members.

According to Pullano, students’ reasons for starting the club included: “I want to stop homophobia because my friend is gay and his dad beat him and I know that he probably faces that same problem at school” and “My LGBT friends have been bullied and some considered suicide. My family doesn’t approve but I don’t care what they think. Some people even assume I’m Bi because my friends are.”

In forming the group, the youths also got some experience in grant writing. They submitted a funding application to a panel of other students and were granted $700.

The money will be used to provide lunches, produce flyers in English and Cantonese (many of the school’s students only speak the latter language), and cover other expenses.

Peer Resources is a joint effort between the San Francisco Unified School District and the education fund. The program’s classes are meant to help middle and high school students take an active role in creating safe, engaging, and supportive learning environments.

The club’s organizing a Day of Silence event in support of LGBT youth on April 5.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Chronicle Editorials: Cal chancellor, S.F superintendent will be missed

Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of UC Berkeley, and Carlos Garcia, San Francisco schools superintendent, assumed their roles pledging to be agents of change, knowing they would encounter skepticism and resistance.

Neither could imagine the extent to which budget cuts and a hostile political climate would complicate his ambitions. Yet these two leaders, each of whom announced his retirement this week, proved up to the challenge.

In fact, Birgeneau faced a call for his resignation or firing - from former UC Regent Ward Connerly - even before he was officially inaugurated as chancellor in 2005. Connerly, author of the Prop. 209 ban on affirmative action, was angered by the new chancellor's expressed determination to do something about the underrepresentation of African Americans and Latinos at the flagship university.

Birgeneau created outreach programs to promote a more diverse student body within the constraints of Prop. 209. An emphasis on financial aid helped attract highly qualified students from lower-income families: About 40 percent of Berkeley undergraduates now pay no tuition. Perhaps his most revolutionary move was the establishment of the Middle Class Access Plan that will limit parental contribution to 15 percent of family incomes between $80,000 and $140,000.

Birgeneau decried what he saw as the state's unwise disinvestment in higher education, but it did not dampen his resolve to maintain Berkeley's status as a world-class research and teaching university. His aggressive fundraising efforts, fiscal management and strategic vision helped maintain UC Berkeley's status as a destination for top students and faculty.

Carlos Garcia had a much different, but no less daunting, challenge in the San Francisco schools when he took command of the troubled district in 2007. He arrived with energy and charisma, and a call for everyone - teachers, parents, administrators, school board members - to rally behind a few distinct goals. One of those priorities was closing a seemingly intractable achievement gap that was leaving behind black and Latino students.

Test scores rose, the achievement gap narrowed, the school board drama dissipated and the district's image improved markedly.

These two men showed how assertive, attentive leadership can make a difference in education at any level, and even in the most treacherous of times.

Carlos Garcia, SF schools chief, plans to retire

By: Jill Tucker

SFUSD Superintendent Carlos Garcia talked with seven
year old Jackson Moran before the event.Educational
leaders gathered at Leonard R. Flynn elementary school 
in San Francisco, Calif. Thursday August 11, 2011 to 
announce that for the fourth year in a row, San Francisco 
has reduced the number of habitually and chronically 
absent children enrolled in public schools.
San Francisco schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia said Wednesday he will retire at the end of the academic year after 37 years in public education.

Garcia, 60, has led the district for five years during which test scores steadily improved despite several years of staffing and program cuts throughout the city's 140 k-12 schools.

"Ending my career here at San Francisco Unified School District for me is a dream come true," he said. "It's been the best job I've ever had in my life."

When he was hired, the superintendent promised to stay five years and will have kept that promise when he leaves the $293,000-a-year post in early July. School board members, attempting to avoid a costly search for a new superintendent, have offered the job to Deputy Superintendent Richard Carranza. They are hoping to agree on a contract within the next couple of weeks.

"Doing a search would be saying we want to go in a different direction," said board member Rachel Norton. "We are on a good path."

A peacemaker

Garcia was hired in 2007 by a frequently squabbling school board and he has been credited with establishing cohesion among the seven members, who now rarely bicker at public meetings and frequently vote unanimously.

He has had few vocal critics, something almost unheard of in San Francisco's public arena.
Jim Dierke, principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School and a 40-year veteran of the district, ranked him as one of the best superintendents of the last 10.

"He was respected for being honest," said Dierke, who is also the president of United Administrators of San Francisco. "If he couldn't do something, he'd tell you."

An economic recession during most of Garcia's tenure required him to issue hundreds of layoff notices to teachers and other school workers, reduce school busing, increase class sizes and cut programs.

But Garcia focused much of his time and resources on boosting student achievement in the city's lowest-performing schools, at times delivering fiery sermons on the unacceptable test scores and graduation rates of African American and Hispanic students.

He frequently called that achievement gap the biggest civil rights issue of our time - a "modern-day apartheid."
"If we allow that to happen in a place like San Francisco, then shame on us," he said.

He called his five-year plan to address the problem "Beyond the Talk," a slogan that was featured on posters carrying an image of Jimi Hendrix. Garcia said the iconic rock star reflected his answer to what he anticipated would be the community reaction to his plan: "You may not be sure of what you think about it, but it starts to grow on you; eventually, it's acknowledged as revolutionary."

S.F. schools superintendent Carlos Garcia to retire

Reporter - San Francisco Business Times
San Francisco Unified School District
Superintendent Carlos Garcia will
retire at the end of the school year.
San Francisco schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia will retire at the end of the academic year, the district announced Wednesday.

As recently as earlier this month, the 60-year-old Garcia sounded defiant against the teachers union leadership as the school board backed his “Superintendent’s Zone” initiative to protect teachers with less seniority at 14 San Francisco Unified School District schools. Most of those schools are in the Mission and Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhoods.

SFUSD Board President Norman Yee said the district will enter into negotiations with Richard Carranza, who since 2009 has served as deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation and social justice, to become superintendent.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve this great community and work with the great educators and elected officials on our school board and in our city to make sure children come first,” Garcia said in a press release. “Our work at SFUSD has restored my faith in the excellent opportunities that do exist in public education.”

Garcia has led SFUSD for five years, battling through an economic downturn that has forced the district to cut millions of dollars, reduce school busing, pink-slip teachers, increase class sizes and cut the number of school days.

High schools in San Francisco have an average class size of 35 to 40 students, Garcia said at a recent forum with business leaders.

Yet the district has seen test scores rise and is the No. 1 urban district in California, he said.
“Every day when I go to work, I think I hear the ‘Mission: Impossible’ theme,” he joked.

SFUSD should receive $6,500 per student from the state, he said, but instead gets $5,000.

“People say, ‘Money’s not the solution,’” Garcia, an educator for 37 years, told the business leaders. “I say, ‘How do you know? We’ve never tried it.’”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A whale of an anatomy lesson for students

Fifth-graders place spinal bones of a gray whale into place Monday after Dan Sudran brought it to John Muir Elementary School in S.F. Sudran salvaged the skeleton when it washed ashore last year on Pescadero State Beach, and has been showing it off at schools. Besides anatomy, students like Damar Eddison, right, got another key lesson: Dead whales don't smell so hot.

Friday, March 9, 2012

SF City Websites Receive Transparency Awards

By: Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

San Francisco Unified School District's website has received an award from a national nonprofit that honors the most transparent government websites in the country, district officials said today.

The district's website was one of 214 nationwide to be named today as 2012 Sunny Award recipients from Sunshine Review, an organization dedicated to government transparency.

The website received an A- grade from the group, with the only demerit coming for a lack of local tax information.
Editors from the nonprofit analyzed more than 6,000 government websites, grading them on a 10-point checklist that took into account the availability of information about each organization's elected officials, budget and other public records.

Among 110 California school district websites that the organization evaluated, San Francisco's was the only one in the state to earn the award, district officials said.

The district's website,, was redesigned and launched in the spring of 2011 with the assistance of grant funding. The site is multilingual and receives an average of 100,000 unique visitors each month, according to district officials.

"One of our goals for the website is to be transparent and to make relevant information easily accessible to parents and community members," district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said in a statement.

"This award is a great honor and the Sunshine Review's checklist will help the district to improve the site even more," Blythe said.

San Francisco's city website,, also received an A- grade from Sunshine Review after receiving a perfect score in the 2011 awards.

The group said it downgraded the city's site because did not disclose information about membership in taxpayer-funded lobbying associations.

More information about the Sunny Awards can be found here.

San Francisco Unified blazes civil rights path for California districts to follow

By Arun Ramanathan
As an education civil rights organization, we are far more accustomed to seeing school districts violate the rights of underserved students to a quality education than protect them from harm. But sometimes a school district’s leadership takes such a strong and courageous stance on behalf of their most vulnerable students that it takes your breath away. This was the type of courage shown by Superintendent Carlos Garcia and five members of the San Francisco Unified School Board when they voted to protect 14 of their highest-poverty schools from teacher layoffs in the coming year.

Last year The Education Trust-West published a report, Victims of the Churn, that revealed that high-poverty schools in California were far more likely to experience teacher layoffs. Because layoffs are typically based on seniority, the least senior teachers are “bumped” out of their positions by teachers with more experience. And because high-poverty schools tend to be staffed with younger teachers, they turn out to be the biggest losers in this process. The victims of this arbitrary and bureaucratic system are teachers and the vulnerable students and communities they serve.

For years it has been clear that this “churn” was disproportionally damaging high-poverty schools that were trying to improve, but few leaders were willing to risk the political damage of taking an alternative approach. Fortunately, advocates for low-income students began to see that this system was inequitable and had to change.

In Los Angeles Unified, an outcry from teachers and students in the district’s highest-poverty schools prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel to file a groundbreaking lawsuit to protect students from the disproportionate impact of layoffs. In these schools, students faced a constant revolving door of instructors. Teachers who designed plans for school improvement were laid off before their plans could be implemented. Students saw their dreams of college shattered as critical courses disappeared. The resulting settlement (known as “Reed”) protected dozens of schools from the impact of layoffs and has been supported by a broad range of civil rights groups.

Similarly, last year in Sacramento Unified, the superintendent and board protected five of their highest-poverty schools from the impact of layoffs. Each of these schools had a history of low performance and made extensive plans for school improvement. All of them would have been devastated by the normal layoff process with significant collateral damage to their students and communities.

These examples cracked open the door for districts around the state to take an alternative approach. With its move, San Francisco has pushed the door open. To Superintendent Garcia and the board’s credit, they did not make this decision arbitrarily. They looked at schools with a history of low performance and high turnover. They focused on schools where they had invested significant school improvement efforts, teacher training, and funding to increase student performance and close achievement gaps. These are schools that have shown improvement over the course of the past several years, where teachers and communities deserve the chance to build on their good work.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Stanford researchers bring life to high school history classes with a curriculum built around historical documents

Valerie Ziegler, center, a teacher at Lincoln High School in San Francisco, leads students through an exercise that evaluates possible biases in a photograph taken during the Depression. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Students who used the "Reading Like a Historian" curriculum outperformed their peers in traditional history classrooms, study finds.

There are no orderly rows of desks in Valerie Ziegler's high school history class – students sit in groups of three or four at small tables around the room. There also is no lectern because there are no lectures. And perhaps most striking, there are no textbooks.

The 11th-grade class at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco learns about the Vietnam War, women's suffrage, civil rights, the Great Depression and other major events in U.S. history by analyzing journal writings, memoirs, speeches, songs, photographs, illustrations and other documents of the era.
"I always tell my students they're historians-in-training, so the work we do in here is that of a historian," Ziegler said.

The nontraditional curriculum Ziegler uses, called Reading Like a Historian, was designed at Stanford and is among the projects of the Stanford History Education Group.

The curriculum was introduced in 2008 at five schools in the San Francisco Unified School District as part of a study by Abby Reisman, who was the head curriculum designer while completing her doctoral work at Stanford.

It is now available through a partnership with the district to any teacher who chooses to use it and is free to download from the Internet. The program is also being developed for middle-school students.

"In all too many history classrooms, it's still the single voice of the textbook that students hear," said education Professor Sam Wineburg, who directs the Stanford History Education Group. "We need to break the stranglehold of the textbook by introducing students to the variety of voices they encounter in the past through primary sources."

The goal is to improve literacy skills, foster a love of learning and of history, and increase critical thinking and reading comprehension.

And it seems to work.

Two students in Valerie Ziegler's history class
L.A. Cicero Lincoln High School juniors Natasha Lau and
Greg Williams work in Valerie Ziegler's history class.
Reisman's evaluation of the curriculum is published
in the current issue of the journal Cognition and Instruction.
At the end of the initial yearlong intervention, students in Reading Like a Historian classes were assessed on their reading comprehension, historical thinking, recall of historical facts and general reasoning.

"What we found is that the students in Reading Like a Historian classrooms outperformed their counterparts in traditional classrooms on all four measures," said Reisman, who directed the study and is now a senior researcher at the National Center for Research on Evaluation Standards and Student Testing at UCLA.

Reisman said it wasn't surprising that the students did so well with reading comprehension since the curriculum is built around manuscripts and other documents that are read during every lesson.

The most unexpected result, she said, was how well the students did in recalling historical facts – dates of wars, who was president, how did an event happen.

"You would imagine that students in traditional classrooms who are doing the textbook curriculum, who are getting lectures, who are asked to memorize would have done better," said Reisman.

"But it turns out that embedding historical content in meaningful activity leads to better recall," she added.
Each lesson in a Reading Like a Historian class begins with a question: Was the New Deal a success? Was President Abraham Lincoln racist? How could it be that there were women who wanted to deny women the right to vote?


Friday, March 2, 2012

Reducing Student Stress Tackling Truancy, Suspensions, and Stress

With levels of violence and poverty rising around them, San Francisco middle school students find social and emotional healing -- and a new readiness to learn -- in a bold program of daily meditation.

Back in 1999, when Principal Jim Dierke was getting started at San Francisco's Visitacion Valley Middle School (VVMS) so many fights were breaking out between students that it became known as "the fight school." Police routinely made arrests on campus, and every day, lines of students stretched down the hall outside the counselor's office.

Drugs and gang violence, rampant in the nearby housing projects, were spilling out into a community already challenged by unemployment and a high homicide rate. Students were coming to school fearful, anxious, and stressed. The consensus was they were suffering from PTSD -- what one teacher described as persistent traumatic stress syndrome.

Unable to combat the painful realities enveloping the neighborhood, Dierke resolved to change what he believed he could control, his school. It hasn't been easy, and the work goes on week after week, but today, VVMS has emerged as an oasis of hope and relative calm thanks largely to Dierke's leadership and a program he and his team helped pioneer at VVMS called Quiet Time (QT) .

Dierke describes Quiet Time as an umbrella -- a shelter and a sanctuary where students can clear their minds and ready themselves to accomplish things socially and academically that they could not have contemplated in the past. Over the past five years -- since shortly before VVMS launched -- the number of suspensions has been cut in half, from 13 per 100 students in 2006-07 to six per 100 students in 2010-11. Truancy rates, defined as having more than three unexcused absences or being tardy more than three times per year, have dropped by 61 percent, from 18 percent of students in 2006-07 to just 7 percent in 2010-11.

In the formal sense, QT at VVMS is a daily program of mandatory quietude. Twice a day, once at the first bell and again just before the last bell, students are directed to sit quietly for 15 minutes. They are permitted to read, sit with their own thoughts, or close their eyes and meditate -- in which case most of them use a specific technique called Transcendental Meditation* that facilitates a state of deep relaxation. Although the meditation is optional, nearly all students have chosen, with their parents' permission, to receive meditation training. Based on classroom reports, about 90 percent of students choose to meditate during QT. (Learn more about meditation successes in schools around the country.)