Richard Carranza tackles S.F. school challenges

By Ron Leuty | San Francisco Business Times

Spencer Brown
Prop. 30 stopped hemorrhaging of school budgets at 
the state level, says Richard Carranza, superintendent.
Here’s your first day on the job: Key employees are threatening a strike. Your main financial backer may cut back on its commitment if its limited partners don’t approve more cash. And your product, which takes 13 years to make, is constantly under a microscope for its inconsistent quality.

Welcome to the world of San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Richard Carranza.
Carranza, who replaced Carlos Garcia in early July, is no stranger to the district. For three years, he was SFUSD’s deputy superintendent in charge of instruction, innovation and social justice. He had been a regional superintendent for the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, overseeing 66 schools and more than 66,000 students, as well as a high school principal and teacher.

But when he took over SFUSD, the 55,000-student district was in a contentious contract negotiation with its 6,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, nurses, psychologists and librarians. The union had taken a strike authorization vote in May and opposed Garcia over layoff notices that skipped less-experienced teachers at schools targeted in Garcia’s Superintendent’s Zone program.

What’s more, the district faced an uncertain financial future as Proposition 30 and the rival Proposition 38 tax proposals prepared to battle on the November ballot as ways to solve the state’s public education funding problems. In fact, the August settlement of the two-year teacher contract included a provision that would allow the district to reopen the issue of budget cuts and furlough days if Prop. 30 did not pass.

SFUSD, with more than 100 preschool, elementary, middle school and high school facilities, has a 2012-13 budget of $623.3 million.

Carranza talked to San Francisco Business Times education reporter Ron Leuty about student achievement, involving more business partners, the Superintendent’s Zone and the district’s school-assignment lottery.

How would you grade SFUSD schools?: I took the first semester to sit in offices and have one-on-one conversations about the rap on San Francisco. It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I get to interact nationally with colleagues and they’re always interested in talking to me about (what San Francisco is doing with) teacher evaluation and retention, the achievement gap, under-performing schools. And then I come back to San Francisco and people think these are the worst schools in the nation.

It’s been based on a lot of urban myth. People have heard these things from other people.

We are one of the highest-performing large, urban school districts in the state, and the trend is consistently upward. As you unpack that data, not all the students are doing that well. We need to not lower the bar but accelerate the bottom.

There are a lot of really good things happening and a lot of work that needs to be done as well.
Strategically, we will continue to bring in good people — teachers, administrators, the board — and get engaged around the work and not infighting. Then you’re actually able to move the ball.

We’re absolutely on the honor roll, but we’re not a 4.0 student yet.

What’s going to change with SFUSD over the next 12-24 months?: We’re in the process of identifying and mining those practices resulting in accelerated student growth. Where are the schools and classrooms that are doing well? Our goal is to identify those best practices and diffuse those to the larger school system.
I’m a teacher. I taught for over 10 years. I was a high school principal. But as a superintendent I’ve had to recalibrate my vision. We’ve got an operating budget of over $600 million. We’re the fifth-largest employer in the Bay Area. When we factor in property, we’re a multibillion-dollar organization. There’s an accountability for student results, but with that accountability comes a responsibility to train staff.

How do we engage our partners? We can think about partners myopically: labor partners, the city. But how do we engage the tech industry, philanthropy and folks who for whatever reason aren’t (involved), to help them look at public schools not as an expenditure but as an investment? That changes the lens.

If you were to hire a high school student today, what skills and dispositions do they need? They need to be literate, write well, speak well, work in a team, they need to be self-starters and bring to fruition presentations around a concept and have multidisciplinary interests.

Education is changing. Education is not moribund.

What did it mean for SFUSD in particular, but most public school system in California as well, to have Prop. 30 pass?: It is multifaceted. First and foremost, it stopped the hemorrhaging from the state level. Although I’m looking at what we do from a business perspective, the fundamental difference is we don’t charge a fee for our services. We can’t raise prices.

We’ve had years now of under-funding public education. At least we know the basement.

The governor has talked about (how) we’re going to start the rebuilding. Now we have an opportunity to do strategic planning without worrying about how much further is this going to fall. But it’s not a panacea.

We receive $4,900 per student. The state website says $8,000 to $9,000 but that’s with English language learners, categorical funding. Pure funding is $4,900. If we go across the country to New York, it’s about $10,000 more per student.

People say, “We can’t throw money at the issue.” I’m in my 24th year in education. I wish just one year we would have thrown money at the issue. The facilities and the technology are not upgraded. If you can’t buy newer computers and upgrade the technology infrastructure or train teachers to use that technology, the chickens come home to roost.

Prop. 30 has changed the tide. Now people are understanding in the right way that we have to invest in education.

You pay later when that student drops out of school and you’re spending $60,000 per person to house them in San Quentin.

The voters see that’s what Prop. 30 did for us. We’re using that to bolster discussions of how to build professional development and support for students and rebuild that net. You need to provide equity, not equality for kids.

My son’s school supplements its spending by the parents raising more than $150,000. But other schools don’t have that luxury of parent involvement. How is the district working to ensure that kids in Cole Valley as well as the Bayview have the same access to education and resources?: The first step of any 12-step program is admitting you have an issue. We have proofs of concept in San Francisco — it’s called the Superintendent’s Zone.

As Carlos Garcia’s deputy, I was intimately involved in the Superintendent’s Zone. There are kids in pockets of San Francisco — this very progressive, well-educated city — that fundamentally start in a different place than other kids.

We could say, “That’s just the way it is.” Or, if we believe the road to the American dream is really fundamentally based on a good education, or if we believe the cornerstone to democracy is an educated populace, or if we believe the way to stay ahead of global competition is an educated workforce, why wouldn’t we address the achievement gap?

What we did is identify it. We used metrics that identified (14 schools) with historically low student achievement, teacher turnover rates that were higher, facilities that were not in the best of shape, that were within vast pockets of poverty and had a growing group of students with challenges. It fell into two areas: The Mission and Bayview.

Then we asked, what will it take for kids to have an equitable opportunity to catch up? One year’s growth is not enough. We looked at best practices. We looked at Montgomery County, Md. We learned lessons from Chicago, and Tony Bryk and his model (at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). We looked at his five pillars and we crafted a plan that’s very simple: Schools in the Superintendent’s Zones have the biggest challenges — they’re not the worst schools — and we focused our meager resources on those schools.

This is the third year that we’ve targeted student learning, social and emotional support, professional development and a clear, tightly aligned curriculum. In our most-challenging schools, we’re accelerating student achievement two or three times the rate of growth of the rest of the district. In some schools, it’s six times the rate of growth in mathematics.

That’s really the quantifiable approach.

What kind of feedback have you received about the new lottery system?: They’re not the Ten Commandments. They’re not set in stone.

A vast majority of folks get their first choice in the first round. We hear a lot from folks who don’t get their choices. There was a lot of talk about neighborhood schools, but less than 24 percent of participants in the student assignment system chose their neighborhood school as their first choice. So there’s a little bit of urban myth mixed in.

That being said, we know it’s not perfect. We’ll continue to tweak it.