Wednesday, April 30, 2014

How 24,000 Students Leave Their Hearts in San Francisco

By Mark MacNamara |

There was a moment the other day, actually a few moments, while listening to the Balboa Brass Quintet play to an audience of 30 8- and 9-year-olds out in the Sunset District, when you forgot all your concerns about children these days, all those ominous arcs. Concerns about whether a particular pedagogy works; about whether boys will flourish; about whether children these days feel too entitled, too fearful, too self-absorbed, and whether they can survive the coddling from their helicopter parents, or the demands of their tiger moms, or just the weight of a device-ridden, increasingly fast and shallow culture.

Not to mention those other, long-range concerns, whose implications gather, cloud-like each year, as high school and college loom: about whether a liberal arts education matters much anymore; whether your child will have the “grit” as Thomas Friedman put it last week in his second New York Times column on hiring practices at Google — the grit to major in say, computer science, and risk getting a lower grade than you might receive majoring in English or anthropology.

And speaking of risk, what about concern for those promising young musicians who are told by their parents that music is actually, contrary to all the money and time and attention spent to that point, not the equivalent of dentistry or law? (Don’t tell anyone, but music majors are actually considered “added value” by many large corporations and startups alike — because musicians have experience doing 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and they know how to work together, on a team, or in a community.)

Greasing the Wheels

“My greatest hope is that children come to understand the importance of community,” Sophie Lee said, musing, while she looked out her office window at the playground at Sunset Elementary. She is the school's principal. It was early afternoon last week; the kids were moving like electrons around the school yard. “And that’s part of why the arts are so important to me.”

We had come to hear about how the San Francisco Symphony’s Adventures in Music Program was doing. It’s been an integral part of the school district’s approach to music education since 1988. Is it making a difference, we wanted to know, and how?

Principal Lee
Principal Lee
Sophie Lee is one of those principals you dream about for your child’s middle school. She’s been in education for 40 years, an administrator for 24 years, and at Sunset Elementary for 12. She is cursed with a relentless desire to make things better, to keep the PTA focused, the kids encouraged and challenged, the teachers feeling a sense of accomplishment. She manages a school with 407 students: 42% Asian, 30% Caucasian. In all, 25% are eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch.

She works from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., then another hour or two at home answering email. On the weekends, she’s planning yet another field trip, another carnival, another gardening day, another reading. She has 50 readers who come out to the school to read to students. She’s got the fire chief, the police chief, this official and that, and she has Donato Cabrera come down from Davies Symphony Hall. He’s one of her very favorites and she claims he’s always swept away by the experience, seeing the children and experiencing Sophie Lee’s carefully nurtured community.

It is a community founded in large measure on her personal interest in the arts, and music, in particular. She grew up in Chinatown, in that now familiar Asian-American setting where the expectation is to study piano and violin. She also played in her middle school orchestra. She takes great pride that in her public school kids can experience drama, art, choral music, and instrument instruction. Not all the district schools provide so much and not all the district’s principals hold the arts in the same regard.

Which is to say that these arts programs, no matter how well intentioned or designed or financed, or performed, are only as effective as the administrators who implement and support them.

“I do expect my teachers to collaborate with the different consultants that come here and to implement the programs we agree on,” Lee said. “The goal is to integrate the arts with academics; neither is in isolation from the other.”

Particulars of the Program

The Adventures in Music (AIM) program, which focuses on grades 1 to 5, is one of a dozen education and community initiatives sponsored, and paid for, by the San Francisco Symphony. Others include instrument training; the youth orchestra; “Music for Families”; the Symphony’s website for kids; a program serving amateur adult musicians (Community of Music Makers); various lecture series; and, of course, several free concerts.

But it’s the AIM program, and the instrument training program, which together provide the real musical juice for San Francisco public schools. The AIM program was established in 1988 as part of the Symphony’s role as “civic partner,” a role sometimes forgotten, the Director of Education at the Symphony Ron Gallman told us recently. “I’m not sure the public understands that the Symphony and the school board have been working closely for years to make this happen.”

From the beginning, the AIM charter has been to introduce music appreciation — based on “foundational music” not just orchestral music — to every single elementary school student in the district, for free, and beyond using music as a way to enhance the teaching of different subjects, the program’s goal has been to demonstrate artistic excellence and “foster an awareness of music in the context of everyday life.”

What better way to train a replacement audience — and replacement donors — for the Symphony’s new century; these kids who may never play an instrument but who will never forget hearing real musicians for the first time.

This year, the program serves 24,000 students in 91 schools. Most are public, but there are also a few independent schools as well.

The music curriculum, which is tied to such subjects as social science, history, and geography, includes all the tools of the trade. This year the focus is on “Music of San Francisco, Music of the World.” Each student and teacher receives a journal, a laminated binder map of the world (teachers get a laminated wall world map); a “whimsical” map of California, a CD by the ensemble Ka-Hon, a pencil, and double-barrel pencil sharpener.
In addition to the series of concerts where students are bussed in to Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony, they hear other ensembles in their schools, including the Dynamic Trio; Ka-Hon; Triad Winds, a wind trio; a jazz combo called the We Bop Jazz Quartet; a Chinese ensemble, Melody of China; Out of Bounds, a string quartet; Caribbean Express; and the Balboa Brass, a quintet.

Balboa Brass
Balboa Brass
The Balboa Brass Quintet is a motley and diverse crew: four men, one woman, and not just great musicians but also great teachers and storytellers: animated, and distinguished by sheer talent. The ‘head brass’ — on tuba — is Zach Spellman, in red sneakers on the day we saw him. His energy and wit is reminiscent of Daniel Pinkwater: an always interested barker, but not overwhelming and never condescending or insincere.

And here they were, in front of 30 third graders, leading them through a cultural geography lesson about how music describes San Francisco and at the same time relates it to the rest of the world. They began with a languorous version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." The effect was immediate. The children fell silent, and became completely enthralled by the music, and short personal narratives. It was very much a show, with just the scent of Broadway, but also a powerful demonstration of the appeal of professionally played music.

Numbers in the geography tour included, “O Solo Mio,” a bit of Neapolitana to suggest the flavor of North Beach; the Mexican Hat Dance, for the Mission District; “Sakura,” the Japanese folk song about the coming of the cherry blossoms, and so a way to relate to Japantown and the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park. And then from San Francisco to England. The quintet played The Colonel Bogey March, and from that to a jig to portray Ireland. And from there to France, conveyed with “La Vie en Rose” and a touching personal story told by Alicia Telford, who plays the French horn. The group finished with “Take The A Train,” suggesting New York, but also the Fillmore District and its jazz festival.]

Afterward, a gaggle of children, ages 8 and 9, sat around a table and talked about the concert. Their reactions: It was “great,” “fabulous,” “really different.” “The funny jokes were really funny.” “They told stories about different neighbhoods and the music was really good.” “All the instruments they had,” said a girl named Talia, “I really want to play at least one of those instruments. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen the French horn in person.”

And does the music help you learn about geography? “Yes,” they all chimed. “It tells us where places are and what the culture is like,” said a boy named Evin. “It’s like you just listen to him and you learn something about it,” said another boy named Jasper.

Bottom Line: The Effect

Asked about the effect of these concerts, one of the teachers at the event, Monica Edler, wrote in an email, “Next year, when my students are in 4th grade, they’ll have the option to learn a musical instrument with a music teacher once a week. A majority of the children choose to play an instrument and I think part of that is because of their exposure to music through the AIM program. The concerts expose them to music they might never have heard before from many different cultures and from all over the world. Music also has a calming and relaxing effect on the students and can take them to a special place in their minds.”

Which is all well and good, but always the question remains, what do these kinds of programs really provide? What’s the effect? Beyond an appreciation of art for its own sake, do children learn other disciplines more easily after listening to or studying music? We spoke to Vinod Menon, a research professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford; he’s studied the effects of music on brain functioning. The short answer, he said, was that there is no explicit study to suggest a causal relationship between listening to music and learning other skills.

However, he pointed out that listening to and learning music does encourage the brain to recognize auditory patterns and structures, and to recognize deviancy from those structures. He gave the example of pauses in music that can grab the brain’s attention, so if you have an expectation that music is going in a certain direction and it goes in another then that draws the brain’s attention. And if the brain can focus on that change in a pattern it may also respond to changes in other kinds of patterns. Like a muscle if you will.
Moreover, said Menon, “in terms of performance, the integration of the visual, the auditory, and the motor systems, and that facilitates information-processing across multiple brain areas. Again, this area of study is still anecdotal. But we know these kinds of changes do occur when you listen to music: the way your motor system interacts with auditory system changes when you learn a new piece of music, for example. But the big question that no one has really answered is, how do you transfer this ability to other cognitive domains.”

And the Community Impact

And what about music and community? Is there a causal link there? Does music encourage socialization on a neuron level?

Once more, for Dr. Menon, the question is amorphous and beyond the scientific method. Yet there is evidence to suggest a synchronization in brain responses to music. In that context, our brains often function alike.

“Now whether that results in a sense of community or socialization,” explained Menon, “that’s hard to show in the context of causality.”

The fact is, research is moving away from these “meta cognitive questions,” to the finer points of how brain processes work — for example, how emotion is represented in music; “why the brain pays attention to certain kinds of musical structures and not others.”

In the end, there seems to be no proof that music makes it easier to study science or language; nor, from a scientific point of view, does it necessarily lead to stronger communities. We may know that instinctively, and there is compelling anthropological evidence, but finally, there is only experience to go on.

For Sophie Lee, the importance of the AIM program, and the arts in general, is that they offer children something bigger than themselves, and unquestionably they bring people together, for the better. “We want all of our kids to be as integrated as possible, and we want them to embrace the opportunity to help each other and not feel isolated. Just this morning I saw a little girl in the hallway helping one of the Special-Ed students make his way to class. She was acting as his buddy and that kind of awareness and empathy comes from sharing music class together. It’s one of the few times children, no matter their disability, join together. That alone is a great result of these kinds of programs.”

Mark MacNamara ( is a journalist in San Francisco who has written for such publications as, Vanity Fair, and The Stanford Social Innovation Review. He also wrote a recent piece for Nautilus, a science magazine, about Edward Elgar’s penchant for ciphers and riddles.

High school graduation rate steady in SF, up in California, but minorities remain behind

| SF Examiner

Mike Koozmin/2012 S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO California’s high school
graduation rate rose above 80 percent this year for the first time,
coming closer to The City’s 81.6 percent rate.
San Francisco high school students continue to graduate at a higher rate than the state average, but that gap is narrowing.

While the San Francisco Unified School District’s graduation rate has stayed steady at about 82 percent for the past three years, for the first time the state’s rate climbed above 80 percent last year, according to results released Monday by the California Department of Education.

Yet even with the positive numbers, some minority groups in The City remain far behind their peers when it comes to earning a diploma.

For the past three years, the state graduation rate has continued to climb by about 1.5 percent annually, reaching 80.2 percent this year for students who started high school in 2009-10 and graduated in 2013, according to state Superintendent Tom Torlakson.

“There’s good news, but there’s a lot of work to do in front of us,” Torlakson said. “We can, we must, do better to help all our students graduate. We know it’s a huge disadvantage not to have a high school diploma.”

California’s graduation rate mirrored the nation’s, which also rose above 80 percent for the first time, according to Building a Grad Nation, a report released Monday by a coalition of advocacy groups and researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

Both The City’s and state’s dropout rates have decreased as well. The SFUSD’s rate dipped to 9 percent in the 2012-13 school year, down from 10.1 percent in 2011-12 and 10.6 percent in 2010-11. California’s rate hit 11.6 percent in 2012-13, a 1.5 percent drop from the 2011-12 rate of 13.1 percent.

Additionally, the district’s Superintendent’s Zone high schools — which include Mission, O’Connell and Thurgood Marshall, and are identified as such due to their overall low performance — increased graduation rates while decreasing dropout rates.

Galileo, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, Independence and Washington high schools also saw a graduation rate increase coupled with a lower dropout rate.

However, graduation and dropout rates for black and Latino students in The City highlighted a continuing achievement gap, with 65.5 percent of black students and 68.4 percent of Latino students graduating last year.

The dropout rate in The City declined for nearly all ethnic groups, though it remained the same among Asians. Ethnic groups reporting the highest dropout rates were black students at 16.5 percent, while Latino students’ dropout rate was 13.7 percent.

A plan adopted earlier this year by the Board of Education to implement restorative practices instead of suspensions is helping the SFUSD mitigate the achievement gap, but a youth advocate in The City said the district needs to make an even greater effort to help minority students stay on track to graduate high school.

“SFUSD is still kind of suffering from an inability to direct resources in ways that matter to African-American and Latino students, as well as Samoan and Pacific Islander students,” said Kevine Boggess, director of civic engagement for Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth, a San Francisco-based child advocacy organization.

“Even though it’s one of the highest-performing school districts, it continues to under-serve those communities,” Boggess said.

SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza agreed that more work needs to be done, but said the graduation and dropout rates overall reflect strong schools in San Francisco.

“We are thrilled to see that fewer students are dropping out of high school,” Carranza said. “While we still have some concerns, our dropout rates are declining for many groups of students who historically dropped out in higher numbers than their peers.”

Torlakson touted increased efforts statewide to raise the graduation rate to a historically high number, including increased after-school programs as well as efforts to use technology at schools.

“After-school programs provide more learning opportunities, more ways to engage kids so they’re attached to school,” Torlakson said. “Education technology is a game changer in terms of individualizing instruction.”

State school officials used information gathered by following the same group of students who enrolled in ninth through 12th grades for its reports, referred to as cohort data. Because this is only the fourth time the four-year cohort information was calculated, data may only be compared accurately between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013.

Graduation and dropout data can vary widely from school to school, so state school officials urge caution when comparing the rates due to differences in how information is presented from district to district.

There’s a million reasons to thank teachers who make a difference

| SF Examiner

As a former teacher, it means a lot to me when I hear from old students. Teachers have shared that they are strengthened when students and their families, community leaders and even strangers appreciate them and their profession. That’s why every year during May, we partner with the Mayor’s Office and the San Francisco Education Fund to recognize teachers and promote ways you can recognize teachers, too.

There are thousands of San Francisco teachers and millions of things to appreciate. Today, to kick off a month of recognition events, I wanted to appreciate some of the great work just a few of our teachers are doing.

Connecting students with their community
As part of Balboa Law Academy’s Junior Pre-Law class, students work with mentors selected from the San Francisco legal community on résumé writing, public-speaking skills, interview skills, understanding the legal community and researching a community issue together. Teacher Michael Rosenberg has developed this curriculum at Balboa High School over the past 10 years and it keeps getting better.
This year, Rosenberg had volunteers from the civil grand jury. He tapped their expertise to help students take their community projects to new heights. He says one of the best outcomes was how well students worked in groups. The students utilized online communication tools such as Google Groups, Docs and Presentation. They chose their own student foreperson, whose job it was to engage their team. The collaboration with the grand jury was so successful that Rosenberg is talking to them about how else they may be able to help The City’s high school students. 
Letting kids loose with science
Over at James Lick Middle School, Christine Diehl teaches math and science. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate: Her students learn math and science and she guides them. A really good example of this was a few months ago with the tornado modeling lesson. While it started as planned, the kids got so excited about what they were seeing with the pressure differentials that they started asking if they could make their own experiments.

Diehl reminded them to record their hypotheses and observations as they jumped into experiments with different materials in the bottled tornado. This lesson brought to life something important about Common Core State Standards instruction: Giving students more time to go deeper into concepts and let them build their own understanding.

Making learning visible
Before you even walk into Monique Williams’ kindergarten classroom at Visitacion Valley Elementary School, you see that the walls outside her door are alive with her students’ work. The displays not only show you what Williams’ students are creating, but also show us how their work is tied to the new Common Core standards. What a great way to help parents understand the Common Core.

When you walk into her classroom, all you can say is, “Wow!” Her young students are engaged in what’s going on, working independently and together with ease, and creating thoughtful work. How does she do it? By making sure students have what they need to learn at every level, and by always taking extra time to help students with meaningful questions to reflect on their choices. Her clear expectations for behavior and fair, firm, kind and consistent approach keep her students learning. Williams also remains deeply reflective of her work by keeping a journal and always asking the question, “What can I do better?”

Thank a teacher today
There isn’t enough room in all of the newspapers in San Francisco to list all the wonderful lessons the teachers in our schools have taught this year and all of the important interactions they’ve had with their students, families, colleagues and community members.

So you can do me one better: Send a note to your child’s current or former teacher this week saying how much you appreciated his or her work. Want to do even more to say thank you? Go here to get more ideas on how to thank a teacher:

Richard A. Carranza is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District.

A Movement Is Underway to Transform SF's Public Schools

Letter from Sylvia Yee, VP of Programs |

Achieving Equity in Our Schools

As a former classroom teacher, I know how hard it can be to make big, far-reaching changes in teaching and learning. Old habits often stand in the way of helping all children succeed.

But there is an exciting movement underway in San Francisco to transform public education across the district, and it’s already getting good results. On recent visits to city schools, I had a firsthand look at some of the positive changes that are happening. As you walk the hallways of schools like John Muir Elementary, Buena Vista Horace Mann or Bryant Elementary, you see places that are brimming with a sense of excitement and possibility. With student bodies that are overwhelmingly African-American and Latino from low-income families, principals and teachers are creating cultures where everyone has a laser focus on improving student achievement.

The changes are not unique to these schools. Under Superintendent Richard Carranza and his talented leadership team, the San Francisco Unified School District is taking steps to narrow the achievement gap for children of color and those living in low-income neighborhoods. From strengthening the early education system to making the necessary investments to turn around historically low-performing schools, Carranza and his colleagues are bringing fresh energy and ideas to the work of improving academic success across the board.

Some question whether it’s possible to transform large urban school districts into high-performing, high-achieving organizations for all students, but school and district leaders in San Francisco are on a path to prove the doubters wrong. At the Haas, Jr. Fund, we are inspired by their commitment, their vision and the early results they’ve achieved, and we are making a bet that they can deliver on the promise of district-wide reform.

The Haas, Jr. Fund’s stepped-up support for the San Francisco Unified School District is based on our belief that educational equity is one of the great civil rights causes of our time. We share the commitment of district leaders to making deep changes that will close the achievement gap and enable more students to succeed in school and in life. That’s why we are supporting the superintendent and his team to carry out successful early education reforms, improve school-community partnerships, and strengthen their leadership capacity so they can unleash lasting change. The Fund has given $2 million in grants since 2012 to support this effort. (Learn more about how the Haas, Jr. Fund is supporting the district.)

The San Francisco Unified School District cannot do this work alone. The city government, parents, community groups, foundations, business and other partners need to join forces with the district to change the odds for students in our public schools.

If you aren’t already involved, we hope you will find a way to join in the work of building a better future for our city’s children — and all of San Francisco.