Cleaning Slates

Superintendent Bill Rojas is pushing a simple solution for troubled schools: Get rid of everybody.

From the stairwell of Visitacion Valley Middle School, you can see the morning fog floating above the houses in Brisbane. From the cafeteria, you can see the bay. Two years ago, none of this was visible because the windows were covered with plastic so that the graffiti could be hosed off more easily. The change in Visitacion Valley is not just about the view, however, or the new paint, or the addition of drawings on the wall, or even the 8 tons of underbrush that have been cleared away to make the school visible from the street.

The outward changes reflect the transformation of a prison into a school. Two years have passed since Visitacion Valley was cleaned out and remade through a controversial reform process known as "reconstitution." The entire staff, except for three people, was replaced.

Principal John Flores arrived from Arizona in June 1994, and had three months to assemble a full team, create a plan, and remake the school before his students arrived in late August. No small task. The nearly 500 Visitacion Valley students represent the kind of demographics that statistically make them the top candidates for failing or dropping out. More than 80 percent live in poverty, many in the three nearby housing projects. About a third of the students speak only limited English, 14 different native languages mingling among them. Fewer than 65 percent of the adults in their community graduated from high school.

"We're dealing with kids who have not been successful in school before," says Flores. "School is a whole new ballgame nowadays. We have to set up a curriculum that is exciting. That whole idea of kids in rows with a teacher in front doesn't happen anymore. You have to make learning relevant to the kids."

Flores divided the school into groups of students and teachers called "families." Students have longer classes with fewer teacher changes. Technology has also been stepped up; the school has its own Web page and soon every classroom will be wired for the Internet.

The students represent so many different ethnicities that no one group is large enough to warrant busing -- as is the case in other middle schools -- under the city's mandated desegregation plan. So, all of the kids are from the neighborhood, which makes for stronger links to parents and the community. Adult English classes and a variety of social services are offered on-site. The building is open six days a week and many evenings, which is a blessing in an area virtually devoid of recreational facilities.

But perhaps the most radical change has been in management. Flores rehired only three teachers who had worked at Visitacion Valley prior to its reconstitution. Most of the new faculty came from outside the district. Many were new or fairly new to teaching.

San Francisco's teachers have a bitter taste in their mouths from reconstitution, but Visitacion Valley's new staff has reason to feel differently. They are included in decision-making and school design, which they say is the real key to success.

"The decision-making is based on curriculum," says Flores, explaining that if, for example, the bilingual teacher thinks one of her students is ready to move into the "regular" classroom, it's only a question of scheduling, not petitioning a higher authority. "It can't be done top-down."

Well, something's happening bottom-up. Test scores have risen, discipline problems declined. All the adults in the school are dressed for business (Flores requires his male teachers to wear a tie). The school's reputation for violence is evaporating -- only one student was suspended last year.

Visitacion Valley Middle School is the shining star of reconstitution in San Francisco. Its successful turnaround is one of the few things that nearly everyone in education here seems to agree upon.

The only question is whether its revival required reconstitution.

Reconstitution is the art of starting over. The process entails a complete housecleaning of the school staff from the principal on down, a move reserved elsewhere as a last-ditch response to the most blighted of urban, inner-city schools. But in San Francisco, it's being used with much greater regularity -- as a stimulant, a motivational tool, a jump-start.

The basic idea is that the culture of the school must change in order for results to improve, that demons must be exorcised, despite the consequences. But is wiping out an entire staff really necessary? That question has divided the school district, pitting the man ultimately accountable against the people who spend every day teaching the kids.

The debate is likely to dominate the November school board race and could either mean the superintendent's job or a catastrophic loss of power for the teachers' union. And by the way, the future of 62,000 children hangs in the balance.

Sitting in his office at the San Francisco Unified School District's aging headquarters on Van Ness, Superintendent Waldemar "Bill" Rojas is uncharacteristically patient in discussing the education reform plan on which he's staking a career.

Rojas is keenly aware that superintendents typically last only three or four years, which would make his tenure statistically imperiled. Few issues engender as much policy passion as public education, so it's important to make your mark and make it soon. And to never let 'em see you sweat.

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