Cleaning Slates

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

"We need to offer them the education and training about how achievement can be found," she says. "I'm chagrined that we not only are not doing that, we have chosen to do something far more negative."

The public spanking has left teachers in San Francisco bitter and angry at the administration. They simply are not buying reconstitution as a remedy, despite an absence of any other credible reform for years.

One critique argues that any success is based on new authority and more money, rather than firings.

"There is leadership and resources made available that were not there before reconstitution," says Kent Mitchell, union treasurer. "An adequate facility; competent, engaged leader; focus on how do we teach these kids: The administration should be doing these things. Why did we have to wait for reconstitution?

"If the district has to have the flexibility to move teachers around, wouldn't the district have asked us for that? It has never passed their lips [in contract negotiations]."

In fact, the teachers' union attempted unsuccessfully to become a participant in the court order that sanctioned reconstitution in the first place, but it was shut out. Attempts to block reconstitution were also denied by the judge.

"Since allegedly the union rules were obstacles to making some changes, it would have made some sense to include us in those decisions," Mitchell says.

But while the battle may have been lost, the war is far from over. It will likely be waged in November. Four of the seven San Francisco school board members' terms are up this year -- Yee, Wynns, Angie Fa, and Steve Phillips. Yee is not seeking re-election because he's running for supervisor. Of the remaining three, only Phillips has been a consistent supporter of reconstitution. If union-backed candidates capture all four seats, it could mean the end of reconstitution -- and Rojas' job.

"If they get enough board members, they'll get rid of me," says Rojas, who answers to the Board of Education. "But they've still got the federal judge to deal with."

The idea of cleaning the slate and starting over again in schools is not new to San Francisco. In many ways, it is an attempt at redressing a monumental collection of past sins.

In 1978, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against the San Francisco Unified School District and the state of California for discrimination. The court found glaring disparities between the education offered in Bayview-Hunters Point and the schooling in the city's upper-income, white neighborhoods.

After four years of court wrangling, the parties agreed to a consent decree that became a plan of action for desegregation in San Francisco's public schools. As in school districts across the nation, this was a matter of counting bodies. The decree specified that no "regular" school have more than 45 percent of any one ethnic group and that alternative schools have no more than 40 percent.

The consent decree was essentially the end of neighborhood schools in San Francisco, as children began being bused all over, based on the ethnic count at any one location. Despite its good intentions, the move severely curtailed the schools' role in their children's communities, a connection that education gurus today claim is vital for success.

The other part of the court's mandate pinpointed 22 "target schools" that needed serious help. Basically, the court said that the district had to fix the schools and the state had to pay for it. To that end, the court created a team of education wizards to devise a plan of attack, which they mapped out over about a year.

The result was that six of those schools were reconstituted in 1983. They were essentially closed and reopened with a new staff and a specific focus or theme, similar to magnet schools, in part to attract Anglo students into minority neighborhoods.

The remaining 16 schools received varying degrees of funding, programs, and staff changes, but not the kind of redo that occurred with the first six. Not surprisingly, the remaining schools were not as successful.

And that is the basis for the argument in favor of the new round of reconstitution. In 1992, when the court's panel of experts reviewed the results of the consent decree, they concluded that the first six schools had been more successful because they had been completely reconstituted. Therefore, since the district had essentially failed to significantly improve the remaining 16 schools, it was told to reconstitute three schools each year "until the job is done," something that was never really defined.

"If you've got schools that aren't working, reconstitute them -- that's what it means," says Rojas. "And you should do at least three a year. And you should start now."

However, the court later agreed that, since all schools in the district benefited from desegregation, all schools were covered under the consent decree; the "target" became all 110 schools in the district. Ironically, none of the three schools reconstituted this year -- Starr King Elementary, Aptos Middle, and Balboa High schools -- were among the decree's 22.

What's more, despite the sticking point of teacher tenure, the school district doesn't take advantage of the flexibility it has. Teachers are considered probationary for the first two years of their employment and during that time they may be fired for cause without jumping through all the hoops involved in firing a tenured faculty member. But, for the most part, they are not.

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