Cleaning Slates

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

The district does not keep track of the number of probationary teachers it has sent packing, but Rojas estimates it at about only 30 to 35 during the last four years. And most of the teachers coming out of reconstituted schools have glowing evaluations.

"The culture of this school district was just, 'Ahh, it's all right, let's put them over here, let's keep moving on, we'll try this,' " Rojas says.

Education watchers add that principals were promoted more for keeping a lid on their schools than because of, say, innovations in curriculum. Since Rojas took the helm, about 25 or 30 of them have been replaced, according to the superintendent. Only one of the new principals in the reconstituted schools was a principal in San Francisco previously.

"There is no such thing as an automatic renewal anymore," says Rojas. "What we're trying to say is, 'Look, we don't want you to beat on people, but we want you to set a group of standards whether this is really the person who you want there. And if you don't want them there, then don't put them there. Because if you put enough of them there, it's you.' "

A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds. But part of the controversy over reconstitution is that the district hasn't always followed its own rules.

Statistically speaking, Cesar Chavez Elementary and Mission High schools should have been reconstituted years ago. Both schools landed at the bottom of the heap by the district's own measurement. Instead, they haven't even made it into the CSIP program -- the warning list of reconstitution.

Rojas passed on both of them, making some management changes instead.
Lupe Arabolos, who had been vice principal at Mission High for more than a decade, was named principal in 1994, in a move that also included naming two new vice principals. The group instituted a program to break down the school into smaller groups of students and teachers and expanded a partnership with San Francisco State University to funnel Mission High students into college by way of earning credit in high school.

Test scores went up, and the dropout rate decreased by 93 percent. But then, little more than a year later, Rojas booted all three of the school's top managers, setting off a firestorm. Part of this was an employment issue: By contract rules, all of them would have had to receive three-year contracts this year.

"I'm not convinced that over the next three years the school will improve," Rojas says. "I haven't announced the CSIP list for next year, but they would be very hard pressed not to be on it," he adds. "Not because they're not progressive, but because the progress is very slow. It is not my judgment that they will move forward by just going at the same pace."

But Rojas critics speculate that the school was left off the list to avoid political uproar in the strongly organized Mission community. Ironically, that's exactly what happened a few months ago with the firings. Teachers were furious. Fliers circulated depicting Rojas on a toilet, advertising the slogan: "Flush Rojas, Not Our Schools, Down the Toilet." Hundreds of students marched from Mission High to City Hall, where they captured the attention of a savvy Mayor Willie Brown and, of course, the media.

Like many of her students, Arabolos is a Spanish-speaking immigrant who grew up poor in bad neighborhoods. After 12 years teaching at Mission High, she was a much-beloved institution. On top of that, the school had boosted its staff with 15 new teachers the year before, as part of its effort to turn around. The district pulled those teachers from the staff about the same time it announced the principals' departure.

Rojas says that he sent those teachers to Mission High in the first place because the principals asked for the help as part of their plan for the school. The following year, he says, they didn't ask, so the money for those teachers was not included in the Mission High budget.

Brown showed up at the school board meeting that same night, media in tow, and turned the auditorium into a pep rally of cheering students, parents, and teachers. Rojas, who does not possess the same facility for winning friends and influencing people, was booed and jeered.

Following the uproar, Rojas and the board returned the 15 teachers to Mission High, but not the principals.

Things only got worse when Rojas announced that Ted Alfaro would replace Arabolos. Alfaro is the second principal in a few short months plucked from Harvard's Urban Superintendents program (Elaine Koury, new principal at Balboa, is also from the program and interned with Rojas in 1995). Both have been tagged as outsider intellectuals, a move Alfaro did little to dispel when he reportedly told Mission High teachers in their first meeting that he had a "two-year commitment" to the job.

While the jury is still out on long-term academic achievement, Visitacion Valley Middle School genuinely seems to be a school transformed. But the school is not working because of reconstitution. It's working because it's managed to employ a whole lot of tools and techniques that make schools succeed.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.