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.

Of course, Bill Rojas has never displayed timidity. He is more often brash -- a native New Yorker rather out of place in fuzzy San Francisco. And personality seems to play a big role here.

As a group, the teachers hate Rojas. That's mostly because of his push for reconstitution, but also because of an authoritarian management style that, they complain, makes them recipients of the process rather than participants. Principals, similarly, criticize his bent for directives rather than discussion. Education experts, by contrast, quietly empathize with a superintendent who's confronting what most are unwilling to touch -- a strong teachers' union in an inner-city school district.

The supe, meanwhile, believes that people think he's a jerk because he's "decisive."

So, unbowed in his first tour of duty as head of a school district, Rojas is making his mark with reconstitution. He's sold it to the school board. He's promoted it on the lecture circuit. He's even writing his doctoral dissertation on reconstitution, something that has prompted critics to question whether this is all one big research project for Rojas' own educational advancement.

When Rojas arrived in San Francisco in 1992, the groundwork for reconstitution already had been laid.

For starters, the district had for a decade been under a federal court order for desegregation and had been slammed for the perpetually low achievement of African-American and Latino students. In many ways, the court order became the superintendent's best friend. It authorizes reconstituting schools -- in other words, evicting teachers from their classrooms despite their union contract. And that, Rojas says, is vital.

"It's one of the few professions where you have tenure for life," says Rojas. "I wish I could say that I've had wonderful discussions with the union about it, but we've had no discussions. There's no changing on that. The reason I know there's no changing on that is that if I have to dismiss people in a contentious way for abuse cases, imagine when I'm just talking about someone who can't teach."

He's not alone in this assessment. It's open season on teacher tenure across the country. With growing fervor, reform advocates from the Christian right all the way to Jaime Escalante, whose teaching in Los Angeles was the subject of the film Stand and Deliver, have blamed the tenure system for the pubic schools' sclerosis. Tenure has been used as an argument for charter school and voucher programs and is central to many debates on education funding.

Teachers with tenure -- meaning that they have passed the district's two-year probationary period -- are protected by contract from being fired without due process, and from involuntary transfer.

"It takes about $100,000 and a lot of real good lawyering [to get rid of a tenured teacher]," says Rojas.

Union contract also precludes the district from sidestepping its standard wage scale by paying extra for special qualifications or based on merit. So Rojas is chasing the teachers around with the big stick of reconstitution.

"Some schools in San Francisco, Detroit, New York, doesn't matter where it is, obtain a dysfunctional organizational culture that becomes absolutely resistant to change," Rojas explains.

"On occasion, the trauma of going through [reconstitution] is unfortunate, but people do get with the program and understand the seriousness of it," he says. "It's not only important for them, but it's important for their colleagues."

And the reform is critical, says Rojas, for students.
African-Americans are lagging behind their peers on standardized tests by about a third. And Latino students aren't faring much better. The district hadn't done anything else that produced meaningful results for its poor and minority students, which was exactly the court's point in 1992. It's hard to argue against something when you're not doing anything better.

Shortly after the court sanctioned reconstitution and Rojas took the helm, the district instituted its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan (CSIP), which measures school performance by test scores, dropout rates, suspensions, and so forth. Poorly performing schools are given a year to improve or be reconstituted. And, some have.

Alvarado Elementary, Leonard Flynn Elementary, and Luther Burbank Middle schools, for instance, all managed to clean up their acts enough to pass muster with the district and avoid reconstitution. Five other schools did likewise. But another eight were not so successful and were reconstituted, beginning in 1994 with Bret Harte Elementary and Visitacion Valley Middle schools.

The decision to reconstitute a school is made by a review team consisting of Rojas, two assistants, and consultant Hoover Liddell, former principal of Wilson High School. It must also be approved by the Board of Education. The evaluation is based both on the hard numbers, such as test scores, and on less definitive measures such as student portfolios, the school's general plan, an oral presentation to the review team, and the general opinion of how the place is working.

The team looks at how involved students are in their work, what kinds of activities are going on in the classroom, and lesson plans and makes a judgment call.

If the vote is negative, the staff is tossed, and the cavalry arrives. The district hires a new principal, who hires a new staff, which may or may not include members of the existing staff. Class size is often reduced and a new structure imposed, like the "families" at Visitacion Valley.

None of which is exclusive to San Francisco. Some version of reconstitution has been employed around the country, mostly in urban, inner-city schools where all else has failed. Often it involves a district or state takeover of the school.

As many of those reconstitutions have shown, the act of shaking things up, especially in a historically troubled school, is likely to produce some result -- something arguably being better than nothing. But whether reconstitution can produce lasting results is a question that's beginning to trouble some of the move's original supporters on the San Francisco Board of Education. "The Board of Education decided to move ahead with reconstitution because we were at a point in time where we were trying all kinds of things, and it seemed that we couldn't make advances in the academic improvement of our youngsters," says Leland Yee, a board member who voted against reconstitution for the first time earlier this year. "Do we need to do reconstitution anymore? More fundamental, does reconstitution work? I don't know if the district has the sufficient research design in place to answer that question. I can't support that anymore. I don't think that there's the research and data to back it up."

Mary has taught for more than three decades. Like most teachers interviewed, she will not allow her real name to be used for fear of reprisal.

More than 15 years ago, she chose to work at a tough school in a tough neighborhood in San Francisco because she felt that she was needed there. All of the evaluations she has received say that she's an excellent teacher. So do her peers.

But when her school was reconstituted, Mary didn't reapply.
"You don't feel like your work is finished and at the same time somebody's saying that you're not good enough and that your work didn't count," she says. "That's such a degrading thing. I felt like, 'Well, if they don't feel like I'm good enough maybe I ought to go somewhere else.' "

When Mary was growing up, teaching was an honored profession. So, about 30 years ago, she became a teacher.

But the game has changed since then.
Over the years, more and more of Mary's students came from homes with disintegrating families, where parents were dead or incarcerated. Discipline took more time, more energy; class sizes swelled.

Incrementally debilitating as those changes were, she says, reconstitution was the last straw:

"It takes something out of you that you never get back. Even though I still teach, and I like the kids, and I enjoy teaching, there's something that was just pulled out. You don't have that burning spirit. It's degrading and demoralizing. No matter how hard I work, no matter what I do in the classroom, I never feel like I was as good as I was before that. Going through this process just does that to you."

When a school is reconstituted, all of the staff is booted out -- the good and the bad. But the union contract prevents teachers from being fired. So, the displaced are invited to apply for open positions at other schools within the district, or reapply for their old jobs.

"Lots of times you have teachers who have gotten excellent evaluations for years individually," says Joan-Marie Shelley, president of the United Educators of San Francisco. "They are collectively found guilty. They go out to interview at other schools and get the message that they are damaged goods."

This game of musical chairs among the teachers is made possible, in part, by an early retirement plan that purged about 300 teachers from the district in 1994 and will likely do the same in 1998. This may get more complicated soon, however, especially for high schools. A teacher with a high school credential cannot teach elementary school and vice versa (both may teach in a middle school). And there are fewer high schools; therefore, fewer spots available as more of them are reconstituted.

Meanwhile, shortages of math, science, and bilingual teachers are chronic. Which is little wonder. The highest starting salary for a teacher (typically available only for such specialists) is less than $29,000 in San Francisco. By contrast, computer engineers (generally math and science majors) start at about $60,000, which is about $10,000 above the highest teacher's salary in the district -- paid after 24 years of service.

As reconstitution continues, the following scenario becomes more familiar to teachers:

Maria (also not her real name) loses her teaching position through reconstitution. She is hired by another principal in a school that has been threatened with reconstitution and is trying to get its act together, which would indicate that she is viewed as someone who could help the school improve. When that school is reconstituted, however, Maria once again finds herself out applying for a job.

The result, teachers say, is that good teachers are the ones on the run, avoiding the schools that need them the most because they don't want to go through reconstitution again.

"What this has done to morale in this district is devastating," says school board member Jill Wynns, a longtime teacher supporter. "It's easy to say that morale is not as important as student achievement, but I don't think you can have one without the other. We've undercut the staff's ability to do the work that they do.

"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.

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.

Flores has a vision and a road map. He and the teachers are actually working together toward the same goal. And collectively, they direct the business of education in a manageable structure.

The curriculum is relevant. The students are engaged. Everyone is held accountable for learning. And it's not an isolated group of buildings where kids and adults do time; it's a part of their world.

"I had the opportunity to work in a school that's been reconstituted," says Flores. "Does it have to take place that way? No it doesn't. But is it happening [without reconstitution] in the United States? No. Where is the success taking place with inner-city kids?"

The district's own schools show that simply mixing up the staff will not bring about meaningful change. John Muir Elementary and James Lick Middle schools, both originally targeted by the court, were reconstituted years ago and neither was successful.

The schools later wound up in the CSIP program and were released without being reconstituted again.

"Lick and Muir were reconstituted in a bastardized fashion, which, is my belief what stems the real hatred of reconstitution," says Rojas. "They did it, and they got it wrong. So the teachers' union says we've already proven that it doesn't work. Which is true -- just saying, 'OK, everybody out' doesn't."

The schools that were most successful during the original court case were completely redesigned during a yearlong process directed by the court's panel of experts. The adults were new, and so were a lot of the children, since this was done as part of a greater desegregation effort. Most of the schools were converted into magnet schools that followed a specific theme. Many took a page or two in design from the alternative schools, serving a particular population of students whose parents had to sign agreements stating that they would help their children succeed in order to get them into the school.

That's a bit different than the current scenario, where reconstitution takes place about three or four months before school starts. The district has less freedom to move children around because of the ethnic caps, which prevents things like creating a Chinese or Spanish bilingual school.

Visitacion Valley Principal Flores is working with newly reconstituted schools in an attempt to clone the operation of his school. But, again, this begs the question of whether a school has to hit bottom before turning around.

Clearly reconstitution is not a panacea for public education. There isn't one. On the other hand, it wouldn't even be an issue if the schools had succeeded in the first place; so blindly dismissing the benefits is equally absurd.

Perhaps it's just too scary. Because reconstitution really means admitting that the public school system has sunk so far that the only way to adequately educate the city's children is to start over again.

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