Bus to Nowhere

Why San Francisco's Byzantine school desegregation program systematically fails the children it was designed to help

At 6:45 a.m., Sarah Hoffmann leaves the former Senator Hotel, which is now an apartment building where she lives with her mother, Heather, and her baby brother, Nathan. Sarah heads down Ellis Street to its intersection with Leavenworth and, as yellow taxis whiz by, crosses the street to the corner. There, she will wait for the bus that takes her from her home in the unlovely Tenderloin to a school on the safe and isolated government preserve of Treasure Island. Sarah is 6 years old and quite fond of the first grade.

On this particular morning, she's bundled into a turquoise coat and a pink backpack whose color nearly matches the juice mustache on her face. On most days, Sarah's mother stands with her, baby Nathan in a stroller. Today, Sarah is under the eye of other adults at the bus stop; her mother fell on the Muni bus last week and has her leg in a cast.

Sarah takes her place in front of a black gate locked across the front of a barber shop that faces a littered street where her bus will arrive. She's first in line to board the bus today, an important position to hold when you're 6 years old.

The morning air is crisp, and the sun is starting to shine through the clouds. Within a few minutes, three more ponytailed girls come from somewhere up Ellis Street, accompanied by one mom. A steel door next to the barber shop creaks open and out comes a small boy with a Power Rangers backpack, followed by another mom. They move to the end of what is now a lineup, following the front of the building. Across the street, a woman with gray hair who looks a few decades older than her likely chronological age staggers and weaves.

There are 4,000 children under the age of 18 in the Tenderloin, more than 1,200 of whom are of elementary school age. There is no school in the Tenderloin. Right now, the children of the Tenderloin are bused to more than 40 different elementary schools all over the city -- from Treasure Island to Nob Hill to Western Addition to Chinatown and almost everywhere else.

As 7 o'clock approaches this morning in March, there are six kids and two moms gathered into the line that Sarah began. Across the street, what appears to be a woman in what appears to be a prostitute's garb -- black hot pants and high heels -- begins to argue with a man with a cane. The altercation attracts the attention of the adults at the bus lineup. Sarah is oblivious to the event.

"April 3 is my birthday," she says, tilting the bottom of an orange juice container up until the entire contents have been consumed. "I'm going to be 7."

Her attention is diverted across the street to Ryan Maxwell, a friend who has emerged from the Senator sporting a denim jacket and four braids corralled into two pigtails.

"There's Ryan," she announces. "Rryyyyyyyaaaann!!!!"
Ryan looks across the street and smiles, then quickly catches herself, regaining a cool composure and crossing the street without further acknowledgment.

"The bus is always late," Ryan says offhandedly as she joins the bus line, her eyes fixed on a young boy passing by on his way to another corner, where he will wait for another bus. The boy turns quickly, and both children stick their tongues out at each other. A girl, the 12th of this little grouping, meanders toward the corner as the bus makes its way up Ellis Street.

"Hurry up Jasmine," Ryan bellows. "The bus is coming. You're going to miss it."

And if you miss this bus, you miss school. There are no later buses taking students from the Tenderloin to the near-fantasy known as Treasure Island.

Treasure Island is simply, absolutely, stunningly beautiful. It features the Bay Area's best view of San Francisco, a picture postcard, but it's as real as salt air and strong sunshine. The school there is probably the safest in the city, located on what was until recently a military base. The school also has something no other San Francisco public school seems to possess: space. The play yards are huge, courtesy of the Department of Defense, which is closing the base and donating it to San Francisco.

But no matter how idyllic the setting, a school on Treasure Island can't give the kids of the Tenderloin the community and parental support that a neighborhood school should. Even parents who live in the ugly, gritty, dysfunctional world of the Tenderloin want their children to go to school nearby.

So by the end of next year, after nearly a decade of campaigning, politicking, arguing, and negotiating, the Tenderloin will finally get its own school. The building, designed at no charge by San Francisco architect Joe Esherick, who also designed the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is under way on Turk Street, near Van Ness. Along with classrooms, the new school will house a community center that can provide medical, dental, child care, and social services to families stuffed into grungy rooms and apartments throughout the Tenderloin. There's even space for a big kitchen, and a rooftop garden.

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