Bus to Nowhere

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

"They're having to work so much, having to care for their families," Mejia explains. "Having food [at school events] helps, whether it's a potluck or whether they all pitch in and have one or two parents make something."

Otherwise families miss dinner by the time they get to school and back.

From its perch atop a hill near Highway 101 and the Cow Palace, Visitacion Valley Middle School has a view of the entire valley for which it is named. It is an appropriate location for a school that's sticking its nose in everyone's business.

In the last three decades, Visitacion Valley has gone from Italian enclave to African-American community to Chinese neighborhood. Now, the Valley's an ethnic grab bag. The school is populated almost entirely by kids from its surrounding neighborhood. The kids speak a variety of languages. About 75 percent of them live in poverty, which is well above the average for San Francisco.

Otherwise, though, Visitacion Valley Middle School is the happiest of ethno-educational accidents: It is almost perfectly racially integrated. No one is bused to or from the school for racial reasons, because it is within the ethnic dictates of the federal desegregation consent decree naturally.

The school appears to be headed in the right direction educationally, too.
Three years ago, the school got an internal makeover, via reconstitution and a new principal. And last year it got money.

Beyond its educational functions, Visitacion Valley is home to two government programs that are running simultaneously and appear to be working, separately and together.

Funded by a $400,000, three-year grant from the state, the Healthy Start Program has brought an array of social services from the state departments of Health Services and Public Health, St. Luke's Hospital, and various family service agencies onto the campus. And through the Mayor's Office of Children, Youth, and Families and a handful of private foundations, the school has obtained another $350,000 for a so-called Beacon Program. Started in New York City, Beacon programs are designed to turn schools into community centers.

The two programs provide the school with social workers to deal with social problems; a public health nurse to care for physical problems; and a handful of administrators to make sure the programs run smoothly. There are coaches and tutors, lawyers (San Francisco Bar Association volunteers do pro bono work for families), and cops (via the S.F. Police Department's Wilderness Program).

There are after-school programs for kids; English, computer, and parenting classes for adults. Tutoring, recreational activities, and even baby-sitting classes are provided. The Village, a housing project in the neighborhood, uses the school's gym for its sports program. The school nurse makes referrals to the clinic at the Village.

The school is arranged so that groups of teachers are assigned to groups of kids. The teachers are required to meet, to discuss the kids, and to include the social worker, the nurse, the tutor, or some other adult on campus whenever a particular kid is having a particular problem that a particular adult might be able to help solve. In one recent instance, a student revealed a family problem; the school team swooped in to prevent an eviction of the family.

"We are trying to, on an individual, case-by-case basis, figure out what they need," says Principal John Flores. "It would be fruitless to just work with the kids. We have to work with the whole family.

"You have to walk into the flow of what's happening in the Valley to figure out who's what. I eat in the Valley. I walk around in the Valley. I do my laundry in the Valley. The kids can't go anywhere without knowing that there's one of us who will see them."

And while the whole program is too new to have results that can be measured -- it began last year -- there are some indications that it is worth pursuing. Parents are coming to the school. The kids seem connected to the community. Their scores are rising.

"If people feel comfortable in the schools, they have a real say in their community, they will build real neighborhoods," says Beacon Director David Weiner. "I walk up and down the street, and parents stop me now. They're starting to know who we are. If we have a problem with the kids in school, we can go over to their house and deal with it directly. If their kids go to school here, they can walk over here.

"The beauty of having kids in the neighborhood is that if the store owners see them and know they're supposed to be in school, they'll tell us. I'm grateful for the situation where I'm at.

"It would be a real challenge if kids were bused from somewhere else."

There were good reasons for the federal courts to get involved with the San Francisco Unified School District in 1978. A significant portion of the city's schoolchildren were failing inside a substandard educational system that discriminated against some kids because of the color of their skin and the part of town they lived in.

But the desegregation consent decree signed in 1983 was a remedy that came late to San Francisco schools and was never fully, or properly, implemented. It never really had a chance. Proposition 13 made sure the San Francisco school district never had the money to do what it was supposed to do under the decree -- improve the education of minority students. And what money was available went to play a numbers game that may have desegregated public schools, but never came close to achieving the goal of desegregation -- a good education for the city's minority children.

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