Hard Lessons

Students without textbooks. Crumbling facilities. Rats. Spending time at Balboa High School can be a real education.

At Balboa High School, Alondra Sharae Jones is known for making herself known. In the five minutes between classes, the 17-year-old senior, clad in bright orange pants, moves through the hallways like a party hostess, bellowing a greeting to a friend a few yards away, then running to embrace another with a shriek. Weaving her way to the stairwell, she bounces up, two steps at a time. On the third floor, Alondra's social cycle begins anew, as she calls to friends she sees in the distance.

"I am not a shy person," she declares. "I like all eyes on me."

Alondra is no less outgoing in class. She is quick to raise her hand for class discussions or offer under-the-breath commentary on the proceedings, making her presence felt.

Art teacher Elham Khodabandeloo, Principal Patricia Gray, and media arts teacher George Lee say teaching at Balboa means juggling lesson plans with counseling and disciplining.
Jonathan Wayshak
Art teacher Elham Khodabandeloo, Principal Patricia Gray, and media arts teacher George Lee say teaching at Balboa means juggling lesson plans with counseling and disciplining.
Art teacher Elham Khodabandeloo, Principal Patricia Gray, and media arts teacher George Lee say teaching at Balboa means juggling lesson plans with counseling and disciplining.
Akim Aginsky
Art teacher Elham Khodabandeloo, Principal Patricia Gray, and media arts teacher George Lee say teaching at Balboa means juggling lesson plans with counseling and disciplining.


A Balboa High Primer

Located in the Excelsior District, Balboa serves about 1,100 students from Sunnydale, Bayview/Hunters Point, and Lakeview -- among the city's poorest communities. More than three-fourths of its students come from low-income families, which qualifies them as "educationally disadvantaged." In a recent survey, 61 percent of Balboa's students said they eat fewer than two meals a day.

More than 90 percent of its students are minorities, primarily black, Latino, and Filipino. They represent a broad range of academic skills, with 13 percent having special education needs and 29 percent having limited English proficiency.

For the last two years, Balboa students have averaged near the 20th percentile for reading proficiency and in the low 30 percentiles for math, making the school one of the lowest-performing in the district.

Teachers and staff say that underperforming schools like Balboa have long been the district's dumping ground for students rejected and expelled from other schools. Balboa has a policy of accepting almost any student, including those socially promoted from junior high with a 0.00 grade point average and kids with criminal backgrounds or severe emotional issues.

"There are tiers of schools," says history teacher Shane Safir. "The kids that get kicked out of the upper and middle tiers end up at Mission, Balboa, or McAteer. The kids that have the worst behavioral issues, who need a lot of attention, end up at Balboa."

At least partly for that reason, Balboa High has long been dogged with a reputation as a "ghetto school," though conditions now aren't as bad as they used to be. Only four years ago, Balboa was in virtual chaos. Gang members raided the quad at lunch. Students wandered the halls during class. Security guards found students having sex in the bathrooms. The school was scarred by graffiti and broken windows. Nearly a third of the teachers quit every year.

The school was such a disaster that in 1996 the district threw up its hands and "reconstituted" Balboa: It fired the entire staff in a last-ditch effort to turn the school around.

With reconstitution came a physical facelift of new paint and windows, and an entirely new (and inexperienced) staff. Things are beginning to improve. The current administrative leadership has been in place for more than a year, and teachers are staying longer. Test scores have increased slightly, and staff members say the school's social culture has changed noticeably.

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Teachers at Balboa High consider Alondra one of the brightest and most inspiring students in a school long known as one of the worst in San Francisco. Alondra's English teacher says she is a "teacher's dream" because she is "like a plant that just grows and grows." Indeed, the honor roll student has her aims set high. She hopes to attend Howard University and plans to become an actress.

Even so, Alondra is struggling to graduate this spring. She has had to take summer school and night classes to meet the basic requirements for graduation because the public school system has played hooky with her education.

The conditions at her school are so unpleasant, she says, that it has hindered her ability to learn. In some of her classes, she is not even allowed to take textbooks home to study because there aren't enough for all the students. Other classes lack basic supplies. Rooms are missing ceiling tiles, wallpaper is peeling, window shades are unusable. The gym has rats, and the bathrooms are so vandalized and disgusting that students must be escorted to them by security guards.

But Alondra's biggest complaint is that in her four years at Balboa she has taken multiple classes with long-term substitutes. In Spanish class last year, for example, her regular teacher fled to Mexico in the middle of the school year to evade an arrest warrant, forcing Alondra and her classmates to spend the rest of the year with a rotating cast of substitutes. Though the school searched tirelessly for a replacement teacher, qualified Spanish instructors were hard to come by so late in the year. But the subs could not control the classroom and disregarded lesson plans provided by the administration. Instead, they played popular movies like Rush Hour and Entrapment during class.

At the end of the year, the class was given a final exam, which Alondra failed.

"The only people that passed were native Spanish speakers," Alondra says indignantly. "That's cool, but it's not my fault. I told them that if they wanted to test me on the movies I had watched, that would be fine. But I had to drop that class because I couldn't take a bad grade for something that was not my fault."

To meet the language requirements for graduation, Alondra now takes night classes in Japanese at San Francisco City College.

Alondra, however, has done much more than complain about conditions at Balboa High. Last August she became a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against California's Board of Education, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 100 schoolchildren in 46 public schools.

The suit, Williams vs. California, alleges that "too many California schoolchildren go to schools that shock the conscience. ... Schools lack the bare essentials required of a free and common education."

The ACLU contends that California has allowed a dramatic inequality to develop among schools in the state. The "substandard" conditions at many schools affect primarily poor and minority children, the ACLU says, which violates several clauses of the California Constitution, including the Civil Rights Act and the equal protection clause.

Balboa is one of three San Francisco schools cited as examples in the suit, along with schools from most other Bay Area counties and throughout California.

The state, in its written response to the court, calls the ACLU's suit vague and incomprehensible. It sees no discrimination in the way it runs schools and says it already has strict regulations for public schools. The state also says that local districts are responsible for problems at individual schools.

But the ACLU believes California is shirking its responsibilities. "If we have schools, we need to stock the schools," says ACLU attorney Katherine Lhamon. "And I'm not talking about an iMac in every classroom. But how can you call these things schools? You can't call a classroom that has no books a learning place. There has been unbelievable underfunding by the state. This suit is about ensuring that everyone has a minimum opportunity and every essential tool for an education."

For Alondra, the decision to join the lawsuit was more personal. "I'm mad [about the conditions]," she says, "but why pout? The only thing I can do is fight for the kids who are in ninth grade now, so they won't have to go through what I went through."

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