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What Alondra and her classmates go through becomes apparent in following Alondra through her daily classes. It is an education in the realities of life at one of San Francisco's lowest-performing schools.
Alondra strolls into her first-period class at 8:13 a.m. -- two minutes before the bell rings -- and slides into her desk in the second row. Tim Gabutero, her health education teacher, looks at her with surprise.
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.
"I'm on time, Mr. Gabutero!" Alondra boasts.
"I know, I can't believe it," Gabutero says, laughing.
Alondra has been tardy twice already this week because she was late catching the bus to school. Alondra lives with three other people, including a cousin who acts as her legal guardian, and "it's a struggle for the bathroom and the iron," Alondra says. Because of stricter tardy policies this year, her guardian was supposed to come with her to school to sign off on her tardies before she would be allowed back on campus. But her guardian couldn't take time off from work, so Alondra, determined not to miss a full day of school, sneaked through the school gate with her face hidden behind a binder.
The bell rings, and Gabutero tells his students to begin their daily "freewrites." The exercise is part of the school's effort to emphasize reading and writing in all classes because Balboa students score among the lowest on standardized tests in San Francisco; many students cannot read at grade level.
An easygoing and well-liked teacher, Gabutero says he is often startled and saddened by the things his students write. One student this morning expresses that she is "continuously stressed" from school and her after-school job at a toy store. "I can barely keep my eyes open," she writes.
Another student writes about her experience the night before, when she heard gunshots and found out that a friend from her neighborhood had been shot dead. The student is shocked. "He is so nice. I can't believe someone would want to shoot him."
Other students produce only a few muddled sentences about baseball and girlfriends, censored by apathy or limited English proficiency.
After the freewrites are collected, Gabutero instructs his students to get a book from the stack at the front of the room. Gabutero has two health ed classes, but only 30 books, so students return their texts to a messy pile when the bell rings instead of taking them home.
Book shortages are a common cry among students and some teachers at Balboa. Gabutero says he wishes he could give more homework, but he can't if his students don't have textbooks. For years, English teachers said the only books in the depository were published before their students were even born.
If there aren't enough books, teachers often resort to photocopying portions of books for readings and homework. And because the school's copy machines don't always work, the teachers often pay for the copies at Kinko's out of their own pockets.
But textbook availability has improved dramatically this year, thanks in part to a state grant for underperforming schools.
Once his students have their books, Gabutero instructs the class to open them to the section on sexually transmitted diseases. When the discussion digresses to abortion, students begin raising their hands to swap stories.
"My cousin just had someone punch her in the stomach so she'd have a miscarriage," one girl says.
"Yeah, I know someone who ran into a doorknob to do it," another girl offers. Gabutero shakes his head. "I learn so much from you," he says.
Gabutero, who came to Balboa a year ago, says his students go through a lot at home, and he doesn't think it helps that the school conditions -- drooping window shades and filthy bathrooms -- resemble their dreary personal lives.
Gabutero also teaches physical education and says the gym and sports equipment are especially pathetic. Often, he has only half as much equipment as he does students, so many kids spend their PE class watching others play.
Every day, he leads classes through stretching exercises in Balboa's crumbling gym. White paint peels from the walls, and the scratched wooden floor has seen too many years without refinishing. On the other side of a flimsy partition is another basketball court that isn't used for stretches because the PE teachers don't want their students sitting on the bird feces smeared into the gym floor. Gabutero explains that before the gym's exterior windows were fixed a few years ago, birds flew into the gym and defecated. Though the PE teachers scrubbed the floors, the mess remains, and the school can't afford to clean it up completely. There is still a mice problem, and rodents scurry around behind the wooden slats lined against the gym walls.
"We try to build self-esteem, but then look at these conditions -- rats, pigeon feces," Gabutero says. "The kids go to other schools and everything is brand-new, and they ask me why we don't have the same. What am I supposed to tell them?"
Alondra slips quietly into her second-period art class, taking a seat at the front of the room. Elham Khodabandeloo, the petite art teacher known for her funky fashion sense, instructs her students to do a freewrite on their emotions. "It doesn't have to make sense, it's just how you feel," she tells the class.