By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Proudly, Lee says that even though Balboa needs new desks and chairs, it still has the best computer lab in the school district. "My class is really a bright spot, isn't it?" Lee muses. "God, I worked so hard to build that program."
The fifth-period bell rings and Alondra settles into her wooden desk in Room 306, Steven Brady's European literature class.
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.
Brady is undisputedly Balboa's most popular teacher. School Dean Roni Howard says the fact that students beg to get into his classes on European lit is a testament to Brady's magical teaching powers.
Brady has a booming voice and a commanding presence in the classroom. He is firm but understanding. Brady believes he succeeds in engaging his students intellectually because he accommodates the breadth of skill levels in a single class, which ranges from the extremely bright Alondras to special education students.
But the varying skill levels of his students is only one part of the Balboa puzzle, Brady says.
The ACLU lawsuit focuses on school facilities and supplies, but many teachers at Balboa say the school's issues go far deeper. The quality of education is also affected by a host of social issues, including poverty and the students' home life, that find their way onto campus.
"I am asked to be a parent, extended family member, counselor, big brother, and instructor," Brady says of teaching at Balboa. "With these kids, if we could have more teachers with smaller classes, we could do a lot more for them."
Smaller classes has been the mantra of teachers throughout the school because they say teaching at Balboa means juggling a lesson plan with impromptu counseling and disciplining.
But small class sizes are not a reality. Brady's fifth-period class bounces between 30 and 35 students, depending on who shows up for school, and on this morning he has to raise his voice to quiet the unwieldy class.
"I'm waiting ...," Brady calls out. "Still waiting ...."
Once the students settle down, Brady tells them to write a paragraph about their most powerful attribute.
Alondra begins to write thoughtfully. The classroom becomes quiet, if only momentarily.
After a few minutes, Brady asks for volunteers to read their paragraphs aloud. Alondra's hand shoots up. Brady gives her a nod.
"My strongest characteristic is not a characteristic -- it's a fact," Alondra says, reading confidently from her paper. "It's a fact that I am my mother's child, and I have inherited a sense of motivation from her. Whenever I think I can't do something, I think of my mom. I am glad I have inherited motivation from my mom because now I can do anything."
In addition to being Alondra's main source of motivation, Alondra's mother is also a homeless drug addict living on the streets of San Francisco.
At age 11, when Alondra's mother could no longer care for her, Alondra went to live with her second cousin in Bayview/ Hunters Point. Alondra's two younger sisters moved in around the corner with their great-aunt, and her two older brothers moved to Sunnydale, though one is constantly in and out of jail.
Splitting up the family was an act of desperation six years ago. Alondra and her family were evicted when she was 9, and the family lived for two years in a car and a homeless shelter. When the situation didn't improve, the kids moved in with relatives.
Alondra says she doesn't remember when her mother started taking drugs, and she still doesn't know why. But she says her mother has always been the most kind, generous, and motivated person she knows.
"She always tries," Alondra says. "Other people don't try. Like my dad. He didn't try, but she always did. She would come around, and it could be her last dollar or her very last piece of bread, and she would give it to us. Sometimes she's too giving and people take advantage of her.
"I try and dedicate everything good I do to my momma," Alondra continues. "I want people to see that she did something right by me."
Even with a more stable living arrangement in recent years, unpredictable circumstances have interrupted Alondra's dogged pursuit of an education. During her sophomore year, her cousin lost her job, and Alondra had to stay home from school for a month to take care of her younger cousins.
"I had to be the one to take the kids to school and pick them up and make dinner," Alondra recalls. "I had a friend take the homework for me, but there was only so much I could do. It was nobody's fault."
Having missed a month of school, Alondra ended up with a D in biology, which she made up through night classes.
She says the extra hours of classes have been "strenuous," but she pursues a high school diploma with blind determination. Her mother, father, and two older brothers all dropped out of high school, so should she graduate in June, she will be the first in the family with a high school diploma. "That means something to me," Alondra says. "My sisters need an example. I'm going to graduate. I am going to be that icon."