By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Alondra doesn't usually talk about her difficult home life at school, where she is known for her positivity and optimism. She says it's easy to be upbeat at school, where classes fill her head with Greek mythology or media arts, not "that mess outside."
"I don't have any home problems when I'm at school," Alondra says. "School is my sanctuary."
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.
Most of Balboa's staff found out that their school had been included in a lawsuit by reading about it in the newspaper right before the school year began. Once the staff returned to Balboa in the fall, misinformation spread through the halls like a bad rumor. Many teachers mistakenly thought Balboa was getting sued; everyone was on the defensive.
Principal Gray says at first she felt "intimidated" by the suit because of the amount of energy it would take up, but now she thinks it's "OK."
"We've got nothing to hide," she says. "There are some things that we have done right, and some things we have not done well enough."
She is troubled with what she perceives to be inaccuracies in some of the ACLU's allegations regarding Balboa and has offered a written rebuttal to the school district.
She says that contrary to the ACLU's argument, Balboa has enough money for textbooks, though there are a variety of reasons for shortages, ranging from teachers not ordering books on time, teachers choosing to use unavailable books, texts simply not arriving once they've been ordered, and students losing books. In fact, a popular joke among teachers is that Balboa "hemorrhages" textbooks.
Gray says she has worked hard to staff Balboa with qualified teachers, but sometimes unexpected circumstances -- like teachers evading arrest warrants -- come up. Gray uses emergency credentialed teachers -- student teachers with little or no classroom experience -- when she has to, and not all of them are unqualified. She says some have worked out so well she has gladly hired them once they earned permanent credentials.
Gray acknowledges that certain departments such as physical education, art, and music are underfunded, but there is only so much she can do. Gray adds that the school can afford to provide a bit more to these departments -- though not enough, teachers argue -- but some of the inexperienced teachers sometimes forget to fill out paperwork for supplies. Though she has tried to be vocal about some of her deteriorating facilities, Gray is equally hamstrung when it comes to the decrepit gym, bleachers, and football field because they are not funding priorities for the district.
The teachers, too, are conflicted about the lawsuit. Some hope the case will bring more attention to educational inequity, while others find the lawsuit misguided.
"There are definitely problems with the facilities, which you can tell just by looking at them," says social studies teacher Matt Alexander. "We can't get our shades fixed, there are only six phone lines, and we need more computers. All these things are really annoying, but they're not our biggest problem. Educational quality is our problem. This is a big, anonymous school, and then you bring in kids with a lot of challenges and it's a recipe for failure, no matter how talented the staff is."
Brady, Alondra's fifth-period teacher, says he heartily supports the ACLU lawsuit, but for someone on the front line of public education, his main concern is to keep teaching, despite the conditions.
"Clearly, if we have bathrooms that don't work and are foul, we are not serving our students," Brady says. "And if we have holes in our floor and chalkboards and shades that don't go up and down, and if I don't have the level of cleanliness that I'd like, that'll affect the way I teach. But there are a lot of really good people here trying to make do with it. Patricia Gray doesn't get the money to work with. And she can't gripe about it, and she won't. Because what can she do? It's like fighting a war without enough guns."