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On a Friday afternoon in February, the auditorium of Gloria R. Davis College Preparatory Academy is filled with seventh- and eighth-graders and some of their parents. Excited chatter bounces off cold, hard surfaces, and little siblings tumble in the aisles. The cheerful gathering is the Bayview school's end-of-semester awards ceremony to honor its best, in both athletics and academics.
The kids wear uniforms: burgundy blazers, white shirts with collars, black ties, and black slacks. Even though a few have managed to sneak in hip hop-inspired accessories -- a pink hair extension or rhinestone-studded belt buckle -- they are still very much children. Their features are round, their voices high-pitched, and they're not old enough to be too cool for school. Athletic coaches announce the winners of the Most Inspirational and Most Valuable Player awards, and the students hoot and squeal. They spontaneously applaud their principal, Matthew Livingston, when he comes onstage to announce the academic honorees.
But the 35 members of the honor roll will have to wait their turn. First, Livingston calls up the "Rising Scholars." These are kids who have improved their grade point averages -- even a tiny amount, and even if the result is an average grade of 1.5, or C-minus -- since their last report cards. There are 61 of them.
"These kids are on their way to the honor roll!" Livingston crows into the microphone.
As their names are announced one by one, the Rising Scholars climb the stage; most wear expressions of embarrassed pride. Those who have parents in the audience get their picture snapped. Friends scream encouragement from below. Livingston hands each Rising Scholar a certificate, then attempts to put a necklace made of nylon cord -- a sort of extended key chain -- around his or her neck. Some of the girls coyly twist away to avoid physical contact, in which case Livingston hands the gift to them. But most stand still, proudly, as if receiving an Olympic medal. They even allow Livingston to give them an affectionate pat on the shoulder before darting down the stage stairs.
It's a touching scene, but one that raises questions. Many of these kids are being publicly recognized and applauded for doing work that is barely passing. Unlike the honor roll kids, who hold a B average or better, Rising Scholars didn't do particularly well on their tests and almost certainly didn't complete all their homework. In the larger educational picture, a C-minus average will do nothing for them. It certainly won't get them into a four-year university. Davis is, ostensibly, a college-prep academy. You might wonder if it's sending the wrong message to its students.
But, as Livingston and other Davis staffers are often heard repeating, "You have to start somewhere."
This past fall, Davis reopened its doors as one of San Francisco's first three "Dream Schools" -- the name for a controversial reform initiative spearheaded by the San Francisco Unified School District's superintendent, Arlene Ackerman. The idea behind the program is to transform some of the city's lowest-performing schools in some of its poorest neighborhoods into high-achieving "academies" whose graduates go on to college. Three Bayview schools, including Davis, were selected as the initiative's first, with seven others in the pipeline for this fall.
Davis and its fellow Dream Schools, Charles R. Drew Elementary School and Twenty-First Century Academy, a former middle school, underwent many big changes. They were partially restaffed and their grade levels rearranged. In Davis' case, it went from being a middle school to only seventh- and eighth-graders. But one new class will be added each year until the school has grades seven through 12.
Student uniforms were made mandatory, the school day extended by two hours, and Saturday school offered. New resources were poured into the schools, including electives such as art and music. Full-time child psychologists, nurses, and parent liaisons were hired. Potholes were filled and walls painted.
For each sweeping change, there were scores of other, subtler ones. For instance, parents and students were asked to sign a contract at the beginning of the school year, binding them to the schools' stricter rules, dubbed "non-negotiables." Teachers were required to talk up the concept of college and refer to students as "scholars."
But for all the improvements made at the Dream Schools, they are not yet dazzling college-preparatory academies to which San Francisco parents will be clamoring to send their kids next year.
The reality is that underneath the campus facelifts and burgundy blazers that give the Dream Schools a veneer of success, there are deep problems that will take years to work out -- assuming they ever can be.
As Davis celebrates its six-month birthday as a Dream School, it's impossible to know whether it will ultimately become the impressive institution the district envisions. But it's clear that if effort and dedication are any measure, then Davis may eventually succeed. A passionate group of teachers, parent volunteers, and local school administrators have taken the district's dream and made it their own. They're stubbornly determined to rebuild Davis, step by tiny, difficult, frustrating step.
The San Francisco Unified School District has some of the highest test scores in California when compared with cities of similar size, such as Oakland or Fresno. But its African-American and Latino students score at rock bottom. This is a decades-old trend that was supposed to have been reversed long ago.