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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"What Do They Do About That Broccoli That They Didn't Actually Eat?" -- Gavin Newsom, on the Challenges Facing Education in SF

Posted By on Wed, Dec 3, 2008 at 9:04 AM

Raising teachers' self esteem through massage - and other "education" moments from Gavin's enormous State of the City Address.

By Benjamin Wachs

Every now and again, Gavin Newsom finds his moment.

In the last State-of-the-Citysode, it was a brief minute when he was talking about why the Laguna Hospital bond failed so badly, and why he thinks San Francisco General won't. I don't buy his explanation, but for that one minute he was clear, reasonably concise, passionate and convincing; you got the sense that he had seen the problem and knew what he was talking about.

For one minute. Out of 46. And it's in the middle.

Today's State-of-the-Citysode, on Education, is of generally higher quality than the last. It's about 10 minutes shorter, nobody accidentally walks into the shot, there are fewer attempts at changing camera angle (though the one is REALLY bad), Gavin's bizarre southern accent doesn't emerge, and subjectively it feels like a much less brutal assault on your senses by a man who's determined to show you how much he knows about those laws he passed.

But even so, it still drags through about 30 of its 35 minutes, and there's only one really good spot where he steps up to the plate: at 23:33 on the clock, talking about the need to get truant kids back into school, he makes a passionate case for going all out to support the families of truant kids, instead of either ignoring the problem or threatening the parents.

Then he tells a compelling story about an Iraqi family living in public housing: the mother is scheduled to go back to Iraq, and the daughter won't go to school because she's terrified of leaving her mother. This isn't a situation where threatening calls can help, Newsom says.

It's good stuff. But it also highlights how enormously self-centered this whole enterprise is. Gavin rarely mentions other people - almost never by name - and when he does it's usually in the context of thanking his supporters. Much in the same way that it apparently never occurred to him that in seven-and-a-half hours of time, we might want to see someone else on camera: maybe bring in an expert, or a friend, or somebody a program helped. Or a juggler.

Other human beings rarely come into the world view Gavin implies here, except as obligations and after thoughts.

He also never tells jokes. He almost does, once, and then thinks better of it. I've watched 76 minutes of Gavin winging it so far, and the only humor is unintentional.

How unintentional? Well, for starters, he spends even more time talking about freakin' salad bars. Apparently they're FAR more important than he let on last time. And he promises an expanded discussion about them in the future.

I couldn't make this up.

Some highlights are below.

00:00 - Apparently 2008 was a crucial year for education in San Francisco. The "Partnership for Achievement" between the city and school district is a model, Gavin thinks, for other cities around the country. So far the only reason he's given is that, unlike some other cities, the city isn't trying to take over the schools.

01:29 - One of the things Gavin says he's most proud of about SF schools is that the city doesn't think of them as K-12, but rather as pre-K through 16. "The idea that it's kindergarten through 12th grade is to me anathema."

Yes, he really says that.

02:38 - San Francisco was the first city in California to implement universal pre-k. Gavin is, once again, so proud of that. We're less than three minutes in and he's already been proud five times.

04:38 - San Francisco Promise would guarantee every sixth grader in the public schools a four-year college education through CSU. They will be given college prep courses, be made aware of the opportunities available to college graduates, and would have college training programs. This year, for example, all 10th graders were given access to PSAT support.

How does this work?

He doesn't actually explain the funding mechanism, though says he will. He says there's an agreement, but goes into no details about that.

I've watched it twice, and I still don't know how the program actually works.

Here's what he says (04:57):

"How do you guarantee a four-year college education? How do you afford to do that? And where are you sending all of those kids? Well we decided to come together with the CSU system, California State University System, and we actually asked them to allow San Francisco to become a pilot system through San Francisco State University, through a partnership similar to the partnership that we've engaged in with the public schools, but with a state university system, and to build capacity and opportunity for all our 6th graders."

That's all he says about the nuts and bolts. How much will it cost? He doesn't say. Who's shouldering the expense? Doesn't say. But dammit, he's proud.

06:58 - He's now talking about arts education in schools. He's for it. Apparently any form of art will do: as long as it's art, it's good for kids.

07:51 - "As critically important as they are, not everyone will be enlivened by math and science, but we can create opportunities for people to be fully expressive. We can create the conditions where people live their lives in a much more meaningful way by participating artistically and building that self-esteem which is so important as a framework to them building the life that we want all of our young people to build. So arts education is another area where we are very, very proud."

Which motto sounds better? "Art: it's good for your self-esteem," or "No child left unenlivened"?

08:51 - Every high school has a "wellness center" to deal with health and adolescent mental health issues. That's the good news. The bad news, which Gavin doesn't mention, is that San Francisco's adolescent mental health issues are statistically off the chart: we are an incredibly toxic environment for adolescent kids. I would love to hear a discussion about why this is and what kind of steps wellness centers can take to address it - but apparently, for Gavin, just having them is enough. Because what kid doesn't feel better after having a good cry with the school nurse?

09:30 - Hey kids, want to be like Gavin? Let's all do the "wellness center" dance. First you face the camera and caress in a circle with your hands, then you turn to your side and shake a silo in the air, swish back around, and spank a state bureaucrat in slow motion. This is really what happens.

10:06 - "Speaking of fruit, let's talk vegetables."

10:23 - Giving our kids fruit "is one of the principle things we can do to support the energy levels of our kids." That and, you know, drugs.

10:43 - He's talking about the salad bars again. Apparently they are a key element of San Francisco's health AND environmental programs. "We have these 25 salad bars in our schools. This is a phenomenal success story. It's something that I hope is in every one of our public schools, it's part of a pilot program that was just initiated, and is something that is part of our greening initiative and health initiative in our city, and when I talk a little bit more in our environmental section, I want to amplify on some of the other greening initiatives that tie into these salad bars and tie into our health delivery system. Again, environmental health as well as physical and mental health."

So, if anybody asks you what sets San Francisco apart from other American cities, you can answer confidently: "The salad bars."

11:33 - He wants the city to focus on after-school activities. But he phrases it badly: "We're going to do pre-school for all. Why not do after-school for all?"

Well, the merits of the argument aside, that syllogism doesn't fit: "pre-school" means "before school" in the sense of age ... a program before they are old enough to attend school. "After school" means "activities that occur for school-age kids when school lets out." Oh, nevermind.

11:55 - Gavin almost tells a joke. "If we hear ANOTHER professional talk about the importance of hours between 3 and 7 p.m. and keeping our kids engaged...."

What? What will we do? I can't wait to find out!

Then, spinning on a dime, he thinks better of it and dropd the punch line: "..etcetera ...we've all heard that. What are we doing about it?"

The man has no future as a comedian. It's interesting, actually, that if you put Gavin Newsom in front of a camera for an hour (so far), and have him wing it, that he won't tell a single joke.

12:10 - "We have an initiative, a real initiative, to provide comprehensive after school programs for all of our kids universally by 2010, and we are on pace to meet that goal."

12:30 - he gives a shout-out to Department of Children, Youth, and Families director Margret Brodkin. This is the first time in this segment that he's referred to another human being.

13:00 - We need to do more to support our teachers. Not only by giving them more money, but "by recognizing ... by support and recognizing their self-worth."

What? Do teachers have self-esteem problems? Can they go to the wellness center?

13:25 - Apparently city teachers do have serious self-esteem issues, because Gavin says the city's "Teacher of the Month" award has gone a long way to solving the city's education problem.

14:08 - Sometimes the gift basket given to teachers of the month includes gift certificates for free massages. The teachers are worse off than I thought.

15:05 - "I go every single week and I visit the schools. I've been doing this every single week since I became mayor. Sometimes two, sometimes three schools a week." He, um, does know that he has a full time job, right?

Does he clear these visits with the school board?

15:19 - "You can always tell how good a school is performing by the art on the wall, and by the first observation, right when you meet a principal."

No WONDER Gavin's so big on art education. The art on the walls is critical! Honestly, why do we even bother with tests?

17:00 - Gavin is happy that the voters passed $28.5 million per year for teachers' raises and professional development. So am I ... but ... that isn't the end of the issue, it should be the beginning. What exactly counts as "professional development?" How are we making sure that whatever teachers spend this money on will likely help kids? Anybody? Anybody?

17:15 - Teachers will get a $5,000 base salary increase, plus additional money for working in hard-to-staff schools, plus additional money if they teach in a critical subject area, plus additional money if they engage in sufficient professional development activities. For some teachers, this will mean up to a 22% pay increase.

That sounds impressive - but is it enough for them to buy houses? Will it force them out of the economic range for the city's housing assistance programs? It's not enough to say "they're getting more money," without establishing that the money is actually solving the problems you need to solve. Gavin gets a pass on this one because it's the first year the new funding is available, so it's too early to see results. But I would have been much more confident if he'd given some explanation for why this is the right amount of money, and how it's supposed to help beyond just giving teachers more money.

19:26 - Newsom plugs "Carmen Chu, our supervisor" for "leading the way" to open city school playgrounds to neighborhood residents after school hours.

She must be thrilled, THRILLED, to have been plugged 19 minutes and 26 seconds into part II of the Mayor's 7.5 hour state of the city address. You just can't buy that kind of publicity.

19:39 - "I've been in local elected office... I think 12 years, almost 13: it took about that long to finally get the city and the school district to come together ...the attorneys and everybody else..."

Doesn't that say more about the problems confronting education in San Francisco than everything else he's been talking about?

21:00 - He's explaining a several hundred thousand dollar grant the system has received to turn city schools into community hubs. All well and good. But then he goes and says that it's "building on some of these principles that I've exampled by taking it to a whole 'nuther level."

Whoa, wait a minute: WHAT PRINCIPLES? Where in this whole 21 minutes - or the 46 minutes that came before - have you put forward a single principle? A single overarching idea that guides the direction of our policies and helps tell good ones from bad? Where was that?

Gavin's gone on about PROGRAMS at great length ...we're doing this, we're funding that, I'm so proud of this... but he hasn't articulated even one principle by which these programs should be judged and future programs created. If he has them, I would really like to hear what they are. But I've read enough city "plans" to know that, most of the time, Newsom's administration mostly just throws a whole bunch of stuff that sounds-good-at-the-time into the mix to see if anything happens.

21:49 - Schools have "composting assemblies, which is really important."

What could those possibly be like? Are they more important than the art on the walls?

22:00 - "All of this, again, making our kids more in tune with the world around them, literally not just figuratively."

Hey, what's the difference between being "literally" in tune with the world around you and being "figuratively" in tune with the world around you?

I don't know what the difference is. But then, maybe I'm not "literally" in tune with the world around me.

Either way, it's "something that I'm very proud of."

22:20 - The school district fleet has been converted completely to biodiesel. But that will be covered in the "transportation" part of the State of the City address (can't wait). Gavin also wants to give a shout out to PG&E for providing solar panels to some schools.

22:49 - Gavin has mentioned the salad bars more than any other program so far. "Already 70 schools are doing composting of food waste, so we talk about those salad bars ...what do they do about that broccoli that they didn't actually eat?"

So the Salad Bars are not only a key part of the city's health and environmental initiatives - they're educational, too.

23:15 - Gavin's gesture for "Connection" and "cradle/grave connection to the earth" is a kind of half-circle made with his fist-half closed and his thumb extended, that he puts his hips into. If Elvis were a metronome, that's what it would look like.

23:20 - "I don't want to get too esoteric," Gavin says (everybody hold their breath) "but I think it's fundamental to educating people, and entertaining them at the same time to the connection we have with mother nature."

What?

Is this about the salad bars again? Are they supposed to entertain us?

23:33 - Okay, now we're talking about truancy. He lists a bunch of small scale programs, admits it's not enough, doesn't go into much detail about how it all works, promises to do more, and says "If I've got to get an army of people that work for the city to go in and knock on these doors and support these parents ... not just by incarcerating them, but by supporting them ... because most of these kids who are dropping out and not showing up at school, these are families in crisis, by and large."

He's 100% right about this. And here's a great example ... so far the only example ... of Newsom laying out a principle by which programs can be created and measured.

Many families don't get their kids to school because they're in crisis and don't have the time, inclination, or know-how, to get their kids on track. Supporting these families, getting them out of crisis, and working with them to help their kids accomplishes much more than threatening or arresting the parents.

THEREFORE, we need to develop more programs to identify families in crisis and provide the support and training they need to help their children with school.

THAT'S a principle. And it's both more interesting and more effective than a list of programs.

25:45 - Gavin thinks volunteerism "should be a rite of passage." And that you shouldn't be able to graduate high school without volunteering. "I think it should start in the schools."

Ironically, of course, programs like Gavin's, which require volunteerism, take the volunteering out, leaving just the "ism." Could that make a difference? He doesn't say.

26:34 - Gavin does mention that JROTC encourages volunteerism. Uh oh - has his relationship the school board just broken down?

26:46 - "This is a 90-year program that's making a difference in kids' lives," he points out, making probably the clearest case for JROTC that can be made.

27:13 - Gavin wants "more partnerships in the most benign sense" between businesses and schools. As opposed to "partnerships" in the deeply sinister sense.

27:27 - "All told, our city investment in the public schools has increased exponentially over the years. Just 8.4 million dollars a few years ago, now 46.6 million dollars of city money that we've transferred over to the public schools: it's a 450% increase," not including the "Rainy Day Fund." Or facilities bonds.

29:34 - Almost 30 minutes into his speech on education, Gavin finally mentions student performance. In journalism, we call this "burying the lead." San Francisco is the top performing urban school district in California, with four straight years of improving test scores. (And the best salad bars in urban school systems of over $50,000 kids). We're ahead of the state average in math and English language arts.

But how's the art on our walls?

"The bar is low," he admits. "URBAN school district. But we are raising it." That strikes me as fair.

30:30 - ACK, really weird camera jump, the only one in this segment so far, where one moment we're level with Gavin, the next we're looking down from above, and then suddenly we're level with him again. There's a pause in his speech, too, making me wonder if this was really one take, or if they cut something out here and used the camera switch to cover it.

If that's not it, then it's very bad production.

31:00 - He wants a new K-8 Science and Technology school in Mission Bay, with a Science Center for High School students. This might or might not be a good idea, but ... wait ... shouldn't the school district be leading this effort?

Come to think of it, he's hardly mentioned them at all. Does he ...know... we have a school board? That has meetings? Has somebody told him?

33:30 - The last few minutes of the video are a summary of what he's already said, along with a few new quick mentions. All told, he says, we can be better but are doing pretty good.

That's nice.

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Benjamin Wachs

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