It's second-period reading class on a Tuesday morning at AP Giannini Middle School and sunlight filters through the branches of a massive pine outside the classroom windows. The pungent odors of disinfectant and hot cafeteria lunch mingle in the room.
Chairs squawk across the linoleum tiles as seventh-graders bound through the door, holler hellos, and find, or refuse to find, their seats. Jackets are tossed then slip off of shelves packed with textbooks and pencil trays. Backpacks are thrown deliberately to the ground next to utility tables that serve as desks.
Twenty-eight-year-old Beth Dyer, known in class as Miss D, asks one of her students to get the stack of novels on the far shelf and pass one to each student. Today the class is reading A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L'Engle. Laughter erupts as the book passer tosses a hardback at a boy in the corner, who is hunched into his hugely oversized ski jacket. The book careens off his desk and onto the floor with a smack. “Please pick up that book,” says Dyer curtly as she tucks her hair behind her ears and paces, ready to read. “The wide wooden floorboards … everybody, see what page I'm on? Everybody follow along. Hey, are you with me over there? Let's go.”
Some students, noses in their books, are carefully trying to follow along. Many are not with the teacher and can't seem to focus. Two kids are openly arguing in the back of the classroom. One bursts out yelling, and cuss words bounce off the walls.
Dyer calmly points at them. “Excuse me, you have a choice, you can follow directions or you'll go in the behavior log,” she says, referring to the school's behavior system, which has five levels. (Students have five chances to correct their mistakes. First, they are sent to a time-out chair in the back of the room; if they push to level five, they're sent to the principal's office.) Miss D reads on.
By the end of the 50-minute period, the students have made it through just four paragraphs of the novel. Three students were sent to the office, and there was one fistfight in the hallway.
“It wasn't one of our best days,” smiles Dyer, who thinks the book was too difficult. “If it's too hard or too easy, their behaviors come out. It throws my whole day off.”
Last year at this time, Dyer would wake up early to ski the steeps of Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she ran camps for disabled kids. A Medford, N.J., girl and graduate of a liberal arts college, Miss D finds herself in San Francisco as a “special day class” teacher. Special day class is for kids with learning disabilities whose troubles go beyond just needing extra tutoring in a general classroom. Instead, her students spend all day with the same 12 kids, mostly minority students.
Many of these students spend time on buses to get out of their neighborhoods, only to be separated from the rest of the student body when they get to school. These special day class students then miss vital social and learning interactions with children of different backgrounds, which is particularly critical in middle school, at a time of life when children are rapidly developing.
Now educators are also finding that some of these students should not be separated because they may not have actual disabilities.
Hidden in the city's special day classes, like the roots of San Francisco's segregation itself, are disproportionately high numbers of African-American and Latino kids. Many of these students of color don't have real learning disabilities, but instead have cultural and behavioral differences that may be misconstrued as disabilities. Critics say these students are often served a “watered-down” curriculum and may get the least experienced teachers. While inclusion in a regular classroom is not always an option, once a child gets put into a special day class, they very seldom find their way out. These students then remain well below their grade level. Unprepared to enter the workforce, let alone go on to college, they are left behind in school and life.
Miss D's classroom offers a glimpse into the separated world of many of San Francisco's students. While dedicated teachers like Dyer spend every ounce of energy to meet student's diverse needs, sometimes the needs are too great, the home life too difficult, or the time to give simply too short.
UCLA professor Stuart Biegel and his team of experts have been trying for years to bring this in-school student segregation to the attention of the district.
Biegel was hired nine years ago to monitor race and achievement in San Francisco's public schools. As part of a court-monitored desegregation program known as the consent decree, guidelines were adopted to prevent any racial or ethnic group from exceeding 45 percent of the student body at any regular school or 40 percent at any “alternative” school.
But due to a lawsuit brought by Chinese-American families in 1994, race was removed as a factor for school assignment because it was deemed discriminatory against high-achieving Chinese-American students who were being “capped out” of the best schools in their neighborhoods. Since then, Biegel has documented the dramatic resegregation of the city's public schools. In 1998 not more than one school in San Francisco was segregated (60 percent or higher of one race/ethnicity); today the number of severely resegregated San Francisco Unified School Dictrict schools has now reached 50 out of 116 schools for the first time in this era.
Biegel found something more disturbing beneath this very visible trend — the insidious hidden segregation within schools. A segregation that has been documented in San Francisco since the 1960s.
Take Dyer's classroom, where about seven out of her 12 students are black or Latino. AP Giannini, a high-performing middle school in the Sunset District, is made up of mostly Chinese-American students, at 52 percent. Only five percent of the student body is African-American, yet 37 percent of all special ed students are African-American. (“Special ed” can mean that they are in special day class or receive special ed services in a regular classroom as well.) [page]
This happens to match, almost exactly, the districtwide racial composition of special ed programs in San Francisco, and is common in resegregating schools with high populations of Chinese-American students. Biegel says he has found the pattern of stark, within-school segregation — linked to special ed placement — to be more prevalent at certain high-performing schools on the westside of the city, than anywhere else.
Biegel and his team of monitors have repeatedly called on SFUSD to address this problem of “within-school” segregation. The school district, repeatedly, has failed.
“We have never found them [SFUSD] to be in compliance with either the program-by-program or the classroom-by-classroom components of the [consent] decree,” wrote Biegel in his April 2005 report. “Indeed, we have consistently found that large percentages of SFUSD students are separated out from each other within individual schools, and that this separation too often results in students of certain races being segregated from students of other races at the program and classroom level — a separation that reflects academic performance.”
Indeed, only within the last few years have the parameters of an astounding achievement gap — between African-American students and those of other races and ethnicities in San Francisco — become apparent. San Francisco's African-Americans are the lowest scoring on California state achievement tests, in comparison with African-Americans in every other major urban school district.
Most significantly, the gap between San Francisco's overall score and the score for its African-American students remains far and away the widest achievement gap of California's seven major urban districts. (The Academic Performance Index, or API, measures a range from 200 to a possible high of 1,000.) This gap in San Francisco is 85 points higher than the gap in Sacramento, 96 points higher than the gap in San Diego, and a full 118 points higher than the gap in Los Angeles.
It should be noted that SFUSD's test scores have gone up every year during Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's administration. In fact, during the entire tenure of the past three district administrations (dating back to 1992), test scores have gone up each year. And San Francisco continues to be the highest-performing district when compared with other major urban districts in California, which reflects remarkable work being done by educators.
Even so, Biegel and his team have presented a direct relationship between segregation and the disparities in academic achievement. Yet the in-school segregation has not been directly addressed.
According to Biegel's recent report, “The effect is corrosive and widespread, impacting not only the quality of the education at individual school sites, but also the culture of the community.”
Every child's situation, from what he eats for breakfast to how much attention he gets from his parents, affects his day in the classroom. Equally, a child's experience at school, and with any combination of special services that he might receive, affects life at home.
Wesley, a single dad, has a daughter in Dyer's eighth-grade special day class. He is raising her and a son in the Ashbury District, where right now he works at the corner grocery store and does his best to navigate the daily ups and downs of his teenagers' lives. Only lately, there have been a lot more downs. His children's teachers have been calling, reporting behavior problems at school. To top it off, the children's mother, homeless and out of contact for six years, has come back around.
“They've been suspended almost once a week or sent home. Miss Dyer has been a witness this year,” says Wesley, who doesn't want his last name used. “I'm to the point where my landlord wants to evict us now because the kids are vandalizing. They came from honor-roll students to this type of behavior.”
Wesley's daughter is a bright, pretty, and outspoken African-American girl of 14 who plays clarinet in the band. She's a walking contradiction, slight and small but bursting with spirit. During lunch she floats through the halls at breakneck speed, wagging a finger here or a hand there.
Wesley thinks that some of the change he's seen in his daughter came about when she was put in special ed three years ago.
“I thought that she was able to be in a regular class; whatever they saw [in her evaluation], they read the report a different way,” says Wesley. He recalls that she was included in some regular education classes for a period of time but then the school said her problems, which were mainly behavioral, needed special attention.
Wesley is reluctant to sound like he's blaming anyone, but he definitely felt that the classroom change contributed to the decline in her behavior. “If you keep calling a kid a failure, then they are going to start acting that way and thinking that way. So it could have been a hazard to her.”
For many hard-pressed educators in an era of dwindling resources, particularly at a very large school like AP Giannini with almost 1,400 students, this sort of situation is a tough call for administrators and teachers.
Deborah McNight, Executive Director of Special Education Services, described in an e-mail the district's biggest challenge: “Ensuring that all of our teachers and staff receive high quality professional development in order to consistently utilize the core curriculum and to be able to effectively differentiate the curriculum for our diverse learners.” She also insists that special ed students in self-contained classes are included in at least some general ed classes with their peers, always PE and often an elective.
Dyer is convinced that Wesley's daughter belongs in her classroom. “She feels much safer here because she needs the individual attention and even I can't give her enough. She thrives on it,” says Dyer, who does concede that what the girl needs most is social skills, not learning skills. “If she doesn't have that attention, she will get it in a negative way.” [page]
Many educators feel that if the only small-class environment available is the special ed classroom, special ed might be the best option. “When someone throws you a life raft, you grab on. We just have to make sure it's the right raft,” says Principal James Dierke at Visitacion Valley Middle School in Bayview-Hunters Point.
Special ed, of course, may be the right raft for a lot of kids. To agree that there is an overrepresentation of students of certain races and ethnicities in special ed is not to deny that some of them do have disabilities or learning difficulties. Special ed helps many of these students access the right combination of support and instruction to address their problems.
But the disproportionately large number of African-American and Latino students placed in special education suggests that too many of the learning difficulties experienced by these children may be explained as “something wrong with the child” that special education can “fix.” This is according to the National Institute for Urban School Improvement (NIUSI), a think tank funded by the U.S. Department of Education and created to help reform special ed programs in urban school districts.
“Special education” is defined as a set of services that attach themselves to general education, and refers to the teaching of students with learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, or behavioral problems. A student needs to qualify for these special services. Qualification is determined by an intensive and time-consuming process called an IEP (Individualized Education Plan), in which the student's teacher, principal, psychologist, and parents meet to determine the specific special needs of a child if he is not succeeding in a regular classroom.
It was at the IEP meeting that Wesley felt he disagreed with the findings of his daughter's educators. Many times parents don't have the sophistication to completely understand the process, so the administrators decide for them.
This is where things get complicated. In many cases, students viewed as low performing or having behavioral problems in general ed classes become classified as either “emotionally disturbed” or as having a “specific learning disability.” These classifications are often controversial because they are based in great part on IEP school evaluations that are necessarily subjective, says Biegel.
Educators have been taken to task for placing a disproportionate percentage of students of color in separate classes based on these classifications. African-American students alone comprise more than half of all those classified as emotionally disturbed in the entire San Francisco Unified School District, although they comprise only 14 percent of the district population as a whole, according to Biegel's report.
The first job is to find out why this is happening. Some experts say it's cultural. Educators point to a disconnect between educators and students — to the differences between the racial, cultural, and socioeconomic status of teachers and administrators in most schools as compared with the students they serve.
According to NIUSI, students from racial and ethnic minorities arrive at school doors with a great deal of cultural capital, or stores of knowledge, which instead of being accommodated by educators and schools, are sometimes misconstrued in ways that lead to inappropriate placement in special ed programs.
It might be that a more supportive classroom environment or a more adept classroom teacher could effectively work with these students in a regular classroom. Instead, special ed becomes a “place” to which students are sent when they don't perform.
Once-stigmatized students tend to linger in special ed, and those who are still there in high school face much more limited educational opportunities. Typically, these students are not afforded the option of completing graduation-equivalent requirements, and their options for higher education are limited at best.
Many principals and teachers seem to recognize these trends in their schools, but with lack of time and resources, they have a difficult time addressing them.
“I think everyone is aware that this is a problem, I think it's the elephant in the room. No one wants to admit it's there,” says Principal Dierke. “These kids are just not getting all the services they need. In an era of declining resources, these kids are high-maintenance and they need lots of resources.”
It all begins at the beginning. The success or failure of any child comes down to learning opportunities that children have had, or have not had, at an early age, according to many education experts. Such as whether they were able to attend preschool, or whether their parents read to them.
Students from different neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds are starting out on wildly uneven playing fields.
“Some affluent parents are paying $25,000 a year for preschool,” says Hoover Liddell, an activist and educator who worked for the district for 30 years.
Yet there are also family situations where education isn't high on the list of priorities. Eating is important, finding a place to sleep tonight is important. “Some of those things are just natural realities, that's how it goes,” Liddell says.
Liddell, a former principal in Bayview-Hunters Point, worked as a consultant to the city during the consent decree, monitoring race and achievement in schools. He believes that the disparities in early education are a disgrace. “Special ed kids are pushed aside; we don't have the same vision for them or give them the same education as other kids and expect them to go to college. You can't have second-class citizens.”
Unfortunately, teachers lack the resources to effectively deal with the disparities in early education, and too few teachers have been taught to recognize the cultural, class, and socioeconomic differences in their schools. This makes the situation desperately hard on everyone, particularly teachers.
“It's hard to keep one [a special ed teacher] because they don't have the services, and schools are putting the wrong kids in the classes,” says Principal Dierke. [page]
Special ed teachers have the highest turnover rate in the teaching profession and tend to leave within five years, according to the National Information Center for Children and Youth With Disabilities. Overwhelmed, they move on to general education. The brand-new teachers, the idealistic ones, the ones with energy, the ones like Dyer, get the most challenging classes. Kids need such energy and attention. But Dyer admits she hasn't developed the skills to cope with outbursts and emotional behavior in the classroom.
“I'm already being advised to get my general ed degree, in addition to the special ed degree I'm getting now, because of that burnout rate,” says Dyer. She is attending a master's program at the University of San Francisco and has noticed that quite a few special ed teachers in her school have changed to general ed.
Dyer had never taught a class before this past summer. After two months of training she was given one of the toughest classrooms in the district. Dyer says it's what she wanted; she's learning quickly and she can handle it, but at first, it was a rude awakening. “To be completely honest, I don't think it was fair to my students at the beginning,” says Dyer. “I look back and don't even feel I was the same teacher I am today, I'm so much more competent and capable.”
Principal Leslie Trook, who administrates AP Giannini, says she chooses teachers based on their ability to connect with all students, not necessarily on their experience or inexperience. “New teachers who are self-reflective and open to continual modifications of instruction and teaching practices are excellent candidates for special ed,” says Trook, who says her biggest challenge as principal is viewing special ed students as individuals without the labels that hold them to lower expectations.
Yet while the blame often falls on teachers and principals, maybe it's the parents who should be looked at. Jackie Fox, who has a child in special ed, insists that it falls back to the family. “Some parents think, 'Well, my kid's in school now, I don't have to be as involved.' We're letting behavioral issues go out the window,” says Fox, who is active in a public school advocacy group called Parents for Public Schools. “I feel sorry for these teachers, they're stuck in the middle and dealing with these issues that they shouldn't have to. This child is being so horrible that he's disrupting the class for the other 15 kids. Does sticking him in a special day class solve my issue? I don't know.”
Principal Trook at AP Giannini says that although it is possible that students are placed in special ed partly due to behavioral issues in addition to other needs they have, the district does not place them in those classes solely for behavioral reasons.
Most educators and advocates agree that identifying and addressing the diverse needs of every student, and every teacher, is a massive challenge, particularly at a time when the district is struggling with dwindling funds and is forced to shut down entire schools across the city. Amid the emotional toils of being a teenager, there are also socioeconomic issues and problems at home and in tough neighborhoods.
Principal Dierke, of Visitacion Valley, says the success and failure of education comes down to support. Do these special day class teachers have the kind of environment to feel safe and to be creative?
Dierke is one of those principals who really gets it. He had the unique experience of working as a special ed teacher for 15 years before he became a principal. He is not about to shun problem kids away to other schools. He says you just have to work with your people and know what you're doing.
“I've seen kids who've gone to four or five different schools, who don't have a chance because they just acted out too much and no one wants to deal with them,” says Dierke.
When he came to Visitacion Valley six years ago, the middle school was broken, test scores were plummeting, and behavior in the classroom and the hallways was out of control. Since then test scores have dramatically improved; he's achieved 98 percent daily attendance, and turned a school in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods into a place where teachers and students look forward to coming.
“Listen, do you hear that?” asks Dierke, a tall, kindly-looking man with a graying mustache. He is standing in his school's hallway holding a hand to one ear. “It's quiet.” He smiles proudly as if this were the most novel thing in the world.
Dierke has a right to be proud. Walking through the front doors you can feel it. The hallways are bright, safe, and stress-free. Dierke points to a collage of artwork on the hallway walls drawn by sixth- and seventh-grade special day class students. “Where else are you going to find that?” he asks, referring to the way in which special ed students usually are tucked away, their work not proudly displayed for the rest of the school. He tries to limit the number of kids in separate special day classes and works to “mainstream” or to include his special ed students in regular education classes as much as possible.
Will Smith teaches one of the two Visitation Valley classes devoted entirely to kids classified as emotionally disturbed. His classes are almost 100 percent African-American. These are kids who have been kicked from class to class or school to school, where teachers just didn't know what to do with them. “When the school district makes this a dumping ground, we have to deal with it,” he says. “Maybe a kid brought a weapon to school, or hit a teacher. We get more of them than others,” Smith says. [page]
At this school, while students might be in a special day class for a large portion of the day, many take classes throughout the school; a few are even in honors classes.
The school has gone on lockdown three times this year already due to gang violence, and last year two teachers were held up at gunpoint. “But these kids are not bad kids, they just don't have time for nonsense. They test people a lot,” Dierke says.
Against the odds, Dierke has found ways to give these students and his teachers what they need to succeed. He has put together a creative variety of resources, like individual mentors for students, tutoring before and after school, a program for kids whose parents are in jail, all-school assemblies and activities, and field trips throughout San Francisco. Dierke encourages his special ed students to get out into the environment, to view the city, to see what high schools and other opportunities are out there.
Jerio Lee grew up in Bayview-Hunters Point and was placed in special ed. “I always noticed that it was nothing but African-American kids with the exception of maybe one Latino guy, and maybe one Chinese girl,” he says. “I just think that if it was a white person, they would do something more extreme to help the situation. But that's just me.” Lee, who was adopted at age one by a single mom (his biological parents were drug addicts), was diagnosed in school with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and as “emotionally disturbed.”
When Lee came to Visitacion Valley, he was uncontrollable. This is what Apollo Madayag thought when he was first assigned to mentor him one-on-one. “He had the police chasing him around the school when I said, 'Oh no, is that my first student?'” Madayag, a former marine who fought in the Gulf War, is a full-time special day class teacher.
“Apollo would help me out in class, would always be there for me when I needed some advice,” says Lee, who now attends EMT classes at a community college. “I wanted to succeed, but I'd never had someone who would care so much to teach me and make sure that I would do good.”
Madayag still keeps in touch with Lee, and is proud of the man he turned out to be.
“The idea is we move kids forward, there is progress,” says Dierke. “We try to prepare them for the next level. Every day there is a little victory.” As for the challenges, Dierke's school is threatened by decreasing enrollment, budget cuts, and possible closure, like several other schools in Bayview-Hunters Point. In other neighborhoods, parents are sending their kids to charter schools or private schools.
“But the working poor depend on the school district. There is a tremendous trust factor here,” Dierke says, shaking his balding head. “They trust that the school district is going to do the right thing for their kids.”