Monday, January 28, 2008

Dear Gavin Newsom

If I were going to write San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom a letter about schools in San Francisco, what would I say?

This crossed my mind last summer when Ryan and I saw the mayor speak at a small open forum. After Newsom's long response to a question about the 49ers, Ryan jumped right in and asked about schools:

"We have two children who are in preschool and we're starting to look for a kindergarten. Many families move out of San Francisco to the suburbs for better schools. But we don't want to move. Can you please comment on your plans for improving schools in San Francisco."

Newsom talked about all he—and the board of education—have done to support schools. He enthusiastically told us about successes at underperforming schools and the district's rising test scores. But what came next was discouraging. Newsom talked about families fleeing the city. He wondered if it was worth putting efforts into attracting middle class families to the city's public schools because they either attend private or leave the city. He explained the city's unique geography; it allows families to live in the suburbs and send their kids to excellent public schools, and then easily commute into the city for work during the week and fun on the weekends. Newsom said that it's difficult to compete with the geography.

I was frustrated. And I remember wanting to write him a letter to simply say something like, "Hey, You're doing a great job—but I think you're wrong. A lot of families do want to stay, including me, and I think you can compete with the geography."

It's true: families leave this city. A 2005 survey by the Public Research Institute at San Francisco State University found that nearly half of parents with preschool-age children planned to leave in the next three years. No wonder San Francisco has the lowest percentage of households with children among the 50 largest cities in the United States. But I think many of us want to stay and we're doing everything possible to raise our families here. I also think many families want to stay but leave because they're scared off by the "supposedly dreadful" schools. They depart before they even step foot into a San Francisco school.

I know Newsom has done a lot for education in this city. As I toured schools, I heard parent guides and principals talk about what Newsom and the board of education had done to improve their schools. I saw pictures of Newsom on school playgrounds with kids gathered round. I've been told he supports Parents for Public Schools. And after his recent re-election, he said that education was going to be one of his top priorities.

What's more, San Francisco is the top-performing large urban school district in the state of California. From what I saw on my tours, the district is full of outstanding schools and up-and-coming ones. With continued support and an extra push, I think SFUSD could be recognized as being one of the top urban districts in the country. And then it wouldn't have to compete with its geography.

I never got around to writing Newsom a letter. But recently I've been thinking about it again. This blog has shown me that a tremendous number of parents want their children to receive their education in San Francisco, and I feel like our mayor should know that.

I'm wondering what you would write in a letter to Gavin Newsom. What would you want to tell him about schools in San Francisco? What have you seen as the successes? What could be done better? What would help stop families from leaving?


  1. Just for the record, you know that Newsom doesn't officially run the schools, right? Public schools are a state agency, not operated by City Hall. SFUSD answers to the California Department of Education.

    I interviewed Newsom about school and children's issues a few years ago for the publication Bay Area Parent -- this was when he was fairly new in office. He definitely cares -- heart in the right place -- but he was very minimally informed.

    Sometime after that, he brought SFUSD parent Hydra Mendoza (now also a school board member) on as his education advisor, and she has certainly made sure that he has a better handle on information about SFUSD.

    One important issue: Schools are routinely expected to provide services that are not strictly educational functions. We all need to push for the CITY to meet its commitment to the community's children by providing non-educational services. That viewpoint is much more on the radar now, largely thanks to Margaret Brodkin's leadership of San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.

  2. Speaking of families choosing private (for a change):

    After a chance conversation with parents of a toddler, I wrote a
    blog post aimed at those new to these issues about the values, morality and social impact involved in the public vs. private decision:

  3. Caroline -- I appreciate (though seldom agree with) your take on public vs private schools. May I offer a bit of constructive criticism re your "marketing"? I think you shoot yourself in the foot when you reach a stopping point... and then keep going. For example, I believe your essay would have been much stronger had it stopped after the "Another thing:" paragraph.

  4. Thanks, anon. The blogger format obviously lets me run on, giving no incentive to be concise. I may edit it down (WAY down) and try to get it published somewhere -- on BeyondChron if nothing else -- so I was using this as a starting point.

  5. "[Newsom] wondered if it was worth putting efforts into attracting middle class families to the city's public schools because they either attend private or leave the city."
    I think the mayor is referring to the Pacific Heights/Seaciff/Russian Hill/Marina upper class (his solid constituency) here. With prices approaching $20,000/year/child private schools are no longer a default option for most middle-class families in SF.

  6. Yes, Caroline, I'm aware that the board of education makes decisions about schools in SF--though I will say that I'm just starting to learn how this system works. When I wrote this post, I knew someone would make that point. Thanks for making it clear.

    But I do think Gavin has some pull--after all he did appoint Margartet Brodkin. And wasn't one of the reasons he appointed her to help figure out how to keep families in the city?

    Also, I really like what you had to say about Gavin, "his heart is in the right place but he's minimally informed." That's exactly the sense I got from him. I've actually seen him speak many times and I've always found him to be a sincere person. I think he's genuine and I truly think he cares about this city. But his attitude toward families leaving the city bothered me--because I think a lot of famlies really want to stay here. And I wonder if he's entirely aware of this.

    Maybe it's simply a matter of better PR. There's so much emphasis on families leaving. Wouldn't it be nice if there was more on the families who do stay.

    What do you think about the Chronicle's coverage of schools?

  7. middleclass mom in SFJanuary 28, 2008 at 11:27 AM

    I think that might be the starting point of the problem is that the middle class really doesn't seem to have a real voice or representation in SF. It seems that the assumption by Newson is that the middle class prefers to move out of the city as suburban communities are suppose to be the goal once they start families. Well, I'm am sooo middle class (and proud of it!) and live in SF. We want to stay! The city has so much to offer for our kids and we want to live where we work (saves time and fuel too, right?). I know that some families want more space, ie.: another bedroom, bigger backyards, but the majority of the families that we know who have either moved out of the city or who are planning to have done so, because they are afraid of the SF public school system.

    Newson's statement about whether is it worth the effort disturbs me. Wouldn't he want to try and keep or attract middle class families to the city? Isn't that all part of diversity? I f all the middle class are leaving or in private school and the upper are in private schools, then that just leave the lower income in public? Not too many people are marketing SF to the middle class. Where's the incentive? Kate, I think you're right. I think he's just miss informed. SF has so much to offer our children and our families as a whole that it CAN compete with the suburban communities.

    So for the record, I'm middle class with two small children and we want to stay and have them grow up here. Maybe we need to form an advocacy group?

  8. Oh yeah, Newsom definitely has influence on how much support the schools get and many other related issues. I just meant that under the strict official structure, he's not involved in school governance and doesn't oversee the district.

    Better PR would definitely help. There has been talk about private funders putting money into a really good outreach campaign -- imagine if public schools' outreach were anything similar to privates' -- but I don't know of its panning out. Plus you could argue that the schools have more immediate needs, though if better PR improves support for schools that might be a win-win.

    Newsom sometimes tends to blurt, and that may well have been what you heard, regarding families' leaving the city -- that is, it wasn't necessarily how he'd have put it if he'd thought it out and consulted with his informed advisors.

    Well ... re the Chronicle ... I'm a Chronicle wife (a category that includes males, gays, whatever), so I have a fairly insider view.

    All the Chronicle's coverage is pathetically bare-bones right now, and there's not much improvement in sight. Jill Tucker is a really good education reporter, but she is covering schools throughout the ENTIRE BAY AREA. Nanette Asimov, also very well-informed, covers statewide education issues. Both are stretched too thin to focus very well.

    The Chron's attitude used to be totally contemptuous toward SFUSD -- they assumed that only the downtrodden and desperate (aka dark-skinned) went to public school in San Francisco, and the downtrodden and desperate (and dark-skinned) were not a valued readership demographic. They went through a period of savagely attacking the district and schools, around 2000-2001, when they had an education reporter whose goal was career glory and who was unconcerned about accuracy or the impact on schools, children and the community of a barrage of extreme negativity. Feedback from PPS, the SFPTA and Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth (then headed by the very same Margaret Brodkin) opened her editors' eyes -- to their credit, they responded. So their attitude and awareness improved, but the coverage became much more bare-bones. That's my summary.

  9. Middleclass Mom in SF--I'm with you. I agree. As for an advocacy group, I think Parents for Public Schools is an existing group that's doing a lot for schools in this city. I know they would love to have more members, support, and help. For more info, go to:

  10. I wonder why people are so quick to defend Gavin. I voted for him, but at the end of the day, I suspected he would turn out to be a privileged, sheltered, society-ass-kissing sycophant, which he pretty much is. I thought that his first wife, Kimberly, could educate him, even though she is a boot-strapper who slept to the top herself, but that union failed. Now we act surprised when Gavin has no clue that educated, professional people may want to send their children to public schools? At least, now one of his top advisors has a baby and is likely to be looking at public schools for that child. Maybe that will give Gavin a little bit of insight.

    Here's my letter to Gavin: leave Pacific Heights and come to where the rest of us live. Think about how nice it would be for everyone if San Francisco were teeming with public schools that everyone sought out. Gavin, you should be grateful for organizations like PPS that have done a lot of hard work for you.

    Gavin: you are in charge of this City. Don't say stupid things like that the middle class want to leave. Step off your pedestal and talk to the middle class. We all don't aspire to party with the Gettys. But we want to live here all the same.

    PS, what is with that proposed Mission redistricting plan? Let's put a housing project in Presidio Heights instead!

  11. Sorry, that was a bit too harsh. He seems like an okay guy, albeit too much hair gel. I just wish he would be more down to earth, that's all.

  12. Hydra Mendoza is Newsom's education advisor, Anon; she has two kids in SFUSD schools, used to be executive director of PPS and is a school board member. So he can't be accused of insulating himself totally from SFUSD. And Margaret Brodkin is very clued in to SFUSD issues as well.

  13. I think schools are a red herring of a reason for people leaving the city. If someone truly wanted to stay in SF it doesn't take a whole lot of time to realize that there are excellent opportunities in the public schools here.

    I think people who do leave in search of a different type of public school experience are doing to for reasons that really can't be resolved in a system as complex as San Francisco's. If we had neighborhood schools, for instance, that would be a negative for people who see the choice system as an advantage. There are also people who don't want their kids in schools with the kind of racial diversity and income disparities as you find in San Francisco. If that's how they feel, there's no feasible or reasonable way to address their concerns. There are some people who don't want to have to go through the effort that it takes to choose and be assigned to a school in SF. As I see it, if this one school placement experience is enough to send people over the edge to the 'burbs, then they were not very committed to living in SF in the first place and would probably move for some other reason anyway.

    And there are, legitimately, other reasons that families move out of SF. Many, many people simply don't see the city as a place to raise kids. I think once people are in the suburbs, the different cities are largely differentiated through their school districts, but the city vs. suburbs choice is driven by many factors other than scools.

  14. Kate,

    I would like to suggest a new topic:

    Why didn't you list your neighborhood school on your application?

  15. He should apply the diversity index to the city's public housing projects.

  16. According to San Francisco's most recent School Accountability Report Card, the Superintendent salary is $250,000 versus the state average of $185,251. A beginning teacher salary is $35,548 versus the state average of $37,540. Why is out superintendent making 26% more than the state average while our teachers are paid 6% less than the state average. At first glance, this sends a very bad message about where our values are in this school district. However, maybe the San Francisco superintendent has a larger number of schools and people to manage. I really don't know.

  17. I thought the whole point of public housing was to provide shelter for those who could not otherwise afford it. Applying an economic diversity index such as SFUSD uses in public school assignment would defeat the purpose of public housing.

  18. You would need to compare the superintendent's salary to other diverse urban districts of similar size and factor for the cost of living, to make a fair comparison.

    Of course, same with teachers' salaries!

    The superintendent's job is from hell, though.

  19. Our superintendent's salary is competitive with other urban school districts. But, yes, teachers salaries are below neighboring districts -and so are principals. As a result we can't hire the best, or the best leave for more money.

    Tonight, the superintendent put a recommendation before the Board of Education for a parcel tax to go before voters on June 2008 to improve quality instruction - most importantly to raise teachers salaries to be competitive with neighboring districts. Parents, community groups, business and foundations have all been providing input and guidance the past several months to ensure that this would truly provide additional resources where it is needed, and also provide additional teacher accountability in return.

    I went to a workshop this weekend at the School Site Council Summit for parents/principals/teachers that focused on the proposed parcel tax. From all accounts I've heard so far, they (the SFUSD administration, Board of Ed and teachers union) have done this quite well. Stay tuned for more details as they are available.

  20. The point is that SFHA has lost a number of racial segregation lawsuits, yet nothing has been done to desegregate it. Meanwhile SFUSD has made significant steps.

    We can't blame all problems on the schools -- there is an absurd focus on making schools compensate for other governmental problems.

  21. I actually think PPS is too busy improving the public schools (though they are doing an excellent job!). An advocacy group focusing on ways to entice middle class families to stay is sorely needed, to push Margaret Brodkin and the Dept. of Children & Youth and Their Families to be MUCH more effective -- perhaps following the successful model PPS has been using with SFUSD?
    By the way, there are a series of workshops hosted by the DCYTF going on right now where we can provide our opinions:

  22. middle class mom in SFJanuary 29, 2008 at 9:22 AM

    Thanks, Kate. I will definitely join PPS. I had heard of this group before but hadn't looked into it yet. But anonymous (january 29,2008 8:58am) hit it right there for me,”An advocacy group focusing on ways to entice middle class families to stay is sorely needed ...”

    I would also like to hear more about why neighborhood schools are so unpopular in SF specifically with middle class families. If diverse schools are so sought after, then why not live in a diverse neighborhood? and hence have a diverse neighborhood school? Just wondering...

  23. I don't think neighborhood schools are unpopular as a concept -- everyone's ideal is a good local (diverse) school they can walk to, and that offers exactly the programs you want for your child.

    IF you're referring to the results of Kate's poll, the choices are: mandatory/guaranteed assignment to your neighborhood school vs. the right to choose any school in the city.

    Families who live near schools with great reputations are, of course, more likely to favor giving up the right to choose any school in favor of mandatory/guaranteed neighborhood assignment. Families who live near less-popular schools are likely to say the opposite. The fact that SFUSD offers specialty schools such as language immersion, K-8s, some with arts focuses, etc., means that even families living near popular schools may still favor districtwide choice, though.

  24. Families who live near schools with great reputations are, of course, more likely to favor giving up the right to choose any school in favor of mandatory/guaranteed neighborhood assignment. Families who live near less-popular schools are likely to say the opposite.

    If that reasoning is correct, then 70% of the people here most likely do not want to attend their neighborhood school. Let's find out why!

  25. I'll tell you why I don't. I live half a mile from one very popular school - Alvarado - and 1.3 miles from a less popular school - Fairmount. Yet somehow, in the SFUSD's judgment, I fall into Fairmount's "neighborhood" district.

    I would like to be able to walk to school with my children. Thus Alvarado was my first choice. I didn't list Fairmount because I'm afraid of getting it, being in its neighborhood and all. Due to hills and dead-end roads, I really can't walk there.

    So if my _closest_ school were my _neighborhood_ school, I'd vote for neighborhood schools. Of course, my closest school is also an incredible school.

  26. Yes, the allocation of neighborhood schools is somewhat hit and miss, but talk about one man's trash being another's treasure. Fairmount was our number one choice, I can walk there and it was by far the best school (for what we are looking for) of the 17 I toured. Alvarado was on my list but I am really keeping everything crossed that we don't get it, a 7:50 start is not family friendly (for our family) and there was too much emphasis on how much money each family donates as well as the kiln!!
    Fairmount is our closest school but unfortunately not our neighborhood school, which is Paul Revere and which did not appear on our list at all. Why did that not appear? - because I found it near to impossible to get anyone at the school to speak to me despite many attempts, and when I did turn up to tour (I really wanted to like it) I witnessed a young kid being kicked and punched in the playground with no adult intervention - enough for me to decide it was not for us.

  27. To clarify, we didn't find Fairmount to be "trash." We really did like it! We just liked Alvarado, Rooftop and a few other schools more. We saw nothing negative while there, and if we could walk there, it would absolutely make our list.

  28. Even if neighborhood schools were guaranteed, you can see that there would still be screaming about where the boundaries are drawn.
    And if they were guaranteed, the more-popular schools would have much closer-in boundaries, so even more folks would be angry.

    I know someone who kicked up a huge fuss because his street was the boundary for a popular school and he lived on the wrong side to be in its assignment area. He refused to hear the obvious fact that the boundary has to be somewhere.

    You can see why I mentioned that being superintendent would be the job from hell. So would being a school board member, which is also an unpaid volunteer job (essentially -- $500/month stipend).

    I should have noted in my previous comment that presumably SOME respondents to the survey would look at the greater good rather than their own situation. But I've found dismayingly often that that's not the case. During one go-round about the assignment issue, a mom I know who lives near Alamo was FURIOUS that the proposal was to reserve only 50% of seats for assignment-area residents. A mom I know who lives in a neighborhood with few popular schools was FURIOUS that there was a proposal to reserve ANY seats at Alamo for assignment-area residents. Neither could see in the slightest past her own self-interest. But presumably some people do try to look at the bigger picture, including respondents to Kate's survey.

    By the way, when I interviewed Newsom that time, it was during a point in time when the assignment process was a huge issue, and that was an area that he clearly didn't grasp at all. He knew it was an issue; he knew there was a loud demand for neighborhood schools (from people in some neighborhoods); but he had no understanding of the details at all.

    Another thing he has in the past demonstrated that he didn't understand was school closures -- then and why they might be needed, the rationale for making the tough decisions, etc.

  29. I think the main reason that people don't choose their neighborhood school is that not enough of their kind of people go there. It isn't because it doesn't offer Spanish immersion or what not. So called hidden gems are schools that have achieved a critical mass of upper middle class people who have the time, interest, and resources that make up the shortfall in public education and elevate test score averages. The question is: How does a school cultivate that critical mass? Who goes first?

    Actually, the real question is: How can certain schools -- those that will never achieve that critical mass, such as those serving primarily the projects -- ever improve in the current system? Those people whom choice was supposed to benefit are not exercising it, while everyone else has turned it into a circus of desperation lest they wind up with them.

  30. These are valid points, except that (I'm sorry to keep playing the "grizzled veteran" role) things have gotten SO much better in both areas -- you honestly have to have some years of perspective to really see that:

    "How can certain schools -- those that will never achieve that critical mass, such as those serving primarily the projects -- ever improve in the current system?"
    There probably will always be some like that -- schools that will just remain dysfunctional. But in the past, there were only a few schools that were NOT like that. The list of schools that parents on this blog have applied to that were considered dangerous pits of hell in my day is astounding. So as you can see, that's a major evolution. There are many more schools doing well and attracting applicants who have choices.

    " Those people whom choice was supposed to benefit are not exercising it, while everyone else has turned it into a circus of desperation lest they wind up with them."
    It's true that not ENOUGH disadvantaged families are exercising choice. But PPS has worked hard to get the word out to them, including with a grant-funded project doing major outreach to the Latino community, and I believe far more doing so now than in the past. And the "circus of desperation" is different from in the past because it's about 25 or 30 schools, not five. Naturally, that lessens the desperation (hard to imagine when you're in it, but it's true).

  31. "The list of schools that parents on this blog have applied to that were considered dangerous pits of hell in my day is astounding."

    Caroline - Don't you think that part of your past perspective has to do with the fact that the information about schools that you had at the time you were touring was that there were "only 5 good schools". Back then there was no PPS, SF K blog, widespread internet access and few organized school tours so prospective parents like yourself relied upon the word on the street/playground which was that "there was only 5 schools you could send your kids to". I am sure that there were "hidden gems" back then that no one was pointing out because popular opinion was to the contrary.

    Yet, even with the better access to information available now, there still is a perception among some parents that the SF public schools are "dangerous", why is that?

    I think that it has something to do with the idea expressed above by anonymous @ 2:48pm that 'not enough of their kind of people' go to the schools that they are looking at, but the private schools they are looking at are full of "their kind" of people. Public schools in SF have more cultural and economic diversity than some people are comfortable with and unless they can get into a school like Clarendon that "looks" more like their kind of people they will opt out into private schools or the suburbs.

    To circle back around to Kate's question I would like to ask Gavin and Hydra to start singing the praises of the SF schools that are getting it right and doing an amazing job and with limited resources! Word on the street is so much a part of what parents weigh when thinking about the schools they are considering so put those success stories out there.

    The folks that want to be "with thier kind of people" may not be swayed, but I think that there is a group out there that just need the right kind of nudge.

  32. While I agree with some points, please don't sugar coat the fact that there ARE some schools in the city that we (surely all of us if we are honest?) would not happily send our children to. I definitely came across a few (not as many as I thought I would) that I would not and will not send my son to under any circumstances. It has nothing to do with racial diversity or economic diversity, nothing to do with "my kind of people" although I think I understand where that poster was coming from.
    It has everything to do with not wanting to have my child suffer for my idealism. I want to stay in the city, I am pro public school, anti private school but I am also determined not to let my son have a substandard school experience.
    I purposely toured many schools that I considered "off my list" some made it on and some sank lower in my estimation. To anon (8:30pm) above, I have personally visited a lot of schools, I have done a great deal of research and have masses of information and I KNOW that there are some schools in this city that are indeed "dangerous" (to mind, body or spirit), and my child will not go to any of them. Off limits are any school where I witnessed disinterested students across the board, where I listened to boring uninspiring teachers, where I was lectured to by a Principal who lacked passion, where I had to drive into a neighborhood that genuinely scared me or where I walked around dark, depressing joyless buildings.
    My son does not have an automatic right to a place at the most popular schools in the city (even if I wanted it) but he does have a right to a place at a good school. The vast majority I saw fit this bill, I had no problem finding 7 gems for my list, but let's not kid ourselves some do not - I expect over time this will change and one day maybe all the public schools in the city will be good schools, until then, or at least until March, I am keeping my fingers crossed - I really do not want to have to move.
    Is it too soon to have a Topic about what we do if we don't get one of our 7 ? - It's all I can think about.

  33. To the last anon -- if you don't get any of your seven choices:
    -- Go to the workshops that SFUSD runs for parents who didn't get their choices (this seems like a no-brainer, but I know a family in that situation who actually planned not to till I gently said "WHAT THE **** ARE YOU THINKING?" -- they did get their first choice in the second round).
    -- Decide whether to select a school via the "expanded choice" process or waitlist for one of your seven or another choice.
    -- Go to any workshops PPS or anyone else is offering on the topic.
    -- Hang in there. Get regular massages.
    YOU WILL GET A CHOICE YOU'RE HAPPY WITH! I can't repeat this too often. Over the years I've known dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of families who have gone through the process. Every single one -- I mean that; every single one -- who has hung in there has gotten a school they're happy with. Every single family you've ever heard of who claimed they "couldn't get" one of their choices dropped out early on -- I guarantee it.

    Yes, it will be a few weeks of stress and angst. Some families go private entirely to avoid that -- even though the private-school process is much more labor-intensive and no more stress- or angst-free. If you figure an average of $17,000/year for K-12 private school, times two kids, that's $442,000 that those families are forking over to avoid a few weeks of stress and angst from the SFUSD enrollment process. Think about that financial decision!

    In response to Anon's questions:

    "Don't you think that part of your past perspective has to do with the fact that the information about schools that you had at the time you were touring was that there were "only 5 good schools"."

    Yes, definitely. But still, there were schools that my friends honestly did consider and visit with at least semi-open minds that they just found unworkable. One of my truly most open-minded, non-snobbish friends lives two blocks from L. Flynn and seriously checked it out. She says it was absolutely not going to work (her child is my son's age, 11th grade; they went to Buena Vista). So the answer is: some of both.

    Yet, even with the better access to information available now, there still is a perception among some parents that the SF public schools are "dangerous", why is that?

    Bad information. Nonexistent marketing by SFUSD and extremely effective marketing by the privates. Clueless media (as I mentioned, I'm a Chronicle wife, so I can attest that the staff is mostly commuters from the 'burbs). And of course incidents at public schools are in the spotlight, while incidents at private schools almost never make it into the news. In an extreme case, when there was a serial molestation (big boy on little boys) at Town School in the '90s, the Chronicle ACTIVELY covered it up -- the then-family owners, the Thieriots, were loyal Town School alum/supporters.

  34. For the record, Mayor Newsom does not have say or control over the public school system in San Francisco. It is the school board members that are the decision makers on everything! How do I know this, I am a public school teacher. If you want the system changed, become informed and make sure you vote for school board members that have concern for families in San Francisco, rather than using their position as a stepping stone for higher political positions.

  35. middle class mom in sfJanuary 30, 2008 at 1:45 PM

    I think most of you have left this post and moved on the the new topic (the presidential election), but I've been thinking all day and night about this particular topic and feel it's very important. I guess I'm trying to understand the root problem everyone has with SF public schools. I'm beginning to realize it's not at all what I thought before I read this eye opening blog. Sounds like it's not necessarily due to the quality. There are so many great schools in the district. Is it the “lottery” system? But that gives us a choice to have any school in the district and from what I'm hearing, the private school system seems even more intense. We all vie for top schools throughout the district and end up with none of the choices?

    So, what do we really want for our children in the public school system? Is our goal to make every school a well sought after school (broad view) or is our goal to get our kids in the most popular school (narrow view)? Or is our goal to get the best education they possible can with the resources we have. I know we want our kids to attend a school that's a good fit, but I can't help to wonder if we're seeking the perfect fit, which really doesn't exist, does it?. I think we need to be realistic about our goals. I think in a way we're shooting ourselves in the foot.

    In my opinion, I can't help feel that school vicinity (near where we live) should be factored in somehow. There are reason why we chose to live here and the area in which we do (focusing on the middle class dilemma for a moment). I am also against mandatory districting, even though I would get a great chance of getting my chosen school. I realize there are a lot of schools nearby a lot of people's homes that would either “not work out” or are just too dangerous, or because of disinterested teachers or whatever other valid reasons. We won't put that on our list. Okay, how about the school that is 5 block further. Still within walking distance, and a pretty good rep, maybe a “hidden gem”. If given a choice between getting a good chance of getting a good/decent school nearby versus taking a slim chance on an exceptional school anywhere in the district and end up not getting any, I would chose the former (school nearby). For me, these benefit outweigh the later. I wonder if we rely too much on the schools to make our children well rounded (or dare we say “smart”) and relinquish much of this responsibility of getting involved at the school level. I personally would love to work with a school that has potential, but a long distance commute I feel would detract from that (time and frustration factors). For those of you who have who have you children in other neighborhoods (where you have to drive them) and figured that out, all the power to you.

    Circling back to the original topic, Newson and the other politicians do need to look out for the middle class, but do we actually know who we are? We seem to want different things for different reasons. I don't think we can have an effective voice if we don't have a solid consensus of what we really want. I think having access to a great public school system is too broad and plus, we already have that, don't we? Sorry Kate, I don't have the answer, but I love your blog!

  36. middle class mom nails it for me: throughout this process, i haven't felt as if having a "choice" of sound public schools and finding a "neighborhood" school were mutually exclusive. having toured 20 or so schools, i daresay i could have found at least 10 schools to list in almost any area of the city that met my standards. in this regard, at least, the system is working, IMHO. (in other regards, such as deseg and reflecting evenly the ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of the district and city, it is not as successful on a school by school basis.) sure, you may write me off as having low standards, but i think the key factor is what middle class mom said: my family is seeking a sound environment, not a perfect one. we simply don't believe such a thing exists, nor would we necessarily desire it.

    the hard part for us has been realizing that we were comparing apples and oranges a lot of the time; we liked different things about all the schools on our list. what they had in common? walking distance (sometimes a long walk) or a quick single bus ride from our house (sometimes a school bus). i would call that staying in the neighborhood, for the most part.

    mind you, we have applied to seven schools and experienced none, so take this all with the proverbial grain of salt....

    i am very impressed with the clarity of thought expressed here on the issue of why people are really leaving SF (when it is so easy to discover that the schools are fine). i have to agree that school quality is a red herring and that discomfort rubbing shoulders with the "other" when it comes to our kids is the stronger motivator, unfortunate though it may be.

    kate: please, a topic on navigating round 2 and personal waitlisting stories from the past!

  37. We're definitely middle class, struggling to stay in SF, and though we might be forced out of CA, we would not leave SF for the 'burbs. Any Bay Area 'burb that I think might have comparable quality public schools to SF would be almost as expensive for housing, and worse when you factor in higher commute costs and extra commute time that you don't get to spend with your kids and have to pay someone to take care of them. I think people who leave SF for the 'burbs might tell themselves that they're going for the schools, but they're really looking for a different kind of life, not "better public schools." My perception of the public schools has improved HUGELY over the 15 years I've lived in San Francisco, and the more people stay & fight for good public schools, the more we'll have them. I think most of the people on this blog will be great advocates for good public schools.

  38. Lorraine from Parents for Public Schools (PPS) here,

    I'm fascinated by this thread as I'm immersed in this subject on a daily basis. I think it is interesting how much all the posts here confirm research and studies done here in SF: why families leave SF, what people want in their public schools, etc. etc.

    For those so inclined (especially if you're a bit of a policy wonk), I wanted to point you to studies that back up what many of you say here.

    First, research done by the Dept. of Children, Families and Youth on why families are leaving SF:

    The top reasons families say they plan or are considering leaving SF are because of: 1. High housing costs 2. High cost of living 3. Perceived challenges/issues surrounding public schools

    VERY interesting to note: this study was done in 2005 and at that time 45% of families with kids under the age of 6 said they were likely/considering leaving SF. Two year's later, that has dropped to 36%. We don't know definitively why.

    Also interesting: Once families have kids in SF over age 6, they are just as likely to stay in SF as any other San Franciscan (with or w/o kids). In other words, like many of the 'veterans' who post here: once families figure out the school situation for their kids (public or private) they tend to stay in the City.

    Other important studies: PPS partnered with the SF Education Fund, the Parent Advisory Council to the Board of ED and SFUSD in 2007 in conversations with 900 parents, youth and community members in five languages and in every SF zip code.

    The resulting report: "Student Enrollment, Recruitment and Retention: Conversations about San Francisco Public Schools" can be found here:

    What we learned doing this community engagement project is what I've seen posted here: Parents want a quality school in every neighborhood - a school they could 'count on' to be fine for their kid. They want the opportunity to have school choice (don't really want to be forced into only one school) and equal access to choice. But they also need systems that work for them (i.e. like afterschool.) Parents are looking for a community to be part of and comfortable in. Parents value diversity, but not at the expense of academic quality (most parents felt academic quality included, but also needed to go beyond, simple test scores.) Also, parents wanted a fair system that provided equal access to all. They want good schools for their kids, but they also insist that ALL kids should have good schools.

    One might read this and think 'doi, what's the news in that?' - but it really was news that parents across languages, neighborhoods, socioeconomic levels, etc. all pretty much want the same thing and this really wasn't what a lot of our leaders thought was the case. On a personal note, working on this community engagement project reiterated my belief that parents in SF are among the most sane, reasonable and fair people in the City (But - all of us KNOW that, right? Hey, don't tell anyone I said that!)

    From this report, PPS and the other nonprofits issued a separate list of our own recommendations from the findings which you can see here:

    These recommendations we did apart from the SFUSD and focused on some tougher issues about parents wanting principals to have more responsibility and control over teachers and hires, that while parents felt overall teachers are very good, the system makes it too hard to get rid of poor teachers, and that parents and the community want our Board of Education and District Administration to provide vision and plan for the district's academic success.

    I'm very happy to report that the SERR report and recommendations from PPS, PAC and SF Ed Fund have been fully embraced by the SFUSD administration - especially new Superintendent Carlos Garcia and the Board of Education. Much of it is being used to guide the district's new strategic plan (being unveiled very soon) and, very importantly, to address issues of teacher accountability as part of a parcel tax for the June 2008 ballot to raise funds to ensure our teachers are paid comparably to neighboring districts. We feel that all of the above and the teachers union, in particular, have done due diligence in listening to and addressing community concerns - starting with elements of what will be going before the voters this summer. (More on this another time.)

    Unfortunately, the final thing I wanted to share doesn't seem to be on the PPS website as we are transitioning to our new website: It's a write up we did after a meeting of 150 parents with Gavin Newsom in April 2006: "What the City and Mayor can do to support our public schools". Basically, parents wanted three things from the Mayor:

    1. Use his bully pulpit and popularity to vocally support the public schools.
    2. Support passage of a parcel tax to provide more resources for our schools.
    3. Utilize city services and dollars to provide 'out of school' services (i.e. transport, afterschool, health, social services, etc.) so that our district dollars can be used to focus on academics.

    Some of this was used as input into the Mayor's much touted "Partnership for Achievement" between the City and SFUSD. It was a start.

    To his credit, Mayor Newsom has done more to support and help SF public schools that any other mayor in anyone's memory.

    However, I believe he could be much more strategic in his support (in all the areas PPS outlined above) and that he needs to focus creating stronger outcomes from the City. I couldn't be a stronger supporter of the Dept. of Children, Youth and Families and the smart and strategic work they are doing. I wish he would listen to the good (and collaborative and community engaged) work of DCYF.

    I, too, agree with your reaction, Kate, that Newsom sometimes undermines confidence for families and in the public schools with his offhand and at times flip comments.

    FYI - I have forwarded this blog to several of the City, District, and business policy makers that PPS partners with as an example of hearing what 'real parents' are saying. I've found this to be a fascinating and valuable read! Thanks for doing this blog.

  39. Hi... "their kind of people" poster here again.

    Apparently, I don't make this shit up! Here is an excerpt from the Student Enrollment, Recruitment and Retention report that Lorraine refers to above.

    (bolding theirs)

    But the parents we talked with acknowledged that diversity is not so simple.

    While many parents want student diversity, many also want to be around others like them. Parents recognized the tension with their desire for diversity when they talked about “feeling comfortable” around other parents, about sharing “aspirations and goals for being there” and about having “something in common.” A parent at a community meeting in the Marina District, for example, wants a school with “like-minded families, who value education, [and] care for their children’s futures.” And African American parents with children at Sunset ES, Ortega ES, Drew ES and Bayview-KIPP charter school want their children to connect with other African Americans. For some, this preference had to do with being “protected from the outside world, [and] learning about themselves in a positive way;” for others it is the only way they feel they can find the cultural and academic support that the “best schools” don’t provide them.

    Diversity was also only an easy choice for parents when the schools were the same in every other way. Most parents who considered diversity a very important part of school quality told us they would choose diversity only if the schools were of the same academic quality. When we presented parents with a forced choice between two elementary schools, one conveniently located where all students are from families similar to their own and one that is representative of the whole city but is significantly more inconvenient to reach, parents - from SOMA, from West Portal, and from the Bayview, for example - most often chose convenience. Parents recognized this as a difficult challenge that they and the District face: “[it’s] ironic because we want our kids in neighborhood schools in a city that is segregated, but then we want our schools to be representative of our city and diverse.”

  40. Lorraine here again-

    Yes, parents from all communities typically expressed that they don't want their child to feel like 'the only one.' (IMHO - it's probably more the PARENT than the student/child, that has this concern, but I digress.) I have an African American friend who left a school because he felt his child was being marginalized and wanted her to be in a different school community that better met their community desires. Many of the monolingual Spanish or Cantonese speaking parents PPS works with want to feel connected and often gravitate to schools where they know people. And of course, I have several examples of schools where the PPS Parent Ambassador was a doctor or lawyer and other doctor and lawyer families suddenly felt that school was an option.

    In SFUSD, with the diversity and large number and variety of different populations, most communities are represented in some form in almost all schools - the question is in what proportions/numbers are different communities represented.

  41. Just read the Chronicle articles about the limited number of parking permits given to teachers and staff at our schools. Dear Gavin: Please correct this problem. Every full time school employee should be entitled to a teachers parking permit allowing extended parking during schools hours. It's ridiculous to expect teachers to leave the school every two hours to move their cars, or face a ticket. Yes, we should encourage public transportation, but it doesn't always work for everyone. Our teachers should not have to worry about being fined for parking. I believe the teachers permits are limited to school days and hours (the problem is only 10 or so are provided for each school -- woefully inadequate) so they should only minimally interfere with resident parking permit holders, who are often gone during school hours.

  42. My wish list for Mayor Newsom is about the city providing non-educational services rather than rely on the schools to do everything. Providing many of these services on-site and in coordination with the schools makes sense, because that is where the kids are, but please, share the cost, because many of these examples are not about learning, but about health and social welfare. Imagine if the schools could use their allotment of state money just for teaching and education!

    Examples of projects the city could fund:

    * Pay for school nurses and social workers at every school. Also, hooray, the city has a new health plan for uninsured residents, including adults this time, and so use nurses and social workers to reach eligible families to enroll. Let's have a healthier community.


    * Contribute funds (on top of the very basic federal contribution) to school breakfasts and lunches so we can improve nutrition and taste with salad and deli bars as have already been pioneered in several schools.

    * MUNI passes during school hours for middle and high school students.

    * After school programs and recreation.

    * After school sports.

  43. To anonymous at 11:23 pm-

    I don't see why the City should let teachers park in residential neighborhoods. Other people who work in parking permit areas aren't eligible for parking permits. This is an incovenience for employees in all professions in San Francisco. And yes, many of us have to bring stuff to our workplaces or home from work, and it still doesn't stop us from taking MUNI (the reason given in the article for the need for teachers and school staff to drive).

  44. Forcing teachers to incur the expense of parking tickets, or the hassle of moving their cars, is just another disincentive to continue teaching in SFUSD. Without good teachers our schools will never improve. Let's support them! Allowing them to park in residential areas during school hours seems like a small thing with a great benefit.

  45. hear hear to that!

  46. Gavin's defeatest tone makes me mad. Blaming it all on geography is plain silly.

    With his excellent contacts among the mega-rich, he could easily help launch a citizens campaign to raise additional funds for school initiatives.

  47. The city's "Transit First" policy assumes that workers either 1) live in SF and walk/bike/take MUNI to work or 2) live in the 'burbs and take BART into the city. Teachers are not the only ones who are inconvenienced by this shortsighted policy: families are as well.

  48. I do think there has been a public-school bashing culture at City Hall that has only recently begun to turn around. As recently as last year, Supervisors were publicly saying that SFUSD is a rathole that treats the City as an ATM machine. The sad truth is that SFUSD has some extremely bad years/past management to live down. The house is in order and for the most part the grownups are in charge, but there is still a lagging memory of the bad old days.

    The single best way for middle class families to engage in our public schools is to really study up on the issues, visit our schools, attend school board meetings, and VOTE in school board elections: don't just vote based on the endorsements but actually evaluate the candidates yourself. There will be ample opportunities to do that kind of evaluation this fall: four seats on the BOE are up and two of the incumbents are moving on, so at least two of those seats are open. The League of Women Voters hosts a candidate forum every year that is televised, and PPS and other impartial organizations will distribute questionnaires and publish the candidates' answers.

    People are already lining up to run, myself included. I don't mean this (much) as a plug for my candidacy, but the fact is that there are not enough people on the Board who actually have kids in the schools right now. I believe strongly that picking up a child at school every day, seeing the homework that comes home and talking with your child about what happened at school that day, volunteering in the classroom and sitting on a site council are great preparation for the decision-making that happens at the Board level.

  49. Rachel,

    That's the best news I've had all day. It will be great to have someone with your level of familiarity with the district to run. Not to mention your common sense!