San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia has been on the job for only seven months and he has already accomplished a lot. He has filled many empty positions, spoken out against Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget cuts, and he’s about to introduce a strategic plan for the district. He has also visited 84 of the district’s 104 schools—and plans to walk the halls of each and every one.
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with Garcia and I asked if he was disappointed in any of his district's schools. He says that when he visits a school, he asks himself, “Would I want to send my child here?” He has seen only one school in which he wouldn’t let his daughter or son step foot. I asked him if he was doing anything to help that hurting school. “If you’re in a family and someone is sick,” Garcia said, “You help him.”
Here’s more from our conversation:
Where did you go to school?
Los Angeles public schools K through 12. Magnolia Avenue Elementary. Wilmington Middle School. Banning High School. Also, my two children, who are now 23 and 25, went to public schools. I’m a staunch supporter of public schools.
Most of the parents visiting The SF K Files are applying to kindergarten—what was that first year in school like for you?
I didn’t speak English. If I spoke Spanish in class, my teacher would hit my hands with a ruler.
That must have hurt.
I had a steep learning curve in kindergarten.
Were your parents involved in your school?
Both of my parents worked full-time at factories. My mom worked nights, so in the morning I walked to school with my three brothers. But in the afternoon my mom met me after school and walked me home. She was always really on top of things.
So how does the Spanish-speaking son of two factory workers become a superintendent? Was there a teacher or someone who influenced you?
When I started at Wilmington Junior High I didn’t always hang out with the best people. I was a tough barrio guy. My friends were hardcore. So I was surprised when one day, a few weeks into the school year of seventh grade, my teacher Rita Stelle came up to me during break and asked to talk to me. This was cramping my style and embrassing me in front of my friends, so I said I had nothing to talk to her about. This didn’t end here. She approached me every day at break. Finally, I agreed to talk and said, “What do you want?” She noticed that I was a leader among all the groups in school and that I got along with everyone and that wasn’t a common sight in this school. She mentioned that everyone else stuck to their own kind but I crossed all groups. She said that I would make a great leader and asked if I would run for student body president. Next thing I knew I was school president.
And now you’re a superintendent. So what exactly does your job involve?
My job is simple. I work for kids.
Why should a parent deciding between public and private opt for a SFUSD school?
It’s the real world. If we hope for the best for our kids, we can’t shield them from reality.
What do you think of SFUSD parents?
They’re the smartest parents that I’ve ever encountered in a district. They’re strong advocates for their children. I was at Alvarado the other day. Parents were everywhere. It was like a family environment.
The district is supposed to be coming out with a strategic plan—a vision for the next five years. When can we expect that?
We’re working on the final drafts of it. We’ll be finished in April at the latest.
What do you think of Governor Schwarzenegger’s proposed education budget cuts?
This is the biggest budget crisis in the history of California education. I’m amazed that everyone isn’t out on the streets saying this is outrageous. We all ought to be as mad as hell. Every day I go out and express my anger about the budget cuts. I call our legislators. I’m sure the governor doesn’t think highly of me.
Maybe I'll plan a protest.
That's a great idea.
Will you have to close schools?
Definitely not this year. We might have to reconsider next year.
Increase class sizes?
If we don’t get the Rainy Day Fund—the $30 million from the city—there would be huge increases in class size in 4th through 12th grades. Kindergarten through third is protected by law—we can’t increase the class sizes in those grades.
So when do we know if we’ll get the Rainy Day Fund?
The city budget has to be passed by the legislature. Hopefully, soon.
Any plans to change the SFUSD lottery system?
I realize that the system isn’t perfect. Eventually we will revisit it. But no matter what plan we come up with, there will be people who won’t like it. If everyone were assigned to their neighborhood schools, there would be some parents who wouldn’t want to send their kids to the neighborhood school. We’re examining a lot of options. But I think the bottom line is that we need to start making more of our schools top schools.
Does the district plan to hire a grant writer?
Absolutely. We’re working with the city to jointly fund someone.
What are your goals for 2008?
Literacy is one of my goals. I want every child in my district to be literate by the end of third grade. If a child is not reading at grade level by third grade, it can have a profound negative impact on his or her future. Twenty-two of our country's states use third grade test results to determine how many prison cells to build for the future.
And the achievement gap. We're an urban district and we generally have great test scores. But I can’t stand to think that our Latina and African American students are performing so poorly. Special ed students outperform the African American kids. We need to fix that.
Also, paying teachers more and making sure they’re doing a good job. We’ve put a parcel tax on the June 1 ballot. If this passes—it has to pass with a two-thirds vote—we hope to increase starting salaries for teachers from $40,000 to $50,000. We also want to introduce incentives for teachers to work at less desirable schools. A teacher might get a $2,000 bonus for going to an underperforming school. And we will introduce a stricter evaluation process.
The parcel tax will also contribute $3.75 million toward upgrading technology in our schools. Our technology is outdated. If this parcel tax passes it could really revolutionize our schools.
Was this parcel tax your idea?
There are many dedicated people behind this idea.
What’s the biggest problem in the district?
I don’t think everyone in this city has ownership of all of our children. We need to stand up for all of our kids. Whether they’re kids living in the Presidio or Bayview, we need to take responsibility for all children.
Do you have a mantra?
Our schools will not be good enough for any of our children unless we can make them good enough for all of our children.