Monday, March 15, 2010

Hot topic: Turning around a school

This from a reader:
Many Noe Valley families who went 0/7 were assigned to Junipero Serra. A group of us is considering accepting our spots and trying to do what other parents have done at schools such as Miraloma. What does this entail? Is it worth it? What are the pros and cons?


  1. I think you should do it. The new assignment system is going to continue to feed many Bernal/Noe folks to JS. It's already right there - right in your backyard.

    Besides, at the end of the day, all that we all need is a great teacher, that is going to teach our kids. If you can find that there then the bonus will be all the friends you will make in helping to strengthen the school.

  2. A similar effort was launched last year when a bunch of families were assigned to John Muir. In the end I don't think anything came of it. Good luck.

  3. look at the families already in your school as partners and don't come in with a "here we are to save the school" attitude. remember, people have been going to the school already and feel proud of it. I would go to their PTO/PTA meeting and ask how you can help, what is needed rather than going in with my ideas.

    And, although this sounds contrary to what I just said, I would also make a list of things I wanted to see in my child's school and then figure out if other people at the school may want the same (more music, new playground, greening of the schoolyard, etc.) Sometimes it is a matter of the families at the school don't actually know what other schools have (this was the case at my child's school, parents were surprised to find out how much art other schools had for instance).

    good luck. and remember that some families will back out before school starts, but some will also stay and then more will come.

  4. Junipero Serra does not equal John Muir. For a number of reasons that have been described further back in this thread, Junipero Serra is a much better bet.

    One of the positive things is the principal's openness to middle-class Bernal energy, while still wanting to be attentive to the children and families who are there now. It would not be so hard to raise resources for more arts, greening, etc. and to involve current families in both raising that money and deciding how to use it. It would require open ears and open hearts, yes, but it wouldn't take a whole lot of families to make a difference. And once that ball is rolling, it's not a stretch to imagine that under the new SAS that more Bernal families will decide to stick around.

    I also want to say that it doesn't take that many kids in a class or a reading group to form a critical mass for academic achievement. I would be very loathe to send my children to a school that was overwhelmed (like the one I attended as a child), but even 4-5 advanced kids in a class are enough to get most teachers to differentiate and extend when appropriate. My children have attended mixed-class, diverse schools for both elementary and middle, and they have friends from many backgrounds, and they have also never lacked for intellectual peers. In 4th and 5th grade I can remember my daughter and three others reading each other's essays and working out of a middle school spelling/vocab book, and being in the same reading group together. They were all reading significantly above grade level. That was really all it took. And no, not all the kids in that reading group were white and middle class :-).

  5. We've been assigned to JS, and after my initial disappointment and a little research, I am feeling increasingly positive about the school's potential.

    I have confidence that a school with strong leadership, committed teachers and a supportive family community (and the expression of "support" is unique to each family) can accomodate children of many backgrounds and abilities.

    Creating a school environment that is truly diverse across class, culture, ethnicity, first language, etc etc- that is where the true challenge and the hard work lies.

    I am a realist about this work- I taught at SFUSD "STAR Schools" for almost ten years, and I continue to teach in a school with similar demographics. Given my personal experience, I am willing to give JS serious consideration. I hope others will too!

  6. Grattan started out this way. Why not at JS?? Just work closely with the Principal and teachers, and keep plugging away at the needs of the school. But always, always do it with the involvement and blessings of the Prinicipal and teachers.

  7. Not just the blessing of the teachers and Principal: also with the agreement and support of the parents who are actively involved already, and the parents who may want to be more involved but don't know how.

    It's important to come in not with an attitude of "turning the school around", but with the sense that you will be adding and extending to the excellent things already in progress, or the things that others might like to do but have no time, cash, or organizational skills to take on.

    If you feel like a complete 180 is necessary, then it's not the school for you, and you're likely to bring an attitude that will stifle growth.

  8. And hey, get the Bernal community involved! Bernal's got a lot of heart and a lot of thriving businesses with a loyal customer base. Don't know if Paul Revere got there first, but I bet there are resources. I don't live in Bernal, but have had Bernal envy many a time. If you can keep an independent bookstore open and Starbucks out, you can revitalize a public school!

  9. I would try to contact the parents who worked at getting Webster to have an immersion program. It's a more recent development (compared to Grattan and Miraloma) and they might have more info.

    But here's one thing not to do: don't rely on the internet! Call people, make face-to-face meetings. Arrange to have a "new parent" tour with the principal. The folks here at the K Files are internet savvy to a fault. For this to happen, it has to be in the real world, not online.

    (That said, check out the SFUSD page on Serra. The stats are especially interesting.)

  10. 10:07 is so right about going beyond the Internet to help turn around a school. You really do have to be sensitive. There are so many landmines awaiting the well intentioned. Many people are very concerned about equity and access, and not all have the same access and ease with the Internet -- info has to go out through all channels, even if it seems redundant. Face to face is good, so are school fliers, meetings, any opportunity to spread the word to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. I also totally agree with 4:45pm. People already at the school (or some of them) may not respond well at all to a new group coming in to "turn around a school." It demeans their own efforts, or they perceive it as such. Really good to get as many people as possible to find common ground and interest in your shared cause. Makes you less vulnerable too to criticism, and about charges of any divides between haves and have nots. Change CAN happen, but sometimes it feels like pulling teeth...from somebody who knows.

  11. This are financially hard times for high-demand schools, let alone schools where you're trying to engineer a turnaround - something which requires money.

    I think you will have a huge uphill battle trying to support needs of at-risk children while also trying to make the school more attractive to parents like you.

  12. I don't know exactly how much "turning around" JS needs. From what I understand it has a solid staff. I think (and I don't blame you) what you are talking about is bringing more middle class families into the school. if some folks are willing to take that plunge, good for you. Do some reading about middle class kids and low income kids in schools. From what I understand as long as there is not a huge difference in percent of low income/middle class kids AND the middle class parents have some participation in the school, then the middle class kids will do fine. I have also read that if there is an overwhelming percentage of very low income kids at the school then the teachers can be overwhelmed by their needs. So if you can truly get a group of middle class families to commit to attending Junipero Serra then it could become a school where middle class Bernal families felt comfortable. I do not think having these middle class families there would "turn around" a school that already has solid staff.

  13. I disagree with 1:14. I think that even with a solid staff the school can have major issues if the parents are not engaged and the children come from mostly disadvantaged homes. I think it is really admirable that you guys are trying to turn the school around. I know that my cousin was one of the parents that help turn Miraloma around. Her son is 8 or 9 now. It is hard and I agree with the poster that are warning not to go in with the attitude that you are there to "turn it around" but one of just pitching in and helping. I would suggest that you ask the principal and teachers what they need be it supplies, monitors or assistance in the room or other things. Good luck and think you are doing a really great thing!

  14. 1. Make sure the principal is on board.

    2. As noted above, don't enter the school with an "entitlement complex."

    It isn't hard to turn around a school. Once 15 committed parents/pioneers are on board, the sheep will follow in later years.

    Be sure to be gracious and kind to the staff/parents/students already working or enrolled at the school.

  15. Remember, schools like Grattan and Sherman and Miroloma were under-enrolled in kindergarten six or seven years ago. They were begging for students.

    A lot of middle-class parents want to enroll their children in public school, but they want to ensure that other middle-class parents are there, too.

    If you are willing to be a pioneer, others will quickly follow your lead.

    You have to be a leader.

  16. Definitely do your research face to face. I'd recommend spending a morning watching the kids arrive at the start of school.

    And drop the "turn it around" attitude.

    JS is a high achieving school with a very engaged parent body. No there are not a lot of white middle class families in the mix. Yes, much of the active parents are Spanish speakers. Do not be decieved by test scores, this is a school that works well for a lot of disadvantqged kids. And I repeat, do not walk in with any illusions that you and your fellow newcomers are going to "turn around" a program that is already doing quite well. The challenge will be to blend your families into the mix and improve on what is already a pretty solid school.

  17. Turning around a school is a long term proposition that may not pan out during the the early years. The DOE just released 12 names of SF failing schools. Rather than take up to 2 million per school, the Superintendent has indicated he would rather forego the money letting the district's reform efforts proceed instead of instituting one of the four Fed reforms. If the school you want to reform is one of those twelve, the best thing you can do is try to convince this man to take the money and try one of the four. If you want to supercharge your efforts, go with the charter model.

  18. I wish you good luck. I know there are some conversation at our pre-school as a lot of families ended up at William Cobb.

    Sadly we ended up at Rosa Parks GE and the simple fact is with two working parents we do not have the time to turn a school around.

  19. As a Bernal parent of younger kids who lives down the block from Serra, I'd love this since I suspect that's where we'll get assigned under the new system. Can parents join the PTA before they have kids there?

  20. It does seem that Serra isn't at all a "turn it around school." From the California state testing, it gets a 5 (where 10 is best), but once normalized for similar school backgrounds, it's a 9.

    Compare with, say, Grattan, which has a 6, but similar schools ranking of 2.

  21. It seems to me that JS has turned around..test scores have at least doubled since 2004. They don't have many middle class kids but it's an excellent staff. What I think needs work is the building...there's a roof top space that could be beautiful but looks terrible...the playground could be upgraded. Park street is a very together community that would love to make Serra a better school.

  22. Yes! The "turn around" language is scary. It's like a corporate takeover or something!

    Please be mindful that a lovely JS community already exists, but perhaps it doesn't necessarily reflect a (majority) white middle class ethos.

    Learning about the existing school culture and challenging personal assumptions is more relevant than "marketing" a school or "turning it around."

  23. I talked with the principal at JS at the SFUSD fair. I asked questions about race - if my son would be the only white kid in the class, etc. She shrugged and said she did not know... It was a concern, but he will now be of 4% whites in his current assignment.

    What that principal has done at JS is amazing. Just go talk to her and look at the test scores over the past 5 years - they are on the way up and already at an acceptable level.

    You WILL be turned off by the facilities if you drive by - it's next to a public housing complex, it's concrete, but the park is a nice view. I live on the street it is located on.
    Like Paul Revere, the school is better for working families because it has after school programs.
    Would i send my son there? It would depend on how active the incoming class was, which is why I applaud your decision to meet about it.
    They have all the field trips and such the other schools have. They lack a PTA, but that can change with this class. good luck to you all.

  24. Add Spanish immersion and it's a done deal.

  25. Ack! If they add Spanish immersion then it will become a citywide school and the Bernal area will lose more seats for neighborhood assignment. JS is surrounded by Fairmount (all-immersion), Revere (half-immersion) and Flynn (all-immersion). I think it would be better to build up a killer GE program with a focus on arts or some other magnet program than to lose another school to the citywide lottery and west side parents who get good assignments but still want to play the lottery in our area.

    Maybe focused language enrichment would be good though--Spanish bilingual, bicultural program like Rosa Parks and Clarendon have for Japanese.

  26. To 12:05 PM: Flynn is half immersion, not full. Plus McKinley has a "Spanish Enrichment" program.

  27. the principal already tried for SI, but Revere won it and is too close for consideration. this school is right between Fairmont and PR.

  28. Right--half-immersion at Flynn. I knew that; wrote it wrong. Still, that's a lot of immersion spots in Bernal that are going citywide next year. Bernal needs at least one neighborhood school for heaven's sake!

    I'd do other magnet programs like arts or Spanish enrichment. JS is already on track in many ways, and needs just a little more TLC to become a diverse, kick-ass GE program.

  29. I agree with the comments advising to lighten up on the "turn it around" phraseology. What language might you use to better describe your contributions to the school? Perhaps something that wouldn't feel patronizing when speaking to the real human beings that you will get to know, already in that community.

    You may find you have more in common with some of the parents who are already there, than with the parents you are chatting with on the blogs.

    Also, be prepared for subsequent cohorts to use the same approach to you, in later years! You may assume they would "join your effort," but later incoming kinder parents may see themselves as "turning it around," as well. Imagining yourself in that position down the road might help clarify how to approach your new school now.

    It will definitely be interesting to see how the neighborhood assignments will work out, starting next year. I agree it is a good idea to keep that in the back of your mind now.

    (Sorry for the long post.)

  30. Put a French BBP in Serra and I'll haul my blond middle-class kid and my generous PTA donation check over there from the Haight--if the middle-class Bernal families don't grab all the spots. When I lived there, there were some French no-parking signs on the garages. The school seems to be headed in very positive directions. Adding more sensitively applied middle-class resources might help the school take the next steps up for the whole student population.

  31. Bernal parents of preschoolers: Yes, you can definitely start volunteering in a school before your child attends it. That's what the amazing Potrero Hill families who saved Daniel Webster did.

  32. Those of you who feel that the "turnaround" language is overbearing should read up on the current news coming out of DC education policy. Turnaround is all the rage with the DOE handing out millions to schools that take on turnaround reforms.(See SF Gate)

    With the parent trigger legislation and Race to the Top, schools have an opportunity to make some dractic changes. It may not be for everybody, but these offers won't last forever. If a group of parents can convince half the parents to sign on, they will be eligible for grant money the likes of which are rarely seen in public education. You should seriously consider not passing up this offer. You could really create a school in the image that your community wants.

  33. Word of caution to those hoping to "turn a school around." I have two words: budget cuts. We went to an elementary school five years ago that was definitely not on anyone's horizon. Over the past five years, the PTA has slowly built itself up to where the "extras" are starting to happen. But I just got out of a School Site Council meeting last week and was floored by the cuts that the school is facing next year. Three teacher positions eliminated, no money for supplies AT ALL, no money for field trips. Our PTA has never raised more than $50,000 in any year (and that was before the Great Recession). The money that was raised went for PE, field trips and some extra supplies. At the meeting, the PTA promised to raise $70,000. I honestly don't see how we are going to raise that kind of money. But all that is going to do is replace some of the lost supplies money. Many of the trophy schools already this year are funding the teacher slot that most elementaries lost last year, keeping class sizes for 4th and 5th below the 33 that our school has, and have plans to add another one. We could never do that unless we ditched PE and supplies entirely. As a consequence, our class sizes are going to 27-30 for 1 through 3. And there will probably be a split 2/3 class. In this kind of environment with these kinds of budget cuts, it is going to be extremely difficult to turn around a school. We are, for the first time, seriously thinking of going elsewhere.

  34. 7:57, serious question, where are you thinking of going? Some of the 'burbs are seeing cuts as bad or worse.

    I don't know the situation at Junipero Serra, but I would offer that some of our lower-income schools are more shielded from the worst budget cuts than the trophy ones, due to dedicated streams of federal funding and the like. Something to ask about.

  35. Don, I am interested in your perspective regarding the two million in fed monies. How much $$ would it really mean to an individual school? What would the attached strings be? Please understand that children in STAR schools have only recently begun to come out of the suffocating NCLB curricular yoke. I need to know what this "reform" would entail before touting its benefits.

  36. 7:57 - I couldn't agree more. And we're all fighting for the same small pool from businesses and grants. It would have been challenging before, but now things are flat out grueling.

    That said, it sounds like the quality of teaching is already good at JS. So, potential parents, if you don't mind the poor facility, it doesn't sound like you have too much to lose.

  37. Don, the "turnaround" money is only offered to schools in the bottom 5% that agree to go with one of 3 scenarios:

    1) Transformation: fire the principal, institute a longer school day, impose a "research-based" (read "scripted") curriculum (which always requires MORE testing), and implement new governance - whatever that means.

    2) Turnaround: fire the principal and at least 50% of the staff, institute a longer school day, impose a "research-based" (read "scripted") curriculum (which always requires MORE testing), and implement new governance - whatever that means.

    3)Restart: close and restart as a charter school. No contracts for teachers ensure majors staff turnover.

    The only other choices for those schools are to either close altogether, or to simply refuse the $2 million/year and continue with the reforms they've already begun.

    A school like JS is not even a candidate for any of these "options" because it's not in the bottom 5%. Parents who think these plans sound good should be looking for their "turnaround" opportunities at John Muir and Cesar Chavez, not Junipero Serra.

    Considering that Revere was already "turned-around" about 5 years ago (we called it reconstitution back then) I seriously doubt whether our government has the patience to allow any reforms the necessary time to show results.

  38. This is 7:57 again -- yes, some of the suburbs are being hit, but some of them have property tax assessments that give them some serious padding (Albany, for example). We're also thinking of (dread) Catholic schools, but I'll wait until my youngest is in fourth grade in order to lessen the religious impact of doing something like that.

  39. 10:21: no, not this time.

    The Title I pittance and STAR funding (which is a menu of services, not a check to a school) have never equalized school funding, and poorer schools always take it on the chin.

    This year it will be catastrophic everywhere and apocalyptic at poor schools, who will also face more teachers new to the school next year due to their lower-seniority crowd.

  40. Don,

    Believe it or not, there are those among us who both read the paper (the NYT has had quite a bit on the reform efforts coming out of Washington) and who suggest people tread lightly when dealing with actual people in schools in San Francisco. I'm already at a school, and to be honest, had no idea of how sensitive you really need to be in order to get things done. It does need to be a collective effort. You do have to be aware that not everybody has the same concerns, agenda, issues, understandings that you do. You're not going to convince them with a hammer. And SF is a very different place than Washington DC anyway -- it attracts a different breed, and the schools reflect that (from someone with kids in the SFUSD now)

  41. Another vote for French immersion at JS.

    And don't tell me there aren't enough native speakers.

    I know you're out there.

  42. I agree you should make the effort. Three years ago, our family was deciding which school to shoot for with our older daughter. My spouse was initially dead set against Fairmount, even though it was our neighborhood school and we had a good shot at Spanish Immersion there. We had real concerns about the very low test scores, and the physical set up and appearance of the school, and the thought was maybe Catholic school would work better for us . . . It was hard to know what we should go on. In the end, we took a chance.

    Three years and three principals later, we are still very happy with our decision to try Fairmount. Probably the #1 reason we remain satisfied is the group of parents that came into Fairmount with us. They are amazingly dedicated to continuing its improvement, even in the face of budget cuts, etc.

    If the K File parents who were assigned Juniper Serra are as energetic about improving that school as they are about blogging about the selection process, JS could see a big upswing. Ultimately, the school belongs to the community of families that comprise it. Make JS yours. I would love to see another "failing" elementary school taken off that list.

  43. Junipero Serra is NOT a failing school! They are NOT on the list of failing schools anywhere but in the minds of a few posters on this blog.

  44. re PTA question.
    by bylaws, can be a member of a PTA just about ANYBODY. PTA encourages membership by parents, teacher, staff, grand parents, nannies/aftercare staff, local businesses and neighbors.
    Even if you don't end up enrolling your child there, you'll have gained some valuable experience about how a SF school runs.

    re French Immersion.
    There is a strong lobbying group. JS is NOT considered. With current budget cuts, there are little/no chance of a French program in SFUSD (beside the private programs such as lilienthal etc).

    re JS.
    the school has a LOT to offer. Considerations such as traffic, parking, cleanliness, proximity of park ($0 field trips for the children... much better than bussing them to GGPark for 2 hours of leaf collecting)... and the school is TINY compared to the enrollment of other schools (more kids mean YOUR child will most likely be ignored unless he/she the one bad behaving).

    IMO, JS is a very safe landing spot to register while you give a fair chance to R2, WP etc.
    Don't give up your spot only to wish you'd took it come september.

  45. We were accepted into some great private schools and are making the decision this weekend if we can afford it or not. I believe we can NOT. Having gone 0/7 last week on public lottery, I am wondering if others are facing this problem as well. I did not list all trophy schools, just one on my public list. Are there any schools that more than a handful of us have been assigned to and what to make it the next Miraloma with elbow grease and intention? i believe strengthening the school is the correct way to say it. It may take a few years I realize this… If so, write to me and let me know what schools are on the way up so to speak, and or if there are schools many of us were assigned to and are on the fence about... PLEASE!

    Many private schools overbuilt and overspent during the late 1990's and now they are grappling with how to make ends meet. If I chose a school whose tuition will continue to rise exorbitantly high most years, in nine years I doubt I will be able to keep paying,,, more less save for high school or college for my daughter, since my hours were cut and salary decreased a small amount in the last 12 months. Some people get tuition assistance that qualify but not all that qualify actually receive anything. That leaves the many of us priced out or paying and just barely scraping by with a private pick. What may we select together as our alternative school? I understand there are great communities already in action and fabulous teachers in all schools. Many parent groups met in person to assist with changes they thought may help every child in the school like Alvarado, Peabody and others. What is next and how may I champion a “next school” besides Rosa Parks which is not convenient for many people which whom I have spoken. This is not to start a thread of nasty backlash but a real conversation about what many of us are going to do when the second round is over and we have a great deal of unhappy parents. Let us start thinking together now. Is John Muir again or something else?

  46. "Many private schools overbuilt and overspent during the late 1990's and now they are grappling with how to make ends meet."

    Also, they began funding building projects through borrowing rather than applied endowments.

    Their debt obligations have increased substantially. This is the main reason tuition has doubled over the past 10 years at most independents and they have cut scholarship outlays.

  47. I am a middle school teacher and I know, as all my teacher friends know, that the placement of a good-sized group of kids who have receive literacy at home, eat breakfast, have adults who care for them and show affection to them, and who generally benefit from stability in a middle-class environment WILL DEFINITELY impact a school.

    Demographics rule.