Inside the fight over how to address San Francisco's 'state of emergency' for black student achievement

Black students in San Francisco would be better off almost anywhere else in California.

Many attend segregated schools and the majority of black, Latino and Pacific Islander students did not reach grade-level standards on the state’s recent tests in math or English tests.

A local NAACP leader called for declaring a “state of emergency” for black student achievement, a problem the city’s school board acknowledged. “The problem cannot be reduced to one sickness or one cure,” said Rev. Amos C. Brown, San Francisco’s NAACP branch president. “Black students have been underachievers. They’re living in toxic situations. It’s amazing they’ve done as well as they have done, but it’s criminal that sophisticated children in progressive San Francisco are performing at these levels.”

But is the solution to fix what’s broken, or to start schools anew? Answering that question has unveiled a heated political debate in Northern California.

The district’s strategy targets changing instruction, hiring, school culture and instilling the belief that all kids can learn. Vincent Matthews, San Francisco Unified School District’s superintendent since May, is expected to present a detailed strategy for improvement early in the new year. An opposing plan from a controversial nonprofit called Innovate Public Schools calls for starting new schools — traditional public or charter — from scratch.

For decades, San Franciscans have called attention to the achievement gap. Following an NAACP lawsuit regarding discrimination, the city entered into a 1983 consent decree mandating desegregation. Since then, the district has changed its school assignment rules.

More recently, a group of organizers from Innovate, which has brought some charter schools to the San Francisco Bay Area and receives money from the Walton Family Foundation, has been convening parents and calling renewed attention to the problem.

In September, Innovate released a report sounding the alarm on San Francisco’s achievement gap — and called for the city to establish new schools as a remedy. Innovate’s organizers and parents held a news conference outside City Hall and organized a parent meeting with Matthews.

On the most recent round of tests, 87% of San Francisco Unified’s black students performed below standards in math, as did 79% of Latino students and 78% of Pacific Islanders. Ninety-six percent of districts in California that serve black students had better reading scores for low-income black students than San Francisco did, Innovate found. Many minority students attend schools that are highly racially concentrated in neighborhoods such as Bayview-Hunters Point, with high rates of staff turnover and relatively inexperienced teachers.

These factors, according to a recent district report, produce “a form of academic segregation that can be especially hard to overcome.”

And after decades of gentrification and displacement by tech workers, black families are moving out: In the 1998-99 school year, black students comprised 16% of SFUSD’s students, compared with just under 7% last school year.

Some parents were shocked when they saw these statistics — individually, they knew there were issues, but they didn’t realize their problems added up to a larger whole. The poor educational outcomes stand in stark contrast to the reputation the city has built for itself as the country’s center of technological innovation.

“It’s been broken for a long time,” said Geraldine Anderson, a mother of three who saw local schools cut back on hours from one child to the next. “I see IT companies coming to San Francisco and so much money coming in for the city, but our kids won’t be able to live here or participate.”

Innovate has found advocates in parents struggling to find adequate schooling. Cyn Bivens, a native Angeleno, said she grew up getting straight Fs and felt she was just passed on from one grade level to the next. She felt that her generation, allowed an equal education for the first time in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, grew up not knowing what a great education looks like. For her daughter, she wanted something different.

So she moved to San Francisco, sent her to a public school, and was shocked to learn that a kindergarten teacher made her daughter wear a diaper in front of her entire class. “She shamed and humiliated her,” Bivens said. Later, she learned another teacher had pulled her daughter by her collar. So she moved her into a charter school, which she felt was better, but not good enough. “She’s doing a little better, but she’s still struggling.”

As a baby sitter for well-off San Franciscans who work in technology, investment and medicine and send their children to private school, Vanessa Martinez moves between the city’s worlds. She moved to San Francisco when she was 14, married at 20 and has two children. She, too, moved her child out of a public school and into a charter, but isn’t satisfied.

In both schools, Martinez has struggled to get her son, Arthur, 13, the reading instruction he needs. “He’s so behind, it’s hard to be at the same level as the other kids,” she said. Arthur grew up speaking English, but he is still classified as an English learner. She is looking for a high school that can help him, but is coming up short. “We don’t have the money to pay for private school,” she said. “I went to see all the public high schools, and not even one is good — the kids aren’t learning.”

Her husband, a native San Franciscan, had some of the same teachers as Arthur. “So many people come here to get better opportunities. Facebook is right here,” Martinez said. “Our kids, all our family history, they’re here. We don’t need more people coming from out of state.… We need kids who can be ready for work.”

Shortly after Innovate released its report, critics said the group took advantage of parents to support the agenda of growing charter schools. “They seem to think that … the only solution is new schools, it’s charter schools,” said Matthews. Matthews said as superintendent in San Jose, he saw Innovate support charters. He has had meetings with parents organized by Innovate in both districts, and said he “found it fascinating” that parents in both places “developed the exact same script.”

Innovate officials maintain that they support good schools, whether they be public or charter. “The model is to start new schools … and let the principal hire the dream team,” said Matt Hammer, Innovate’s founder and chief executive. As for critics, he said, “they’re taking the focus off the problem and focusing it on a couple of our funders.”

Matthews wants to attack the achievement gap by improving the quality of his workforce, making sure teachers can serve different types of learners within the same classroom and ensuring students and teachers see achievement as something that can grow, rather than a fixed quantity. He is keeping a close eye on schools that appear successful but fail specific groups of students. “If those students are succeeding, why aren’t African American students succeeding there?” he said. “We’re doing all we can to keep high-quality teachers in our system” and providing “culturally relevant” training.

Matthews said he isn’t sure whether he will want to start new schools. “I don’t think there’s only one solution,” he said. School board President Shamann Walton declined to comment.

The issue has split the community, including local clergy and NAACP members. The NAACP has called for a national moratorium on charter schools, and Brown, the San Francisco branch chair, supports it. But another pastor and NAACP member, Arelious Walker, has come to the conclusion that the Bayview neighborhood needs charters. “Why after 70 years have we not moved? The charter academies have got the solution,” he said. “I know about the NAACP and their national position — and I don’t agree with them.”

Matthews said he will continue to talk to parents and staff as he develops his plan. “What we’re going to do is continue to move forward,” he said. “Things like Innovate, outside people will come along — I’m going to put the plan forward to our district.”

But parents are impatient. “They know there’s an achievement gap,” said mother Cynthia Segura. “It’s all the same to them — they’re not living the problem.”

Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com

@Joy_Resmovits

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