There is agreement on one thing here on the lush seacoast of immaculate Marin, California’s richest and perhaps loveliest county:
The local school district is in terrible trouble.
In this region of tall trees and big houses, fancy cars and fair complexions, nearly a third of the students in the district are in special education classes, overall performance is way below state standards and tempers are near the boiling point.
Things are so bad that a grass-roots coalition has formed to recall the entire school board, fire the superintendent and maybe get rid of the teachers too.
So destructive that the school population has dropped by more than a third since 1990, as worried parents in this liberal enclave pull their children out of public institutions--first white families, and now some black families.
So perplexing that the plight of the tiny Sausalito Elementary School District--whose students are 80% African American and largely poor in a county that is 80% white and largely rich--highlights a host of major education issues, many seemingly imponderable:
Just how important are funding and class size? What makes children learn? Does race play a role in how children learn? Can problems of poverty and drug abuse be overcome in the classroom?
Most specifically, why aren’t children performing better in a district that wants for nothing money can buy?
Most classes are as small as 15 to 20 students. There is an art and drama teacher, a science specialist, a computer instructor. The district ranks No. 10 in student spending out of nearly 1,000 statewide, shelling out nearly three times the state average per student.
Yet children from second to seventh grades performed below the 40th percentile in language skills and barely crested that mark in reading ability, according to the most recent test scores available from the 1996 Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Most go on to high school unprepared.
“It’s the biggest mess I’ve ever seen. It’s just getting worse and worse,” says Josephine Pearson, who left her teaching job at Sausalito’s Bayside/Martin Luther King School in January after nearly seven years of frustration. “It’s so sad. All that money and nothing for those kids. . . . I don’t know what they’re going to do.”
Right now, it is a mystery, a conundrum of race, class and money stretching back to World War II. Its impact could be felt far into the future.
While solutions are scarce, theories abound: White flight caused performance to drop. Social factors keep children from learning. The superintendent and school board lack vision and leadership. There is no discipline in the classrooms, no consistency in curriculum.
“A lot of the classic urban explanations don’t explain the situation here,” says Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University. “It’s a puzzle and an interesting social case.”
With about 250 students at two schools, the Sausalito Elementary School District serves two disparate communities.
There is the artsy enclave of Sausalito, 94% white and boasting an average annual household income of $107,485. Some of its 7,200 residents commute home from high-powered jobs in San Francisco on a ferry called the Golden Gate, sipping chardonnay as the sun sets.
Then there is Marin City, Sausalito’s unincorporated neighbor to the north, known in these parts as the “Golden Ghetto.” Most of the estimated 2,000 residents are African American, and many live in public housing.
The two share a border, a school district and not much more.
The private, nonprofit Marin City Project, which focuses on the area’s social problems, estimates that eight of 10 school-age children in the community are low performers in part because of “environmental factors such as substance abuse, insufficient parental guidance, low self-esteem and poverty.”
Marin City was built in 1942 on 356 acres of farmland donated to the federal government by five German immigrants. It was meant to be a temporary enclave of newcomers from around the country who gathered to build Liberty Ships, the hastily constructed cargo craft used to supply American soldiers abroad.
The Marin City Project described the community then as the country’s “first integrated federal housing project.” After World War II, those who could departed, leaving a solidly African American community behind and few jobs.
Until 1990, the school district still was almost evenly split between black and white. But with the end of the Cold War, the Department of Defense closed down the Presidio army base in San Francisco and nearby Ft. Berry and Ft. Baker.
Most military families were white and sent their children to school in Sausalito. When the families were transferred, the district lost more than 100 children, says school Supt. Bill Redman.
By then, most Sausalito parents already had turned to private schools. Although the district’s 35-year history is far from trouble-free, most observers mark the base closures as the beginning of the current dilemma.
“Anyone who owns a house in Sausalito has an income so high they either have no school-age children or, if they do, they want them to go to private schools as they did,” Redman says. What remains, he says, is a troubled student body, plagued by health and nutrition problems, the result of insufficient sleep or food. Fetal alcohol syndrome and parental drug use are “a major concern.”
“We have terrific students,” Redman says. But “many of the children are affected by very intense social conditions.”
To which his opponents reply: So what?
An incredulous Barbara Chriss, formerly principal of Bayside/MLK, speaks for much of the opposition when she blisters Redman for what she characterizes as his lack of expectations for the students.
“He’s making excuses about why they can’t learn, rather than helping us figure out how they can learn,” she says. “The same types of kids in Harlem, Detroit, Richmond, Calif., are succeeding.”
Chriss and Pearson left Sausalito for schools in Richmond--a hard-scrabble, industrial city on the bay with a high minority population and high unemployment--and “it’s the same population of kids. It’s supposed to be worse, and it’s not,” Pearson says.
Charges of Abandonment
The brown-shingled Bayside/Martin Luther King School looks more like a ski resort sans snow than the center of a controversy. The paint is fresh. The lawn is manicured. The playground equipment looks new.
But most children aren’t learning as they should.
The culprit is not the lack of resources that plagues most schools across the country. The Sausalito district spends nearly $12,000 per student, not including money to cover special education costs. As one of the few so-called “basic aid” districts, it is funded largely by local property taxes, unlike most schools statewide.
In contrast, average statewide spending per pupil is about $4,300, while the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District spends about $4,900 per student.
Large districts struggle with unwieldy class sizes of 30 to 40 students; Sausalito averages about 16 per teacher.
The Sausalito district has been “high-spending for years,” says Kirst. “If money would have made the difference, it should have done that over time.”
School officials blame the parents and the community for abandoning public schools. The currently active parent-teachers association was preceded by several years of no PTA at all. Until the recall threat erupted last fall, the monthly school board meetings attracted a smattering of parents.
In the past four years, no one ran for three empty seats on the board; appointed trustees had to be recruited. In November, two incumbents ran unopposed. Today, the board has three white members who live in Sausalito and two black members who live in Marin City.
“The question that I’ve been putting out is where was [the recall effort] three or four months ago, when there was an election and no one ran?” asks board member Dennis Elsasser, a county worker from Sausalito who was recruited to run.
Perhaps more to the point is a headline from the monthly Sausalito Signal: “Why Have the Children Gone?” Vice Mayor George Stratigos, an outspoken recall booster, estimates that only 13 Sausalito children go to the public schools, compared to nearly 200 in private institutions.
Austin and Anna Brown, 12 and 10, are two of the refugees from Sausalito schools. After several troubled years in the district, their parents enrolled them in a Montessori school two towns away in plush Mill Valley.
Austin started dreading school when he hit third grade at North Bay, the district’s other school, which has an art and drama theme. His classroom, says his father, was always “in a state of chaos.” His teacher was unresponsive.
“We raised our concerns with the school administrators and the school board. You know when bureaucrats in a nice way tell you to get lost? That’s what happened to us,” says Martin Brown, publisher of the Signal and an active member of the recall effort, dubbed Project Homecoming. “We figured whatever might happen to fix this school district might not happen in our kids’ lifetime.”
Unbidden, Brown insists that he did not take his children out of the district “because there were black children in the school,” but because “our children were failing.”
Still, race is an underlying theme of nearly all conversations about the problems of Sausalito’s schools.
“Race is an issue at the school,” says Andrea Leslie, co-president of the Bayside/MLK PTA. “I can’t fix racism. It’s part of the problem. It could be what keeps Sausalito families away.”
Leslie, a white parent, is a booster of the Sausalito schools, where she says her children are thriving. Small classes mean individualized attention, she says. Her second-grade son is doing third-grade math.
“I’m so pleased about what they’re gaining that I can never give them--this social experiment, this racial mix,” she says. Still, overall test scores are low, and the controversy is wearing. “Every once in a while, I think it shouldn’t be so hard to send your kids to school.”
Project Homecoming and other parents blame the district’s poor performance on problems ranging from teacher turnover to a lack of classroom discipline and a lack of leadership by administrators.
Eden Hayes, now 16 and a sophomore at nearby Tamalpais High School, and his brother were pulled out of Bayside when their parents became alarmed by growing disorder in the classroom.
“Every year I went to that school, there were problems in the grade I was in,” says Eden. “Every class I was in, the teacher got hurt and left or left because we were giving them so much problems. In seventh grade, I had three teachers. . . . I wasn’t learning to my level.”
Chriss, a former Bayside/MLK principal, injured her back when she was assaulted by a student, who was neither suspended nor expelled.
“The problem is that there’s nothing consistent across the classes or the grades in curriculum or in behavior and performance expectations, so the children are confused,” Chriss said.
Tammie Riviore, 28, has a different interpretation of the complicated saga of Sausalito’s schools. Three of her four children attend Bayside, as did this Marin City resident. She puts the blame more on uncaring parents than on unable teachers.
“The teachers care,” says Riviore, a clerk in a grocery store who is pregnant with her fifth child. “They’re there to teach a child, not discipline a child. There’s only so much they can take. . . . I was a yard duty supervisor there, and I couldn’t take it so I quit.”
Frank Gold’s lens on the Sausalito schools comes from the district’s graduates. He is principal of Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley, part of the Tamalpais Union High School District, the destination for Sausalito’s teens.
Those children, he says, are a “mixed bag” of considerable talent and unpreparedness. Overall, their achievement lags far behind students from other districts.
“They have some systemic problems in the school district,” says Gold. “I came here in the ‘60s, when there was great family support from Marin City. Now, there is drug use and alcoholism among parents. You have a lot of kids who don’t get what they need in the first three years.”
Demands for Change
Recall proponents believe that the only answer is a new school board and a new superintendent--in short, completely different leadership.
At 7 on a recent Monday night, the group’s regular potluck dinner has come to order in Jane Colton’s plush three-story houseboat. The sun is setting, the wine is flowing and the vitriol is about to begin.
Project Homecoming was born late last fall when a group of Marin City parents protested a controversial program designed to combat worsening discipline problems. The heart of the proposal was an “isolation room” for disruptive students at Bayside/MLK, which teaches kindergarten through eighth grades.
A subsequent public brainstorming session turned into a free-for all, with angry participants calling for immediate changes. By late January, Project Homecoming demanded that the board fire Redman--a white man--and replace him with an outspoken, female African American educator.
But instead of firing Redman, the board extended his contract, and the recall effort swung into high gear.
Project Homecoming is a racially diverse coalition of scores of parents, educational consultants and residents of Sausalito and Marin City, whose motto, “Break the Silence,” can be seen on bright-blue campaign signs throughout the two communities.
On this night, there is no shortage of conversation.
“My son Brooks, snoring over there in the stroller, is 3 1/2,” says Bill Hudson. “He’ll be ready for school soon. I love Sausalito. I’ve become involved in Sausalito in Little League and all. I want to stay in Sausalito.”
Then he asks the Sausalito question of the moment: “You see 300 to 400 kids in the Easter Parade. Where do they go?”
In case the group needs proof, Cathomas Starbird has brought two of hers along, Royal, 4, and Sir Noble, 2. Stephannie, 13, had other plans. Yes, she says, they live here. No, she says, they do not attend the public schools.
“They don’t educate children as far as I’m concerned,” says Starbird, who is African American. “Nor do they provide an environment for learning. Money is not the issue.”
The big question comes from a newcomer, and it is a hard one to answer: If the school board goes, what takes its place? If the district has no plans for improvement, what are yours?
Project Homecoming’s goals at times verge on the fuzzy. A mission statement, posted on the Internet, calls for a transformation from “the long standing culture of failure of the Sausalito School District to a culture for excellence.”
A new board and superintendent should engage the community to create a three- to five-year plan for the district. There should be a complete review of the curriculum.
Jeanne Gibbs, an educational consultant and one leader of the movement, argues that it is “not proper” for the group to espouse a plan because that will be the job of a new school board.
Even the current trustees are more defensive than instructive about how to solve the schools’ difficulties. But the board has voted to bring in an outside auditor to investigate how efficiently the district spends money and how well it teaches its children. Results are due this summer.
Meanwhile, stung by the controversy, trustees are fighting back in the local papers. “Don’t blame us for Sausalito’s school problems,” read the headline on a lengthy editorial by the board in the Marin Independent Journal.
“Cancer didn’t recall me,” says angry board President Gracie Grove, who underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer about the time the recall began. “I’m certainly not going to let them.”