Refocusing on Our Children
By Sandra Lee Fewer
Recently, I was interviewed by a consultant for the San Francisco Board of Education who was hired to assist with the search for a new Superintendent of Schools. The consultant was responsible for speaking with many stakeholders and submitting a report to the Board with findings of the community input.
During the interview, the consultant shared that few of those who were interviewed focused on the quality of education that the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) was providing, much less student success outcomes. Rather, the majority of the interviews had focused on the politics of the moment, or big policy debates that rarely touched the classroom.
After our conversation, I began to reflect on that and realized that of the dozens of people I have spoken to about the School Board in recent months, never was student success the focus. Instead, people were upset about the decisions of the Board, including the focus on renaming 44 schools, the changes to Lowell’s admission process, the George Washington murals and the frustrations of online learning during an unprecedented pandemic. But of all the people I spoke to, not one mentioned tangible student success outcomes, and how we are measuring the quality of education received by our students.
It seems that, in the frenzy of the School Board recall, this topic has not been part of the conversation, when actually it should be the centerpiece. Isn’t it the main goal and responsibility of the school district to provide a high-quality education for every student so they can have success in life?
I served on the Board of Education for eight years. During that time, I held roles including president, vice president, chair of the Budget Committee and chair of the Curriculum Committee. Before that, I was a parent organizer for eight years, a PTA president for 12 terms, a parent of three SFUSD graduates and I am a proud SFUSD graduate myself (as were my mother, father and grandfather). It’s not a stretch to say SFUSD has shaped my entire life. Frankly, I take offense to the narrative that SFUSD is imploding, that it is broken, that parents should flee to private schools if they can afford it, that it is all gloom and doom. That destructive narrative has never reflected my experience.
And then, on Jan. 7, statewide graduation rates came out for the 2020-2021 school year, and I was floored. This is worth sharing.
Here’s the bottom line: SFUSD has a higher graduation rate than the state of California. While most districts saw a decrease in graduation rates, SFUSD saw an increase. In fact, looking at data from the past five years (2016-2021), SFUSD has made steady gains in graduation rates.
Not only did SFUSD surpass the state’s overall graduation rate, but it also surpassed the state’s graduation rate for African American students (86% compared to the state’s 72.5%). Ten years ago, the test scores were telling us another story; from 2006-2012, SFUSD was dead last out of the seven largest school districts in academic achievement for African American students. Yet today, we are leading on graduation rates among those same students. And we’re doing that after implementing curriculum changes that make classes more rigorous for all students.
I recall vividly the debate when the Board of Education voted to have the same graduation requirements for all students – the A-G course sequence that all four-year colleges require. Before that decision, only students in the honor track could take classes like algebra, biology and chemistry. “Others” (mainly Black and brown students) were funneled into classes like integrated science and integrated math, coursework that colleges did not accept or recognize for eligibility. These students could not even apply to a four-year college.
But it’s not just Black students who are succeeding at higher rates. In fact, SFUSD surpassed the state’s graduation rate for Asians (95.1% to the state’s 94.1%), white students (90.4% to the state’s 88.2%) and surpassed the state’s graduation rate for Pacific Islanders, English Language Learners, foster youth, homeless youth, students with disabilities and socio-disadvantaged students. The state average graduation rate was higher for Latino students (80.5% to SFUSD’s 76.7%). Clearly, that needs to be addressed, but the overall improvement throughout the District is impressive and should be getting more attention.
Today, one third of the district’s population comes from households where a language other than English is the dominant language. Approximately 60% are on free or reduced lunch. Our student population is 90% students of color who live in a city where the average Black family makes $29,000 annually. We see how students are stepping up and meeting – exceeding! – our expectations for them, despite the challenges they face. It is because we gave them the opportunity to do so.
Although people are upset about the decisions of the Board of Education, SFUSD and its dedicated staff, it must be acknowledged that there have been critical gains, even in the midst of a pandemic. The district’s vision for the future of SFUSD students, and the constant quest to improve and bridge a persistent and consistent racial achievement gap, has resulted in these unprecedented graduation rates. That calls for celebration, from all of us. Our goal is 100% graduation for all, and we’re making progress in getting there. So while there is still much work to be done, let’s all take a moment to recognize the achievements of our students, and the district that has supported them.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Sandra Lee Fewer is a fourth-generation Chinese-American San Franciscan, former Board of Education commissioner, former member of the SF Board of Supervisors representing the Richmond District and has lived in the Richmond for more than 60 years.