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Staffs to Be Replaced at 3 San Francisco Schools : Education: Clean sweep, which needs court OK, targets problem campuses. But many teachers and students object.

March 04, 1994|JEAN MERL | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In a radical bid to rejuvenate troubled schools, education officials here plan to remove the entire staffs at three problem campuses--teachers, cafeteria workers, everybody--and start over from scratch.

If a federal court gives approval, as expected, for the "reconstitution" plan at the low-achieving schools, the three principals and about 200 other staff members could be transferred to schools throughout San Francisco.

Denounced by critics as a misguided, meat-ax approach to school reform but hailed by others as a proven tool to improve the educational lot of the hardest-to-reach students, the San Francisco Unified School District's plan is being widely watched.

"It's not complicated, it's not costly, and the idea of being able to start over with people (the schools) choose and people who have chosen to be there is attractive," said James Guthrie, a director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a Berkeley-based think tank.

"It is not a panacea, but it is not a bad thing to try," Guthrie added.

Officials of the 63,000-student San Francisco district say their plan is neither new nor untried but grew out of a long, court-sanctioned effort to desegregate its schools. Court approval is needed under a 1982 consent decree that mandated integration in the schools and a boost in academic achievement, especially for disadvantaged blacks and Latinos.

In 1991, a progress report concluded that while the district had largely achieved its desegregation aims, it had "not realized the goals for academic achievement for the overwhelming majority of African American and Hispanic students."

Last March, nine schools were given extra help and told they had until the middle of this school year to show improvement. Last month, Supt. Waldemar Rojas said Bret Harte Elementary, Visitacion Valley Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School had not made the grade and he would seek court approval for their reconstitution.

Employees could reapply for their old jobs--and officials said at least some would return to their schools--and all will be guaranteed jobs somewhere in the district. But those assurances have done nothing to blunt the outcry at the targeted schools.

"This is superficial and disruptive, and it is not going to work," said Hene Kelly, who has taught health and English for 17 years at Wilson High.

Faced with mounting complaints, the San Francisco school board held an emotional special meeting on the plan this week and got an earful, mostly from employees and students at the schools. Speaker after speaker criticized the process for judging the schools, questioned the success of two previous reconstitution programs and accused the superintendent of sacrificing the schools in order to please the court.

Many also said they were not given the extra help they were promised by district officials, and they asked for more time to turn things around.

"No one is proposing any real changes, and there are many needed at Wilson," student Leroy Hawkins, 17, told the board. "If you take the teachers out of the school, the students will have no one to bond with."

District officials defended their evaluation methods and said too much time already has been lost.

"Unfortunately, success doesn't happen equally at every place," Rojas said. He acknowledged that the idea has flaws but said the success at some other schools where similar steps were taken warrants moving ahead.

"What it does boil down to in the end is whether the (Latino and African American) achievement rate in this district is tolerable," Rojas added.

For Fannie Jo Peagler, the black principal of Visitacion Valley, such remarks are particularly galling.

"We have worked hard to see that African American students get a fair shake and a quality education here," Peagler said, guiding a visitor through the halls of "Vis," an imposing three-story structure perched atop wooded, hilly parkland in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods.

"We know we have a long way to go, but we have done a lot of work and we are beginning to make gains," said Peagler, who complained that Rojas has never visited the school and said the team making the decision spent only an hour there.

Slightly more than a third of the school's 520 students are black and about a fifth are Latino; the other major ethnic groups are Chinese (17%) and Filipino (13%). A majority of the students speak little or no English. About 14% are in special education classes.

About a third of the students are poor enough to qualify for the free lunch program, and three-fourths scored below the 40th percentile on standardized tests.

"We've become social workers in this school," Peagler said. "We hope that finally we are at a point where we can spend as much time on academic skills as we did on getting these students coming to school ready to learn."

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