Proposed Daniel Webster Elementary School Expansion to K-8 May Be Decided This Month
Melissa Mutiara Pandika
Kindergarten- through fifth-grade Daniel Webster Elementary School may soon expand to include sixth- through eighth-grade classes. Under a proposal Webster parents made to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) last fall, the school’s Missouri Street campus would house kindergarteners through second graders. The Enola Maxwell campus on De Haro Street С which currently hosts sixth- through 12-grade students at International Studies Academy (ISA) following a 2008 merger between Excelsior Middle School and International Studies Academy High School С would be designated for third through eighth graders. ISA’s ninth through 12-grade students would transition to another, unspecified, high school.
The proposal, which is being energetically supported by a group of parents who launched an effort to reinvigorate Webster seven years ago, is bringing a number of tensions to surface, including the divide between Potrero Hill’s northern and southern slopes, SFUSD’s assignment of Southside youth to poorly funded schools, and the lack of communication between SFUSD and community members.
Since December, the Daniel Webster Middle School Task Force (MSTF), a group of Webster parents advocating for the proposal, has held monthly meetings with SFUSD assistant superintendent Veronica Chavez. The district may decide whether to adopt the proposal this month. If approved, the change could be phased-in over two years, including an initial period in which the Maxwell campus would temporarily house kindergarteners through eighth graders while the Missouri campus is renovated as part of the 2011 Proposition A bond program to modernize San Francisco public schools. Kindergarteners through second graders would return to the Missouri Street campus the following school year. According to Stacey Bartlett С a Webster parent, Potrero Kids at Daniel Webster (PKDW) preschool’s administrative director, and, with Daphne Magnawa and Leora Broydo Vestel, MSTF co-leaders С the task force hopes that the proposal can be adopted this fall. SFUSD executive director of public outreach and communications Gentle Blythe stated that no changes would be made to Webster’s grade configurations until after the 2012-2013 school year.
Webster parents are pushing for expansion in part because of their disapproval of the middle school feeder pattern SFUSD announced last June, which directs graduating fifth graders from Webster and nearby Bryant Elementary School to ISA, the district’s only combined middle and high school. Webster parents are concerned that ISA’s current configuration fails to provide a stable, safe environment. Bartlett worries that the sixth- to 12-grade model pressures children to mature too quickly. “Kids naturally gravitate towards people that are older than them and want to model their behavior,” she explained. “Why would you want to rush an 11 year-old to start acting like the high school girls or boys do? Can you imagine sending your 11 year-old daughter to school with 19 year-old boys?”
Alise Adams, a morning and lunchtime monitor at Webster with children attending both Webster and ISA, agreed. “Once they get up in those ages, [they’re] living a whole different lifestyle,” she said. A K-8 grade setup, on the other hand, would enable middle school-aged students to stay children longer, acting as mentors to younger students rather than being exposed to and potentially adopting risky adolescent behavior, Adams said.
Ana Lunardi, a first grade Spanish immersion teacher at Webster who has been with SFUSD for 22 years, supports the proposed K-8 structure. “I think it is a fabulous idea,” she said. “I’m a person who believes in the whole child, not just the academic, but you have to look at all child’s needs. The research shows that K-8 schools meet the needs of the child better than K-5, so I’m totally for it.”
Keeping students, including siblings, with the same peer group for longer time periods contributes to a stable social environment, and is convenient for parents with more than one child, explained Bartlett. A K-8 grade setup also makes it easier for teachers to sustain relationships with students and work with their previous educators to monitor their progress. This continuity could especially benefit students from the Hill’s vulnerable communities. “We think it’s a better solution for all kids, but especially kids that need a little extra help,” said Bartlett.
Edward Hatter, the executive director of Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, who often works with ISA students, doubts whether many students from these vulnerable communities would attend a reconfigured Webster. Historically, Webster drew students from the Potrero Annex-Terrace housing complex, he said. Although Webster has a culturally and ethnically diverse student population, Hatter has noticed the number of Annex-Terrace children at the school dwindling over the years, a trend he worries will continue. In 2011, SFUSD shifted the attendance area for Annex-Terrace residents to Starr King Elementary; as a result housing complex residents now increasingly send their children to that school.
Besides ISA’s configuration, Adams complained about the school’s lack of discipline and adult supervision. One of her daughters, a sixth-grader at ISA, is constantly bullied. “Every day practically, she’s calling me, or the school is calling me, about these girls wanting to fight herСnot just verbally, but physically,” she said. Adams, who drops off her daughter at ISA every morning, described students’ routinely disrespectful behavior, including yelling and swearing at each other and even at teachers. Meanwhile, teachers and other staff members ignore such behavior, she said, and interact with students as friends instead of as authority figures. “It’s like a bunch of kids running the school,” she said. She recounted how a student called her daughter a name in front of both her and her daughter’s teacher. The teacher, however, did nothing to address the situation. Although Adams has met countless times with numerous staff members, little has changed. The conflict resolution meetings that the staff organizes between the students involved and their parents are similarly ineffective, she said, with fights inevitably flaring up again within a day or two.
The routine bullying and classroom disruptions have taken a toll on her daughter. “It has changed her grades, it has changed her personality,” she said. “It’s like night and day.” Adams wrestles with transferring her daughter out of ISA, but is worried about subjecting her to the stress of adjusting to a new school. “I don’t think I should ever have to worry about her,” she said. To Adams, expanding Webster is a more feasible option than trying to improve ISA’s deeply entrenched conduct issues, which could take several years.
Hatter agreed about the level of misconduct at ISA С roughly 30 percent of its students have been identified as having behavioral problems С but pointed-out that such problems are inevitable in a largely low-income population. “Poverty brings problems,” he said. “Are [the teachers] going to start taking [the students] out into the yard and beating them?” asked Hatter. “Their hands are tied, especially when the school is integrated with a lot of children with problems.”
Magnawa expressed concerns about the lack of academic support at ISA. She pointed-out that ISA has no middle school leadership at the district level; normally each of SFUSD’s middle schools is served by a superintendent. Although ISA has a high school area superintendent, the individual serving San Francisco middle schools, assistant superintendent Jeannie Pon, has no jurisdiction over ISA’s middle school students. If Webster expands, a K-8 area superintendent would provide middle school and elementary school leadership.
ISA also lacks a Spanish immersion program. As a result, the language education of Webster immersion studentsСabout a third of the school’s pupilsСwould be cut short before they’ve had a chance to become bilingual, a process that normally takes about seven years, said Webster Principal Moraima Machado. Under the proposed expansion, Webster students could continue Spanish immersion through eighth grade.
Bartlett added that although the district typically tried to ensure that the elementary schools and their designated middle schools represent varying performance levels, Webster, Bryant, and ISA all struggle academically. If ISA were a traditional three-year middle school, Bartlett believes that she and other community members might be able to improve its situation. However, she doubts that any parent would take on the endeavor of overhauling a struggling seven-year combined middle and high school. “There are too many grades to fight through, too much of an unknown to overcome,” she said. To improve ISA, Bartlett believes that, rather than allowing Webster fifth graders to, as Bartlett put it, “walk the plank” year after year, the entire Webster community, including students, teachers, and families, need to enter the Enola Maxwell campus together, “in effect, seed the school to be truly Daniel Webster,” she said. “I think that would do a lot.”
The proposed expansion would double Webster’s enrollment capacity, said Bartlett, increasing Spanish immersion and general education programs to include three classes per grade level in kindergarten through third grade, and two classes per grade level in the upper grades. Increasing Webster’s enrollment would raise the funding it receives, and thereby the amount of money that could go toward additional academic support, such as computer teachers and literacy specialists. This could mean that parents like Adams would no longer have to travel far to schools that offer resources for children in need of extra attention. Adams has to send one of her sons, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), to Dr. William Cobb Elementary School in Pacific Heights, which provides special services for ADHD students. “The [services] we need, our neighborhood school doesn’t have [them],” Adams said. “Either the kids don’t get it, or we bus the kids offЙ I’ve never had kids far away. That’s an adjustment for me and them.”
Increasing Webster’s capacity would also allow the school to serve more families in Webster’s attendance area, added Bartlett. According to the most recent Census, in 2010 there were 206 four-year-olds in the area, which spans the South-of-Market and Potrero Hill neighborhoods. That cohort began kindergarten in 2011, 148 of them most likely at a public school, based on the San Francisco chapter of Parents for Public Schools estimate of a 72 percent public school attendance rate for the City’s school-aged children. In 2015, the number of kindergarteners in the area is expected to surge to 444, 320 of whom will likely attend public school. Webster has space for only 66 kindergarteners. Although not all of these kindergarteners’ families will request Webster in SFUSD’s lottery, the school could barely accommodate 15 percent of them. The disparity between Webster’s capacity and the number of children in its attendance area is likely due to the fact that SFUSD drew attendance lines based on 2000 Census data, when there were only 86 four-year-olds in the area, explained Bartlett. “There are so many families,” she said. “How are you going to say, ‘We have no elementary school for your children,’ or ‘You’ve got to cross Market?’”
Hatter agreed that the district looked mainly at Census tract numbers instead of the makeup of the communities. However, he doesn’t see how Webster can increase its capacity, or add specialized services, when district funding is based on the number of students attending. Even if it moves to the Maxwell campus, if Webster continues to face enrollment problems it won’t receive the funding needed to increase its capacity, Hatter pointed-out. Currently Webster is under-enrolled even with Spanish immersion. ISA is also severely under-enrolled, even with the middle and high school grades combined. “The numbers just don’t jiveЙI can’t see the plan working,” said Hatter.
Although Webster is under-enrolled, the number of families listing Webster as their first choice in the Citywide public school assignment lottery has increased each year since 2009, after Bartlett and other parents rallied to save Webster from closure by initiating PREFund and the Spanish immersion program. This year, with the announcement of the ISA feeder pattern, the number of first-choice requests dropped. Bartlett and Magnawa reported that 16 students have left Webster since the district announced the feeder pattern, with the majority of their parents citing disapproval of it. Although other attendance areas are assigned to more than one middle school, Webster’s is assigned only to ISA. And while families can still choose among all middle schools in San Francisco in the lottery, Adams and Bartlett believe that Webster parents should have more options in their immediate area. “There’s more children in the area than there used to be,” Adams said. “We need another school in our area or more access to schools in our area.”
Adams said that the district has expressed concerns that MSTF is trying to “shut out” African-Americans, many of whom currently attend ISA. “I haven’t heard anything of the sort,” said Adams, who is African-American. “I’m around these people every dayЙWe’re all like family.” She added that although the parents who attend the expansion proposal meetings are predominantly European-American and Latino, Webster has notified all parents of the gatherings. “If we can’t get African-Americans to school meetings, we shouldn’t disturb the parents that are fighting,” she said. “I’m trying to get more African-American parents to come to the meetings, to speak up, to see what it’s like, to see how the children workЙbut there’s only so much you can do.”
Magnawa stressed that her and other parents’ opposition to the ISA feeder pattern stems from the school’s sixth-12th grade configuration, as well as its weak academic programing. “When we say things like ‘ISA is not the school,’ we do not mean the students [or] the administration of the school,” she said. According to Adams, the problem lies not in the staff but in the lack of supervision. “I have no problem with what the teachers are teaching,” she said, “just them not stepping up and making the kids stay in their place and making sure it’s a safe environment for my daughter and every child that’s there.”
Bartlett also clarified that, in proposing to house third to eighth-graders at the Maxwell campus, Webster parents aren’t trying to exclude ISA students, and, in fact, invite anyone of middle school age to join their school community. “Our goal is to keep us together and not have people leaving to go to other schools or leaving the City,” said Magnawa. “We want to keep our community whole.” MSTF hasn’t discussed whether or how to integrate ISA staff into the Webster middle school program, but Bartlett is open to the idea. “I’m game for anything,” she said. “I don’t want to displace anybody, I just want something that’s a viable option.”
Although Webster parents claim they have no issues with ISA students and want to welcome them into their community, Hatter believed the opposite is true. Parents proposed the expansion with the desire of “putting [their kids] in an environment they feel comfortable with,” he said, which he believes translates to, “‘I’m not putting my kids with those kids, so let’s come up with a plan.’” Task force members strongly disagreed with this assertion, maintaining that a 6-12 model isn’t workable for children of any race, and that more than half of Webster’s students С who are 50 percent Latino, 20 percent African-American, 17 percent European-American, and 2 percent Asian-American С qualify for a free or reduced price lunch. Hatter countered that the proposed expansion, which he believes is a “takeover,” would displace students. MSTF has not made plans for the high school students who would need to leave the Maxwell campus if it transitions to its new configuration, a process Bartlett said would have to be managed by the district. “We are not really privileged into inside [district] discussions,” said Bartlett. “We do know that the majority of high schools have room, especially those that are geographically close, so seems like it would not be an issue for nearby schools to absorb them.”
“[MSTF] is racing to a solution instead of thinking and plotting out a situation that’s good for everyone,” said Hatter. Although MSTF launched an outreach effort that garnered support from Webster teachers and staff, the Parent-Teacher Association, English Learners Advisory Council, as well as the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association, Bartlett said that MSTF hasn’t been in dialogue with ISA. “I think [the proposal] is still unbeknownst to many if not all parents at ISA,” said Hatter. “At ISA, it’s just business as usual.” He added that ISA teachers are most likely also unaware of the proposal, and many have probably dismissed it as a rumor. ISA Principal Paul Koh declined to comment on the proposal for the View.
Further sharpening divisions between the Annex-Terrace housing complex and the more affluent Northern Slope are SFUSD’s school enrollment lines, which cut the Hill in half along 22nd Street. “That’s blatant segregation on the Hill,” said Hatter. “How come all of Potrero Hill can’t be designated to Enola Maxwell?” he asked. “The push is for community schools, not school choice,” said Hatter. “School choice is what got the district into this situation in the first place.” In the Citywide lottery, most families choose better quality schools in San Francisco’s western sector. This, in turn, increases funding for those schools and further boosts their first-choice requests. Meanwhile, lower demand at already under-enrolled, underachieving schools in Southside San Francisco causes these schools to lose even more funding, making them even less desirable. Although the lottery allows elementary school students to be assigned to their highest ranked middle school request, even if it lies outside their attendance area, if there are more students applying than openings, assignments are made by tiebreakers, which favor students within the requested school’s attendance area.
Webster’s expansion proposal also brings to light the historically poor communication between the district and the community. According to Hatter, SFUSD typically schedules public meetings at inconvenient hours so that few people can attend them. Although the school board is supposed to keep minutes of even closed-door meetings, such records are difficult to obtain, he added. Moreover, oftentimes district representatives arrive at meetings with a pre-set plan that they simply communicate with community members without gathering their input. He recalled a “backdoor” deal in which SFUSD initially slated Webster to be designated to be shuttered but instead closed Potrero Middle School at Enola Maxwell campus and deemed that Webster would be rejuvenated.
“I would also say that there were indicators of a lack of communication even within the district, not just between community and the district, which caused a lot of confusion,” said former ISA principal Matthew Livingston. “And that confusion got everyone emotional.” Livingston attended the informational meeting SFUSD held with Webster and Bryant parents about the feeder pattern with ISA, with the vast majority of the audience made up of Webster parents. He noted that the audience asked some critical questions of SFUSD representatives that indicated a disconnect, as well as a lack of communication and trust. He perceived, as he put it, “definitely a strong aura of unhappiness and dissatisfaction” about the plan from Webster parents. Hatter can understand Webster parents’ frustration, as if they were “being thrown to the dogs.” However, he believed the planned expansion would do the same to ISA high school students.
Lunardi, who attended the April Board of Education meeting, is cautiously optimistic that the district will approve the expansion. She recounted that the board members at the meeting were nodding and smiling, indicating a positive perception of the proposal. “I feel positive about it, but knowing how the district works, I’m concerned it might take a little longer.” She noted that Buena Vista/Horace Mann, which integrated a Spanish immersion elementary school with a struggling middle school, took nearly 15 years to become a K-8 school.
Bartlett is similarly optimistic about the district’s decision on the proposal. “I don’t know how many times I have to talk to [the district] about it, but I’m going to be persistent,” she said. “I feel like there’s enough merit, other than it entails some work for them, but if they have to do consolidations and configurations anyway, why not build something forward looking?” Adams remained skeptical. “I think it’s going to be a lot of work even for it to be a possibility,” she said. “I think we’re going to be put through a lot of trials and tribulations.”
This Month's Stories