What if there was a group of San Franciscans who wanted to send their kids to a neighborhood school, rather than placing them in a private academy or public school that might be miles away? What if they were savvy enough – as educated professionals – to deftly navigate school district politics and bureaucracy to create positive change?
Sound like the stuff of fantasy? An idealistic tale from the radical 1960s, or something out of a feel-good Hollywood movie?
Well, it’s real, and it’s happened. Right here in Potrero Hill.
PREFund – Potrero Residents Education Fund – has been dubbed a “success story” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and touted by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) as a model of effective parental involvement for, among other feats, successfully reinvigorating Daniel Webster Elementary School.
In 2005 the school was on the short list for closure, a would-be casualty of low enrollment and low achievement. In the SFUSD elementary school placement lottery system Daniel Webster was a decided undesirable.
A group of Potrero Hill residents banded together to fight the closure, forming PREFund in 2006 to support public education on the Hill. “[We felt] if we raised the resources and supported an entire community of children, regardless of who they are, that it helps everybody,” said PREFund co-founder Jennifer Betti. “It wasn’t just about giving our kids this experience…we wanted to do something.”
PREFund’s efforts not only kept Daniel Webster open, but resulted in the creation of a Spanish bilingual preschool – which now operates in two locations – to help prepare children for elementary school. The nonprofit also supported the development of a Spanish Immersion program at Daniel Webster, which has become a significant draw to parents of prospective students. Enhancements to the school’s physical plant – painting and landscaping among them –came about as a result of PREFund’s activities.
Today Daniel Webster is a school on the rise. As of 2013 – the latest data available – test scores revealed marked improvement, year over year. From 2010 to 2013 math test scores in particular improved dramatically, with the percentage of students at or exceeding the state standard increasing from 32 percent to 45 percent.
After dipping sharply from 2006 to 2008, enrolled jumped more than 15 percent from 2009 to 2010 and has risen by at least six percent every year since, now standing at 301, according to state figures. “Enrollment is sort of the lifeblood of an elementary school,” according to John Monson, Daniel Webster School Site Council parent representative, “because the allocation of money you get from the district is based on the number of kids.”
The School Site Council is an SFUSD-mandated school governance board comprised of elected parent, student, community and staff representatives. SSC members are charged with analyzing success data, devising an achievement plan, and developing and implementing a budget, among other duties.
In 2013 the school reported an attendance rate of 98.5 percent. Tardiness is about average for the SFUSD, according to Monson. From 2011 to 2014, the number of suspensions fell, from 6.6 to zero, placing the school ahead of the district average of 1.5.
As of 2014, the school was 44.5 percent Latino, 25 percent non-Latino whites, and 11 percent African-American students. Asians, Pacific Islanders and mixed-race children accounted for the remainder. Districtwide, the figures were 27 percent Latino, nine percent African-American, 13 percent non-Latino whites, 36 percent Asian, six percent Filipino/Pacific Islander, and three percent mixed-race.
But statistics don’t tell the whole story. An impressive slate of enrichment activities are available to Daniel Webster students. ”During the school day itself, we have Playworks, which makes sure that all the kids get access to a lot of exercise and outdoor play,” said Max Garrone, Daniel Webster Parent-Teacher Association president. The program, directed by a coach, is also designed to promote fair play and discourage bullying.
Thanks to a San Francisco Opera Guild residency program, budding artists can write, produce and star in operettas. Fourth and fifth graders have the chance to produce a musical each year. Youngsters who tend toward the visual arts are granted ample opportunities not only to create but to exhibit their works on campus and around the neighborhood.
“We have a big overnight field trip down to Pigeon Point or to the Santa Cruz Mountains where [students] get to go out in the forest, observe tide pools and engage in other applied science activities,” said Garrone. After-school sports, art and science programs are also available.
This fall the school is relocating temporarily due to district-scheduled renovations. Daniel Webster will temporarily share space with International Studies Academy. Plans are in place to keep the two populations at a safe but friendly distance; efforts to foster healthy relationships between the older and younger kids are part of the scheme.
Funding presents a continuing challenge, despite robust efforts by the PTA. The lack of a neighborhood middle school is another thorn. James Lick, in Noe Valley, has, for years, been the nearest middle school; commuting from Potrero Hill to Noe Valley by public transit is difficult, according to Monson. The commute to Willie Brown Middle School, which opens in Bayview next academic year, is no less taxing, and while the new facility boasts state-of-the-art classroom technology, it’s located in a high-crime area. Students who attend Willie Brown for three years will automatically be granted their first choice among SFUSD high schools in the lottery placement process.
“When things go sideways, you have great confidence that bright people you like are fighting to do the right thing,” said Monson. “It’s a virtuous cycle…and PREFund started it.”
PREFund recently refreshed its board with new members, among them Sarah King, Stacey Delo and Jason Barton. Just two of the original board — Jennifer Betti and Stacey Bartlett — remain.
According to Board president King, PREFund is looking to build on its early triumphs. Among the goals under discussion are increasing awareness of Daniel Webster’s General Education program, which has stirred less interest among parents of prospective students than the Spanish Immersion program. The nonprofit also wants to help better inform preschool parents about the elementary school application and lottery process.