David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Reconstitution - The Clint Eastwood Solution for Low-Performing Schools
by David Bacon

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (10/22/97) -- After his school had been reconstituted, and he was looking for a job elsewhere in the San Francisco Unified School District, Shelby Watkins felt that administrators in other schools looked at him as tainted by the process. "They saw us as damaged goods from a damaged school," he remembers. "Their attitude was, 'let me look you over.' And even though they were supposed to tell us right away whether or not they were giving us a class, they'd often make us wait through three round of interviews before we'd hear anything. I heard that some even hid their open positions so that we couldn't get them."

It was a humiliating experience.

Some teachers from Vistacion Valley Middle School, reconstituted in 1993, felt the process was so demeaning that they refused to go out on interviews. Watkins recalls they would wait for the district to find them an assignment, as it had agreed to do. But the results were often even worse. "I remember a colleague who had a PE credential, but had been teaching math for 10 years," he says. "Despite having physical problems, they sent him out to a PE position."

Watkins today teaches science at Martin Luther King Middle School. He's been teaching for 10 years.

Visitacion Valley was one of the first schools in a second wave of reconstitution which swept through the San Francisco district. Its effect on teachers, students, administrators, parents, and schools themselves was far different from reconstitution as it was first implemented.

School reconstitution began in San Francisco, originally as a product of school desegregation. "The district abjectly failed to integrate the schools in the 1970s, and there were great discrepancies in the quality of education among them," recalls Kent Mitchell, president of United Educators of San Francisco. In 1982, a federal court crafted a consent decree to settle a suit brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [legal defense fund?] to end school segregation. The suit also aimed to change educational outcomes for African American students, concentrated in certain schools, who had significantly lower test scores.

Part of the decree mandated desegregation. In the future, no school would be permitted to have more than 45% of its students from one racial or ethnic group (and at alternative schools, no more than 40%), and no more than 70% from two groups. A second provision of the decree tried to fashion a remedy for poor achievement.

The decree initiated a practice which had never been used before. Schools where African-American students weren't achieving well would be reconstituted. All employees at the school, from the principal to the teaching staff to the classified personnel, would be forcibly transferred out. They could apply to return to the school under a new regime, but if not accepted, they would be given positions elsewhere in the district.

Four schools were reconstituted in 1983 in the first wave, and two brand new schools were opened. New plans were created for each of these schools, and staff hired according to the demands of the plans. One older school became a site emphasizing the use of computers. Another was selected as a laboratory site for teacher training.

Their first classes were limited to 20 students, a decade before the recent K-3 class size reductions. Meanwhile, the rest of the city's schools were struggling to meet the contract-mandated limits of 30 in high school, and 26 in primary and middle school.

Students also had to reapply to the reconstituted schools, and the district conducted outreach efforts throughout the city. Parents of chosen students had to agree to help them get to school on time and do their homework. Most important, the state Board of Education, sued along with the district, agreed to provide extra funding to ensure the success of desegregation and the reconstituted schools.

Student scores did go up. "But there were many factors for success in these schools," says Joan-Marie Shelley, past UESF president, "including money, reduced class sizes and parent involvement in addition to reconstitution itself."

Over the years, the district even became dependent on the funds coming from the state for desegregation. Today, that amounts to $32 million out of a total budget of $400 million.

After the first wave of schools was reconstituted, no more were chosen for a long time. Only two others were reconstituted in the decade which followed. Then, in 1992, a commission headed by Harvard educator Gary Oldfield was convened to determine whether the money for desegregation was being well-spent. The commission recommended that more schools be reconstituted - at least three each year. Shelby's Vistacion Valley Middle School was one of the first of this new wave. Since 1993, ten schools have been reconstituted.

The process, however, had changed.

Watkins felt his school was never given a fair chance to improve. Vistacion Valley was without question a school with problems. It was the middle school in a neighborhood with two large public housing projects - Sunnydale and Geneva Towers. It's one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco, and one of the most residentially segregated.

According to Watkins, some of the criteria for reconstitution counts points against the school because of the percentage of families of students receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children. "While that might mean that there are more students with very limited financial resources, it's not a factor we have any control over as teachers," he says. "Nor is it a factor that reconstitution can change."

Vistacion Valley was put on probation the year before it was reconstituted, and teachers brought in programs like the Berkeley-based ACCESS to provide counseling on better instruction methods. Scores went up. For that year, African-American and Latino students at the school achieved results over the city and state averages. Nevertheless, the district went ahead, and some teachers claim the decision to reconstitute the school was made long before the school year and its results had been evaluated. "The bitterest irony was when the district held up test scores students achieved in our last year as ones achieved as a result of reconstitution," Watkins remembers bitterly.

Reconstitution in San Francisco after 1992 provided much less money to target schools that the original group reconstituted in 1983. While Thurgood Marshall High School, a model school in the African-American community of Hunters Point, receives about $6000 per pupil from the district, Balboa High School, reconstituted in 1995, receives only $3800.

UESF activist Tom Edminster, a teacher at Lowell High School, says that reconstitution after 1992 "has been based on a market model - making schools compete against each other instead of solving their individual problems." He believes that one of the most important steps a district can take to actually change school performance is to reduce school size, creating a better opportunity and more time for developing relations between teachers and school staff and the surrounding community.

In 1992, the San Francisco district began using the Comprehensive School Improvement Program to create a set of standards to grade schools and identify those with problems. As Watkins points out, some of those problems were within the control of teachers, while others weren't.

The district began keeping detailed records for each student. "Some indicators made sense," says Mitchell. "If students were making year-to-year progress, the school tended to be doing its job. But if there was no growth, obviously there were serious problems."

Some criteria created unforeseen negative consequences. While school violence, for instance, is a clear obstacle to a learning environment, the district decided to measure the problem by counting the number of suspensions. "Principals got the message," Mitchell says, "that suspensions were bad, and stopped making them."

Using the CSIP criteria, eight schools were reconstituted from 1993 through 1995. At all of them only a tiny percentage of teachers returned. At Balboa High School, for instance, only 4% of the teachers were permitted to come back. Eighty percent of the new teaching staff after reconstitution had been substitute teachers before, and of that group, 60% had not yet obtained their teaching credential. There were few experienced teachers to help them. "It didn't make sense," Mitchell says, "to expect from a new, inexperienced teaching staff answers to the most intractable educational problem in this country - equal education for every student."

At Visitacion Valley, Watkins admits that some long-time teachers had been afraid of the community around the school. But others, he says, developed a connection and commitment to it over the years. "We knew the students and their families, and there was an historical memory in the staff - teachers and classified," he explains. "After reconstitution, new teachers started out without any of that knowledge."

By 1996, "even the district began realizing what a problem this was creating," Mitchell says, "and that reconstitution by itself was not enough to guarantee sustained improvement."

Originally, in the 1980s, the union had tried to join in the desegregation suit and consent decree, so that it would have a seat at the table when the remedies to segregation and low performance were discussed. That move was opposed by both the district and the NAACP, and was eventually denied by the court.

Nevertheless, in May of this year then-UESF President Shelley and SFUSD Superintendent Waldemar Rojas signed an agreement outlining an alternative to reconstitution. It sets up a new CSIP process, in which low-performing schools are identified using clear and agreed-on standards. The educational community at the site develops a plan for improvement, which is then approved by the district. The school community then adopts the plan by a two-thirds vote.

Individual staff members sign on to the plan, and those unwilling to do so are given the chance to voluntarily transfer out. Implementation is then monitored. Stakeholders at the site can determine if any staff member not implementing or undermining the program. Anyone accused of this has the right to appeal that determination to a board consisting of the union president and school superintendent, who must agree in order to overturn the determination.

The alternative calls for development of a peer-review system for new teachers like that implemented in the Poway district, including parental input. Some elements of that approach, including shared decision-making and rigorous standards, have already been implemented in the restructuring plans adopted in a number of San Francisco schools. "We found that schools which had been restructured on these lines were able to pull together when they were placed on the target list," Mitchell says, "while other schools had a harder time pulling together to avoid reconstitution."

A final provision of the alternative program reiterates a position taken by the district and upheld by federal court some years ago, that the consent decree supersedes any conflicting provisions of the union's contract.

The test of the new approach came with four schools which had been put on probation the year before. Two of them, Cleveland and Sanchez Elementary Schools, made enough improvement to avoid reconstitution. Mission High School and Golden Gate Elementary School, however, were reconstituted.

Mission High School in particular had been the scene of intense conflict for the previous two years. In tempestuous school board meetings, teacher and parents had vociferously opposed the replacement of a popular principal, and the authoritarian style of his replacement.

In the end, staff and parents came together to work on a plan to correct the school's deficiencies. Although the NAACP wasn't satisfied with that plan, the course of reconstitution was changed. Over 60% of Mission High's teachers returned to the school for the 1997 school year.

"We think things in San Francisco are going to change," Mitchell predicts. UESF and NAACP leaders have begun meetings. "As organizations we both have the goals of integration and improved education for low-achieving students. The consent decree put us in opposition because it pitted teachers against the mechanism for achieving those goals. But we have to change that relationship, and forge a common purpose."

In the meantime, however, reconstitution has been proposed in new legislative additions to the federal Title One, and other states and districts are considering its use as well. A recent AFT resolution on low-performing schools takes note of the justifiable anger in communities over schools which fail to educate children. "The price of continued inaction is intolerable," it says, and points out that it fuels calls for other demagogic quick-fixes, such as vouchers. But it says that reconstitution is "politically expedient, but educationally bankrupt." Instead, the resolution calls for using clear criteria to identify low-performing schools, and then intervention grounded in high academic standards, high standards of behavior, solid research and professional staff development, tailored to the individual needs of each school.

"There's something that seems very attractive about reconstitution," Mitchell warns, "like a Clint Eastwood movie with simple solutions. But we have to face the fact that providing high quality education for the poorest students in this country is a very difficult problem, and requires much more of a commitment."

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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