It Takes a City

Thoughts from Arlene Ackerman and Kathleen Turner

Urbanist Article September 1, 2000

On August 8th, Arlene Ackerman was sworn in by Mayor Willie Brown as the new superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District. One of the people most elated by her arrival to the district was Kathleen Turner, director of the San Francisco Education Fund. For the past 21 years, the "Ed Fund" has collaborated with the district and other non-profit organizations to support public education in San Francisco, through teacher training, grant making, and a variety of teacher- and student-centered programs. Speaking at a press conference and in interviews with SPUR board member Kyle Fiore, Ackerman and Turner tell us what San Franciscans' can expect from our city's schools in the next year -- and what our schools will expect from us.

Victory in the Classroom

ACKERMAN: I'm a teacher first, and that is the way I approach this job. To me, the victory is in the classroom. That's where the teacher and the students are. That's where teaching and learning take place. So we'll be sending more dollars to schools. Ideally, 90% of the school system's dollars should go directly to schools, very little to the central office. You'll see a reorganization over the next year-It's very important that we have a lean central office. This office is not in the business of providing jobs for people. We're in the business of putting resources in the classroom.

TURNER: I think the number one priority of schools is to bring out the best in students academically and to educate people to be good citizens. The people who are closest to our students are our teachers. One of our objectives at the Ed Fund is to provide training programs that support teachers, and to give teachers resources so that they can provide young people the best K-12 education possible.

We need to make sure that our young people become analytic thinkers, that they be able to take information and process it, that they be able to ask the right questions. All that requires the very best kinds of teachers – teachers who understand how to reach kids. Good teachers know how to set up a curriculum which is dynamic, creative, which stimulates young people and unites what they are learning to their everyday lives.

Putting Supports in Place

TURNER: Young people don't always come the school with all the supports they need in terms of computers in their homes, access to health care, or even access to homework help at home. We need to take a look at everything that is influencing a young person's life and see how we can provide positive support and positive role models. Young people have many attributes that need to be recognized and supported. Our job is to give them opportunities to learn life skills: the decision-making skills, inter-personal skills, communication and leadership skills they will need once they graduate from high school. They also need to develop personal responsibility and self-discipline. Youth need both an academic background and life skills if they want to graduate ready to go to college, ready to work.

Schools do play a major role in the lives of young people and there are many opportunities to bring to schools the kinds of resources and supports that young people need today. The Ed Fund has a Peer Resources program in 13 middle schools eight high schools and five Beacon centers in the city that focuses on developing many of these skills. Peers provide youth the opportunity to serve and work with one another. Last year Peer Resource students at San Francisco School of the Arts created a group called Media Bomb. These young people persuaded KALW that they really have something to add to the station as the "student voice." In the fall of next year, they're going to take part in creating programs to be aired on KALW. All this results from the young people's ability to communicate effectively and to negotiate with people. They have found their voice.

ACKERMAN: All of it is part of improving achievement, and academic achievement isn't just about test scores. It's about other issues, like looking at attendance. The information that is coming out about attendance is not acceptable, but it is an indicator that there are some things happening, or not happening, in the schools those young people attend. And I'd say generally that there is not the support in those schools to bring students in. When young people are motivated, they come to school.

I think that it's really important that we give the people who work closest with our schools – the principals, teachers, parents in the community-the opportunity to design the programs that they think will meet the needs of their individual school community. And then we hold them accountable for the results.

Our core mission is about improving achievement for all of our students. While we celebrate recent test scores that show we have had improvements for this year, we also see that within that time period there is an alarming trend around the achievement gap for African American, Hispanic and language-minority students. We have to look at this data and we have to put strategies in place to address this issue.

We have very stringent graduation requirements. That's a good thing, but we have to make sure we have the necessary support systems in place so that children can meet those high standards and be successful.

It Takes a City

ACKERMAN: It does take the entire city of San Francisco to educate all of our children well. We'll be holding ourselves accountable inside of the school system for educating our young people. We will also be holding the city accountable for making sure that we have the resources and the support we need to do our jobs well. Coming in new, I see there is a mayor and a city that have voted to support schools, putting money in the schools for facilities for our health services, after-school programs and early childhood programs. I've already started meeting with members of the Chamber of Commerce, and we'll meet with more of the business community. We've asked them for technical support and expertise.

I've also asked them to give me names of business community members who will serve on a fiscal advisory committee that will work with me and with my staff as we address fiscal issues.

I want to expand the School to Careers program across the district, giving our young people a number of opportunities to look at the world of work. Young people need to start thinking about their options very early on. We're going to start providing opportunities to look at options in the elementary years, develop community outreach programs for our middle schools and then start the School to Careers internships and mentorships in high school. The business community was very excited about this and I am too. I have asked the business community if we could look at putting together all of our resources. One of the things I've heard from business people is that they don't mind giving money. What they want to know is that they're reaping the benefits of those dollars. So we want to focus, focus, focus. We want to say, "Here are three or four areas where we would like you to give us resources for the next three years, and here are some outcomes that you can expect."

I have found that if you create ways for the community to be engaged, they will come forward. Art education is certainly one way for the average citizen to be involved. Every child from the time they start school to the time they leave this school system should be exposed to arts education. People can volunteer through the School Volunteer Program. They can donate books to the schools.

TURNER: Ms Ackerman is right. It does take an entire city. And on this point I would actually like to thank San Francisco. This community has always shown its support for public education and for young people. By and large, every school-related bond measure and initiative that's come before our voters in San Francisco has passed. I think that is a measure of San Francisco's commitment to public education.

It's important to be an informed voter, to be critical about what the opportunities really are and not to go for the quick fix, but to understand that a change in the educational system is going to take time. It's not only the educational system that is going to need to change in order for us to provide what we should for our young people today. We need to make sure that we adequately fund our health system, our welfare system, our education system, and our arts.

It's also important to support the community-based organizations. Often those are the organizations closest to young people and to the activities and systems that they're involved with, whether it's a health system or the public education or welfare system.

Public education is not about adults. It is about our young people and providing them with the very best education possible. If that means that we have to do something about their health, their psychological well-being, their life skills, that's what we do. If it means we have to bring in community organizations as a link to support public education, that's what we do. Everything is synergistic – you need all those pieces to be well funded and really effective. When you put those pieces together correctly, children are going to come to school ready to learn. And those children are going to be greeted by an educational system that meets their needs and that creates real learning opportunities for them.

ACKERMAN: I'm very hopeful for the young people in this school system, and I think we have to make sure that our number one priority is about focusing those resources so that all of our children can be successful.

What I'd like – the best of all worlds for me – would be to have parents say, "I don't know which school to send my child to. They are all so good."SPUR logo

About the Authors: Kyle Fiore, Ph.D. is a SPUR board member and a consultant on education, youth development and planning.

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