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iPads for School Lunches: SFUSD Woos Applicants with Prizes

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By Beth Winegarner
August 22, 2012

In public schools, there is such a thing as a free lunch. In San Francisco, it might even come with a free iPad.

Roughly 62 percent of local public-school students qualify for meal subsidies, but their parents have to file paperwork to make it happen. When they don’t, the San Francisco Unified School District loses money — $250,000 last year, for example.

Now, school leaders have dreamed up a new way to reel in applicants: prizes. This year, everyone who applies for meal subsidies will also have the chance to win fancy gadgets and memorabilia such as an iPad 2, an iPod Touch, a football signed by 49er Frank Gore, iTunes gift cards, and more.

It’s potentially a cheap fix for an expensive — and labyrinthine — problem. It goes something like this: Kids from a four-person clan that brings home $42,648 per year can eat at school for free. In turn, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives schools just under $3 per lunch for every student who qualifies. But if a kid doesn’t apply, and then lunches for free, the school eats $3.

Some years, feeding kids who don’t pay for lunch or apply for subsidies has cost the district $1 million, says Dana Woldow, who chaired the district’s nutrition committee for many years. “We discovered this was a problem the first day there was a nutrition committee [in 2002],” she says. Nobody knew what to do about it.

There are a number of reasons eligible families might not sign up. Some undocumented families may fear that filling out the forms might tip off immigration officials. (It won’t). Or, the application may get lost in the tidal wave of paperwork families face when their child enters school, says Woldow.

It’s tough to nail down how many eligible students aren’t registered, since meal applications are the district’s only way of gauging families’ income levels, says district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson. But in San Francisco, where minimum wage is $10.24 an hour, every last clam from the government matters.

Money shortages are covered “out of the general fund, and is money that could be applied toward any number of unmet funding needs — including offering more menu choices to our students,” Anderson says.

SFUSD isn’t the first to try prizes. Baltimore City Schools recently gave away tickets to see Jay-Z,Kanye West, and Disney on Ice to families who filled out free and reduced-price lunch applications, though district spokeswoman Edie House Foster couldn’t say how many more applications they attracted. Locally, the prizes were either donated or obtained at no cost, Anderson says.

So far, it seems to be working: This year, 6,000 families applied before school started, which is unusual, Anderson says. Prizes will be awarded Sept. 1.

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 22, 2012 at 11:30 PM

San Francisco’s special education classes disproportionately filled with minority students

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Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
September 18, 2011

In Rachel Kayce’s classroom at Dianne Feinstein Elementary, students illustrate cards depicting their dreams.

“I want to be on Broadway one day.” “My goal is to be a soccer player.” “I will follow directions the first time I’m told.”

As that final dream suggests, this is no everyday classroom. It’s a special day class for third- through fifth-graders considered “emotionally disturbed,” a category within special education.

Here, along with lessons in reading comprehension, vocabulary and cursive handwriting, eight 8- to 10-year-olds learn to master intense emotions. One student dissolves into tears as Kayce helps him tally his points for the morning lesson. Another is reminded to stop slapping her hands because it’s distracting. Outside, a student from a neighboring classroom howls with rage.

“Most of my students don’t have the ability to emotionally regulate, or don’t practice it, which can lead to more acting out,” Kayce said. “Others need practice with boundaries and structure.”

Of the nine students in Kayce’s class on a recent morning, four are black. That’s about par for the course. Although black students make up just 10.8 percent of the San Francisco Unified School District’s population, 22.8 percent of special-education students and 47 percent of “emotionally disturbed” students are black.

Higher-than-expected numbers of black students also show up among those with learning disabilities, along with Hispanic students, who also cluster in the “speech and language impairment” category.

This disproportionality is not new. In 1971, black students fought the SFUSD’s use of racially biased IQ tests to sequester them in classes for “educable mentally retarded” students. The tests were banned, but black and Hispanic students still wind up in special-education classrooms at higher rates than their white or Asian peers.

Statewide, the SFUSD was one of 61 of the state’s 838 school districts with disproportionate numbers of black and Hispanic students in special education in the 2008-09 school year, and one of 42 that violated state special-education policies, according to a report from the California Department of Education.

“There’s institutional racism there,” said Katy Franklin, a member of the SFUSD Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. “When a white kid throws a chair they think, ‘Autistic.’ When a black kid does this, they’re labeled emotionally disturbed. I don’t think it’s deliberate; it’s just what happens.”

Subtle things, such as being taught at home not to make eye contact, can land kids in hot water, said Patricia Fitzsimmons, a former special-education teacher who now teaches law and directs the child advocacy clinic at the University of San Francisco.

“If they’re acting out, and the teacher thinks, ‘The kid isn’t looking at me when I’m talking,’ it’s seen as aggressive, or unwillingness to participate,” Fitzsimmons said.

As with many special-education students, kids labeled emotionally disturbed are placed in separate classrooms such as Kayce’s. This separation, combined with over-representation, leads black students to lose access to the general-education curriculum, be misclassified and receive services that don’t meet their needs, according to a report by the Council for Exceptional Children.

Such placements can follow them for the rest of their lives. In 2005, less than half of special-education students went on to college, according to a report from the National Center for Special Education Research. Just 56 percent were employed, earning an average of $9.10 per hour. Sixty-one percent of emotionally disturbed youth had been arrested.

“They’re seen as the bad kids, and then special education becomes a feeder system to [juvenile hall] to prison,” Fitzsimmons said.

This year, the SFUSD is deploying a $45,000 state grant to study the roots of this disproportionality in special education, according to Cecelia Dodge, the district’s special-education director. After two years of analysis, leaders will develop steps for fixing the problem.

But others are skeptical the grant will help.

“We’ve been studying it until the cows come home,” said Linda Plack, executive vice president of the teachers’ union.

Plack believes the sources of overrepresentation come from outside the classroom.

“Not enough of our children have the advantages they need when they enter our school system,” she said. “They don’t have the books in the home, the attention, the nutrition they need.”

Daniel Losen, a researcher on UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, does not believe poverty alone could play such a big role.

“Poverty usually has some increase in risk of having a disability, but it doesn’t come close to explaining these huge disparities,” Losen said.

Also this year, the district is beginning to take special-education students in kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades out of their separate classrooms and integrate them with their general-education peers, according to SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe. Other grades will follow in future years.

State law requires all special-ed students to be taught in the least-segregated environment possible. In 2010-11, 24 percent of emotionally disturbed students were in general-education classrooms, an integration process known as “inclusion.” Another 47 percent were in separate classrooms, and 29 percent were in private or institutional settings, Blythe said.

But the district’s integration efforts may not affect these kids. “I don’t think the emotionally disturbed students will be put into inclusion,” Franklin said. “They’re not going to put violent kids into classrooms.”

Dodge admits that the fixes the SFUSD is pursuing now are a long time in coming.

“It takes a very sustained effort,” she said. “It takes consistency and leadership, and there hasn’t necessarily been that.”

Racially biased tests condemned in past

When Linda Plack began teaching in San Francisco in 1963, the schools were racially segregated. Almost 40 years later, the executive vice president of the United Educators of San Francisco says black students are still struggling for an equal education.

Numerous court rulings have required the district to keep its schools integrated. However, black and Hispanics have continued to be singled out and over-represented in many areas, including special education.

Brown v. Board of Education proscribed desegregation nationwide in 1954, but it wasn’t until 1971, when a student named David Johnson sued the San Francisco Unified School District in a class-action case, which federal judges ordered the district to integrate.

That same year, six black SFUSD children — including one named Larry P. — challenged the district’s use of IQ tests to funnel kids into special-education programs for “educable mentally retarded” students.

It took eight years, but in Larry P. v. Riles, a judge ruled that IQ tests were biased against black students. He ordered the SFUSD to stop administering the tests or using them to place students in programs for retarded students capable of classroom learning.

In 1968-69, black children were 27 percent of that population but just about 9 percent of the state school population, according to court documents.

“These apparent overenrollments could not be the result of chance,” Judge Cecil Poole of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in the ruling.

At the time, the SFUSD argued that there was a higher incidence of mental retardation among blacks.

“This theory fails to account for the problem, because even if it is assumed that black children have a 50 percent greater incidence of this type of mental retardation, there is still less than a one in 100,000 chance that the enrollment could be so skewed toward black children,” Poole wrote.

Since then, however, the numbers have not changed much. Today, statewide, 7.5 percent of all students and 10.9 percent of special-education students are black. In San Francisco, those numbers are 10.8 percent and 25.8 percent, respectively.

Repeated shortcomings

In 2009 and 2010, San Francisco school officials studied disproportionality in their special-education programs. In May 2010, the California Department of Education demanded that the San Francisco Unified School District correct 21 special-ed violations. The district failed to test students’ vision and hearing, often failed to use the right tools to assess disabilities and tested young students with assessments meant for older students. The district reportedly corrected all problems, although state officials will investigate this year.

A sampling of the district’s violations

* Didn’t consult students’ assessment teams to review progress and determine whether students continued to be disabled.
* Didn’t provide parents information about their child’s primary language and language-proficiency status in their child’s assessment plan.
* Didn’t hire interpreters to make sure parents understand what’s happening at assessment meetings.
* Didn’t make sure that the education plans for students learning English met the language needs of the student, or ensured access to the general-education curriculum.
* Didn’t make sure the education plans for students learning English included activities they needed to gain fluency.
* Didn’t consider the language needs of students learning English, particularly when setting academic and fluency goals.
* Didn’t show that assessments include information on how to help students return to, and make progress in, the general curriculum.
* It didn’t provide the results of student assessments in the students’ primary languages.

Source: California Department of Education

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

September 18, 2011 at 12:06 AM

City’s kids-and-families czar sacked

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 29, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — The popular and respected director of The City’s primary agency serving San Francisco’s children and families has been fired by Mayor Gavin Newsom, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Following months of rumors that Newsom planned to fire her, Margaret Brodkin, four-year director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said Newsom asked her to leave her post.

“I don’t know the reasons behind [his decision],” Brodkin told The Examiner on Wednesday.

The move leaves youth advocates fearful that as The City faces a projected $576 million budget deficit for next fiscal year, a voter-approved budget set-aside for child-related needs — one of the DCYF’s largest sources of funding — could be in jeopardy.

Newsom is currently in Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. Spokesman Joe Arellano, said he could not discuss the specifics of the firing, citing confidentiality regarding personnel matters.

“Margaret put in great service, but the mayor felt that bringing new blood into DCYF was important,” Arellano said.

Before being hired by Newsom in 2004, Brodkin was the director of the San Francisco nonprofit Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. At Coleman, she led the grassroots campaign that resulted in voters approving a ballot measure establishing The City’s Children’s Fund, which now supplies more than $30 million of DCYF’s $108 million annual budget.

“We’ve been such an engine of productivity,” Brodkin said. “We’ve developed initiatives with 13 other city departments. I don’t think there’s another department in the city that can make that claim.”

The current leaders of Coleman Advocates said they began hearing from City Hall insiders in November that Brodkin had been fired, according to director N’Tanya Lee.

Newsom wouldn’t discuss the rumors with the nonprofit or The Examiner.

“She’s extraordinarily talented, and I like having talented people around me,” Newsom told the Examiner in December.

In the wake of Brodkin’s dismissal, Lee has launched talks with Newsom’s staff about protecting the Children’s Fund — one of a smorgasbord of budget set-asides the mayor has criticized as limiting The City’s budget-balancing options.

“Our fear is that the Children’s Fund will be raided,” Lee said. “With [Brodkin] gone, we fear that [Newsom] will focus on his political ambitions over protecting the safety net for kids.”

Newsom has appointed Brodkin director of the New Day for Learning initiative, a San Francisco-based organization to connect youth with in-school and after-school services.

Deputy DCYF director Maria Su will immediately take over as acting director of the department, according to Arellano.

Temporary leaders
Several City departments are currently headed by “acting” or “interim” directors, including:
Recreation and Park Department: Jared Blumenfeld
Animal Care and Control: Rebecca Katz
Department of Building Inspection: Vivian Day
Department of Emergency Management: Vicky Hennessy
Department of the Environment: David Assmann
Office of Small Business: Regina Dick-Endrizzi
Department of Children, Youth and Families: Maria Su
San Francisco Zoo*: Tanya Peterson
* Not a city department, but receives city funds and is operated on city-owned land

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 29, 2009 at 5:31 AM

Expulsion rate at SFUSD climbs

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 23, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — More San Francisco public school students have been expelled since August than in the entire 2007-08 school year, and parents and city leaders are questioning whether the school district is following state laws when disciplining kids.

Between August and December, the San Francisco Unified School District received 81 expulsion requests from schools and expelled 16 students.

The majority of cases were dismissed or referred for counseling, Ricky Jones, the school district’s director of pupil services, said Thursday at a joint meeting of members of the Board of Supervisors and Board of Education.

In 2007-08, 97 students were recommended for expulsion and 11 were expelled. In 2006-07, 79 were recommended and 16 were expelled, Jones said.

“We’re seeing more challenged kids, and times are just tougher,” said Trish Bascom, head of student support services for the school district. “We’re also identifying problems with students sooner, and identifying services for them.”

At the same time, parents say their children missed months of classes while waiting for their expulsion hearings to take place — part of the process of determining whether a student will be permanently kicked out of school.

In Thursday’s hearing on the expulsion process, Jones said his short-staffed office is struggling to handle disciplinary requests quickly. The committee took no action and has no authority with the school district.

State law requires students to be expelled for possessing weapons, selling drugs, attempting or committing sexual assault or possessing an explosive, and recommends expulsion for many other violent acts, according to Jones.

Two parents, Todd Waterman and Ian Hadley, said their sons have been suspended from school for several weeks for nonviolent offenses, and both expulsion case have yet to receive hearings.

“We’ve seen a shift in the past semester, more severe discipline for minor practices,” said Lauren Brady Blalock, an attorney with Legal Services for Children, which represents parents in discipline cases.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 23, 2009 at 5:43 AM

Balance of discipline

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 22, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — Blacks and Hispanics are a small slice of The City’s public school population, but make up roughly three-quarters of students who are suspended or expelled.

Blacks make up 7 percent of The City’s total population and 12.5 percent of students within the San Francisco Unified School District. However, half the students who face disciplinary action belong to this ethnic group, according to district data.

Another 20 to 30 percent of those disciplined are Hispanic. They account for 23 percent of school district students and 14 percent of San Francisco’s population.

Leaders within and outside the school district said the numbers are troubling — and more than one cited the data as evidence of racism within SFUSD.

“Just look at the data. We are so wrong, and we want to get to the bottom of it,” said Board of Education member Kim-Shree Maufas. “It may be that this happened over time, through misunderstanding, through cultural incompetence.”

The Board of Education has the authority to approve or deny expulsions, but does not vote on suspension cases, according to SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier is holding an unrelated hearing today on the SFUSD’s expulsion process. The advisory hearing, hosted by the City and School District Select Committee, will be held at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Board of Education member Jane Kim said she has pushed for more case-by-case information, in part to track which schools or teachers are handing down punishments at higher rates. They should be looking for more creative ways to deter behavior problems, she said.

“We discovered at Galileo High School [that] 80 percent of their suspensions — primarily African-Americans — were being done by one teacher,” Kim said. “It is evidence of racial discrimination that’s left in our schools.”

Two teachers at Galileo High referred a large number of black students for disciplinary action, according to Blythe, who added that both have since retired.

Teachers who discipline minority students may not be conscious they’re doing it, said Dennis Kelly, president of San Francisco’s teachers’ union.

“To the degree that it’s racism, I think it’s subconscious racism,” Kelly said, adding that some teachers avoid disciplining black or Hispanic students for fear that they would be accused of prejudice.

The higher rate of disciplinary measures for some groups of minority students is not unlike SFUSD’s achievement gap, which shows that black and Hispanic students are significantly behind the pace of white and Asian students. Students who are already on shaky ground academically are put at further risk when they miss class due to a suspension.

Although students who are suspended typically return to school within a few days, high school students who are expelled have less chance to make up time missed. They frequently transfer to a continuation school such as Downtown High School, where the dropout rate is nearly 70 percent, according to the California Department of Education.

SFUSD policies urge teachers and principals to consider sending students to counselors or other services when they run into trouble; it also has a peer court — where discipline cases are resolved through mediation — at a handful of schools.

However, overworked educators may not make time for those methods, particularly since filling out a suspension form takes 10 minutes, said Pecolia Manigo, director of youth organizing for Coleman Advocates, a family-focused nonprofit.

“I’ve watched kids get suspended for the dumbest things, like one wouldn’t give his cell phone up,” Manigo said. “Another was talking back to the teacher. You’re suspending kids because they’re being kids.”

Teachers need to make their curriculum more engaging for students whose out-of-school reality involves poverty, violence and family crises, Manigo said.

Hoover Lidell, a consultant to Superintendent Carlos Garcia, said students simply need a challenge, and academic achievement can reduce students’ discipline problems.

“Particularly among black youth, there’s too much remediation, but they’re very capable students,” Lidell said. “By not giving them academic rigor, kids get a second-class education.”

Truancy, dropout rates higher among minorities
Black and Hispanic youths make up the lion’s share of discipline cases in San Francisco public schools — but that’s not the only place they’re overrepresented.

Black kids also made up 38 percent of the students who missed more than 20 days of school during the 2007-08 school year, and 27 percent of black high school students in the class of 2007 dropped out before receiving their diplomas, according to the California Department of Education.

Hispanic students comprised 33 percent of students who missed more than 20 days of school in 2007-08, and 26 percent of Hispanic high school kids dropped out in 2007. Hispanic youths accounted for 24 percent of the Juvenile Hall population in October.

Both District Attorney Kamala Harris and Juvenile Probation Chief William Siffermann have said that students who miss school or drop out wind up in the justice system or become victims of violent crime.

In October, 60 percent of San Francisco Juvenile Hall inmates were black, according to the Juvenile Probation Department.

“At the end of the civil-rights movement, blacks and Latinos were in power; now, these kids are second-class citizens again,” said educator James Calloway, who ran for the Board of Education last fall. “Until we get a grip and call it what it is — racism — it’s not going to get any better.”

Court offers a second chance
Students who run into trouble in San Francisco schools sometimes have the option of facing a court of peers rather than being ousted from school or arrested.

The San Francisco Peer Court, formally launched in 2003, is administered by a San Francisco-based nonprofit mediation and arbitration organization called California Community Dispute Services.

The program operates at Visitacion Valley, Everett and Denman middle schools, and at the Civic Center Secondary School, which is for middle and high school students. Since its founding, 360 youths have moved through the program, diverting 338 days of suspension, 20 expulsions and 25 arrests, according to director Tony Litwak.

Students face disciplinary action for a variety of actions, ranging from fights with fellow students to bringing weapons to school. The mediation process — handled by trained students — forces these students to face their victims and consider the harm they’ve caused, according to Litwak.

“Sentences” range from community service to restitution fines, or even writing papers to learn the effects of what they’ve done.

“When confronted with that, the adolescent understands what they’ve done more concretely,” Litwak said. “Some kids, their behavior is so strong you’re not going to change them. But on the other end, there are kids who are mortified to be [in court].”

Roughly 25 percent of kids who go to court wind up volunteering as mediators, he said.

The San Francisco Unified School District approved a funding increase next year to boost the court’s budget — $212,000 in the 2008-09 school year — but economic shortfalls have forced officials to suspend that funding, according to Board of Education member Jane Kim.

Grounds for suspension, expulsion
The San Francisco Unified School District student handbook outlines some of the grounds for which a student can face disciplinary action:

Suspension
Possession of drugs; explosives; mace or pepper spray without parents’ permission; a stun gun; tobacco products; school keys without authorization
Assault
Graffiti
Hazing
Robbery
Threats or abuse toward fellow students

Expulsion
Selling drugs
Possession of explosives, weapons, stun gun
Arson
Assault
Extortion
Hate violence
Hazing
Robbery
Threats or abuse toward fellow students
Source: SFUSD student handbook

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 22, 2009 at 5:48 AM

Anti-gang program at odds with school

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 20, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — A group that works to deter kids from joining gangs said its programs at Mission High School were banished after organizers protested high suspension rates among Hispanic students. School administrators, however, said it’s a case of miscommunication.

After three years at Mission High, Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth was asked to leave the school in December, when it failed to resolve tensions with school leaders, according to Principal Eric Guthertz.

While HOMEY officials said those tensions arose because of underreported suspensions and expulsions, Guthertz said they had more to do with a lack of organization on the organization’s part. HOMEY officials asked the Board of Education last week to intervene and quickly reinstate their Mission High programs.

The flap comes as Supervisor Michaela Alioto-Pier is holding an unrelated hearing Thursday on San Francisco Unified School District’s expulsion process. The advisory hearing will be at 3:30 p.m. in City Hall.

“We do case management with highest-risk youth, and we were losing six to 10 each semester because of [disciplinary action],” said HOMEY director Rene Quinonez. “A lot of them are monolingual, so when the school sent them home for an afternoon to cool down, they’d often feel they were no longer welcome.”

Program director Jose Luis Pavon accused the school of singling out Hispanic students for disciplinary action.

Mission High School had the highest suspension rate — 180 students out of 924 — among The City’s public schools in 2007-08. Its truancy rate was 52 percent, and 69 percent the prior year, according to the California Department of Education.

Guthertz acknowledged those figures, but said Mission High launched a program this year where teachers and administrators are trained monthly in how to treat students equally. The year-to-date suspension rate has already dropped by half, and only a small percentage are Hispanic, he said.

“We appreciate the work HOMEY does,” Guthertz said. “But there were major issues with their planning and administrative development, and inaccurate accounting. We’re not the only school having problems with them.”

Several students and HOMEY clients lined up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, pleading to bring the group back to Mission High.

“I was on the verge of being on the streets and joining a gang,” said student Raphael Moreno. “Now I’m on my way to a four-year college because of HOMEY.”

District officials are working to mediate an agreement between Mission High and HOMEY officials, according to Jane Kim, vice president of the Board of Education.

Mission High School
2007-08

Enrollment: 924
Truancy rate: 52 percent
Suspensions: 180*
Expulsions: 0

2006-07
Enrollment: 864
Truancy rate: 69 percent
Suspensions: 117
Expulsions: 0

Latino suspensions, districtwide:
2006-07: 983 (26 percent of total)
2007-08: 1104 (27 percent of total)

*Highest number of any school in San Francisco Unified School District

Sources: California Department of Education, SFUSD

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 20, 2009 at 5:46 AM

Truancy enforcement ramps up

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 24, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Parents of kids who skip class are again in the crosshairs, as the San Francisco district attorney gears up to prosecute a new batch of caretakers of truants.

The stepped-up enforcement efforts are one piece of a large patchwork of programs aimed at ending chronic truancy in schools.

District Attorney Kamala Harris’ office prosecuted parents in six families last summer, after their kids missed more than 50 days of classes. In all cases, the children have since returned to school, although one had to be placed in foster care to make it happen, Harris told The Examiner.

The parents were given court-mandated instructions to keep their children in school and get support for the problems contributing to truancy, or face increased penalties, including a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail.

Since then, another half dozen or so families have failed to keep their kids in school; the District Attorney’s Office is examining their situations closely.

“More cases have been referred to us by the school district, and we’re prepared to prosecute them,” Harris said.

Her attorneys also have mediated more than 1,000 truancy cases before they reached the prosecution stage.

Still, curbing truancy is a vexing problem.

Last school year, 5,449 San Francisco public school students missed more than 10 days of school. Of those, 2,472 were elementary school students, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District. A student is considered habitually truant when they miss 10 days; a chronically truant student is one who misses more than 20 days.

Those numbers have increased slightly from 5,427 in 2005-06 and 5,417 in 2006-07. District officials could not produce new data for the 2008-09 school year.

Harris launched a $20,000 ad campaign in September urging the public to call a hot line if they see kids playing hooky from school.

The hot line received just seven calls that month and two in October, according to figures provided by the school district.

Not every call is going to that hot line, according to Harris.

“Since our ad campaign, we’ve had many anonymous calls and we’re referring those calls to the (school) district,” she said. “People are paying more attention, and that’s good.”

Meanwhile, the school district launched a Web-based program this year called School Loop, which allows parents to see everything from their child’s homework assignments to their unexcused absences, according to Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

“Our anti-truancy programs were designed not to punish people, but to find out why they’re missing school,” he said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as arranging child care. But the D.A.’s effort helps. We can say, ‘If you keep doing this, you’ll wind up in the [District Attorney’s] Office.’”

City officials have floated a number of truancy-fighting ideas, from boosting police intervention to enacting a daytime curfew, but none have moved forward.

One city-funded program, the Bayview-based Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment, is helping hard-core truants transition back into public schools, according to Director Ethan Ramson.

Since its opening at the Bayview YMCA in February, the center has worked with more than 60 high-school-age kids, 24 of whom have returned to public school or obtained their diploma equivalent.

Leader urging adults to tell kids to quit playing hooky
One of San Francisco’s newest techniques for battling truancy could be a very old-fashioned idea: adults telling hooky-playing kids to get back to school.

Ethan Ramson, who directs the Bayview YMCA-based Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment, plans to launch a new program next year in which Bayview district merchants and other adults talk to truant kids, or ask police to do it.

“When I was growing up, if I didn’t go to school, my mom knew about it by the time I got home,” Ramson said. “We want to get the elders involved. We’ve gotten away from that.”

One reason for that decline is that adults increasingly fear juveniles, according to William Siffermann, chief of the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department.

Adults often feel that wayward teens are dangerous, and possibly carrying weapons, according to Siffermann. And with good reason: Many juvenile crimes, from graffiti to burglaries, are committed when youths would otherwise be in school, he said.

Left alone, many truants lead violent, and often short, lives, according to District Attorney Kamala Harris. Nearly 75 percent of truants ultimately drop out. Since 2003, 94 percent of San Francisco’s homicide victims under 25 were high school dropouts, according to Harris’ Office.

“There will be those in public safety who say, “Don’t engage these kids because it may provoke an attack,’” Siffermann said. “But I’m supportive of us elevating vigilance. As adults, we shouldn’t be afraid.”

District attorney promoting truancy prosecutions statewide
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has prosecuted a half-dozen parents whose children are chronically truant, and plans to prosecute more. Now, she’s urging other district attorneys across California to take similar measures to keep kids in school.

Should The City or school district hire truancy officers to round kids up and send them back to school? “I think this is an issue that requires many sectors and agencies to be involved. One of the ways we distribute resources is we say, ‘This is a priority.’ But that doesn’t mean we hire more people.

“My focus has been on truancy in elementary and middle school. And when you talk about [those students], we’re not necessarily seeing them on the streets. When you’re talking about a 7-year-old, likely they’re staying at home.”

Should The City pursue a daytime curfew and take legal action against kids who are not in school? “I’d want to know what age group are we targeting, what would be the penalty and method of enforcement and all of that. I can’t speak to that idea until I get some details.”

Other cities have used a variety of methods for curbing truancy; which models have you studied, and which ones do you think could work in San Francisco? “We’ve been working with California District Attorneys Association, sharing our method with other counties. In terms of best practices in other counties, they involve very much what we’ve been doing: a court model.

“Some jurisdictions have a truancy court. Some may prosecute high school kids, but we chose not to focus on that — we’ve been prosecuting parents, not children. I’m not saying prosecuting kids is not the way to go, but I’ve got limited resources. It’s certainly not because we shouldn’t be thinking about high school kids who don’t go to school. But bad habits start early. The kid who is chronically truant in elementary and middle school will be a dropout in high school.”

Are there any demographic trends among the cases you handle? “There’s no question there’s a correlation between the population you see as truant; it’s the same as a high school dropout, and who will occupy the County Jail and state prison. We’re seeing is a disproportionately high number of African American and Latino youth who are part of that whole trajectory.”

Is it something cultural or are there institutional frameworks in the schools that work against these kids? “It’s not that certain cultures are not interested in education. There’s a connection to poverty, access, support, child care for younger children, transportation issues.

“I always concede that it is legitimate to have a very long conversation about how we can improve public education in our state. But one thing we know for sure is regardless of what you think is the quality of education, if they’re not in school, they’re not getting an education at all.”

What will the District Attorney’s Office continue to do with respect to truants? “Part of what I hope to do is continue to raise the profile of truancy as one of the direct causes of victimization and crime, and one of the first indicators of who will be a perpetrator of crime. The links are direct between a child going without an education and an adult who is sucking up all our resources in the state prison. People think we should pay attention to kids because they’re cute and cuddly. I pay attention because in 16 years they’re going to be committing crimes against us if we don’t.”

Staying in school
Anti-truancy efforts in San Francisco schools:

Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment (C.A.R.E) at Bayview-Hunters Point YMCA: Serves 20 truant youths at a time, offering basic English, math and other courses to help students prepare to return to public school. Launched in March, it has already served 65 kids.

District Attorney’s Office truancy court: Has prosecuted parents in a half-dozen severe cases, and is looking at prosecuting another batch. Also reviews and provides case management for 1,000 other families, primarily of elementary and middle school students.

Stay in School Coalition: Operated by the San Francisco Unified School District, it includes many city agencies and community-based organizations that work to provide support for truants.

Attendance liaisons: School-based staff who keep track of students missing school regularly, reporting them both to parents and to the Stay in School Coalition. Serious cases are referred to the District Attorney’s Office.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 24, 2008 at 4:55 AM