Noe Valley Voice May 2000

Let's Work Together for Excellent Public Schools

By Sandra Halladey


Voice 0005 Valley Views - Public Schools

Note: Parents for Public Schools will sponsor a neighborhood meeting to create task forces focused on reform in the city schools. Everyone is welcome.

Saturday, May 20

10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

James Lick Middle School

1220 Noe Street at Clipper

Parking is available in the schoolyard. Childcare will be available, but please indicate number of children when registering. To register, call (415) 642-6260, or email

Last month, both the Chronicle and the Examiner had front-page stories on the poisoning incident at James Lick Middle School. (See page 1 of this month's Voice.) The impression the reader got was of failing schools with failing children.

Over the past two years, I have been closely following the coverage of San Francisco public schools. The Examiner had a few positive stories on our public schools, but I was hard pressed to find a positive story in the Chronicle (although to the newspaper's credit, they did run a few op-ed pieces).

Wonderful things do happen in San Francisco public schools -- but we rarely hear about them in the mainstream media.

Why is balanced media coverage important? If you only read sensational articles on our schools or school district, your image of our schools becomes skewed. Families in the schools become demoralized. (Alvarado parents were angry when the school was recently branded as "struggling" by a well-known Chronicle columnist. He obviously did not do his homework, and he certainly never visited the school nor spoke to parents. If he had, he would have discovered that out of more than 70 elementary schools in reading, Alvarado has moved from a ranking of 42nd five years ago to 11th this year.)

Has the mainstream press even touched upon the amazing transformation of numerous non-alternative public schools in the city? Last year, Fairmount School in upper Noe Valley had a waiting list for the first time ever. Alvarado won a prestigious award for its language-immersion program, one of only four awarded in California.

But families of preschool children often overlook an excellent public school in favor of a parochial or private school, simply because of the public schools' negative portrayal in the media. They think their children won't be safe or that they will have to spend lots of time at the school improving it. This view is neither accurate nor fair.

Recently, a neighborhood mom came up to me at Douglass Park and said, "I hear you are spending a lot of time at the school. That's so great -- the public schools really need that kind of help." (She sends her children to private school.)

I wish I had replied that I am not spending lots of time at my daughter's school trying to fix things (of course, there is always room for improvement!). Rather, I am trying to let parents know that there are more than just a few good schools in our district and to help them make informed decisions about where to send their children to school.

I wish I had told her that many public schools would be good enough for her children, and what a benefit it is for all children in our city when we become active stakeholders in the public school system. It becomes about all of our children, instead of "those children" in "those schools."

I am not a zealot who is anti­private school. But it is a shame that in a liberal enclave such as Noe Valley, many families do not even consider the public schools.

No, I am not naive about our public schools. There is a lot that needs changing. I have many unanswered questions about facilities, finances, teacher quality, etc. I have been working with many parents all over the city who feel "dis-respected" by the school district and disenfranchised from real decision-making. I agree that there is bureaucratic "bloat" at the administrative level and there are serious problems when segments of our student body do not achieve.

However, I am sure that when parents and the community organize to demand better services from our district (and state), we can increase academic achieve-ment for all students in our district.

For these reasons I have helped to start a local chapter of a national organization, Parents for Public Schools (PPS). We are the only group in the city recruiting families into the public schools while at the same time working for school- and district-wide reform.

Our kickoff event in October attracted 300 participants, mainly families of preschoolers, the "new blood" in our schools! In our short history we have successfully worked with the school board, community members, and families at a local school to keep a principal; have been invited to be part of the community advisory committee on the search for a new superintendent; and have worked with hundreds of families helping them select a school and navigate the application process. We see ourselves as solution-oriented and proactive advocates for public schools who would "rather light a candle than curse the darkness" (Adlai Stevenson, speaking about Eleanor Roosevelt).

On May 20 (10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at James Lick School), we will be launching our task forces for reform. This meeting will bring together families in the public schools and families of preschoolers to focus on how parents can advocate for excellence for all children in our public schools.

It is crucial that parents remember that effective parent involvement is critical to strong public schools, and strong public schools are critical to our democracy. Parent involvement means parents acting as passionate, committed "owners" of public schools. Ownership of the San Francisco Unified School District gives parents the responsibility and the right to hold their school district accountable for educational excellence.

Thousands of Parents for Public Schools members across the country are creating change in their schools. As parents, we must organize and demand real reform from our school districts and legislatures. Please contact us and add your voice to the solution -- our voice is only as strong as our membership. See you at James Lick on May 20th.

Sandra Halladey is both a Noe Valley resident and the associate director of Parents for Public Schools.