I was 15 years into my career as an educator when I was hired to work at a school in the Bayview, the neighborhood where I grew up. Knowing the Bayview’s strength, beauty, and challenges, I arrived back home with a heavy sense of responsibility. The Bayview is the place where both of my grandmothers lived, and where my teenage mother raised me with the confidence that one day I would go to college and have a successful career.
I had worked as a teacher and school administrator in other parts of the city, but now I was responsible for strengthening early education at the Bayview’s Dr. Charles Drew Preparatory Academy, which serves children from pre-kindergarten (PreK) to fifth grade. I knew a lot of the students’ families; they looked like me and had similar stories.
Drew has the highest percentage of African American students of all elementary schools in San Francisco. It’s in the heart of a neighborhood that has suffered decades of underinvestment in everything from education and housing to jobs and transit. And it’s a school where the “opportunity gap” people talk about when they compare educational outcomes for white and non-white students is so abundantly and distressingly clear.
But I believed in the Bayview—and I still do. That’s why I am so excited to be working with the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund on an initiative aimed at testing new ways to close the opportunity gap for the Bayview’s youngest children.
“A Strong and Seamless Foundation”
Over the last 10 years, the San Francisco Unified School District has worked closely with the Haas, Jr. Fund and other partners to improve early education across our city. This work is based on the understanding that the opportunity gap starts in the first years of life. To prevent the gap from undermining student success, children need a strong and seamless foundation of high-quality learning opportunities from PreK through third grade. That means teachers and school administrators need to talk across grades about how students are learning, what they are learning, what’s working, what’s not, and why.
Simply ensuring alignment from PreK to transitional kindergarten to kindergarten was one of the early goals of the school district’s work alongside partners like the Haas, Jr. Fund. Now, in the Bayview, we’re partnering with the Fund to launch an exciting new phase of this work. We will take the next three years to build a solid instructional bridge from PreK all the way through third grade beginning with two high-need schools: Drew and Bret Harte Elementary School.
With a focus on strengthening student’s literacy skills, we will provide coaching and training to help pre-K, kindergarten and early elementary teachers collaborate across grades on instructional goals and strategies. We will build stronger school-to-family connections by hiring new community outreach staff, starting teacher home visits, and expanding a program that uses text messages to provide parents of PreK, kindergarten and first-grade students with tips to support their children’s development of literacy and other skills. We will also invest in leadership development resources for principals and administrators to make the PreK-to-third-grade approach a priority.
The Power of Partnerships
I know from my experience as an early education administrator and principal at Drew that it’s possible to change the game for students and their families in neighborhoods like the Bayview. During my time at Drew, we saw significant academic growth over time in students’ scores on standardized tests. Teacher turnover went down, and it became a true “community school” with high levels of family and student involvement. But it takes focus, along with an all-hands-on-deck approach to improving instruction, school climate and more.
It also takes strong partnerships. As the assistant superintendent for the Bayview and Potrero neighborhoods, I am part of a team in the school district’s central office and at the schools in the Bayview that is working to get this new PreK-3rd initiative off the ground. I’m excited to see the response from principals, teachers and families to what we are doing. It’s work that makes sense to people—Why wouldn’t we want to foster better, stronger connections from pre-kindergarten across the early grades? And it is work that will hold important lessons for other schools as we move forward.
People sometimes think improving education is about looking for a silver-bullet solution that’s going to rocket kids and schools to higher levels of performance. But in my career, I’ve found success comes more from changing people’s mindsets about what’s possible. Many families in the Bayview and similar neighborhoods have a historic (and often-justified) distrust of schools and government; they’ve been failed by the system too many times. At the same time, many people and institutions outside these neighborhoods just don’t believe things can change.
Well, I believe they can. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve also seen how we can build trust with communities, parents and kids. And a surefire way to do it is by making sure our youngest children are getting the early education they need to succeed in elementary school and beyond.