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In S.F. Reconstitutions, Rojas Softens the Blow

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In what has become a rite of spring in San Francisco, city school officials announced last week that they were reconstituting two more schools. But this time, they have added a twist that has at least partially blunted the intense anger that the radical restructuring process has aroused among rank-and-file teachers in the past.

Each spring since 1994, the 64,000-student district has identified two or three schools for reconstitution, a process that has typically entailed replacing most of the staff with new hires who commit themselves to a common vision of improvement. The schoolwide shake-ups, which have garnered San Francisco national attention, are required under the district's court-ordered desegregation plan. ("S.F. Reforms Put on the Line In Legal Battle," Dec. 11, 1996.)

In a move that dismayed many teachers, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas announced last week that Mission High School and Golden Gate Elementary School had been selected this year from among eight candidates for reconstitution. As in the past, all staff members at the schools will have to reapply for their jobs.

But this time, instead of requiring most to find jobs elsewhere in the district, Mr. Rojas pledged to "keep an open mind" about allowing them to remain at the schools. In contrast to earlier overhauls, moreover, the district is giving the existing staffs a role in crafting the schools' blueprints for boosting achievement.

"What is different here is that teachers and the teachers' union are part of the planning," Mr. Rojas said last week.

A New Course

The more collaborative approach is an outgrowth of ongoing talks between the district and the teachers' union aimed at charting a new direction for the controversial restructuring program. Also involved in the talks are representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which brought the desegregation case in 1978.

Mr. Rojas and the union signed a tentative agreement May 1 on principles for modifying the current scheme. Under that framework, the district would hold off on reconstitution for at least a year and instead work with existing staff members to correct schools' problems. ("S.F. Mulls Retreat From 'Reconstituting' Schools," May 28, 1997.)

Yet while the district would no longer insist on displacing a school's entire staff, Mr. Rojas wants to reserve the right to forcibly transfer employees deemed to be impeding progress. That issue is a sticking point in the talks, which both sides hope will produce a final agreement by August.

Another sore point is the overarching goal of the agreement. While Mr. Rojas says the idea should be to fine-tune the reconstitution process and reduce the need for it, the new president of the United Educators of San Francisco wants to jettison it altogether.

"The word itself has so many negative connotations for us," union President D. Kent Mitchell said last week. "It just creates a diversion, a side issue."

Mr. Mitchell said it was "a bad move" for Mr. Rojas to describe the impending shake-ups at Mission High and Golden Gate as reconstitutions. Teachers at the high school especially have been highly critical of the process, he said, and many were deeply angered by last week's announcement.

Nonetheless, Mr. Mitchell said teachers at both Mission and Golden Gate intend to work with the administration on a reform effort that he hopes will serve as a template for school restructurings in the future. The superintendent said he shares that hope.

"What we're trying to do is to bridge this philosophical gap between the 'recon' forces and the 'non-recon' forces," Mr. Rojas said. "The fact is that somewhere in the middle is what San Francisco needs now."

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