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Do or Die

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But Alfaro and Rojas, as well as everyone else in the central office on Van Ness Avenue, deny that the reconstitution of Mission--or any other San Francisco public school--is a done deal. "If teachers let loose of their anger, we have a good chance of moving forward," Alfaro says. "If, on the other hand, the teachers continue being resentful, we have no chance of avoiding reconstitution. But I'll tell you one thing. I wouldn't have taken this job if I thought Mission was going to be reconstituted."

Tough-talking superintendent Bill Rojas has become a national spokesman for reconstitution—
and a target of the teachers' wrath.

One central-office administrator, asking not to be named, says that being placed on the district watch list is like having to face up to a sudden death in the family. "There is shock and then rage and then, hopefully, acceptance," the official says. "The schools that get stuck in rage get reconstituted."

About Mission's teachers, superintendent Rojas says: "They can turn things around. But right now, I don't see the energy going into that. I see the energy directed at saying the superintendent is a jackass."

When it comes to reconstitution, San Francisco is on the cutting edge of what promises to be, at least as far as teachers are concerned, an ominous national trend. Policies under which failing schools are taken over and operated by outside authorities are on the books or in the works in a number of states and urban districts. Although takeover policies vary from place to place--they don't all require the relocation of a school's faculty--all revoke whatever autonomy a school and its staff may enjoy.

Richard Elmore, a Harvard University professor who has studied school restructuring, believes radical strategies like reconstitution are the wave of the future. "I'd be surprised if we didn't have a version of it everywhere within the next five years," he says. "It's inevitable now that we have standards-based data on student achievement school by school. This will drive people to come up with new systems of accountability."

Elmore admits he finds reconstitution somewhat appealing. The threat of dismissal is one of the few ways to make principals and teachers truly accountable, he says. Still, he fears the process will be undertaken far too haphazardly. If a district is going to reconstitute, he insists, then it had better make sure schools have ample resources and teachers have sufficient professional-development opportunities. Otherwise, it's just inviting failure.

"Whether we like [reconstitution] or not," Elmore says, "the fact is that it is coming. We are going to get it."

San Francisco has got it in a big way. Since the spring of 1994, eight schools have been reconstituted. And a half-dozen more are almost certain to follow. The city's educational community has been shaken by debates on the subject that range from acrimonious to downright accusatory.

Jill Wynns, the one school board member who has consistently opposed reconstitution, refers to it as "reform under a death sentence." "We've reconstituted some of the finest teachers in the district," she says. Brad Stam, a teacher at James Lick Middle School, describes it as "the My Lai approach to school reform: You destroy the village in order to save it." Peter Govorchin, another Lick teacher, believes it "blames and shames teachers, which is exactly the way we are trained not to treat children." A teacher at a recently reconstituted elementary school says, "You try to teach children respect for people, and getting rid of everyone is the model we give them. The students say, 'Where have our parents gone?'" Other district teachers refer to the policy as "punitive," "cruel," "a scapegoating device."

Kent Mitchell, treasurer of United Educators of San Francisco, the local teachers' union, calls reconstitution "a training ground for rookies." Many of the people brought in to staff the schools, he says, are young and inexperienced and not prepared for what they find. The district, he complains, "is sending kids onto the front lines to fight urban education's most intractable problems."

Advocates, on the other hand, see reconstitution as a necessary, if somewhat discomfiting, reform. School board member Dan Kelly likens it to a divorce in which "not necessarily bad people, for a lot of reasons we can't understand, find they just can't make the relationship work." Frenda Howell, principal of Burton High School on the city's south side, acknowledges that reconstitution is a drastic step but aphoristically adds, "Drastic times require drastic measures." Bonnie Bergum, principal of Malcolm X Elementary School, says, "Sometimes there's nothing else that can be done. You can have good teachers in a school, and yet the school isn't working--like a dysfunctional family that just can't overcome its problems."

"Whether we like [reconstitution] or not, the fact is that it is coming. We are going to get it."

Richard Elmore,
education professor
Harvard University

Superintendent Rojas, whose forthcoming doctoral dissertation on reconstitution is titled Reconstitution, Reculturing, and Reform: Adding Options for Urban Education, also uses a variant of the dysfunctional-family analogy. "Some of the reconstituted teachers got into high schools like Lowell and Burton"--among the best in the district--"because individually they could teach," Rojas says. "The problem is that they were working in a dysfunctional culture. And when they walk into a healthy culture--one with a strong administration and culture--they can recover. It helps, too, that good teachers don't want teachers to be losers around them."

A forceful person who can be charming one moment and acerbic the next, Rojas has become a sort of national spokesman for reconstitution. But in reality, the superintendent has merely resurrected in San Francisco a long-neglected school-reform device.

In 1982, as the result of a lawsuit filed by African-American parents and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against the San Francisco public schools, the district agreed as part of a consent decree to integrate its schools. Mere desegregation, however, was deemed insufficient to turn around a number of schools long characterized by decrepit facilities, poor student performance, low parental involvement, and teacher apathy. The decree, therefore, required the district to devise a plan to improve academic achievement--specifically the performance of blacks and Hispanics, who lagged the farthest behind.

Unlike most educational strategies, which call for incremental change, the plan was to be dramatic and immediate in its impact. The blueprint drafted proposed a number of changes, but its most radical feature was reconstitution.

In March 1984, the staffs at three elementary schools and two middle schools were notified they would be dismissed. New principals were named, and they in turn recruited teachers committed to trying innovative curricula and instructional approaches. The new hires also had to profess their allegiance to 11 "philosophical tenets," which have since been written into district policy.

The tenets include these statements: "All individuals want to learn and to be recognized for their achievement"; "All individuals are both potential learners and potential teachers"; and "All individuals can learn." If these words sound mild, even innocuous, that's because they have become familiar educational sound bites. But at the time, they were revolutionary ways to think about impoverished students, particularly disenfranchised African Americans, who were perceived as too overwhelmed by an array of social problems to be truly educable.

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