S.F. Schools Launch Campaign To Help Minority Students

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Striving to raise the scholastic achievement of minority students, the San Francisco schools are embarking on a broad, million-dollar campaign that largely involves programs outside the classroom.

Volunteers tutoring at community centers and churches preaching the value of education are among the initiatives that evolved from a local conference on educating black children that ended last week. The three-day conference aimed to mobilize teachers, parents, business leaders, and community activists to improve reading and math instruction.

"People for too long have thought schools were the only ones responsible for educating children, and that 180 days a year was the answer," Superintendent Waldemar Rojas said in an interview. "We can't be the only player."

Reading and mathematics test scores have risen for five years in the 62,000-student district--no small feat for an urban system where more than half of the students are eligible for free lunches and one-third don't speak English fluently. Yet, as in many cities across the country, black and Hispanic children tend to lag behind their white peers on standardized tests and other benchmarks.

African-American students represent 17.4 percent of the district's student population. Hispanics make up 20.5 percent, white children 13.1 percent, and Asian-American children 36.4 percent.

Mr. Rojas said he will oversee a multifaceted campaign including:

  • Six-week summer sessions for incoming kindergartners who have not gone to preschool. The estimated 2,000 children would attend small classes, take diagnostic tests, and receive social services.
  • Three parent-resource centers in black, Hispanic, and Asian-American neighborhoods that would offer instructional materials, tutoring by teachers, social services, and adult education classes. The district plans to spend $750,000 on the centers and open two next month.
  • At least three tutoring centers. The district is seeking private grants and volunteers for them.
  • A handbook for parents describing what reading, math, and science skills are expected from students. The district is seeking private funding for the handbook it plans to publish in February.
  • A plan by churches across the city to dedicate one Sunday a month to education. Twenty churches have already started focusing on literacy and related topics, and another 70 are expected to join the campaign.

Achievement Gap

African-American leaders said last week that they welcomed the district's leadership in trying to raise black children's academic performance. "We need innovative approaches," said Alex L. Pitcher, the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Black and Hispanic students received the lowest scores of any racial or ethnic groups on the 1997 Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, though their scores did increase from the previous year. Blacks scored an average of 39.5 on a 99-point scale in which 50 was the national average. Hispanics scored an average of 43.1.

The highest average scores were recorded by Japanese-American and white students, at 62.2 and 62.3, respectively.

Mr. Pitcher attributed poor performance by some minority students to poverty and broken families, and he said schools need to strive to ensure equal opportunities for all children.

"Regrettably, blacks are low on the totem pole in terms of economic status and disrupted family units, which affects children," he said. "But I don't want to make excuses and blame society. There's too much at stake."

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