School & District Management

Do or Die

In San Francisco, teachers and principals at low-performing schools are given one chance to turn things around. If they fail, they’re given the boot. Critics say the strategy scapegoats educators, but superintendent Bill Rojas says it’s the only way to bring real change.
By David Ruenzel — March 01, 1997 32 min read

One morning last August, workers at historic Mission High School in San Francisco, operating under the authority of the new principal, Ted Alfaro, took down graduation pictures that had graced the lobby for some five decades. Glass shattered, springs popped, frames fractured—the workers, it was clear, were not historical preservationists.

The move was hardly a public relations coup for Alfaro. He had never been a high school principal, and his order to remove the pictures was perceived by the faculty as an act of outsider sabotage—a bit like the Soviet army toppling monuments as it marched through Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was reported in the local papers and condemned in a terse letter from the school’s alumni association. In the Guerrilla Gazette, an under-ground teacher tabloid that surfaced at Mission in early September, the incident was referred to as “one of the most arrogant and outrageous moves ever made by any administrator in Mission High School history.” Alfaro, it seemed, was trying to obliterate Mission’s illustrious past.

“It feels like we’ve been set back in time, that all progress is gone, that we’re back in the Dark Ages,” says one Mission teacher, asking, like many others interviewed for this story, to remain anonymous. “Alfaro’s attitude is that the past is the past, whatever was done is all over with now. He arrived here with a hostile attitude, saying in a speech to us, ‘I’m not here for love; I get that from my family.’”

This hostility, Mission teachers say, is displayed in a number of ways: Alfaro insists that they turn in lesson plans each week; he walks into class-rooms unannounced; and at a faculty meeting early in the year, he told teachers that too many of them were “winging it.”

Alfaro acknowledges that he is not particularly interested in being liked. Picking up a button on his desk that reads, “How will this decision affect students?” he insists his only concern is to improve student achievement at one of the district’s poorest performing schools. And that, he adds, should be the only concern of his faculty. “I can’t worry about teacher morale,” Alfaro says. “I’m not here to cuddle you, to make you feel good. C’mon, a lot of the teachers here have $50,000-a-year jobs; some of my kids’ families are about to be evicted onto the streets. It’s the kids who have to be our focus.”

Alfaro claims he only removed the school pictures temporarily so the walls could be painted. (They have not yet been restored.) But he confesses he is baffled why the pictures have become such an issue. As he sees it, what the pictures represent, especially those from the recent past, is anything but illustrious. “Last year, 40 percent of the freshmen failed three or more classes, and here we have people getting all upset about these pictures,” Alfaro says with an incredulous grin on his face. “What about the kids’ academic performance? Are the pictures on the walls going to make the kids learn better?”

Such antagonism between teachers and administrators is unfortunate yet hardly unusual. But in San Francisco, there is something that makes it particularly explosive, turning a remodeling contretemps into a major incident. It’s called reconstitution, and it’s a radical reform that Mission seems certain to get a taste of soon.

Officially, reconstitution is referred to as “vacating the faculty.” In less euphemistic terms, it means that everyone at failing schools—or more specifically, schools deemed failing by district superintendent Bill Rojas and his senior aides—are put on a district watch list and given one year to improve. If they don’t, the entire faculty is dismissed, replaced by a new staff.

Although tenured teachers are guaranteed positions at other city schools, many who have been reconstituted say the shock and stigma of being wrenched from their home schools are not easy to overcome. “I’m outraged at how reconstitution is implemented,” says one teacher. “It’s a case of randomly replacing people instead of looking at their individual qualifications. I’m bilingual, for instance, and everyone knows there’s a shortage of bilingual teachers. But to them, that made no difference.”

A high school teacher says she was so angry at being booted that she told her husband she was afraid she was going to hit someone. “After 30 years of teaching, I was just sick,” she says. “District administrators had put horrible administrators into our school, making it impossible for us to succeed. They stymied us, and then they closed us down.”

Reconstitution critics insist that what it really does is blame teachers for student problems-poverty, racism, violence—they have little control over. Teachers at Mission point out that their students arrive at the high school with some of the lowest test scores in the city. Sixty-seven percent are eligible for free lunch, the highest percentage in the district.

Thirty-three percent come from families on welfare, also the highest in the district. More than half the school’s parents have a limited command of English. And Dolores Park, right across from the school, is notorious for drug dealing.

“We are a poor-performing school, and we will continue to be a poor-performing school,” one teacher says. “Let’s face it: We end up with the kids no one else wants. Still, we’re doing a damn good job. Our test scores showed us having the poorest population making the greatest gains last year. But that wasn’t enough for Bill Rojas.”

Many Mission teachers believe the decision to reconstitute their school is a done deal. Alfaro, they say, is a Rojas hench-man. “I think superintendent Rojas has made the decision to reconstitute Mission High School willy-nilly,” says one veteran. “I think he brought this administrative team in from the outside to effect the reconstitution. But will it make things better? No. It will be just like Balboa High. Rojas fired everyone at the school and then brought in a principal who in turn hired a bunch of young kids to teach. From what I hear, things are worse now than they were before.”

Mission teachers have been working under this cloud since March 1996, when Rojas gave notice to former principal Lupe Arabalos and two assistant principals. Arabalos, a Mexican immigrant with a highly personal approach—students and teachers alike streamed through her office—was a beloved figure, and some Mission teachers see the firing as part of a dark, obscure plot to dismantle the school. “We were succeeding,” one says. “People who thought of Mission as a gang school began to refer to it as a model United Nations school. But that’s the thing with reconstitution. It turns the superintendent into an all-powerful CEO, and if he wants to get rid of you, it’s as good as done.”

Teachers’ sense of doom was heightened in August, when Mission was put on the district’s watch list, officially referred to as the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan, or CSIP. Schools assigned to the plan are essentially on probation. They have a year to show significant improvement or face reconstitution.

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.

One tenet, though, sounds revolutionary even today: “If individuals do not learn, then those assigned to be their teachers should accept responsibility for this failure and take appropriate remedial action.”

“I have no sympathy for that ‘ain’t-it-awful’ group. If their attitude is, ‘You come out here and try to teach these kids,’ then they ought to find different work.”

administrator, San Francisco schools

By shifting the educational burden from student to teacher and suggesting that teachers are always culpable if their students do not learn, this tenet, perhaps more than anything else, paved the way for reconstitution in San Francisco. It is why one central administrator, referring to teachers at Mission High, says, “I have no sympathy for that ‘ain’t-it-awful’ group. If they believe in the tenets, they ought to get back into the classroom and teach the kids. But if their attitude is, ‘You come out here and try to teach these kids,’ then they ought to find different work.”

Bonnie Bergum, who became principal of Malcolm X Elementary when it was reconstituted in 1984, has the tenets framed on her wall. “Everything we do coheres around the tenets,” she says. “Even after all these years, we still reflect on them and evaluate ourselves on how well we follow them. The tenets remind us that we’re not in the excuse-making business. I just don’t have much sympathy for teachers who say, ‘Oh, is it tough.’ ”

Bergum claims that “reconstitution made all the difference in the world” at Malcolm X and the four other schools reconstituted in 1984, now known as “phase one” schools. It was particularly important, she says, that principals could handpick their staffs. It institutionalized a kind of quality control and ensured that new teachers shared a similar vision. These phase one schools also had ample time to prepare for their grand “reopening.” At Malcolm X, rigorous interviewing commenced in early spring, and throughout the late spring and summer months there were intensive planning meetings with the entire faculty.

Some people in San Francisco now suggest that phase one schools also had the luxury of choosing good kids and turning away the rest, a charge that drives Bergum crazy. “The fact is that neither we nor any other phase one school has been able to choose our kids,” she says. “It’s a straight lottery. Most of our families have difficult lives, and a few of our kids have crack mothers. But we don’t think of them as difficult kids; we think of them as kids we have an obligation to educate.”

Virtually everyone in San Francisco--even critics of reconstitution--acknowledges that Malcolm X and the other phase one schools turned things around: Within a few years, each school had improved parental involvement, a healthier school culture, and higher test scores.

These schools, however, were not the only ones in San Francisco deemed in need of improvement. Sixteen others--now known as phase two, three, and four schools--were also targeted and given funds to put in place their own plans for improving student achievement. Unlike the phase one schools, their faculties were spared. But by 1989, it was clear that these schools were not making any significant gains.

Eight city schools have been shut down and reopened with a new staff. One teacher describes the process as ‘the My Lai approach to school reform: You destroy the village in order to save it.’

Why, educators wondered, did these schools languish while the phase one schools thrived? In 1991, a committee of experts headed by Harvard University professor Gary Orfield was appointed to answer this very question. In short, the experts’ answer was reconstitution. Although the second group of schools may have had all kinds of good intentions--some produced dazzling blueprints for change--only the phase one schools, those starting with a blank slate, showed real improvement. The committee’s findings suggested there is indeed a dysfunctional school culture that is nearly impossible to change, despite the presence of individual good teachers.

The court overseeing the desegregation effort embraced the committee’s report. In 1992, it recommended that the district “annually reconstitute at least three schools a year until the task is completed"--the task apparently being to raise the achievement of African Americans and Hispanics.

Rojas, it seemed, was the perfect administrator to brandish the reconstitution tool. Born Waldemar Rojas, he grew up a tough kid navigating the mean streets of New York City; he knew how to take the heat that reconstitution would generate. He also believed in the tenets: Yes, all students can learn, so there is no reason for any school to be a failing school. “If you’re like me, growing up in the South Bronx, how could you think otherwise?” Rojas says. “Lots of people succeeded in the South Bronx. If poverty and minority status say you’re going to fail, why have public education at all? What would poor Jews and Irish in New York have done?”

A number of prominent San Franciscans, including Mayor Willie Brown, have questioned the logic of reconstituion and Rojas’ actions at Mission High. But here, as elsewhere, Rojas defends himself by referring to the “all students can learn” tenet. “The stuff they all put in place at Mission was teddy-bear, huggy stuff that could make you feel good,” Rojas says of the school’s teachers and previous administrators. “It was, ‘I’m not going to frustrate you with geometry and physics. After all, you have such a hard and frustrating life as it is.’ They think we should be grateful because there are no gang fights anymore. But that’s not what it’s all about; it’s about producing competitive kids. I told Willie, ‘If that school were a business, it would be in Chapter 9.’ ”

Rojas came to San Francisco from New York, where he was involved in some reconstitution-like projects. In 1979, the principal of a tough school in Brooklyn fled; a former Marine, he said he could no longer endure the conditions. So Rojas, as the representative for the city’s schools chancellor, went to the school at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning with 150 policemen in tow. They sealed the perimeter, and Rojas went inside to look around. He reported to the chancellor, “If you want to give an enema to the world, this is the place to do it.”

To change things, Rojas recalls, “I looked for a team, five or six people who could run the school, and told them that nothing was sacred. Everything here can change, only you have to keep the kids and educate them. And what happened? People learned how to teach. And we found teachers who wanted to teach there. So it’s all doable, though you’re not going to see magical results over night.”

Rojas was named San Francisco’s superintendent in 1992 and spent his first months on the job studying the situation. Then, in 1994, he reconstituted three schools. In 1995 and 1996, he reconstituted another five. He has placed 16 others on the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan. While eight have “graduated” from the plan--they were deemed improved enough to avoid reconstitution--others will not be so lucky. And three months from now, a new group of schools will be placed on the watch list, fresh candidates for reconstitution.

Proponents of reconstitution point to the experience of the phase one schools as evidence the policy works. They argue that regardless of the anguish it may bring to teachers and others, reconstitution has proved a success. But critics say this conclusion, as logical as it may seem, is as fallacious as it is simplistic.

“The phase one schools were flagship schools raised in the southeast part of the city,” says union treasurer Kent Mitchell, who taught at Malcolm X Elementary for seven years. “We made these schools beacons. There was reduced class size, intensive staff development, resources, parental commitment. Reconstitution was just a tiny piece of what was done. The phase two to four schools didn’t fail because they weren’t reconstituted but because there was no real plan-just a fuzzy goal of making things better. And if you look at the schools recently reconstituted under Rojas, 1 don’t think you’ll see any improvement. At Aptos Middle School"—reconstituted last year--"there’s fresh paint and toilets that flush, and that’s about it. And they could have done those things without reconstitution.”

Mitchell’s view is shared by the vast majority of San Francisco’s teachers. And even the school board shows some signs of wavering in its support of reconstitution. Board president Steve Phillips promised last fall to reevaluate the program. Dan Kelly, who has consistently voted for reconstitution, recently questioned its efficacy, saying, “There’s a feeling we’re going about it in a more ad hoc manner.” Member Jill Wynns, who complains that the superintendent’s office has been unable to provide data on its effectiveness, believes reconstitution is akin to the privatization craze of a few years ago--a trendy idea bound to disappoint. “What,” she asks, “are we going to do a few years from now when we discover that the reconstituted schools have to be reconstituted again?”

Rojas acknowledges that test scores at recently reconstituted schools have generally been flat, but he argues that the learning environments at the schools are much better. Besides, he adds, it takes at least three years to see significant improvement, particularly at high schools. Somewhat surprisingly, Rojas also admits that the current reconstitution process has suffered from “a cheapskate element, though we’re getting close to doing it as it should be done.”

This “cheapskate element” stems in part from a truncated preparation period for the new staffs at reconstituted schools. In 1984, the newly hired faculties at phase one schools began preparing for the upcoming school year in March. Nowadays, the faculty at about-to-be-reconstituted schools aren’t even notified of their dismissal until the middle of May. The new teachers must immerse themselves in the school’s reform “vision” over the summer. “It’s easier when you start in March, but I have to keep the schools up and running,” Rojas says. “It’s hard to staff schools facing imminent reconstitution.”

The difficulties associated with inadequate preparation time are compounded by the near-epidemic hiring of young, inexperienced teachers at reconstituted schools. “I was replaced by three teachers with two years of combined experience,” says Sandy Chumura, who taught at Raphael Weill School until late 1995 when it was reconstituted and renamed Rosa Parks School. “It’s a case of the blind leading the blind. Things are terrible there now, with test scores down. In the last round of hires, they had 14 openings because veteran teachers don’t want to go to schools where you have strong-arm robberies.”

According to the teachers’ union, a high percentage of teachers hired at reconstituted schools are long-term substitutes—untenured teachers with one-year contracts that must be renewed annually. A high proportion are not yet licensed and are teaching on waivers. At Aptos Middle School, for example, 70 percent of the teachers are long-term subs, and 15 percent are working on waivers. At Martin Luther King Elementary School, 62 percent are subs, and 8 percent have waivers. And at Balboa, 64 percent are subs, and 24 percent have waivers.

Many observers say that this is a deliberate strategy, that district leaders want to bring in as many young, idealistic go-getters as possible to replace tenured complacency. But the plan doesn’t seem entirely wise. True, mediocre schools often have more than their share of burned-out time-servers, but most good schools have a stable of savvy veterans. The principals of phase one schools understood this. They hired a number of young teachers, but they also recruited senior teachers to serve as mentors.

The truth is that most recently reconstituted schools have had difficulty recruiting gifted senior teachers. “No one wanted to come here,” says John Flores, who became principal of Visitacion Valley Middle School when it was reconstituted in 1994. “I went through 700 files trying to find veterans, some of whom committed and then backed out. So I ended up with mostly young, first-year teachers who had not worked in San Francisco. It was a real problem to find experience, though I was finally able to bring in some good older teachers—and that was essential.”

Flores has rehabilitated failing schools in several cities, and his work at Visitacion Valley has made that school a showpiece, though skeptics point out that test scores have generally stayed the same. “I could have done it without reconstitution but not as quickly,” Flores says. “In education, you rarely have this kind of opportunity to start over.”

But not all the principals at reconstituted schools have found it easy to start over. At Balboa High, which locals describe as one of the city’s “really tough places,” new principal Elaine Koury is struggling to keep her head above water. “I looked for a mix of old and young teachers but ended up with young ones,” Koury says from behind a drifting heap of telephone pink slips. “I scoured around, drummed the drums, but experienced teachers didn’t want to come here. But the young teachers I’ve got are jewels.”

A number of Balboa observers agree, saying Koury does have many young, gifted, and idealistic teachers. But some also note these teachers are feeling dangerously overwhelmed, already burned out. A few, they say, have even taken the tenet “all students can learn” and turned it into a blasphemous question: “Can all students really learn?”

It’s not hard to see why the young teachers at Balboa—who began meeting as a faculty just three weeks before the school year began--might feel overwhelmed and why older ones might steer clear of the school. Because my repeated phone calls to Koury had gone unreturned, I decided to drop in. I’ve been in many urban schools, but Balboa made me uncomfortable. There was trash in the corners of the sprawling corridors, and graffiti scrawled on the walls. A boy walking in front of me, eating from a Styrofoam container, simply tossed it on the floor when he finished. I stopped a girl charging up the hall-way and asked her what she thought of the school. “It’s worse than it was before reconstitution,” she said. “They should have left it alone.”

A half-hour later, Koury gave me an official tour of the building. She took me to see a student mural under construction, which was indeed impressive. But right across from it, on the floor, was trash. “Things have improved a lot,” Koury told me. “When I first arrived here, the reek of urine was just over-powering. The whole building reeked. It’s a school culture thing we’re beginning to change.”

In December, a mysterious e-mail sent by someone at Balboa High arrived at the computers of a number of district employees. The author carped about an administrator at the school who had been lashing out at teachers for being tardy or skipping staff meetings. “Most of the meetings,” the missive stated, “consist of examining the warts on the elephant’s nose while ignoring the fact that the carcass is half-rotted and most of us are reeling from the stench .... And now that he’s kicked the teachers back in line, [he] will have more time to deal with less pressing issues like students stealing from teachers, cussing out teachers, spitting on teachers, threatening to kill teachers .... “

Balboa has only had a few months to steer a new course, making a fair assessment of its reform almost impossible. But the sheer difficulty of the task raises questions about how much reconstitution can be expected to accomplish in certain extreme cases. Take Mission, for example. District administrators can declaim all they want about how “all students can learn,” but what that means at rough-and-tumble Mission is different than what it means at elite Lowell High School, the district’s academic pride and joy. At Lowell, “all students can learn” means they can learn calculus and literature. At Mission, it typically means students can acquire the basics; many are enrolled in remedial or ESL classes, and some don’t know where they’ll be sleeping from one night to the next. “Yes, it’s true that all students can learn,” says board member Jill Wynns. “But I’m sorry: Saying all students can learn does not mean that all students can go to the University of California.”

Kent Mitchell of the teachers’ union asserts that the “all students can learn” tenet was, for all of its apparent obviousness, an important statement to make in the early 1980s when significant numbers of teachers did, in fact, feel that poor black and Hispanic kids could not learn. “But I part with those says one San Francisco board who make learning solely the teacher’s responsibility,” Mitchell says. “In the final analysis, we need to remember that learning has to come from the kid.”

This is the crux of the reconstitution debate. How people view reconstitution—whether they think dismissing a faculty is a legitimate response to chronically low student achievement or the unjustified scape-goating of teachers—depends on how much control they think a school and its teachers have over student learning.

Rojas and the majority of school board members believe teachers have a good deal of control, which is why they in part assess schools on what they aptly term “controllable factors.” Mission, for example, was placed on the district’s watch list because it scored “heavy hits” on several of nine controllable factors. Its average daily attendance, chronic absenteeism, and requests for student transfers into the school were all determined last summer to be in critical need of correction. And on achievement measures, Mission students score in the bottom quartile. learn does not mean that all students can go to the University of California.’

But to Mission teachers and their sup-porters, these so-called controllable factors are about as controllable as winter weather on a mountain pass. “Let’s face it,” says one school administrator, “no one wants to end up at one of three places—Mission, Balboa, and McAteer. The kids who do end up there are those with the most problems. They are there by default; they’ve been assigned. You’re just not going to have a lot of requests for transfers in.”

The union’s Kent Mitchell says bluntly, “The controllable factors for [the watch list] are bullshit. How do you think you get into Wallenberg or Lowell? Well, you ask for a transfer in. So of course they’ll have better scores on that factor, as well as on the others.”

Even if the factors cited as controllable are truly that, could a new faculty at Mission “control” them better than the current one? I asked a number of San Francisco teachers a hypothetical question: What would happen if the “good” teachers at high-powered Lowell were reassigned to Mission? Almost invariably, laughter was the response. “The Lowell teachers would last a week,” one teacher said. “In fact, they might not even make it out of the parking lot.”

And yet—and this whole tortuous issue is marked by endless “yets"—as soon as teachers acknowledge to themselves that there are limitations to what they control, they may well be on the way to claiming they control almost nothing at all. And this can lead to the complacency that set reconstitution in motion in the first place.

“The tenets have been around a long time, but over the years you lose sight of them,” says Luisa Ezquerro, ESL department head at McAteer High, which was placed on the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan and improved enough to avoid reconstitution. “You get complacent, and you don’t realize that you’re losing ground and need to change.”

Although Ezquerro remains firmly opposed to reconstitution—"It lays all blame on teachers"—she argues that the improvement plan prodded the faculty to get its house in order. “We didn’t waste energy complaining or moaning about how we would be reconstituted anyhow,” she says. “Instead, we embraced CSIP, saw it as an opportunity to analyze what we are doing and why we are doing it.”

Schools like McAteer that are placed on the watch list and forced to go through the improvement plan are evaluated at year’s end on a number of factors, including a presentation by students to Rojas and his assistants. Skeptics refer to it as “a dog and pony show,” but Ezquerro says the teachers at McAteer found it useful. They began working with students on portfolios they could use at the presentation. And when they discovered that the students didn’t have the faintest idea how to talk to an audience, they gave them a crash course in public speaking. “You have to take CSIP as a challenge,” Ezquerro says. “If you don’t, if you end up warring with the administration, you’ll never make it through.”

Perhaps no school has had more experience with reconstitution and the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan than James Lick Middle School. In 1988, Lick was reconstituted, though not with the thoroughness of the phase one schools. It barely improved. So, in 1993, the school was placed on the CSIP watch list, from which it “graduated” in 1995, due in part to an effective student presentation.

Lick was one of the last schools I visited in San Francisco. The hallways, burnished and graffiti-free, were full of beautifully displayed student art. And unlike schools in distress, the atmosphere was neither sullen nor chaotic. Indeed, the corridors were teeming with happy but controlled students.

Joan Hepperly, who became principal of Lick the same year the school was put on the watch list, echoed McAteer’s Ezquerro when she said the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan induced healthy self-examination and collaboration. “CSIP can make a dedicated staff come together,” she said. “Because the reality is that in any school you can have teachers working satisfactorily individually but not working together as a team.”

Lick teachers agreed. Peter Govorchin, the music instructor and union representative, said that when the school was first placed on the watch list, he and a number of his colleagues went through “a bummed out, depressed period.”

“As a professional, you’re somewhat resentful when someone tells you you’re not succeeding,” Govorchin said. “But in the end, CSIP made us look at our school data and put it into a coherent presentation. Math objectives, social studies objectives—we looked at them all and started a self-critical tradition. But for other schools, being placed into CSIP is like being thrown into a tub of cold water.”

Govorchin freely admits that the plan helped turn Lick around and taught the teachers at the school that they could control at least a few of the factors deemed “controllable” by the district. They kept gangs off campus. They got parents into the school. They even increased the number of students transferring in by publicizing their successes.

Even so, Govorchin and many of his colleagues remain staunchly opposed to reconstitution. A number suggested that the district retain the Comprehensive School Improvement Plan process but jettison reconstitution. “CSIP should be required of every school, regardless of who you are, and how successful you’re reputed to be,” said Lick’s Brad Stam. “That way it wouldn’t be stigmatizing, and teachers wouldn’t have to spend their energy worrying about reconstitution.”

But would schools reform themselves—would they willingly strive for improvement—without the sword of reconstitution hanging over their heads? Clearly superintendent Rojas and his administrative team don’t think so. “The process of reconstitution is not for the faint of heart,” Rojas writes in his dissertation. “It is a dramatic and radical tactic for dysfunctional organizations.”

Reconstitution may be radical, but whether it can do much to improve the fortunes of our lowest performing, most disadvantaged students is a question that will be answered only after a long and very painful trial run.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as Do or Die

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