Equity & Diversity

S.F. Reforms Put on the Line In Legal Battle

By Caroline Hendrie — December 11, 1996 9 min read

San Francisco

In 1994, officials at Potrero Hill Middle School here were given an ultimatum: Whip your school into shape--fast--or everyone on staff should start looking for a new job.

Ronald Cabral, the principal, remembers the shock of learning from Superintendent Waldemar Rojas that Potrero Hill was among nine San Francisco schools chosen for possible “reconstitution,” a process that involves removing the whole staff and starting over from scratch.

“It was devastating in the initial couple of months,” he recalled. “It was like restructuring with a gun to your head.”

Since then, such experiences have become increasingly common as the city’s school leaders forge ahead with what is arguably the nation’s most aggressive plan for intervening in struggling schools.

Hailed by supporters as a ray of hope for urban education reform, the reconstitution program has nevertheless become anathema to a growing number of teachers and principals in the district.

“What sense does it make to punish the good, the bad, and the mediocre by saying, ‘Everybody out’?” asked Joan-Marie Shelley, the president of the United Educators of San Francisco, the local teachers’ union. “There’s probably 90 percent agreement that reconstitution is a horror.”

But beyond its controversial nature, what makes this ambitious program noteworthy is that it is being carried out under an unusual banner: a court-sanctioned desegregation agreement.

Known here simply as the consent decree, the 1982 agreement is worth more than $30 million in extra state aid to the district each year. It also spells out action the district must take to improve student achievement among African-Americans and Hispanics, including the reconstitution of three schools every year. That mandate has led the district to make far more extensive use of the dramatic reform technique than the few other places, such as Houston, in which it has been tried. (“A Clean Slate,” Dec. 7, 1994.)

Now, 14 years after the consent decree was signed, it faces a serious challenge in federal court--not over the reconstitution policy, but over the constitutionality of its race-based system of classifying and assigning students.

Since the lawsuit was filed in January 1995, court proceedings and publicity surrounding it have largely focused on the issue of quotas for ethnic enrollment and how they affect the Chinese-American students who are challenging them. (“Cursed by Success,” and “Chinese-American Parents in S.F. Win Round in Court.”)

But the case has broader implications for the ethnically eclectic school system and its nearly 64,000 students. If the courts throw out the consent decree, district officials believe their high-stakes intervention efforts would be dealt a potentially lethal blow.

“When you have the federal court reminding people of their moral responsibility, it’s a lot easier,” Mr. Rojas explained in a recent interview. “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word.”

Decree’s Reach Is Sweeping

In part because of its two-pronged approach of requiring both integration and sweeping school improvement, the consent decree has come to dominate district education policy.

Extending well beyond such traditional desegregation concerns as student and teacher assignment, it governs such issues as how money is divvied up among schools, what thematic and instructional approaches they will emphasize, and what philosophical tenets they will live by.

“The consent decree interlocks the components,” observed Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group that represents 48 of the largest urban school systems. “It also gives them broader authority to do all kinds of things. They can squeeze almost anything into it.”

The decree grew out of a 1978 lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that accused the school system of discriminating against blacks.

But district officials have now made allies of their former legal adversaries to tenaciously defend the consent decree, which was extended to include Hispanics in 1992. The state, which was also sued by the NAACP, has also thrown its support behind the district in its efforts to preserve the decree.

Their common opponent is a group of Chinese-American plaintiffs who are pressing U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick Jr. to throw out the decree on grounds that it maintains an unconstitutional “scheme of racial classification.”

Elite School Affected

Despite its ramifications for the district’s entire desegregation plan, the case has become primarily associated with the issue of entry into the city’s prestigious Lowell High School.

Until the district modified the school’s admissions policy last winter, students of Chinese descent were required to meet more stringent admissions criteria than other groups in an effort to keep them under the district’s enrollment cap. (“New Admissions Policy Sought for S.F. School,” Jan. 24, 1996.)

District officials and the NAACP say the plaintiffs should be satisfied with the new Lowell admissions procedures.

But those supporting the suit say the focus on Lowell High misses the point.

“This case is not about getting Chinese-American students into certain schools,” said Amy Chang, a spokeswoman for the Asian-American Legal Foundation, a local group that supports the suit. “It’s about the right to be judged as an individual.”

Although the case is approaching its second anniversary, it remains unclear if or when it will go to trial.

Resentments Build

Meanwhile, feelings against the district’s reconstitution program are running high among some educators.

Ms. Shelley of the teachers’ union traces that sentiment to the policy’s dramatic expansion in recent years and the growing ranks of staff members who have been affected by it.

Since 1994, the district has reconstituted eight schools. Eight others emerged intact from the intensive probationary process that can culminate in reconstitution. And another eight remain reconstitution candidates.

“At first teachers didn’t really care except in schools being reconstituted,” Ms. Shelley said. “But now there are visibly wounded people showing up in schools throughout the district. So there’s a critical mass out there absolutely ready to go on the warpath about the whole thing.”

Aware of such feelings, Superintendent Rojas emphasizes that reconstitution should not be viewed as an indictment of individual staff members, but rather of a school’s culture and organization.

Under San Francisco’s version of reconstitution, the first step is to remove a school’s entire staff--from the principal on down--and replace it with people who agree to abide by an 11-point educational philosophy spelled out in the consent decree.

Permanent employees can reapply for their old jobs, and if they are not rehired they are guaranteed a position elsewhere in the district. In practice, only a few employees have been rehired at reconstituted schools, and many of the new staff members have come from outside the system.

Other aspects of the overhauls include reducing the student-staff ratio, incorporating technology into the curriculum, and conducting extensive staff development.

“The process of reconstitution is not for the faint of heart,” Mr. Rojas wrote in a statement submitted to Judge Orrick in the consent decree’s defense. “It is a dramatic and radical tactic for dysfunctional institutions.”

Second Wave Criticized

The tactic was first used here 12 years ago in five of the city’s lowest-performing schools. After that initial wave, however, the district turned to less drastic efforts as it tried to improve other campuses targeted by the consent decree for extra money and attention.

In 1992, a committee appointed by Judge Orrick and headed by Harvard University desegregation expert Gary Orfield examined progress made in those targeted schools. It concluded that only those that had been fully reconstituted had succeeded in elevating black and Hispanic achievement.

Criticizing the district for effectively wasting consent decree funds on schools that failed to show such gains, the committee urged the revival of reconstitution.

The consent decree was amended in 1992 to convert the committee’s recommendation to a requirement. It called for the district to begin overhauling three schools a year until “the task is completed.” The task is not specifically spelled out, but Mr. Rojas has interpreted it to mean substantially eliminating the pattern of underachievement by blacks and Hispanics.

Two years later, at the district’s request, the consent decree was amended to expand the pool of schools that could be reconstituted. Instead of just the roughly three dozen schools targeted by the consent decree, any low-performing school in the district became fair game.

To critics such as Ms. Shelley, that move was wholly unwarranted by the evidence.

The apparent success of the schools that were reconstituted in the 1980s, she believes, was due to factors other than the wholesale turnover of staff. For one thing, she says, the mix of students in the schools was dramatically changed, and their parents had to pledge to support them.

Ms. Shelley also points to the lack of improvement in standardized-test scores among the more recently reconstituted schools as further proof that the tactic is grossly overrated.

But to supporters of reconstitution the benefits of the technique have been proven even though they may not become evident for several years.

“It’s like open-heart surgery,” Mr. Orfield said. “It’s a very, very dramatic kind of intervention, the most radical form of urban education reform there is.”

Back From the Brink

As it turned out, Potrero Hill proved to be a survivor.

After a two-year struggle, school leaders managed to make enough improvements so that district officials backed off their threat to reconstitute the 500-student school.

“We survived the process, mainly because we took it seriously,” Mr. Cabral said. “There were some schools that rebelled or never took it seriously, and they’re the ones that ended up getting the chop.”

Still, Potrero’s brush with oblivion hasn’t turned Mr. Cabral against the consent decree, illustrating a central irony of the policy: Although it was the decree that got Potrero Hill into its predicament, it was the consent decree that provided the resources to get out.

“About half our budget comes from the consent decree,” Mr. Cabral noted. “We have to support the consent decree, even though we were under the ax because of it.”

Mr. Cabral is not the only one aware of the double-edged nature of the decree--and of the varying interests at stake in the case now before the court.

“Without the consent decree money, a lot of our teachers and paraprofessionals would lose their jobs,” Ms. Shelley pointed out. “So we all have conflicting interests in the whole thing.”

San Francisco Unified School District at a Glance:

Enrollment: 63,800.
Superintendent: Waldemar Rojas
Schools: 112
Full-time teachers: 3,300
Students receiving free lunch: 50%
Students with limited English: 31%
Racial Breakdown:

Chinese: 27%
Hispanic: 20.9%
Black: 17%
White: 12.7%
Other: 22.3%

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1996 edition of Education Week as S.F. Reforms Put on the Line In Legal Battle


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