Do Or Die

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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."

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.

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