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A Dream Deferred:

How San Francisco schools leave behind the most vulnerable students

The Path to Better

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With a strong vision and the will to implement it, San Francisco can offer low-income families and families of color the schools they deserve. Around the Bay Area and the nation, other communities have demonstrated that very significant progress can be made.

San Francisco’s low-income African American and Latino students don’t have the schools they deserve. Education is meant to offer a path to opportunity, but for far too many people in this amazingly rich city, there are a few good options.

That’s not an unchangeable fact of life.

In a city that is an international symbol of bold thinking and innovation, thanks to the vibrant tech sector and public policies like free community college and universal healthcare. Yet the response to the deep problems in our public school system has been cautious thinking and traditional approaches. Had we taken the same approach in the technology world, this report would have been written on an electric typewriter and delivered by postal mail.

What are the results of San Francisco’s limited ambition for its students? The result is that our city is falling short of its vision of itself –– as a place that welcomes and nurtures the vulnerable and takes care of its own. The result is a “choice” system that hasn’t provided better choices for low-income Black and Latino families. The result is that young people of color who attended San Francisco’s schools go jobless in the hottest job market in the country.

The unfairness is all the more glaring because better is so clearly possible.

Parent Profile

Pastor Mervin Redmond

“We’ve lost a significant number of congregants because of housing prices,” said Mervin Redmond, Pastor of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, who was born and raised in San Francisco…

What makes that clear? The fact that across our state and nation, there are many examples of communities that have done it. They have decided to take action on the knowledge that with hard work and vision, they could provide schools that gave kids a better future, even in the toughest neighborhoods, with significantly better results than San Francisco.

Fundamentally, what successful efforts have done is adopt a sense of urgency to provide students and families with better schools –– through changes to struggling schools, through creating new schools that embody a spirit of innovation, and through real commitment to whole-district improvement.

What we need now

Urgency to fix the schools that exist today and to create new ones

We must move urgently to pursue solutions for the thousands of students in SFUSD schools right now, as well as for the next generation.


One of the hardest tasks in education is turning around struggling schools, because it requires not only doing things in completely new ways, but dramatically changing expectations. There are many disappointing turnaround efforts. But there are also some genuine successes that point clearly at what works. It’s not about just renaming a school, simply bringing in a new principal, or perhaps organizing the school around a new theme. It’s about giving the principal, staff, families and community the ability to create something genuinely new in the same place, with the same children but a different school culture and very high expectations. There’s no single path to successful turnaround, but research has found several key elements that are common, including a highly capable school leader and staff, a culture of high expectations for both students and adults, using data to find what works, and the school having significant instructional and operational autonomy.

From Chicago’s Academy for Urban School Leadership to Philadelphia’s Mastery schools to Boston’s UP Academy Dorchester and Trotter School, it’s clear that with the right leadership, strong supports, and autonomy –– including giving the principals who are leading the turnaround the authority to select their staff –– dramatic improvement can come quickly.40, 41, 42, 43

New schools

Another strategy is opening new schools (often within existing school facilities), which provides a unique opportunity to design the schools around the essential elements of high-performing schools and staff them with teams committed to those strategies.44 When executed well, this allows new schools to implement with great fidelity best practices and pilot new, innovative programs, which is very difficult to do in existing schools with a low-performing culture and little drive to change. A number of new, innovative schools have sharply narrowed achievement gaps and sent low-income students to college at rates much higher than is typical for the neighborhood, in the Bay Area and elsewhere.

Some of these are new district schools; others are public charter schools. All have benefited from higher levels of autonomy to customize their academic program to meets the needs of their students. Like turnarounds, the fact of a school being new doesn’t guarantee its success — that requires a sound plan and a strong team who can execute the plan.

Here in the Bay Area, families, teachers and advocates have come together to demand and successfully establish such promising schools.

Some examples are just 45 minutes south in San Jose. The first is Renaissance Academy, a district school with a teacher-led approach and a family feel, as well as strong, consistent performance for low-income Latino students.45 A second is Voices Academy, a bilingual charter school whose attention to data on student progress and commitment to parent involvement have helped to place it on Innovate’s list of top schools for underserved students.46, 47 Elsewhere in the country, the Brooklyn East Collegiate Charter School in New York has demonstrated how a deep commitment to college readiness has helped to close gaps between students of low- and higher-income brackets.48

The long term

Whole-district change

Dramatic improvements are not limited to single-school examples. While the district and larger community embarks on turning around failing schools and launching new schools based on proven models, the district must go about aligning all of its vast resources toward becoming a high-functioning organization focused on the key levers to improve the quality of their schools.

Doing this will require an open-mindedness to new approaches to solve this problem. We must move swiftly from inquiry to action. Across the country, there are examples of entire districts making steady and eventually dramatic improvement in student outcomes –– examples from which San Francisco can learn.

There are several common characteristics among high-performing school districts. High-performing districts have strong and effective leaders who work to reach all children, create and pursue shared goals around student performance, and hold all adults and students to high standards. In high-performing districts, there are clear expectations about instructional and learning outcomes, and district and school leaders are held accountable when those outcomes are not met.

Great school districts create a shared vision for what “good instruction” looks like, support teachers intensively to reach that vision, and use data to continuously improve and refine this vision. They create and maintain an environment of mutual respect and collaboration, allowing for leaders to constantly build on their skills through professional development opportunities and engagement in professional learning communities. They encourage partnerships with and support from families and the surrounding community.

Take for example Long Beach, where the school district built partnerships with colleges and universities in the area and established a strategic plan around hiring and retaining great teachers and school leaders, resulting in marked gains in the district’s proficiency rates, graduation rates, and teacher retention rates.49 Another large California school district with strong results for low-income students of color is Garden Grove, which has made consistent improvement over several years through a focus on hiring the best teachers, improving their current teachers, and strengthening their central office culture to be entirely focused on supporting high-performing schools and teachers.50 Or we can look to Union City, NJ, where a strong focus on student learning, parent involvement, and teacher development led to notable and sustained improvement in students’ academic performance and graduation rates, particularly for students of color, low-income students, and English learners.51

The common elements behind successful schools

Whether in turnarounds, new schools, or whole-district improvement efforts, the elements of success are the same, and they’re not mysterious. They are what educators, families and communities do when they have the vision and the will. The elements, which Innovate Public Schools’ World-Class Schools framework explores in detail, are:52

  • A deep and relentless focus on the mission of serving all students
  • Commitment to build and develop a great team of educators
  • Rigorous academic offerings for all students
  • A culture of joyful learning
  • A focus on data to inform decision-making
  • Commitment to engaging parents as co-educators and leaders

The fact is, these things have happened in places with far fewer advantages than San Francisco. The city’s wealth, intellectual resources, passion for social justice, and can-do spirit of innovation make it exactly the kind of place where better should be possible.

Some schools in San Francisco are making progress. For example, our 2016 Top Schools report highlights 54 Bay Area schools, including seven in San Francisco, that have enrolled more than the state’s percentage of low-income African American students (4.3%) and low-income Latino students (43.3%), and where these students’ proficiency rates are higher than the state’s average for all students.53 These schools are showing that even under current circumstances, schools can make progress towards closing gaps if they have the will and commitment to do it.

The way forward

It’s easy to dismiss the experiences of other communities as a different context. It’s harder, but much more valuable, to figure out what we can put to use from the successes of others.

This calls San Francisco’s leaders at every level and across multiple sectors to act with new urgency for the education of our underserved children. That means listening, changing policy, reconsidering past answers that have amounted to “no” –– no to new schools, no to bolder forms of school turnaround, and no to new effective ideas.

And this calls parents, advocates and the community to keep pushing, to be loud, to take risks, to refuse to take “no” for an answer. Deep-set problems have rarely been solved quietly, in San Francisco or anywhere.

Today, San Francisco is an astonishingly rich city that offers its low-income African American and Latino families some of the poorest educational choices in the state.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s find the will to change.

40De la Torre, M., Allensworth, E., Jagesic, S., Sebastian, J., Salmonowicz, M., Meyers, C., & Gerdeman, D. R. (n.d.). Turn-ing Around Low-Performing Schools in Chicago: Summary Report(Rep.). Retrieved July 20, 2017, from http://consortium.

41Mastery Charter Case Study [PDF]. (2013, March 14) Retrieved August 18, 2017 from library/turnaround_case_studies

42Newberry, L. (2015, March 29). At UP charter schools, longer school days, atmosphere of joy yields results. Retrieved July 20, 2017, from

43Vaznis, J. (2013, December 02). After years of decline, Trotter School rebounds – The Boston Globe. Retrieved July 20, 2017, from

44World Class Schools Report. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2017 from

45Renaissance Academy: Cultivating a Culture of Joyful Learning. (2015, October 8). Retrieved from https://

46Learning in Two Languages at Voices College-Bound Language Academy. (2015, August 26). Retrieved August 18, 2017 from

47Top Bay Area Public Schools for Underserved Students 2016 Report. (2016, November). Retrieved February 21, 2017, from

48Uncommon Collegiate Charter High School: Offering Rigorous Academics for ALL Students. (2016, June 20). Retrieved from

49Mahoney, J., Mitchell, B., VanVoorhis, J., Battelle for Kids, & Lasley, T. (2012). Six Drivers of Student Success [PDF].
Battelle for Kids. Retrieve August 18, 2017, from

50Knudson, J. (2013). You’ll Never Be Better Than Your Teachers[PDF]. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from

51Kirp, D. L. (2016, January 09). How to Fix the Country’s Failing Schools. And How Not To. The New York Times. Retrieved August 18, 2017 from®ion=stream&modul e=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection

52World Class Schools Report. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2017 from

53Top Bay Area Public Schools for Underserved Students 2016 Report. (2016, November). Retrieved February 21, 2017, from

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