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Smart Cities: San Francisco Schools Improving, But Impervious to Creative City Assets

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San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) appears to be in a time warp. Yesterday, I outlined the leadership role that the Bay Area, especially the city of San Francisco, plays in learning innovation. However, the contrast between one of the most creative cities on the planet and the local school districts is stark. The district has higher test scores than other California urbans but it is small and has a relatively low level of poverty.

Brookings gives San Francisco a grade of C on its Choice and Competition Index for its hostility to public options but, like Seattle, a third of students attend private schools. Like East Coast districts, SFUSD has a big selective school, Lowell High.

Last year, the San Francisco Business Times reported that the school board rejected three charter applications, from Rocketship Academy in Hunter's Point, Flex Academy in the Tenderloin, and Mission Prep Academy. State officials eventually approved all three. A recent 6-1 approval of a KIPP high school suggests that "leadership is becoming more open to good choices for kids," according to a district partner.

Delivering Instruction. While many urban districts are embracing a portfolio of options, SFUSD is focused on delivering instruction. It seems a bit counterintuitive that a creative city would have a one-best-way school district.

A coherent approach to teaching and learning has driven steady improvement with about 60 percent proficiency on state tests.

"District leadership gives a lot of talk to equity, but they've had the biggest achievement gap amongst large urban districts for a long time -- something they're quick to acknowledge," said a local reformer. "It's a big district that prides itself on engaging their vocal population that's politically and civically active and demands participation."

Carols Garcia, the prior superintendent, created a Superintendent's Zone (a web of intensive support for failing schools pioneered by Rudy Crew in NYC in 1995). Observers agree the zone holds a lot of promise, but it will take a few years to show results.

The new district leadership under superintendent Richard Carranza is determined to bring coherence and accountability to the district. Richard appointed Guadalupe Guerrero as his Deputy and brought Luis Valentino from Los Angles in a Chief Academic Officer. Guadalupe ran the schools in the Mission Zone and they made substantial gains in Math and ELA with the help of a big School Improvement Grant.

SFUSD has actively engaged in various research partnerships with education schools at prominent research universities like Stanford and University of California at Berkeley. "We have the most diverse array of dual immersion programs which help our students develop second language skills in Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese," said Chief of Staff Laura Moran. "These students are building the linguistic and cultural competencies for the 21st century."

Capable Partner. Like most urbans making progress, SFUSD benefits from a capable community fund run by the former Washington State Chief, Terry Bergeson.

The San Francisco School Alliance plays "a strong intermediary role is helping the district with performance management, fundraising and innovative program work," said Bergeson.

"We have built the confidence of a number of funders who had given up on the district follow through. We are competent strategic partners with both the district and the philanthropic and corporate community," said Bergeson. "The future of the city depends on children being well educated; it's crazy not to pay attention to public schools."

Cool Schools. San Francisco is a very hip place, but there are a limited number of cool schools worth visiting. A Bay Area blended learning experts said, "Funny how innovative schools seem to cluster very specifically and have skipped San Francisco."

There are two Envision Schools in San Francisco. Envisions is an art and tech high school network that with Envision Learning Partners promotes deeper learning nationwide. The group is leading a new collaboration of school networks, "sharing a common student performance assessment system aligned to CCSS based on the Envision College Success Portfolio and Defense," said CEO Bob Lunz. The Stanford Center for Assessment, Equity and Learning (SCALE) are supporting creation of new valid and reliable tasks and rubrics, all hosted on Show Evidence. This $2.6 million project is funded by a Carnegie, Hewlett, Irvine and Kellogg foundations.

Also on the schools to visit list:

  • San Francisco Flex is one of two Bay Area flex model high schools supported by K12;
  • Mission Dolores Academy , a blended learning Catholic school;
  • KIPP Bay Area runs two San Francisco middle schools and will open a high school in the fall;
  • Tech academies at Lowell, Balboa and Gallileo where kids are learning coding and creating games; and
  • Brightworks is a small private school that locals rave about.

And in the coming-soon category, Jen Moses, Ron Beller, and Allison Akhnoukh are starting a new school that sounds like it will be worth visiting.

Small Steps. Ben Glazer started an internship with SFUSD in 2008. He created a dashboard that is useful to school leaders in many district schools. In 2010, the district created an innovative "Entrepreneur in Residence" partnership with Eduvant. Under that agreement, the district incubated the development of Eduvant's core integration and analytics technologies in exchange for free access to the product that was ultimately implemented.

The district "spent the past several years rolling out fiber to all the school sites in anticipation of web-based instructional media," according to Glazer. "Too often, infrastructure is lost in the mix, but SFUSD has done a great job of proactively ensuring that some of the raw hardware needed to support online learning is in place and ready to handle the significant network bandwidth that a district-wide implementation will demand."

Presidio Middle School launched an iPad pilot in 2010 and the district has since rolled out iPads to a few schools that have their own on-site tech support. However, there's little evidence of blended learning.

With the state budget turmoil, "every district is on their own in California," said Bergeson, "which makes real progress much harder and we have a long way to go. But San Francisco is a place to watch."

Conclusion. San Francisco is clearly one of the most creative cities in the world. With Oakland and Silicon Valley, it is the global hub of innovation -- including edtech. Why is it then that school districts in the area are so traditional, seemingly impervious to the buzz, talent, and tools around them? You would think these progressive cities would have innovative schools. But other than a few charter networks innovating out of budget desperation, Bay Area schools appear slow to incorporate digital learning.

They certainly don't get any help from the state. Ridiculously low funding (compared to high costs of labor and real estate), incoherent policies, and barriers to innovation are no help. It's quite remarkable that the Bay Area remains a vibrant as it is in such a disastrous anti-innovation policy environment.

It's clear after reviewing innovations in a half a dozen cities that proximity has little bearing on whether an innovation will be adopted by schools. Leadership and governance appear to have more to do with the extent to which schools incorporate innovative tools and methods.

San Francisco schools are slowly improving. To achieve step-function improvement, they'll need to look around and create new options that incorporate the new tools developed nearby.

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