SF School Cuts Hit Poorest Schools the Hardest

Mayra Martinez

As the San Francisco schools lay off 195 teachers, the deepest cuts will come in the poorest schools in the city’s southeast corner.

Neighborhoods like the Mission, Excelsior, Bayview and Visitation Valley, which have the highest concentration of children and minority residents, stand to lose the most teachers under rigid statewide seniority rules. Because it’s hard to keep teachers in the city’s poorest schools, teachers there tend to have the lowest seniority, leaving them most vulnerable to losing their jobs amid budget cuts.

That reality hit home on the last day of class, June 3, which also marked the end of professional and personal relationships between the fired teachers, parents and students.

“We hear the words ‘social justice’ getting thrown around everywhere and it
really is tragic that the students that need it the most are losing out on relationships that they’ve established,” said Methinee Thongma, one of four educators who lost their jobs at El Dorado Elementary in Visitation Valley.

Although Mrs. T, as she’s called by her students, has nine years experience, only one was in San Francisco, leaving her at the bottom of the seniority list.

At Monroe Elementary in the Excelsior, three teachers and a classroom aide were laid off. In the same zip code, Sheridan saw four firings; Principal Dina Edwards said the dismissals marked the deepest cuts she’s seen in her 14 years at the school.

By comparison, no teachers were laid off at Alice Fong Yu Elementary in the Inner Sunset, where every teacher has been at the school more than three years, according to Principal Liana Szeto. At Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary in the Sunset, just one teacher was let go, according to Principal Dr. V. Kanani Choy.

The final numbers for each school will shift through the summer. Last-minute shuffling is common as teachers with more seniority are moved into positions or schools with openings left by newer teachers. That process continues right into the fall.

District Disparities
Overall, San Francisco boasts the highest average student performance of the large urban districts in California. But it also has the widest gap between that average and the lowest performing students, according to the district’s current strategic plan.

The problem isn’t unique to the City by the Bay. Seniority-based variations between rich and poor neighborhoods are the basis for the lawsuit pending against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the state. Filed by the ACLU and students from three different schools, the suit asks that “there may be, once and for all, equal education opportunity for every child.”

Teachers in poor neighborhoods must possess special skills and extra patience to deal with kids who have emotional or behavioral problems. At El Dorado, school psychologist Allyson Holmes said educators spend a lot of time working on simple things such as transitions from play time to study time that can prove more difficult at schools in rough neighborhoods.

“It is important to have teachers and staff that are very sensitive and are aware of the experiences of these kids,” said Holmes. “There’s a certain level of consistency and predictability that a lot of these kids need.”

A study released in May by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education found the poorest schools are likely to see 25 percent more teacher layoffs and, in the case of “significant layoffs,” the highest-minority schools would lose 60 percent more teachers.

In schools with the fewest minority students, only eight of 100 teachers had two years or less experience, according to the study. In schools with the most minority students, the number jumped to almost 13 out of 100.

Development Problems
Kids from unstable homes have more difficulty dealing and processing change. “We’ve been talking a lot about how all of the changes and unpredictability actually impacts not just the child's ability to learn but their actual brain development.” said Holmes.

Children who face constant change and unsafe situations may be more subject to “meltdowns,” said Holmes. “You see them sitting on the playground crying because they can’t access the part of the brain that helps them stay calm, that helps them rationalize and think about what’s happening,” she said.

Thongma made a similar observation just minutes after consoling a student who crumpled in the playground, sobbing inconsolably at her feet. “The routine and everything that they have at school – the one thing that they can count on – is falling apart,” said the teacher. “A lot of their homes are like that and now their school is going to be like that.”

Chaney Casimir worries about how the changes will affect her son, Jaiden, who struggled with fellow classmates under a previous teacher. “When he transferred to Mrs. T’s class it was a total turn around,” she said.

“She lets us play on the computers and play outside with my buddies,” added Jaiden. “And she always makes us read books.”

In her empty classroom, Thongma reflected on how teachers work extra hard for small gains when teaching children who face hard lives.

“I have put blood, sweat and tears into this job,” she said. “Out of my nine years of teaching, this has been the hardest year that I’ve ever worked in my career. But I did it because it was worthwhile.”