Two longtime Mission District schools — one struggling middle school and one elementary school in good shape — will merge over the summer to become a K-8 by fall of this year, according to school officials.
Carlos Garcia, San Francisco’s superintendent of schools, made a visit to the Mission last Monday to let the schools know. First he stopped by Buena Vista Elementary, then Horace Mann Middle School. Their dreams, he said, were about to come true. Sort of.
Buena Vista Elementary has been trying to expand into a K-8 school for more than a decade. The school is dual-immersion, meaning that some courses are taught in English and some in Spanish. “The time has come,” says Buena Vista principal Larry E. Alegre, “for the Mission to have a good K-8 immersion program.”
Horace Mann also recently petitioned for the same thing. “We wanted to expand into a K-8,” says Horace Mann principal Mark Sanchez. “There have been massive surveys of kids that show that kids feel safer in them. And they do better in testing.”
The students do better in K-8′s for a simple reason, according to Sanchez. “Basically, they’ve all grown up together. A community is built. Older kids can mentor younger ones. And the older kids are more likely to feel responsible towards younger kids in a K-8, because the younger kids are often their siblings.”
Middle schools, he says, were developed in this country mostly as a way to classify and sort kids before sending them to vocational, general education or AP schools. He is not a fan.
“I have trepidations,” he says about the consolidation. “But I really do think K-8 is superior.”
But having ideals about being a K-8 is one thing; smushing two very independent schools together before the start of the next school year is another.
Buena Vista generally reaches its progress goals under No Child Left Behind, and had an API score of 776 in 2010, an increase from 738 in 2009. The state target is 800, but the average reached 776. Horace Mann reported strong progress this year, with an API of 654, compared to 623 in 2009. Late last spring it was ranked as one of the state’s low-performing schools and is one of 10 in San Francisco, including six in the Mission District. Buena Vista was not among the list of struggling schools.
Buena Vista’s enrollment was 375 students in Grades K to 5 last school, year compared to Horace Mann’s student body of 236 for grades 6 to 8.
Horace Mann currently has two parallel tracks: one dual immersion, where students take classes in both English and Spanish, and one general education.The general education track at Horace Mann will be one of the casualties of the merger, and Sanchez is sad to see it go. Dual-immersion programs are highly competitive in the San Francisco school system, and Buena Vista is no exception. Its relatively high rankings in the neighborhood have been attributed to the efforts of the sort of engaged, dedicated parents attracted to a competitive program. In recent years, Horace Mann has not been especially competitive. Kids wind up there for reasons like this: Their parents didn’t bother to fill out the school choice paperwork.
Sanchez doesn’t want to see those kids go. “We’re a STAR school,” he says, in reference to a state program that gives extra funding to schools with low test scores. ”We have lots of funding. We have three counselors. We have a full-time social worker. The onus is on us as a community to preserve the diversity of this school.”
Which means, he says, sitting down and coming up with a plan to go door-to-door to the communities that Horace Mann’s students have come from in the last decade — housing projects like Valencia Gardens and Bernal Dwellings — and pitch the parents there on the virtues of the dual-immersion program.
And there is the matter of staff. “They have secretaries,” says Sanchez. “We have secretaries. Will we need four secretaries? No. They have custodians. We have custodians. Will we need five custodians? There will be seniority issues. There will be drama.”
And the rooms. The Metropolitan High Charter School, placed — somewhat controversially — in Horace Mann’s building last year, will be leaving. But it was only using 13 rooms in the school; Buena Vista is using 19 at its current location. “There won’t be a lot of drama there,” says Sanchez. “There will be negotiating.”
Meanwhile, Buena Vista is preparing to leave a freshly renovated building after enduring a solid year of construction. “For us in general to want to make a change after this,” says Alegre, “that shows some resolve.” He adds, somewhat regretfully, “The building looks really good right now. I hope they put another public school in there.”
The whole process will be helped somewhat by the fact that all of the teachers will be able to keep their jobs. And the fact that Horace Mann’s assistant principal, Adelina Aramburo, was once principal of Buena Vista, and was one of the original founders of the dual-immersion program there.
But what’s the name going to be? Sanchez personally thinks “Buena Vista” sounds more lyrical. And Horace Mann is not an exactly uncommon name for schools — there are 26 throughout the country named after the educational reformer, who is remembered (when he is remembered at all) for arguing that children from all social classes should share a common education. But, says Sanchez, Horace Mann is the oldest middle school in San Francisco. The name carries historical weight.
For Larry Alegre, first on the agenda is “getting used to all this happening.” First up means pitching the parents of Buena Vista’s fifth-graders, many of whom are already well into their middle school selection process, to stick with Buena Vista. “All of Buena Vista’s fifth-graders,” he says, “will have a place at Buena Vista at the Horace Mann campus.”
When asked if that was the new name, Alegre replied, “That’s what I’m calling it for now.”
Most important, who’s going to be the principal? Superintendent Garcia hasn’t decided yet.
“That’s his drama,” says Sanchez. “I asked him to make that decision ASAP.”