This year, students at Horace Mann Middle School eat lunch by grade level, girls on one side, boys on the other. And that’s the rule for those who behave. For the rest, it’s lunch detention.

sanchezsmile“They’re not happy but they’ve gotten used to it,” says Mark Sanchez, who, in his first year as principal at the Mission District school, manages to be amiable even as a disciplinarian.

Sanchez, who spent the past eight years developing citywide education policies as a member and eventual president of San Francisco’s school board, has returned to the nitty-gritty of school life. On the board, he sat, ruminated, listened. Nowadays, he’s mostly on his feet trying to enforce order at a school that few parents want their children to attend. The latter is something Sanchez is determined to change.

But the school’s got a long way to go.

Once filled with 650 students, a lack of discipline and test scores hovering 200 points below the state’s target made many parents find an alternative. Enrollment has steadily dwindled and this year only 238 seats are filled. Although the school’s test scores rose slightly last year, Horace Mann remains among the poorest performing schools in the city – second from the bottom when compared to other middle schools.

To change that, Sanchez is starting with the basics – not in English or math, but by revamping the school’s disciplinary measures so unruly students don’t end up temporarily banished from the classroom. Instead of sending students home, he keeps them at school.

On this day, for example, close to 20 percent of the student body is missing from the cafeteria: they’re in lunch detention. They sit in a few separate classrooms, eating in silence, facing the wall in front while the rest of the students finish lunch and boisterously break out into the large schoolyard to play and socialize.

“Last year, we had by far the most suspensions of any school in the city,” Sanchez says.

But sending students home meant lost time in the classroom. With lunch detention, he says, “we lose very few minutes of instruction.”

He’s also started a concerted crackdown on dress code violations, the “gum-chewing epidemic,” and tardiness. Students, Sanchez says, would arrive late and say they had forgotten their locker combinations. Now, the lockers are tied off until each grade earns the privilege to use them again.

“It’s about setting the tone for academics,” Sanchez says, as he strolls the hallways, casually looking in on classrooms, engaging teachers, and questioning students found wandering.

“In the past there were a lot of disciplinary problems – no adherence to rules,” he explains. “We put a lot of structure in place. Now there are not a lot of opportunities for kids to mess around.”

The students eating in detention, however, demonstrate that Sanchez is only at the start of his campaign.

When the bell rings and students stream raucously out of class, Sanchez walks the halls, a calming presence in the midst of horseplay and a fairly steady flow of cussing. Through the rush, he invariably spots dress code violators.

“Let’s get you a new sweatshirt,” he says, putting a hand on one student’s shoulder he’s caught with a hoodie.

After little more than a month, Sanchez addresses most students by their first name. He generally engages them quietly and personally, whether they are caught acting out or just wanting to chat.

“Kids here have become acculturated to this backward way – they’re having a hard time going in that direction because they’ve always done what they want,” Sanchez explains, walking the sun-flushed schoolyard where a sprinkling of students play basketball or soccer. “These kids always had the uniform policy but it wasn’t enforced.”

Now, hoodies are quickly replaced. Students are required to tuck shirts in upon entering any classroom.

Only 30 days after the school year began, some teachers see change. Before, stragglers roamed the halls during class, now, they’re empty says Christine Maog, the equity release teacher in her third year at the school. “They’re trying to get them to wear uniforms. I think it’s working pretty well.”

But they’re teenagers and challenging authority is first on their minds.

“There are 8th graders who will literally, when the bell rings, untuck their shirt to walk the 25 feet to their next class just to be told to retuck it by their next teacher,” Sanchez says with a bemused smile.

We easily run into a demonstration of teenage recalcitrance.

“You’re tryin’ to make me look like a schoolboy,” one boy mutters as he is fitted with a school-issued plain, black sweatshirt.

“That’s a good thing,” chimes in a student advisor nearby.

When the boy leaves, Sanchez says he’s one of the school’s homeless kids.

“A lot of the kids frequently having problems, their parents are not there, or they’re having problems with drugs,” he says.

“No wonder you lost so many kids,” another student sneers as he’s caught in a tee-shirt and takes the opportunity to refer to Horace Mann’s low enrollment. Sanchez watches patiently as the student puts on the collared uniform. It’s the sixth dress code violation of the day.

The student’s right, of course. Under a school assignment system that values choice, few parents and children choose Horace Mann and this year enrollment is down nearly 100 students from last year.

sanchezbackIn the early 1990s, the school was filled with more than 1,000 kids on the waiting list, according to Sanchez. At that time, it was fairly integrated, as the district was able to engineer diversity by allowing no school to have more than 40 percent of any one ethnicity.

But in 1998, the district was successfully sued and forced to abandon ethnicity as a criteria for enrollment. By 2000, Horace Mann was showing the most severe levels of re-segregation among middle schools in the city, with Latinos making up more than two-thirds of incoming students.

At the time, an independent school board commission found Horace Mann “one of the most substantially impacted” by re-segregation.

Little has changed and Horace Mann, as with many schools in the Mission, has continued to struggle.

But the principal says he is committed to changing that by providing a platform for academic improvement. So is San Francisco Superintendent Carlos Garcia who requested Sanchez take this job because of the challenging circumstances at the school.

Though acting on an interim basis for this year, Sanchez says he hopes to continue as principal. “The school community will decide whether they want me back.”

Mission Loc@l will be going back to Horace Mann to visit throughout the semester to follow Sanchez’s first year progresses.