Moscone teachers get by without an aide

Moscone Elementary has fallen behind. Not in the classroom, where test scores remain apace in spite of a slight dip this year. Nor in the courtyard, where exuberance races by on the faces of students.

But resources are lagging at this high-performing elementary school.

“We’re simply down to personnel now,” said Gillian Bowley, a third-grade teacher at the school. “There’s nothing else to cut. They’ve taken away our resources.”

In a state ranked 47th in education spending per pupil, a series of local stopgap measures and funding programs from the state and federal governments have bolstered schools with predominantly low-income families and those struggling to meet state testing standards.

Second grade class at Moscone.
Second grade class at Moscone.

And though Moscone remains entrenched in the former category, with 86 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and the No Child Left Behind’s Title 1 program funding a portion of the school’s two reading recovery teachers, Moscone’s good test scores have excluded it from a number of other sizable revenue streams.

As a result, the school lacks many of the additional learning support services found at other schools, a fact Moscone principal Susan Wiggen believes is already having a negative impact on the school’s performance, as evidenced by the slight decrease in test scores this year.

Four blocks away, Bryant Elementary employs an outreach consultant and parent liaison to connect the school with parents and the surrounding community, and a student adviser and literacy specialist for support in the classroom — all positions beyond Moscone’s budget reach.

A short walk in the other direction, Cesar Chavez Elementary School has on staff ten paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides, not including 1-on-1 support for special education inclusion. Moscone has only one.

Obviously, there is a “huge discrepancy,” a fact noted by Wiggen and Horace Mann Middle School principal Mark Sanchez.

Sanchez’s school lies at the opposite end of that spectrum.

“We’re overstaffed compared to what other schools get,” said Sanchez, specifically mentioning Everett, a nearby middle school, for comparison. “They don’t have nearly the staffing we have.”

At Moscone, Wiggen said she would like to provide more outreach to parents, but is unable to do so. “I just don’t have enough time,” she said.

Nearly every school in the Mission District has a parent liaison, funded with federal money from the STAR program designed for schools with low test scores. “We don’t have that,” Wiggen explained, “so all outreach to parents is done by me.”

Most of the funding programs, like the federal government’s STAR school grants and California’s Quality Education Improvement Act, pour funding into designated low-performing schools for specific purposes: reducing class sizes, providing instructional assistance, helping with language for English learners.

But the improvement act’s funding – which only 14 schools in the city receive, and is for the schools that scored in the lowest 20 percent in 2005 testing – is locked in for seven years.

Staff and students at Horace Mann.
Staff and students at Horace Mann.

“It’s a good chunk of money,” said Principal Sanchez, who acknowledged, “It could be divided more equitably.”

The Quality Education Improvement Act was created through legislation in a settlement that the California Teachers Association won against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after he refused to repay billions he had borrowed from schools in 2004-05. That money – close to $450 million a year – was supposed to be guaranteed for public education under Proposition 98.

Now it is invested in only a select group of schools.

Though the funding is supposed to go towards proven reforms such as smaller classes, more counselors and better training for educators, only three of the 14 schools in San Francisco that have received the additional money over the past three years have shown any significant improvement. Those schools are James Lick Middle School, Rosa Parks and Miraloma elementary schools.

“We need an egalitarian distribution of resources,” said John Bresnahan, who has spent six years as a special education teacher at Moscone. “We’ve had to cut teachers, support staff. There’s no money for supplies.”

Bresnahan’s full-time position at Moscone was almost stripped this summer, as state budget cuts pulled back on special education funding. But the San Francisco school district stepped in to help pay for one of Moscone’s last support services.

“I’m not asking for more,” said Principal Wiggen. “We can function on what we had.”

But she acknowledged that the school could use more support staff, particularly counseling for students and families.

“We try to set them up with outside resources,” she said, “because we just can’t help them at our school.”

“If we could afford it, we’d have a paraprofessional [teacher’s aide] in every classroom. This year we only have one.”

At Horace Mann, adults often seem as ubiquitous as the students that romp through the halls between classes. During a recent after-lunch recess period, eight staff members skirted the margins of the school’s open schoolyard.

Though Sanchez, like administrators at Bryant and Cesar Chavez, spoke contentedly of the level of support services his school receives, he did mention one of the frustrations of having such a large staff.

“It becomes a management issue – how to integrate everyone, how to keep everyone occupied.”

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Born in the central valley of Massachusetts and raised in Tidewater Virginia, Garrett attended public schools before graduating from the University of Virginia. Wandering and working in various national parks, tutoring kids on the playgrounds of Dublin, and teaching English to 3rd graders in China eventually led to some temporary confusion, and a re-settling as a community journalist.

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