Cutouts in the hallway at Horace Mann. Photo by Lola Chavez

Fire half the teachers and rehire, newer better teachers!  Restart as a charter school! Close!  Transform!  One of these models, according to state education officials, must be in place by the start of the next academic year at the state’s 188 low-performing schools.

Sound radical?

Maybe, but for those who teach in some of the Mission District’s low-performing schools, radical is  a way of life.  Real change, however,  emerges as slowly as a kid getting up for school in the morning.

Take Horace Mann Middle School, which has a total of about 200 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Of the 16 full-time teachers on staff, 10 recently got layoff notices. Central budget cuts will eliminate an adviser’s position.  Other likely cuts: one counselor, a social worker, and half the salary for a parent liaison.

“We’re going to be compromised if those layoffs go through and we have to bring in half of a new staff,” said Mark Sanchez, the principal for the past year and formerly the president of the Board of Education.

With six of the city’s 10 low-performing schools in the Mission District, Mission Loc@l will be spending a substantial amount of time the classroom and talking to educators to  report what teachers, students and administrators are experiencing.  If you have any suggestions for coverage, please feel free to pass them on to

Today,  a look at Horace Mann as it awaits even more change.

Sanchez, a wisp of a man who seems to glide through the halls of Horace Mann, is the first to acknowledge that the school should be better.

He’s also unafraid to say that there are teachers on his staff who need to improve, but radical change is not what his students need.  And, for those who think that lousy teachers can be fired and replaced with stellar new ones, think again.  Schools hire from a pool, and often the pool is dismayingly shallow.

Rather than take his chances with a new group of teachers, Sanchez would rather work with the old staff he knows.

“We have people who we wish would improve, but the vast majority (of teachers) are really good to excellent,” he said. “If you move staff out, it destabilizes the program. They work every day together and if half the team at a grade level is gone, it means you start over to build relationships.”

Even with the staff that he has, the school has made progress.  Its Academic Performance Index, or API—a number based on improving test scores—has inched up the last two years.  Still, the scores have a long way to go, Sanchez said. At present, only 29.9 percent of its students are proficient in language arts and 16.8 percent in math.

Sanchez became principal just this year, after losing to David Campos in the District 9 elections.  To start, he focused on reducing referrals and suspensions, disciplinary measures that kept students either in the principal’s office or at home. As Sanchez sees it, that meant students weren’t in the classroom, where they needed to be.

Suspensions at this time last year totaled 158. This year they stand at 44.

With kids spending more time in the classroom, it’s no surprise that grades are up. Whether that will translate into better test scores this year is yet to be seen.

To Sanchez, however, the best indicator of the school’s improvement is its enrollment number for the incoming sixth grade.

Two weeks ago, as he waited for the numbers to come in, he said that anything below 65 would make it fiscally irresponsible to keep the school open.

By last week he had been told that 90 parents chose Horace Mann as one of seven options.  That increase, he said, which includes students from the highly regarded Marshall and Moscone elementary schools, meant parents felt something positive was happening.

“There’s a basic calmness,” in the hallways, he said.

But not completely.

As Sanchez took a reporter on a tour of the school, two boys sat in his office.  They had been sent, he discovered, by one of his very good teachers.

“She’s at wit’s end,” he said. It’s not even that they act up, it’s that they do nothing.

Towards the end of the tour, the same teacher, her dark jacket buttoned up in the fashion of a young  Miss Jean Brodie, stepped out of her classroom.

The two boys, she said, were raising havoc somewhere in the building.

Sanchez excused himself and went looking for the trouble.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. Lydia,

    My wife, who works at Horace Mann and I talk a lot among ourselves and with our neighbors about school choice.There is a group of neighbors in Bernal where we live who have plotted and planned about how to relate to the public schools. They thought of sending their kids to Paul Revere and then becoming active members of the school’s parent group. Now many of them are focused on Junipero Serra. Without knowing for sure, my guess is that most of these parents are white. I would like to see some writing about why middle class parents of all races appear to reject most SF public schools as a reasonable alternative for their children and what it would take to attract them to Mission District schools. If you would like, I can provide you with contacts in the parents’ group. Thank you for your articles. They are a service to the community.


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    1. Paul: Thank you and I think your suggestion is excellent. I will get in touch with you about a story. These are really important and complex issues, but talking to residents who are struggling with them offers readers real insights. Best, Lydia

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