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Cesar Chavez and Buena Vista are a few blocks from each other, but on academic terms, they may as well be on different planets. At Cesar Chavez only 33 percent of its 461 students are proficient in math, compared to more than half of Buena Vista’s 372 students.

One of the differences, educators point to, is parent involvement.

Parent involvement makes a huge difference, said Karling Aguilera-Fort, assistant superintendent of the school district.

A look at the two schools and others in the Mission District demonstrates the importance of parent involvement, but it also underscores the advantage even a small core of active middle class parents can offer a school.  Inevitably, the latter means that the school can rely on parents for extra time – to help with academics or fundraising.

“I’m one of the fortunate parents to be able to spend the time here,” said Avis Casimir, president of the Buena Vista PTA.

Avis Casimir and her daughter at Buena Vista Elementary.

Casimir spends much of her time on campus and fundraising for programs and supplies for the dual immersion school.

As she watched her kids play ball in the sunny schoolyard, Casimir estimated that about 20 parents come to the monthly meetings. Jessica Lanning, treasurer, said about 35 to 40 parents are active in the parent group.

“We have a very dependable group that when you ask for something, it’s done,” Casimir said.

Nearby, at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, Alberto del Rio, the treasurer of the parent group there, tells a different story. At his kids’ school, parents are working two to three jobs to survive.  Life is stressful in other ways as well.  Many live in crowded apartments and some worry about their immigration status.

To get parents involved, he has to “literally go out and ask.” Even then, he said, some are reluctant because they lack legal papers.

It’s not that parents don’t care, educators and parents said.  They simply don’t have the time.  Yanira Cortes, a mother whose 2nd grader goes to Cesar Chavez, for example, said her work as a nanny prevents her from joining the parent teacher organization. Instead, she contributes what she can – Kleenex for classrooms and snacks on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Even a small core of actively involved parents can make a huge difference. A case in point is Marshall Elementary, a language immersion school where nearly 84 percent of the 232 students are on the free and reduced lunch program – more than the 78 percent at Cesar Chavez.

From 2002 to 2005, the school’s scores dropped, with some 31 percent proficient in math in 2005.

Eos de Femenis, a member of the Marshall Elementary parent group, said parents started the PTA in 2006 when they felt that the school wasn’t meeting its goals as a science-focused institution.

Its PTA, though small, is dedicated and the same year it began in 2006, scores started to rise.

“At our school, the active people are the middle class Caucasian people – a corps group of five people,” said Ellen Opie, a parent and nurse practitioner.

Although its math scores fell in 2008, they’ve climbed overall and now 52.7 percent of the students are proficient in math. Marshall students won 1st place at the regional “Odyssey of the Mind” tournament this year in a competition against 140 East Bay schools. It was the only San Francisco school to compete. The PTA raises funds for the competition.

“That’s the kind of stuff that makes the PTA so critical,” said Opie.

De Femenis says even though the majority of the students who participated were from middle class families, the success story helps illustrate that students from a low-performing inner city school can perform better than kids from high-performing schools. But, she added that the real test of a school’s teaching ability would be if low-income students from a low-performing school excelled in school.

But here, too, Marshall is doing better than other schools. Forty-six percent of its Latino students were proficient in math compared to the only 35.4 for Latinos citywide.

“Those of us who have nine to five jobs and have time on the weekends and evenings, are the ones on the PTA board,” said de Femenis. “But rather than lamenting the fact that the Latino community is not involved on the board level, I see different time and availability and skill sets.”

But the difference between a parent who helps make snacks for the kids and a parent who writes grants – is money.

Marshall raised $70,000 last year – the largest sum in the group’s history – mostly in grants and a small number of parent contributions. That’s meant more funding for field trips, like one to the Marin headlands and to programs like Ocean’s Month, where students get hands-on science experience.

Buena Vista’s PTA raised about $30,000 — a third of its yearly budget — at its annual La Gran Pachanga, held at a south of Market gallery. With those funds, it will be able to pay for staff that’s being cut.

In contrast, Bryant parents have $2,000 in their organization’s annual budget. Cesar Chavez’s parent group has between $5,000 and $10,000.

Adelina Aramburo, the principal of Cesar Chavez, a school where test scores have inched up the last two years to nearly 33 percent of its students proficient in math, holds monthly principal chats to raise parent involvement, but still the participation in the parent group remains low.

However, when parents recently discovered that the school was on a list of 188 under-performing schools and had a state mandate that requires the principal and half of its faculty to be replaced, parents rallied to Aramburo’s defense and 70 attended a meeting. Del Rio hopes to see that level of parent involvement continue.

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  1. Great comment Hunter. This is what I’ve seen and believe as well. This is why I think Cesar Chavez is primarily comprised of Latino immigrant students because they have not converted to a dual immersion program.

    And as Flynn active parent I can attest to the dedication and conviction of the teachers and support staff throughout all the grades. My 5th grade daughter has been top of her class since 2nd grade. She is latina, fully bilingual, from a working class family.

  2. It’s worth noting why Marshall had an influx of middle-class parents – the school changed over to a bilingual immersion program.

    The data on whether those programs help Latino kids is sketchy, and some early immersion proponents are now expressing concern. However, the Anglo kids clearly benefit. And the middle-class Anglo families jump on the opportunity.

    And, schools wanting to improve their tests scores see an opportunity to attract new funding from the dedicated immersion funds, and to attract a cohort of middle-class families with extra resources that can be dedicated to the school. So, in the last few years we’ve seen a bunch of schools convert to immersion programming.

  3. Funny to see that Moscone has only 10 active PTA members, has more kids on free/reduced lunch, and still manages to achieve the highest scores. Must be the quality of teachers. You’d expect Flynn to do much better, according those measures–unless you succumb to racial stereotyping, which hopefully nobody would do. As a Flynn parent, I can attest to the high quality of teaching in the lower grades. Unfortunately, the complete opposite is true in grades 4 and 5.

  4. I’m responding to Marco as a veteran public school parent who has followed SFUSD issues for many years. It’s just due to the complexity of the system that a lower-demand school like Cesar Chavez winds up so segregated. It happens organically.

    1. Families who are aware and pro-active tend to choose higher-achieving schools, under SFUSD’s choice system. (No, they’re not guaranteed their choices if there are more requests than openings for a school, but history shows that those families do get a school they requested in the end, often after a wait-pool process.)
    2. Low-income Latino families are (overall on average) less likely to be aware and pro-active enough to choose a school. Also, some do fill out the request form but just list the nearest school.
    3. Families who do not choose a school are assigned by default to the school closest to their home address that has openings after the lottery is run.
    4. A lower-demand school like Cesar Chavez is likely to have openings, and thus to be the school to which the students whose families did not choose a school were assigned. And again, those families who did not choose a school are statistically far more likely to be low-income and Latino than higher-income and white, for example.

    I’m not defending or supporting that outcome, just explaining it. SFUSD has redesigned its assignment system for next year, so it remains to be seen how that will work.

  5. Cesar Chavez has a nice facility. What I don’t understand is, since the whole goal of SF School system is to “diversify” schools, why is Cesar Chavez 90% percent latino and low income? It’s right in the middle of an extremely diverse neighborhood. There’s the castro, Dolores park area, and the mission. Why is this school not more diverse?

  6. As another Marshall parent, I have to agree with Eos (above) that our school truly benefits from the combined efforts of all the volunteers. Another point to note is that our Parent Teacher Association truly includes TEACHERS as well, who also serve as volunteers on the Executive Board after working a full-time job! We’ve also had very broad membership to the PTA, approximately 75% of the families. This is really a community effort.

    One more thing: we’ve been able to field Odyssey of the MInd teams for the past four years at Marshall because of the commitment and efforts of volunteer coaches. The money required for this program is minor and entirely funded through parent donation (not fund-raising). What schools need in order to field teams for a creative problem-solving competition like Odyssey of the Mind is parents or community members who are willing and able to serve as coaches.

    We *do* need money for certain things — science field experiences, for instance — but we also need pure people power to offer kids the rich educational experiences they deserve!

  7. As a Marshall parent (and a quoted one), I’d like to expand on one of my quotes: we have several different volunteering ‘communities’ each with their own set of circumstances. We have a lot of parents who are at the school during the day helping teachers. Some assist in the office. Others go on field trips. Still others help with the “Wednesday folders”, lunch, etc. The parents who are there during the school hours are generally not the same who are on the board of the PTA and vice-versa. And only TOGETHER can the full picture of the volunteering at the school be judged as only together do we address the many areas where the school needs support. While the PTA brings funds to the school, many needs would be left unmet if it was the only volunteer group at the school. I personally believe it’s the COMBINED impact of all the groups that makes the most difference.