It is a meeting marked by no small degree of anxiety.
Buena Vista Elementary has wanted to go from a K-5 to a K-8 school for decades. They finally got that wish, but not the way they wanted it. They’re losing their building. They may lose their name. Their principal has been asked to re-apply for his job.
It was just a few short weeks ago that the San Francisco Unified School District announced that it was going to merge Buena Vista with Horace Mann Middle School. Somehow, two very different schools are going to have to be smushed together by the beginning of the next school year.
The low cafeteria tables at Buena Vista are filled with parents. Most of them look exhausted, but almost all of them stay for the full two hours of the meeting. Two translators work in shifts, pacing up and down the aisles and muttering into their headsets in Spanish. Behind the group, children wander back and forth — coloring, playing with each other quietly. It says something that the announcement for the meeting tonight was directly followed by a second announcement that there would be both a taco truck and free childcare.
Buena Vista is a dual-immersion school, meaning that some classes are taught in English and some are taught in Spanish. Its student body is not exactly well-to-do — almost half the students qualify for free lunches. Its test scores are average for the state, but high for the neighborhood. It’s extremely competitive to get into — a state of affairs that has been attributed to the efforts of the sort of engaged, dedicated parents attracted to a dual-immersion program.
The parents tonight ask for the same two things, over and over. They want to keep their current principal, or at least know who their new principal will be before July 1. They want the sixth grade to be completely dual immersion, instead of having 22 students coming in on a separate general education track. Most of them initially thought they had both, and so at times, the meeting has the desperate feel of a group trying to regain ground.
“I think I figured out a way to say what I want to say,” says one parent, about an hour into the meeting, to Veronica Chavez, the assistant superintendent for elementary schools. The topic of conversation has once again drifted to the subject of bathroom renovations, but it always returns to this. “We all know that you have a kid here. You’re wearing two hats. But I think you now have a credibility problem because you got real buy-in from this community on the basis of one message. We were committed to Buena Vista expanding to K-8 with our director. Now it looks like we’re being sent to that middle school that we didn’t want to go to in the first place.”
“In your experience,” says one flannel-clad dad, “what’s your gut feeling? Are they pissed off? I’ve been monitoring the forums. I’ve been hearing things like ‘entitled Buena Vista people are coming to take over.’”
“They don’t know you,” says Chavez, “and you don’t know them. I heard that on a recent tour one of their child ambassadors was asked, ‘How many shootings have you had over here? How many gangs are you aware of?’ The child was very mature and said, ‘None. How many were there at your school?’”
“I went to Horace Mann three times this last week,” says one mother. “What I was most impressed by were the teachers. They are very dedicated. They’ve been here longer than the teachers my kids have at James Lick.
“It makes sense,” says a dad in a pinstripe shirt. “A lot of those kids applying to sixth grade could be siblings. I know someone who teaches at Horace Mann. He says that it’s really turned a corner. The attitude of the kids has really changed. It used to be that they wouldn’t do anything.”
“Horace Mann has been through a tremendous shift under Mark Sanchez,” says Hydra Mendoza, the school district’s board president. “He’s done a lot of heavy lifting. So yes, they’re like, ‘Here are the middle-class families coming from Buena Vista and they’re going to gentrify our school.’ They don’t feel like there’s much respect.”
There is silence while the crowd takes this in.
“We need,” says a woman in a down vest, firmly, “to have a party!” There are cries of “Yeah!” from the crowd.
Mendoza looks uneasy. “We wanted to,” she says delicately, “get both of you on the same message before meeting each other.”
“No disrespect at all,” says one dad to Mendoza. “Maybe there was backtracking. Maybe you had legal counsel. We were told that next year’s sixth grade was going to be full immersion. The people in the Mission have already voted with their feet in favor of dual immersion. I don’t know why we’re hedging on that.”
“In three years its going to be all immersion,” Mendoza replies. “It doesn’t seem like a high cost to pay to a community that is taking in an entire elementary school. I hope that this is something that will settle with you at some point.”
“So the school could be called Buena Vista?” asks a woman busily crocheting an afghan in one corner. “Once we’re full immersion?”
“No,” says Mendoza.
“Both names?” says the woman.
“We could do that,” says Mendoza, with the air of a woman who is making no promises.
Another parent raises the issue of the principal, again. “We are going to have a full spectrum of candidates,” says Mendoza.
“We don’t want a full spectrum,” another man in the audience says. “We want him.” He points to Larry Alegre, Buena Vista’s current principal. Alegre looks even more uncomfortable, and it’s been an uncomfortable night. Both he and Horace Mann’s principal, Mark Sanchez, have been asked to apply for the job of principal of the merged school.
“If we had a leader,” says one parent, despairingly, after the meeting is over, “we could talk to that leader. Now we just have boards. And committees.” Buena Vista is the only Spanish and English full-immersion elementary school in the city, she says. Other schools, like Everett, do have dual tracks.
“Why,” she says. “Why would it be so odd to go to those other students….” She pauses. “I don’t understand being told to be sensitive to other people’s feelings. That’s not what the district did to us.”
“In fact,” she continues, “this entire city is a lottery system. That’s not what the district does to any family.”