The poster for one of the plays written by students at Everett Middle School.

It’s the last week of classes at Everett Middle School, and life is hectic for the school’s principal, Richard Curci. He’s accidentally triple-booked himself for a meeting, and by 2 p.m. he still hasn’t eaten lunch. He has, however, finally managed to get rid of half of the teaching staff.

Not that he wanted to get rid of them. But last year the San Francisco Unified School District applied for, and got, a $45 million grant from the federal government for the city’s lowest-performing schools. In the Mission, Horace Mann, Cesar Chavez, Mission High, Bryant Elementary and Everett all qualified. But there was a catch. To get the money, the schools needed to agree to make significant changes — a new principal, if the principal had been there more than two years. And, in the case of both Everett and Bryant Elementary, replacing 50 percent of the school’s teachers.

How to get rid of half your staff?

Curci met with each teacher one on one. He explained the job description for teaching at a well-funded school — writing an “improvement plan” for each student, working longer hours, including two more hours a month doing “professional development” (e.g., taking courses in classroom management or working with English-language-learner [ELL] students).

Then he asked, “Do you still want the job?”

Most of them did, he says. The job description wasn’t that different from the one Everett’s teachers already had. Longer hours? Everett already had one of the longest school days in the district. Professional development? They were already doing that, too.

There was also the matter of San Francisco’s teacher glut, brought on, in part, by massive cuts to education on the statewide level. But more than that, Curci was of the opinion that the school already had the sort of hard-working, dedicated staff that the School Improvement Grant, known as SIG money, was trying to engineer.

“The test scores are what are printed in the papers,” says Curci. “It’s what the parents look at. It’s what we’ve all been led to believe is the measure of a school.”

But he maintains that Everett’s test scores are due to California’s practice of administering the California Standards Test. Recent immigrants are tested their first year in their native language, and begin taking the test in English after a year. “If you went to Russia, in one year, would you be able to take a class on the eighth-grade level in that language?” asks Curci.

According to Everett’s profile, half of its students qualify as ELL students — which means that they’re learning English at the same time they’re learning everything else. “We’ve had two original plays here,” Curci continues. “We’re an AVID school,” he says, referring to a college prep program. “But none of that is measured on standardized tests. It really is unfair.”

The California State test results for 2010 show that 50 percent of Everett’s eighth-graders scored below or far below basic language arts skills; 72 percent of the school’s seventh-graders scored below or far below basic mathematics, and 73 percent of eighth-graders scored below or far below in algebra skills.

But in Spanish, students did much better. Of the 37 seventh-graders who took the language arts test in Spanish, 27 percent scored below or far below basic, and in general math, 38 percent scored below or far below basic.

“The SIG grants have rules, because rules are less expensive than administration,” says Curci. “We had gone and made most of the changes they wanted us to make, but for them to make exceptions for situations like ours, they would need staff to make those exceptions.”

That said, the money will not go unappreciated. Especially now that it looks like the state, already 31st in the nation [PDF] in per-student educational spending, will be making further cuts in June. “The grant was written for the kids in San Francisco,” says Curci. “They really need it the most.”

The SIG funds will help Everett keep things that other schools have already cut: a school nurse, a social worker, a person to teach computer classes, a community coordinator — someone who works to help parents (often first-generation immigrants) navigate their kids’ education.

SIG is far from the only acronym that Everett has to navigate. The school is barred from hiring anyone who was cut from another SIG-funded school, but the SFUSD requires that Everett interview every teacher whose position was cut in the district due to budget cuts, and who is interested in a position there.

The QEIA, or Quality Education Investment Act, adds another layer of rules — all the teachers need to average out at more than six years of teaching experience, which made holding on to two talented Teach for America hires a complicated exercise.

But it’s a complicated exercise that is mostly done.

As to how he finally made the choices on who would go and who would stay, Curci says it was tough. In the end, some volunteered and some had to be pushed out.

And now? The test scores. “We can do better,” says Curci. “This year, the test scores will go up.”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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