Buena Vista Horace Mann: A Year After Merger, Equity Is Emphasized

Dinorah Salazar's sixth-grade class work on math problems before beginning the lesson.

En Español.

It’s been a year since Buena Vista Elementary School merged with Horace Mann Middle School to create a single K-8 school, and the grumbling about the move once overheard in the hallways has begun to subside.

When the two distinct schools with different student populations came together a year ago, the change was not without hard feelings. This year, the school’s second as Buena Vista Horace Mann, faculty members speak of heartaches associated with the merger in the past tense. Signs of cohesion between the two institutions have begun to sprout.

Yet challenges still exist. Administrators are focused on finding creative ways to make two distinct schools feel welcome and safe together under one Mission neighborhood roof.

“Anytime you put two communities together, there are growing pains,” said Dinorah Salazar, a sixth-grade science and math teacher. “From both camps, there is still some distrust, but it’s gotten better. It’s been a process of community-building.”

The first day of school this year was far removed from the experience a year ago. Then, Buena Vista Elementary was still moving in on the first day, said Assistant Principal Larry Alegre. Parents of young children were calling Anabel Ibanez, the school’s family liaison, concerned that their first-grader would be going to a school with teenagers.

This year parents felt more informed and knew what to expect, Ibanez said. The school was more organized when welcoming students, Salazar said, crediting a new leadership team headed by Principal Jennifer Steiner.

The merger happened quickly: Less than a year elapsed between initial discussions and the move that brought together Buena Vista Elementary, a highly sought-after Spanish immersion school with a waiting list of as many as 300 students, and Horace Mann Middle School, an underperforming school housed in a large facility left increasingly vacant by drops in enrollment. A school of 236 enrolled students suddenly swelled to more than 600.

Although a year has gone by, the merger is still an emotional topic. Talk of it brings tears to Salazar’s eyes. Although she began her teaching career at Buena Vista Elementary School and her own children graduated from the immersion program, she has taught at Horace Mann for 20 years. Both schools, she said, lost a part of their identity.

“For us, it was an end to an era,” Salazar said. “It was sort of a hostile takeover. The feelings were raw.”

But people are starting to feel more at ease, Ibanez said, adding that students probably had the smoothest transition.

“The first year is always the roughest. Even then, the kids were really happy. It was a seamless transition for the kids, which is the ultimate goal.”

To accommodate some of the growing pains, the school worked with the surrounding neighborhood to develop a drop-off area, which meant less residential parking but was necessary for a school that had tripled in size.

To help solidify the new K-8 community, the school is working on having middle-school students read to the younger grades, Ibanez said. It is also hosting events that bring parents together.

The school is working to create a joint school calendar. Last year, faculty and parents worked off two separate academic calendars, Ibanez said.

Despite the merger, enrollment has remained steady, Alegre said.

The word equity is heard frequently around Buena Vista Horace Mann these days. Achieving equity between two very different communities can be challenging, said Jae Maldonado, the community school coordinator.

Just 8 percent of Horace Mann’s eighth-graders scored as proficient in algebra last year, Maldonado said. The elementary school, on the other hand, often has a wait list to enroll; its Spanish immersion program is highly desirable to English-speaking families. Students who are English language learners do not always see the same benefits when it comes time to take standardized tests, he said.

Equity means not only listening to vocal parents who show up on campus with concerns, but also reaching out to parents who don’t ever call, Ibanez said. It means paying attention to how resources are allocated to ensure equal opportunities for all students.

For example, San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre has a long history of offering after-school theater classes to Buena Vista Elementary students for a $100 fee. The new K-8 school wants to preserve this relationship, Maldonado said, but not all students can afford the fee.

School administrators worked with the theater center to offer, in addition to the regular programming, a theater seminar for middle-school students at more affordable prices, so that all students can participate.

This is just one example, Maldonado said; school officials are going through all existing contracts to make sure that services with outside providers are helping all the school’s students, not just some, and that all are culturally relevant to and identify with all students.

The school is also changing how it reaches out to parents. Before, information was posted on the district and school website and fliers were sent home with the students. Now administrators are taking a more active role to reach out to families who may have low literacy or no Internet access, and who may be working multiple jobs. In some cases the parent liaison visits students’ homes, and the school now hosts informal early-morning chats with the principal in the courtyard each week and a more formal presentation once a month where coffee is served, Maldonado said.

Administrators want parents and faculty to begin thinking of the school as one rather than two, but Alegre knows that will take time. Even now, the school still has two mascots: the Horace Mann dragons and the Buena Vista monkeys.

“That’s some of the things we need to look at,” Alegre said.

The influx of new teachers is helping to bring cohesion, Alegre said. Some teachers moved or retired, but several of the middle school teachers were transferred to other schools because they didn’t speak Spanish.

Last year Salazar taught in Spanish; this year she’s teaching in English.

On her Facebook page, Salazar lists her place of employment as Horace Mann Middle School, and she doesn’t plan to change that, she said. But she also foresees a day when “Buena Vista Horace Mann” will roll off the tongue as one name, not two. After all, there are more important things to think about.

“Life goes on,” she said. “I mean, we have kids to teach.”

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