It was still the first week of school at Monroe Elementary when Paula Silva showed up to volunteer in her son’s fifth-grade classroom. Silva, like so many other Monroe parents, knew her son’s class had started the year with many more students than the established maximum set by both the state of California and the local teachers union — by her count, 11 more kids than the recommended limit of 30.
More troubling: they were also without a permanent teacher.
But she was not prepared for what she saw that day at around 11:30 a.m.: “A room full of fifth-graders in chaos,” she recalled.
Even before entering the classroom, she saw a girl lying on the ground, sticking her head out of the half-open classroom door. She asked the girl what she was doing. “I’m on lookout,” the girl said. On the lookout for the principal, Silva realized.
When Silva entered the classroom, students were playing video games on their phones, prematurely eating their lunches, and playing under their desks. Most distressing to her was the sight of her son sitting alone at his desk amid the chaos. When she asked what was happening, he replied “it’s free time.”
And the substitute teacher?
“It wasn’t even like she was stressed out about it,” Silva recalled. She seemed “totally cool about it.”
This fifth-grade class at Monroe — located in the Excelsior on Madrid Steet just up from Mission — has been without a permanent teacher since the beginning of the school year on Aug. 20 — and parents say their children were the ones to notify them about it following the first day of instruction. Not the school’s administration.
“We didn’t know there wasn’t going to be a teacher, and we didn’t know there would be 41 kids in the classroom,” said Rose Medellin, who has two kids attending the school. “We could have been forewarned in the spring.”
The classes in question are so-called “Spanish-immersion” classes that require specially trained Spanish-speaking teachers. Some parents said they were under the impression the class would receive two Spanish-immersion teachers in the event of an oversize class. An oversize class did indeed come to pass — but instead they received zero trained Spanish-immersion teachers.
— Monroe Elementary SF (@monroeSFschool) May 8, 2015
Laura Dudnick, a spokeswoman with the San Francisco Unified School District, said that the district has, one month into the school year, found a permanent teacher for the classroom. Parents confirmed this; they were told that the teacher would begin on Monday.
But Dudnick disputed the class size at the beginning of the year. “There are currently 33 students in the class,” Dudnick said in an email. “The class started out with 38 students at the beginning of the school year, not 41.”
That’s not what multiple parents told Mission Local and, either way, that’s a lot of kids: The California Department of Education penalizes school districts for having fifth-grade class sizes greater than 29.9 students per one teacher, and the contract between the district and the teachers union recommends fifth-grade classes be limited to 30 students per teacher.
“The principal constantly communicated updates to families in the form of letters, calls and family meetings,” Dudnick added. “The District worked around the clock to identify a permanent teacher and provide supports to help with the class in the interim.”
Regardless, a number of families — SFUSD says five, parents say eight — have withdrawn their children from the school. That count includes Silva’s son, Lenin.
Silva’s partner, Sue Homer, said that only a week after Silva visited the classroom, Lenin was bullied in the hectic classroom environment. “Some kids started laughing at him in back of the room and chanting his name over and over — and the teacher did nothing about it,” Homer said.
So Lenin pushed another student and was kicked out of the class. “He came home that night and looked me in the eye and said, ‘Please don’t make me go back to that school,’” Homer said. “He was so rattled that he begged me.”
So, the next day, Homer and Silva took him to a nearby Catholic school, School of the Epiphany, and enrolled him days later. “I never wanted to leave Monroe,” Homer said, “but I don’t know what else to do,” Homer said.
Homer and Silva are not isolated in their frustration. A cavalcade of angry parents took the mic at an Aug. 28 Board of Education meeting and demanded a reduction of the class’ size and a qualified, Spanish-immersion teacher.
“Some parents have already decided to transfer their kids out of the school, and many other parents are considering this as well,” Melissa Rosenberg, a parent, told the board.
Danny Kim, also a parent at Monroe, told the school board during the Aug. 28 meeting that he, like Silva and Homer, pulled his son out of the school. On the first day of classes, he claimed, the substitute teacher made fun of his son and another student, and a student threw a pencil at his son’s eye.
“At that point we knew, in that particular environment, my son would not be safe,” he said, noting that he had worked for SFUSD as a teacher for 20 years. “And for my son, that meant I needed to pull him out and do what I needed to do as a father — and that’s what I did.”
Many of the parents with whom Mission Local spoke said that this issue began when the school’s principal, Kimberly Mackey, opted to merge every fifth grader from three “combo” classes composed of fourth- and fifth-graders into one large fifth-grade class.
A newsletter dated May 30 informed parents that the classes would be amalgamated into one class and three of the students’ teachers would be leaving the school. “Once those positions have been onboarded, we will send out notifications to our families” over the summer, it claimed.
The school, apparently, could not find those teachers in time. And parents say the class has seen an ever-changing ensemble of substitute teachers since the beginning of the school year, few of whom have been Spanish-speakers.
“I’ve never heard my daughter complain about not learning, and she is,” said Peter Hawke, whose daughter is in the class. “That’s terrifying.”
Hawke, like all the parents Mission Local spoke to, said the school has lost its sense of community, as many of the familiar teachers left in the last year. “The tragic part is this has always been a small, community-based school,” Hawke said. “It seems that over the last couple of years it’s fallen apart.”
Medellin, whose four children either currently attend or once attended the school, estimated that around 16 of Monroe’s 23 teachers have left since the spring.
“The morale of students is shot,” she said. “We’d like these kids to succeed in middle school, and this week would mark a month without instruction.”