Following allegations in Mission Local that troubled students had beaten two Everett Middle School teachers, and parent complaints about the safety and education of their children, 10 current educators and staff came forward to defend the school and its principal — but acknowledged difficulties particular to Everett.
While insisting that the issues plaguing Everett, including limited resources, substitute shortages and teacher resignations, were far from unique, they also acknowledged that the middle school lacked sufficient resources from the district to cope with a high degree of high-needs students.
“It’s bigger than our school,” said Bridget Early, Everett’s social worker of 14 years. Students returning to the classroom after nearly two years cooped up at home have struggled to readjust, several teachers said, leading to behavioral issues and conflict. This, coupled with absent teachers, complicated matters further.
“We’ve been asking for support from the district; I think that the district is also spread thin,” Early said.
Under the San Francisco Unified School District’s tier system for behavioral needs, Everett ranks as a tier 3 school; that’s the highest level of need. With over 630 students enrolled, and more than 20 percent of students needing special education support, Early said Everett is the highest-needs middle school in the district.
The school employs rough 70 staff members, according to district spokesperson Laura Dudnick. It’s unclear how many are full-time teachers versus other staff.
Dudnick did not confirm the exact number of full-time teachers and supporting paraprofessionals at Everett but, over the course of this school year, Everett has reportedly lost at least nine teachers. Meanwhile, a district press release on Monday said teacher turnover rates across SFUSD are consistent with last year, and lower than before the pandemic.
At Everett, 70 percent of students are Latinx, 44 percent are English learners, 62 percent are “socio-economically disadvantaged,” and only about 30 percent met grade level standards in 2019.
But the support for this plethora of needs isn’t there.
Many disabled students at Everett require a paraprofessional educator, but go without the extra help because of lack of staff, Early said. “I don’t think the district is purposely not giving the support, but we don’t have it.”
And, during a year with more frequent incidents of violence than past years, science department head Traci Wrycza said more security is needed to help intervene when violence breaks out.
“There’s definitely a huge need for change,” she said. Wrycza has personally stepped in to de-escalate situations at the school, and has called for assistance when needed, but has noticed that the days when the district sends a Street Violence Intervention Program worker to the school, “everything just feels lighter.”
Since that additional help is often not available, and not every teacher feels comfortable getting involved in a physical altercation, some situations get out of control, resulting in situations where teachers are injured or leave the school.
Former computer science teacher Yesi Castro-Mitchell told Mission Local that she was struck so hard by a new student that she lost 75 percent of her hearing, and when she asked to have the student transferred, the school retaliated against her.
After last week’s article was published, an Everett employee told Mission Local that the district had failed to inform the school that the student in question had needs requiring additional attention. Castro-Mitchell didn’t know, either. The school district declined to comment on these claims.
Former music teacher Ethan Walker said he was physically and verbally assaulted by multiple students and received a gun threat, but that the follow-up from the school was inadequate. In at least one case, the school tried to cover up an assault.
While Walker was evidently disliked by other Everett teachers, and both Walker and Castro-Mitchell were seen by former colleagues as outlier cases that were appropriately handled by the administration, no one Mission Local spoke with denied their allegations of being physically abused, threatened and harassed in the classroom.
The school district, meanwhile, has declined to comment on these incidents, citing an obligation to protect student privacy.
The school follows SFUSD policy in its de-escalation and restorative practices, avoiding disciplinary suspensions whenever possible. The SFUSD handbook makes it clear that school administrators must be particularly careful about disciplining Black or other disproportionately disciplined groups of students, noting “that prior to suspension of an African American student [or any other group that District data identifies as the most disproportionately referred for discipline], the school must contact the Assistant Superintendent or designee, who will ensure that the Matrix interventions have been exhausted and documented.”
Early said that she gets involved when most violent incidents take place at the school, and has held “thousands of restorative circles” with students this year, bringing in therapists and violence intervention workers.
Sometimes they work, and sometimes students end up suspended. “And so, what do we do?” Early asked.
Currently, Everett is receiving a grant through a Health and Wellness Initiative to provide mental health and wellness services to various middle schools in the district. The initiative, funded by a private donation, is a partnership between the district and the Department of Children, Youth & Their Families.
Principal Esther Fensel, who announced her resignation last week, said that the school has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic “along lines of race, class and privilege,” and said the school or district alone could not solve Everett’s problems. “We also need community resources and support,” she said.
Student advisor and athletic director Ruben Urbina, who has been at Everett for 39 years, said that aid comes every now and then. The school was designated as a DREAM school in the mid-aughts, and in 2010 received a federal grant of $4.5 million, and the school improved. But it never lasts, Urbina said: “When test scores go up, they take it away.”
During the period of the federal grant and a three-year extension of additional assistance, Tracy Gallardo, who is now a legislative aide to District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, worked for Everett as the community school coordinator. Money, she said, made a huge difference in the number of programs and the assistance that could be offered: Teaching assistants, counselors, parent education and a rich array of after-school programs.
“We were, like, a lot of people’s number one choice, and then the administration started pushing out teachers of color and [the teachers] didn’t feel supported,” Gallardo said of the years after the extra money ran out. “I was one of the ones who left, too.”
“They lost their vision and path [to being a] community school,” she added, referring to the multiple services the extra money provided.
Gallardo blamed the administration at 555 Franklin St. for failing to support Everett’s administrators and teachers.
Parents say Everett has myriad problems
Rachel Pechter, an occupational therapist whose son has visited an Everett social worker on occasion, said that the support that is offered by the school is high quality.
But she agreed with Wrycza and Early that the school faces a multilayered set of challenges, including a relatively inexperienced principal and “completely inadequate” support from the school district.
Pechter noted the “age-old problem” of schools made up predominantly of students of color not getting resources or advocacy. She was aware that her son spends some days browsing YouTube at school.
“White schools tend to get what they want,” she said, adding that her other child who attends Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts sees teacher and substitute positions filled much more quickly.
This year, teachers and staff say Everett has lost at least nine teachers, and classes without a teacher or substitute are commonly split up and students would be dispersed to other classes. Mission Local has reached out to the district for comparisons of teacher and substitute shortages at Everett versus other schools.
But even if the dedicated employees of Everett are doing what they can to keep the school above water, many parents don’t end up seeing that effort, and instead only see another, darker side: Their children being bullied and lagging in the classroom, a lack of structure and an inaccessible administration.
“I bring [my son] here because I don’t have any other option. If I had the money obviously I wouldn’t have him here, I would take him to another school,” said a woman named Rosa, who showed Mission Local the gashes on her sixth grader’s arm on Monday morning as she dropped him off at school. Mission Local could not confirm that the student was hurt at school, but the parent clearly believed that to be the case.
Last week, two kids attacked Rosa’s son. Another day, schoolmates grabbed him by his neck, she said in Spanish. Rosa said she called the district, and has reached out to the school administration in the past, but was told that nothing could be done.
“They haven’t told me anything. They haven’t given me solutions. [They say], ‘Oh, we’re going to take care of him, we’re going to be looking out for him,’ but he says they’re never looking out for him,” Rosa said.
Adelaida, whose last name we have withheld out of caution for her son, said in Spanish that her boy had come home with a bloody nose. He said he had been beaten up by bigger kids. Although she was informed that a staff member was being placed at the bathroom entrances after that incident, Adelaida said she felt brushed off by the school administration, and was told that all the schools are going through similar issues.
Rosa and Adelaida were among several parents Mission Local met at Everett on Monday who are frustrated with the school for what they perceived as lawlessness. One father, named Demetrius, even insisted that the school should be shut down, and said the principal’s imminent resignation would make no difference if systemic issues aren’t addressed.
In a statement to Mission Local, Fensel wrote, “Our staff has shown tremendous dedication, heart, and creativity in the face of these challenges that we and other schools across San Francisco and our country are experiencing. We’re providing direct socio-emotional supports to students, connecting families with resources, and planning and facilitating instruction to students amidst challenges that are not unique to Everett or SFUSD, including daily staffing shortages, an increase in the volume of student needs, and incredibly strained resources.”
Farrell Johnson, another parent outside Everett on Monday acknowledged the teachers are doing their best, and as an English speaker said he did get regular communication from the school. But he worried that a cultural barrier prevented the teachers from working effectively with African American students like his seventh grade son.
He called the restorative justice process “a bad look,” and worried his son isn’t getting an effective education. “I guess it’s policy, but the teachers are too passive with the kids, too soft,” he said.
Farrell Johnson compared his son’s lack of structure, or any homework, to Stevisha Johnson’s daughter’s experience at Alice Fong Yu K-8 school. Stevisha Johnson, who was accompanying Farrell to Everett on Monday, told Mission Local that her seventh grader has a couple hours of homework each night, and the school takes a firm approach with its students. When issues like fights arise on occasion, she said the administration is “really responsive, and they nip it in the bud.”
Everett union representative and literacy coach Cris Garza said the school’s challenges have always existed, but “the difference this year is: The gravity, severity and intensity of the challenges is much more than it’s been before.” He hopes that next year, the school might have the experience under its belt to help navigate its way.
But it doesn’t appear that Everett, in its current state, has the capacity to do so, particularly with the school district facing budget cuts.