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"We’re Not Interested in Pet Projects. We Know What We Need to Do to Educate Kids."
Jon Steinberg | Photo: Ramin Rahimian | August 22, 2014
San Francisco's schools chief discusses tech money, suspensions, and winning parents' hearts and minds.
This is “Think Tank” an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players and newsmakers, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Name: Richard Carranza
Job: Superintendent, San Francisco Unified School District
Residence: Ingleside Terrace
San Francisco: San Francisco’s public schools are getting stronger, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of people—one in four families, by some projections—from going private. Why?
Richard Carranza: People go by what they hear on the street. Somebody didn’t get their first choice in the assignment system, so all of a sudden the schools are bad. Or someone had a particularly bad experience with one class or one teacher or one principal or one superintendent, and then all of a sudden doesn’t want to be part of the whole system. That’s unfortunate. My job is to make sure that that unpleasant experience happens less.
If you could talk to parents thinking of opting out, what would you say?
The public schools are San Francisco, and you cannot have a truly world-class community without a world-class public education system. That is only gonna happen with everyone investing—and I don’t mean dollars. I mean their time, their concern, their vote, and, yes, their children. I have no qualms about saying that to anyone—my two daughters both went public. I’ve gone first. There’s nothing more I can give. I’m all in.
And when people look under the hood, what will they see? What data do you have to show them?
We have a much lower percentage of underperforming schools than other large urban school systems in California. The investments that we’ve made in our school communities to improve equity, to give our struggling students the support that they need even in these very austere budget environments, are second to none. The array of AP classes and honors classes that we offer at the high school level for gifted students is incredibly robust. We have invested in helping our teachers not just teach kids, but actually treat them with respect as young adults.
In the last two years, the district has halved the number of students being suspended, from 2,311 in 2012 to 1,177 in 2013. That was no statistical aberration, correct?
We’ve begun investing in the notion that if a student commits an act that is antisocial—if you have a student who is mouthing off, comes unprepared, interferes with the work of someone else—the first response shouldn’t be to kick him or her out of class. We’ve decided that it’s the system’s responsibility to change.
The schools have gotten some big gifts from tech CEOs in the last few years: $2.7 million from Marc Benioff’s Salesforce.com Foundation, $1 million from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. Are donations a double-edged sword?
Quite frankly, we’ve turned down money that some people said we should have taken. It came with too many strings attached, and the strings had nothing to do with student achievement. You can’t just donate iPads and equipment—you also have to invest in the development of educators. What was so powerful about Salesforce’s involvement in our schools is that they trusted us, and we showed them that we were able to use technology to transform the way kids were learning. I wish I had a hundred Marc Benioffs, in the sense that we want funders who are willing to engage with the schools. We’re not interested in pet projects. We know what we need to do to educate kids.
Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco