Cuts Could Reverse Gains in Attendance and Achievement

Dec. 16, 2011 / By

NAM/ El Mensajero, News Report, Ricardo Ibarra, Posted: Dec 15, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO — The principal’s room at James Lick Middle School used to be an area students tried to avoid. Now, it is the staff who try to steer clear knowing that two counselors were recently called in to get their pink slips.

The room belongs to Bita Nazarian, principal of Lick middle school, located in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood and one of 24 middle schools serving the city. Of the school’s nearly 600 students, 65 percent are Latino.

“Not giving funds to schools is like digging their grave,” Nazarian says, referring to the huge cuts in California’s K-12 public schools in recent years.

The consequences are already being felt at James Lick where over half of students are from low-income families and almost 70 percent qualify for free or reduced cost meals.

“Services are being eliminated. High performing schools have families who make donations, but here the community doesn’t have the resources. They have to come from government,” Nazarian points out.

Thanks to the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), which provides funds for low-performing schools to keep class size small, James Lick has kept its class size at between 21 and 25 students.

But earlier this year, the school let go of two counselors and one secretary, to meet a gap of nearly $250,000 in school funding. The school budget has dropped from $4.2 million in 2010-2011 to $3.96 million in 2011-2012.

“It’s terrible when you have to prioritize one thing over another — a teacher or a counselor? How do you cut people that children need?” asks Gladys Dalmau, the only counselor left for sixth graders at the school. Dalmau has a row of kids sitting outside her office waiting for her advice on academic as well as personal issues.

The two counselors who were laid off — both Latinos — focused on outreach to students’ families and children’s mental health needs. Nazarian says she has already seen the negative effects from letting go of her Latino counselors.

“(Losing) access to parents who speak Spanish only has been a major effect,” Nazarian says.

Sonia Gonzalez, a Mexican mother whose child attends James Lick, agrees. Referring to the counselor who did outreach to parents, she says, “He was the closest with the Spanish-speaking community. Now we don’t have someone to relate to as we did with him.”

Nazarian worries that the loss in counselors will offset years of efforts to improve discipline and raise student attendance rates. For the school year 2010-2011, James Lick scored its lowest suspension rate, dropping to 79 from 168 in 2006-2007. It also cut truancy rates –the number of students with unexcused absence or tardy on three or more days in the school— from a high of about 30 percent in 2006-07 to about 22 percent.

Since school attendance is closely related to student achievement, James Lick has seen a steady rise in student achievement levels as measured by the school’s API (Academic Performance Index) scores, which rose from 693 in 2006-2007 to 726 in 2010-2011.

With diminished resources, maintaining that momentum will be tough, Nazarian confides.

“In order for students to be successful, they need to be here, and for their parents to be involved,” she emphasizes. “They [the state of California] are taking that from us, so this will lead to poorer grades, fewer student achievements, and fewer skills to find good jobs.”

School attendance rates may be further undermined by the potential loss of extra curriculum programs. The art and music program at James Lick might be eliminated next year if the budget keeps tightening, Nazarian says, and these programs often serve as the motivators for some students to attend school.

Natalia Dise, 13, says her favorite activity in school is dance class where she can create her own choreography. It was James Lick’s reputation for arts classes that drew her to the school.

“We are the people of the future and if we don’t have an education, then we don’t have a future. How would the world be like that?” Dise asks.

Dalmau says that with fewer staff to focus on prevention and early intervention, she winds up just reacting to problems. “If there’s a fight, you have to fix it. It’s not prevention anymore, it’s just reaction.”

Nazarian explains that she would love to keep the Latino staff at Lick but regulations and seniority rules left her no option. “It’s not that you’re Hispanic and you will lose your job, but it happened that two of our most recent staff hires were Latinos, and they were the ones who worked the most with the children and their families in the counseling office,” she says.

“With one counselor we knew what was going on in the school, like at the parents’ meetings, or even how to get tickets for the school bus. He was someone who can understand you as an Hispanic,” adds Gonzalez. Even though there are other bilingual staff at James Lick, she says, “it’s not the same.”

13-year-old Ismael Morales, an eighth grader at James Lick, says one of the counselors who was laid off used to coordinate the school’s Diversity Club, where students were encouraged to discuss sexual orientations and learn not to bully gay kids.

“We lost that this year,” Morales sighs.

San Francisco Unified School District:

Class Size: 22 in Kindergarten to 2nd grades, 21 in 3rd grade, 33 in 4th and 5th grades.

Teacher Layoffs: 147 pink slips were sent out, 141 were rehired.

School Year: 176 days, down from 180 days in 2009-2010.

(Data provided by EdSource’s survey in October, 2011)

Read more on budget impacts on local schools through New America Media’s “A Day in the Life of a Classroom” project, a journalistic collaboration between NAM and six ethnic media outlets to document the toll of budget cuts on local schools.

Read more on California budget on K-12 Schools here. Translations available.

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