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Just how bad are high schools named as California’s lowest performing schools? Students at several of them in San Francisco say their schools are being unfairly judged.
Last week, the California Board of Education released a list of the 188 lowest-performing public schools in the state. On that list are 10 San Francisco schools, including John O’Connell High School and Mission High School.
The San Francisco school board has four options in dealing with these schools: convert them to charter schools, fire the principal and replace more than half of the staff, “transform the schools,” or shut them down and send the students to a higher-achieving school.
The state’s failing grades for John O’Connell and Mission drew a heated response from the schools’ students. On Monday, we surveyed a random sampling of 18 students who attend John O’Connell High School and Mission High School, asking how they view their schools and the education they get there.
A majority of them have favorable perspectives about their schools and rated them highly.
“I really like this school,” said Samantha Mattos, 17, a junior at John O’Connell. “I’ve been here since I was a freshman and I’m really glad I came here. They have really great teachers, a lot of college programs, field trips, and they help you out with scholarships.”
Mission High School senior Ja Vaughn Shannon, 17, said, “I think we’re a good school. We push more people to college than anybody would expect.”
Noting that the two high schools on the list are located in the city’s Mission District, several students said that the perception of their schools was largely based on misrepresented stereotypes of their communities.
“Everyone thinks because of our area that we’re not going to do good. But we have really smart students,” said O’Connell junior Kathia Ramos,16-years-old.
The state education department has yet to release the specific criteria used to determine how schools were selected for the “lowest-performing” list; the department’s website states that detailed methodology for identifying criterion of lowest-performing schools is "coming soon."
"The list really came out of the blue," said Principal Richard Duber of John O'Connell High School. "Part of the confusion is that I'm still waiting to hear exactly what it was that placed us on the list."
According to Duber, the assumption is the list criteria included assessment of 10th grade first-time CAHSEE exit exam scores and annual California standardized testing scores. "I would ask Sacramento and Washington D.C to be very mindful of how they are looking at our schools in order to place them on this list," said Duber. "Whatever lens they looked through to decide we are on the list needs to be broadened. This list doesn't represent the powerful teaching and learning I see going on every day."
With both schools located in communities whose residents are primarily low-income and immigrant, students felt it wasn’t fair to judge their schools by test scores and graduation rates.
A sophomore at O’Connell, who asked to remain anonymous, said the list didn’t take into consideration that half of O’Connell’s students are English language learners. The list didn’t consider how the language barrier affects graduate rates and performance in school, she said.
Mattos thought O’Connell was put on the list partly because of the race of students who attend the school and the gangs in the surrounding area. “They probably connected [the race and gangs] with the fact that not every student’s scores are proficient or advanced, and not everyone is a 4.0 student.”
Students believed test scores don’t accurately measure school performance because some students don’t take standardized testing seriously. “Most people on their tests just bubble anything in so they can hurry up and be done with it,” noted Shannon.
Many students also praised their teaching staff as hard working and committed.
“They do a good job explaining what we got to do in class, and we if don’t get it the first time, they’ll explain it a second time,” said Demitrius Thibeaux, 14, a freshman at Mission High School.
“I think that we got a lot of opportunities for scholarships to go to college and I like how [teachers] work with us when we need help,” said Shekia Rogers, 16, a junior at Mission High School.
Students also highlighted the value of their schools’ after-school sports and college preparatory programs in keeping kids off the street and giving them direction.
The reform options proposed to turn these Mission District-based high schools around didn’t resonate with students surveyed.
“If they want to change our school, improve it and give it more money,” said Mattos. “Don’t take things away.”
O’Connell and Mission High School now find themselves in the precarious position of fighting for their school’s reputation while facing drastic budget cuts and state mandated reform measures.
“We have some really good teachers…the best teachers are probably on the line for being cut because of seniority,” said Ramos. “Some of [the teachers] are only two or three years in here, and they say those are the first to go.”