Teacher librarian Tara Ramos helps students with a class activity at Sanchez Elementary in San Francisco on Nov. 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
When Anna Mahina was growing up in the Bay Area in the ‘80s, there were few, if any, supports in schools for kids like her.
The child of Tongan immigrants, she says teachers assumed she was Latina and placed her in classes for English-language learners, where she struggled to follow lessons delivered half in Spanish.
She says her family didn’t know how to demand better.
Now Mahina is raising a son in San Francisco. She’s an advocate for the Tongan community, starting the organization San Francisco Tongans Rise Up and joining the San Francisco Unified School District’s Parent Advisory Council.
“We're not going to have our kids go through the same issues that we had to go through,” she says.
Since fellow Pacific Islander Faauuga Moliga took a seat on SFUSD's board, she says she’s seen new investments in her community, like the creation of the district’s first Samoan dual-language immersion program. But if Moliga, the school board’s vice president, is recalled in February, Mahina worries that progress will slow for students who’ve consistently had some of the worst academic outcomes in the district.
“Having someone who looks like you sitting on the board of ed not only is empowering for our students and our families, but also he knows the struggles straight from the heart,” she says.
The campaign to recall Moliga, board President Gabriela López and board member Alison Collins has earned national attention, and continues to gain momentum, with Mayor London Breed and state Sen. Scott Wiener recently throwing their weight behind it. But the voices of parents like Mahina, who feel represented for the first time, are often drowned out.
Recall leaders argue the board unnecessarily delayed reopening classrooms while prioritizing — and mismanaging — the renaming of schools and changing the admissions policy at Lowell High School, San Francisco’s elite public school. Central, too, is anger directed at Collins, who was stripped of her leadership position on the board when past Twitter comments were resurfaced by recall proponent and Lowell grad Diane Yap. In response, Collins sued the district for $87 million. A judge dismissed the suit, and Collins dropped her effort.
“We have a school board that talks nonstop about social justice but doesn't do the single most important thing that our school district needed the whole year to help the very kids who are the most disadvantaged and hurt by [keeping classrooms closed],” says Siva Raj, the recall campaign co-lead.
Parents like Mahina find that sentiment disingenuous. She says the recall comes at the expense of the district’s most vulnerable and marginalized students.
“You see the logic driving these efforts being centered on opportunity structures and pathways for communities of color and for communities experiencing poverty,” Janelle Scott, a UC Berkeley education professor, says of the recall push. “Those voices are often not centered in these efforts that are coming from folks who say they are in fact putting people of color at the center.”
Some Black parents, like Leilani Ishaan, a product of SFUSD schools whose two sons graduated from district schools last year, are also skeptical of the intentions of the recall proponents.
“I don't believe you when you say ‘all kids,’” she says. “All this is in the benefit of you because you're impacted right now.”
What gets lost in all the adults fighting, Ishaan argues, is that students of color, like her son who went to Lowell High School, are the ones who stood to benefit from policies board members pursued that became so controversial.
“Adults inserted themselves in a place they shouldn't have,” she says. “The board was good at being guided by the students.”
Shavonne Hines Foster, now in college, was one of the students guiding those changes as a student delegate on the school board last year. She also served as president of the Lowell High School Black Student Union. She says the policies students fought for are central to improving the quality of schools.
In the case of Lowell admissions, the effort to enroll more Black and Latinx students is decades old, and the last time Black students demanded the school board take steps to address racism on campus in 2016, little changed.
“My four years at Lowell, I faced egregious incidents of racism dating from my first week to graduation senior year,” says Hines Foster. “That's the key reason why we're championing for Lowell to be open to all students.”
López, Collins and Moliga say their policymaking on the board has always been driven by community needs.
“To be told by a community of people who I know are privileged that we're not supporting the most marginalized, it was honestly hard for me because a part of me knew that they weren't seeing it and living it every day,” López says.
López says her work with the Latino Task Force helped families meet basic needs early in the pandemic, and that work later helped inform policies in the city through its work with UCSF researchers.
And, says Collins, the former board president who filed a lawsuit against the district, “There is one consistent thing that [advisory councils and committees] say their children need: They need to see that their community, their history and their culture is reflected in the curriculum. ... That motivates kids when they see themselves in the curriculum, so that has a direct impact on achievement.”
During their tenure, Collins, Moliga, López and their colleagues have taken steps to expand ethnic studies and anti-racist pedagogy, efforts that build on the work of past boards and respond to community advocacy.
For Tara Ramos, a teacher librarian at Sanchez Elementary, parent of a third grader in the district, and a union representative for United Educators of San Francisco, the board members have stayed true to the values they ran on.
“We campaigned for them and elected them because we wanted something new and different,” says Ramos, a longtime parent advocate and one of the organizers for Vote No School Board Recalls. “As a city, we were ready to take on racist systems and structures in the school district and that's the work that they were doing.”
More parents became intimately involved in the educational process during the pandemic. Many started paying attention to school board meetings for the first time, and many didn’t like what they saw, whether it was delays in reopening schools, mask mandates or ethnic studies curricula.
Ramos referred to it as the “gentrification of parent activism.” She would have liked to see the newly active parents work with established parent advocacy groups.
“Instead of just coming in assuming that there is no work being done and only putting forth your issues — what's important for you and your kids — and not thinking about what other people's issues are and what their kids need,” she says.
Meanwhile, recalls have spiked. Ballotpedia has tallied 84 school board recall efforts this year, up from an annual average of 23 per year between 2006 and 2020.
San Francisco recall supporters interviewed by KQED are loath to align themselves with the wave of anti-school board sentiment fed by fledgling conservative groups like Moms for Liberty, but a recent op-ed by the group’s founders echoes arguments made by local recall supporters about school boards prioritizing social justice over reopening classrooms.
SFUSD teacher Cynthia Meza, who has three kids in the district and once worked with López at Leonard Flynn Elementary School, finds the argument that the recall will improve conditions hollow.
“There's no way that that recall is going to close the learning loss. If anything, it's going to make it that much worse,” she says. “Those people that are supporting this recall are stealing from our students of color that need it most.”
To defend the cost of the recall for the cash-strapped district, recall co-lead Autumn Looijen draws a comparison to the second impeachment of former president Donald Trump days before the end of his term.
“Why did we do that? Because we needed to send a message that some sorts of behavior are not acceptable from public officials,” she says. “That's what we're doing here. We're saying, ‘We were in crisis and you abandoned our children. We were in crisis and you left the most vulnerable kids behind. Don't ask them to wait for justice.'”
The urgency is also about installing new board members in time to choose the next superintendent after Vincent Matthews retires in the summer, Raj and Looijen say. They want leaders in place that they trust to manage the district’s budget crisis. If any of the board members are recalled, Mayor Breed would appoint their replacement.
SFUSD parent Fernando Marti, who leads the Council of Community Housing Organizations and worked with Moliga on his educator housing initiative, says he understands the recall supporters’ frustration. But, rather than blaming the school board, Marti sees larger systemic flaws as the culprit for the school district’s dysfunction, which has historically failed students of color.
“It's got to do with taxation, revenue, funding and all of those things that are prerequisites to have the right programs in place and have the right structures in place to meet a crisis like this,” he says. “And we simply don't have that.”
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