Despite Promises of Equity, Students at This San Francisco Middle School Still Lack Teachers

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A Hispanic woman and her young son are seen from behind as high schoolers exit school.
Maritza Tupul and her son Adonis, 8, wait for her older son, Douglass, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco on Sept. 20, 2022. Douglass has been without a science teacher for weeks. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At back-to-school night last week, parents at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco's Portola neighborhood got some bad news.

"We are missing science teachers," said Ricky Li, whose son is a sixth grader at the school. "So all they do now is just give out handouts. They (are) asking for help from parents. They should have had enough staff. I’m not sure why they are missing teachers." 

The teacher shortage at MLK Middle School, and staffing challenges in districts across the state, comes at a time when unprecedented state and federal education dollars have been sent to districts to help students recover from pandemic-related learning loss — something noted by researchers studying the phenomenon of teaching-staff shortages nationwide.

Whatever the overall reasons, one thing remains clear: Teacher shortages tend to be worse at schools that serve kids from economically disadvantaged communities. 

MLK Middle School, where a third of the kids speak English as a second language and 10% are considered unhoused, is one of those schools.

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Maritza Tupul's son Douglass Mejia is in eighth grade. His classroom is missing a full-time science teacher, but Tupul said she didn't know this until she checked her son’s grades and found he’s getting an F.

"So I asked him what's going on," she said. "And he says, 'Oh, we don't have a teacher in the classroom.' So ... how could you have an F (if) you don't have grades?"

Tupul's son told her they hadn't had teachers for weeks and that the sixth grade teachers were subbing the class.

The San Francisco Board of Education has vowed to improve struggling elementary and middle schools in an effort to make school quality more equitable, and district officials say they’ve sent three teachers on special assignment to MLK to help staff for now.

Eric Lewis, a science content specialist who helped create the district’s curriculum, is one of those teachers. At the start of every year he emails all the district’s science teachers about training opportunities and resources — but a lot of those emails never get read.

"That’s how I figure out who is not in the district anymore," Lewis said. "Because I get all these emails bouncing back at me. I mean, this year I had probably 40 emails bouncing back. This was a huge number of teachers that were gone. And it was across the district!"

Lewis says this year’s eighth graders have already had a rough time.

"They have had very inconsistent science education in sixth, seventh and now into eighth grade," said Lewis. "Their sixth grade was online. Their seventh grade had teachers who left halfway through the year for science."

A bald white man with a beard and wearing a blue shirt and brown pants sits on steps outside a green building, looking at the camera.
Jackson Whittington, a teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School, sits outside the school in San Francisco's Portola neighborhood on Sept. 20, 2022. In a letter written to SFUSD, Whittington described his school's current condition as being 'unsafe, inequitable, and in need of immediate attention.' (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Lewis is normally tasked with supporting new teachers so they don't quit and with helping teachers implement the new science curriculum. Instead, he’s been assigned to fill in on classroom teaching.

"There was supposed to be another TSA [teacher on special assignment] who came in to teach the other half of the courses," he explained, "and that teacher didn’t show. They ended up taking a leave from the district." 

Lewis is confident most of his students can rebound. But he also says those with the most needs will have the longest-term impacts, and he predicts they will have major gaps.

The staffing shortage got worse a week ago after a teacher got COVID and another was injured. Jackson Whittington, an art and integrated arts teacher at MLK, says three seventh grade classes were put into the cafeteria.

"I think you can imagine having three seventh grade classes in a cafeteria is not, like, the best learning space," said Whittington. "It's kind of just a management situation."

Maritza Tupul has asked for her son to be transferred to another classroom.

"I wish somebody (could) do something," she said. "(If not), I have to do something."

Other parents say they’re taking their kids out of MLK altogether.

In a letter written to the San Francisco Unified School District, Whittington decried the current situation as "unsafe, inequitable, and in need of immediate attention," saying enrollment at MLK Middle School had dropped by almost 100 students; that multiple teachers are giving up prep time; and that staff — including administrative staff — cover classes on a daily basis because "there are no subs coming here and no full time TSAs covering open positions."

SFUSD, meanwhile, is continuing to recruit, with 210 certificated teaching positions open online as of Friday. The district had about 2,500 full-time-equivalent teachers for the 2021-22 school year.

Ricky Li has sympathy for the district trying to find more teachers, but doesn't understand why there still isn't enough staff.

"Help should be here by now," he said. "So hopefully, they’ll find somebody soon."

That’s something everybody can agree on.

KQED's Alexander Gonzalez and Attila Pelit contributed to this report.