Starr King Elementary, segregation and wealth: The politics of liberal San Francisco’s ‘separate but equal’

At Starr King Elementary School, General Education (GE) and Mandarin Immersion (MI) children sit in class lines on the asphalt playground before school begins. The lines are separated by grade and academic program but are also segregated by race and social class. Faces were blurred to protect identities, though these children are not faceless and deserve a voice. – Photo: Copyright 2019, used with permission

by A.M. Hennessey

The actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural. – Ibram X. Kendi

A recent New York Times article about the segregation of schools across the district of San Francisco (San Francisco Had an Ambitious Plan to Tackle School Segregation. It Made It Worse) cites president of the SF Board of Education, Stevon Cook, stating that the problem arose inadvertently. It discusses issues of wide-scale busing needs and school zoning as contributing factors to the city’s segregation. That article pertains to segregation between schools, not within schools, and Starr King Elementary, the city’s single most segregated school, is not even mentioned.

If you look closely at what is happening at Starr King, and in particular at the power and funding structures that have developed there since a Chinese Mandarin Immersion program was added in 2006, the idea that the segregation could be inadvertent becomes less plausible. There are no issues of wide-scale busing or school zoning to blame for the school’s segregation. Low-income people of color who live a stone’s throw away from the school do not need a bus or different school zone to go there.

Historically, Starr King was a school in Potrero Hill that primarily served low-income people of color, especially African American, which came from the Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex housing development located directly across the street from the school. Terrace-Annex is the city’s largest and oldest housing project in San Francisco.

The student body of the school shifted significantly when the Chinese program was added over a decade ago, however. Since then, Starr King has been deeply segregated, with a more affluent white and Asian population making up the majority of the highly sought-after Chinese language program, known as “MI” (Mandarin Immersion), while low-income minorities, predominantly African American, Latino and Pacific Islander, attend the poor performing General Education program (GE).

There is some small crossover of these demographics, but anyone who visits the school will quickly note the de facto segregation when looking at classroom lines in the morning or lunch tables at noon. Black and Brown bodies are separate from white and Asian ones, giving the school an appearance of something out of a new Jim Crow era.

The achievement gap between students in the two programs is searing and, by some accounts, the worst gap within a single school in the entire district. In a November 2018 meeting of Starr King’s School Site Council (SSC) devoted to discussion of the Title I funding the school received for 2018-2019 ($58,942 – used across the school and not exclusively for Title I students), the principal stated that the 2017-2018 proficiency rate for third-fifth grade Title I African American students at Starr King was at 17.6 percent.

This percentage does not take into consideration the lack of scores from students who were absent for test-taking, and the school has a high rate of absenteeism. While families from all over San Francisco compete to get their children into the MI program, the GE track has been one of the city’s least desirable programs of all.

Even in light of the divide at the school, Starr King is on the surface San Francisco’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse public school, a point touted in the SF Chronicle, the school’s own website and elsewhere as a model school for diversity. Just two weeks ago, the city’s mayor, London Breed, as well as Assemblymember David Chiu and Superintendent Vincent Matthews, celebrated the first day of the 2019 school year on Starr King’s playground. According to SFUSD’s website, “integration” at Starr King was one of the areas highlighted at the event. During the visit, Breed also announced that the city will fund a new $10 million pilot program over the next two years to recruit and retain experienced teachers at the district’s most under-resourced schools, a topic addressed here later.

In this partial view of Potrero Terrace-Annex, San Francisco’s largest and oldest public housing project, Starr King Elementary is the large red building seen behind the project. – Aerial photo: Ken Fisher, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved, published with permission

“To the outsider, the school model shines as a beacon of integration. But to the insider, the Starr King campus is quite literally a ‘school within a school,’” says Leah Grass, a mother of a former MI student who left last year. Grass notes that it was disheartening for her to observe the divide in educational strands at Starr King: “While opportunities for cross cultural activities have increased over the years, the student body remains segregated and therefore lacks the ‘one community’ vision the school claims to value so highly,” she says.

This article examines current events at Starr King to describe how the school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which is run by affluent and middle class parents from the Chinese MI program, has an inordinate amount of power at the school and has been able to direct significant public funds and resources towards that program while the dire needs of students in the GE program remain unmet. Concerned parents and community members have made the district aware of these activities, especially as relates to financial inequity and segregation, but they have for the most part been rebuffed.

In today’s climate of marginalizing low-income people across the United States, and in particular low-income people of color, situations such as these point to how segregation does not have to happen through the actions of the far-right. Instead, segregation happens when people in power, many of whom identify as liberal, diminish the opportunities of those most in need through the redirection of resources. As we know from the recent case in the Sausalito Marin School District, there are instances where segregation in schools may appear inadvertent even though it is not.

Inequity in funding: A PTA vote to put money exclusively into the Chinese Mandarin Program (MI)

On a cool San Francisco evening in May 2018, Dr. Amos Brown, president of SF’s NAACP, walked across the empty grey playground at Starr King Elementary School. A group of parents concerned that a major funding decision to be made that night would negatively impact the school’s low-income minority population had invited Dr. Brown to the school, and he was walking towards the school’s monthly PTA meeting, which was already underway in the cafeteria. On a typical evening, the PTA meetings at the school draw the same fifteen to twenty parents, most of whom have children in the MI program. On this particular evening, however, the room was packed, primarily with affluent and middle-class white and Asian parents who had children in MI.

The parents were there for the purpose of a PTA vote on the use of roughly $80,000 of money held in a San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) financial account described as “the PTA bucket of the site account” to purchase a new teacher for their children in the school’s MI program for the 2018-2019 school year. These parents no longer wanted to use the teacher rotation system that the district had put in place for the fourth and fifth grade MI classes over the past few years. They desired an extra teacher instead.

The access to this money was problematic for a few reasons. First, the PTA wanted to direct all of it towards the MI program and no similar funds were allotted for anything related to the school’s GE program, which serves the majority of the school’s Title I students and has deep needs – needs, some argued, which were more pressing than the extra teacher for MI. Second, the PTA said that the money was theirs but that it was in a public school site account (the questionable nature of the account will be discussed shortly).

During the 2017-2018 school year, parents of children in both GE and MI had repeatedly expressed their concerns to the School Site Council (SSC), the administration and the PTA about the need for quality classroom support in the GE program. Some had also asked for a much better social emotional program at the school.

Incidents on the playground indicating major problems with the school’s social emotional support system had in fact occurred the very same week as the PTA meeting on the $80K vote. Those events were so bad that police and Child Protective Services (CPS) had to come to the school. Events such as these have a negative impact on all of the school’s children, as well as on the overall school environment.

Furthermore, the children of the PTA president, the PTA past-president, PTA executive committee members, as well as children of other parents close to the PTA leadership, were in the cohort of the upper grades of the MI program that would benefit from the proposed teacher. The principal, assistant principal, and a table full of teachers from both MI and GE strands had come in support of the PTA leadership.

Teachers rarely come to PTA meetings and the appropriateness of school employees weighing in on the matter of how parents should vote on the direction of a large sum of money towards one group of the school’s children is questionable.

Only three weeks later, the principal held an important all-school meeting to discuss the poor achievement of the school’s low-income African American population. This time, not a single teacher attended. The large majority of MI parents who had attended the PTA meeting was also not present at this meeting.

These absences indicate that beyond all the talk at Starr King about a communal interest in fixing the school’s large achievement gap, a lack of interest exists – of teachers, PTA members and administrators – in the systemic poor achievement of the low-income African American children who attend.

Lajuana Tucker, an African American mother who resided in Potrero Terrace-Annex for years and whose daughter graduated in 2019 from the school’s GE program, was present at the May 2018 PTA meeting on the $80K. She believes that one thing the school really needs to invest in is professionally trained staff for the low-income children who are struggling with their studies: “The children want to learn, but they need the right mentors and quality mental healthcare staff. That is something that the school really needs. Learning is connected to how a child is supported in the school.”

Another African American mother with a child currently enrolled in the upper grades of Starr King’s GE program did not want to be identified in this article but wanted her statement heard. She explains, “Children in the GE program are just being passed through and are not properly attended to by teachers and staff in the classroom and school.”

Leah Grass, quoted earlier, details a similar point. Noticing that resources and volunteers appeared scarce in the GE program, she chose to become a literacy volunteer with the GE population during the four years that her child was enrolled at the school, “Year after year, I watched as kids were passed to the next grade level lacking the basic building blocks necessary for student success.

“Efforts to address the issue were disconnected and, simply put, acted as a band-aid for students being ‘left behind’ in their scholastic pursuits. If by the third grade a student still isn’t recognizing all the letters in the alphabet (let alone reading at grade level), then we have failed that child.” Grass, who has spent the majority of her professional career working with marginalized populations in both the nonprofit and governmental sectors, stood in opposition to the direction of the PTA’s $80K vote.

Amos Brown came alone to the PTA meeting. Speaking briefly, he discussed the problem of privatization in San Francisco and then explained in broad brushstrokes how if one child in the city loses, we all lose. His main focus was on the need for unity in supporting our youth.

Lajuana Tucker explains that to her, Brown’s words were uplifting, “He was talking about unity and the need for us to come together, to be whole and not divided. He wasn’t speaking against anyone, he was trying to unite us and let us know that we all have a right, regardless of race, class or creed, and to support all of our children.”

Even in light of Brown’s speech and the speeches of a few others, it was no surprise the night of the meeting that the $80K vote passed by a large majority in favor of the PTA leadership. There were few parents from GE there, and many of the MI parents who had voted cheered and some even high-fived, visibly exalted and apparently without any shame at having beaten out those who had spoken up about the needs of the school’s low-income students. Amos Brown sat quietly at a table when the vote was over.

The PTA has since then assigned the $80K as a line item on its budget so that every year this chunk, allegedly now from its own account and not from that of the school site account, will go towards the Mandarin program. No more votes will be needed on the matter other than the cursory budget approval.

Quietly, the school also arranged for another room at Starr King to be used exclusively for the children of the MI program. This was the old science room, which had previously been used by the entire student population. This appropriation of space led to a chain reaction through which the new science room took over the space of the Wellness Room, a large and bright space that had previously served the social emotional needs primarily of the school’s Title I students.

As such, the Wellness Room moved to a much smaller, bleaker, windowless room. Thus, the PTA leadership not only successfully appropriated money and resources for its children in MI, but it appropriated physical space as well, taking away the primary room used by low-income students in GE for their mental health and social services.

Sandy Wan, a Taiwanese mother of two children who were in the school’s MI program, volunteered extensively with the school and the PTA for seven years and became saddened at what she saw as classism taking over the school and organization. “The PTA leadership at Starr King is an exclusive group with a small number of parents directing large amounts of money where they want it to go.

“This has an impact on all of the students, and the school is no longer an inclusive place for the children.” Wan was present at the meeting and opposed the PTA’s $80K vote. She also questions the way the organization runs its finances.

It is worth mentioning that administrators and staff members at Starr King have received large gifts from the PTA. In one case, an administrator privately received a $500 spa gift from the PTA president and a small group of PTA executive committee members only one month after supporting the PTA’s vote on the $80K.

In another, the PTA gave a $10,000 check to a secretary who consistently expresses her support for PTA executive committee decisions, including support for their direction of the $80K. This type of gift giving is problematic, especially in the context of a public school.

Questionable origins: Money called ‘PTA funds’ came from a public school site account

It is worth unpacking the murky nature of the financial account from which the $80K came from to begin with. PTA literature sent by the PTA president prior to the vote on the money states that the account actually belongs to “the site” (which means the school, a public school) and not to the PTA, but that it is “held aside in a PTA bucket, and dispersed according to the established PTA funding priorities” because it supposedly stemmed from previous money that the PTA gave to the school several years ago.

However, when two parents inquired into the PTA’s past financial records in the fall of 2018, they were told by the PTA president, treasurer and secretary (after weeks of delay, the withholding of information and dozens of email correspondences), that there were no financial transaction records available to them from before July 2017. There was also no record in recent years, nor in any of the PTA meeting minutes found, of $80,000 having gone to the school site account from the PTA for the purpose of purchasing an extra teacher.

When the parents mentioned that not retaining records for at least seven years was a violation of the IRS, the PTA leaders quickly became defensive, explaining that they were hardworking volunteers who just weren’t organized with their records. Their fundraising efforts, however, including a large annual gala, had been raising approximately $400K+ per year over the past few years and were highly organized.

When the parents tracking down the origins of the $80K could get little information from either the PTA or the school administration, they turned to the district. But answers were not forthcoming there either.

In a series of emails written in the fall of 2018 to the assistant superintendent, the director of principal support, a Board of Education member and ultimately the superintendent himself, it became clear that the parents’ request for oversight and transparency at the school was not going to be met. After avoiding a question about the account from which the $80K for the new MI teacher had come, stating that she would prefer to talk about it over the phone, the assistant superintendent ultimately stated after numerous emails that the money had come from the PTA. But the PTA had explicitly said that the money was from the site – both in its literature disbursed to the community and verbally in several PTA meetings, including its budget meeting in the fall of 2018.

One parent made an anonymous phone call to SFUSD’s director in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, the person in charge of the district’s Title I funding programs. The parent did not identify the school in question nor herself but asked about the PTA’s voting practices. Over the phone, the director firmly stated that under no circumstances should a PTA be voting on any money in a site account, even if the group says that the money stems from previous donations.

He further stated that decisions made by a PTA on its own funds need to be carefully monitored, especially at Title I schools. However, this director curiously recanted in an email to the parent shortly after the parent sent him a follow-up fax that indicated which school and PTA were under question.

Censorship and control: PTA takes over school communication and lists its leaders as school staff

The influence and power of the school’s PTA parent leaders should not be underestimated. Shortly following the vote on the $80K, they took complete control of the school’s group email system, which used to run through Google.

Voices of dissent had appeared on the system and, although there were only a few of those voices, the PTA leadership had no ability to censor them. In response, the PTA closed the school’s Google group and now uses a system called ParentSquare, which is the main form of communication at the school.

Major public school announcements are sometimes made only through this system. The PTA leaders are in charge of the system and have made it such that only they and other people they choose are authorized to send out emails to the entire community. Other parents and even teachers and staff do not have authority to do this and are unable to send anything to the community as they could in the past.

How this is allowed in a public school is unknown. Under the same system, and this fact is in itself a red flag as to how the school is being privatized from within by the PTA, the PTA leadership has listed five of its members as “Starr King Elementary Staff” in the school directory on ParentSquare. None of the parents, all of whom are Asian American or white and have children in MI, has a background in education or works with children. They even list themselves prominently, directly beneath the principal’s name and above that of the assistant principal.

A broken system for General Education (GE) students: Questionable hiring practices, teaching and social services

The PTA was also integral in the hiring of an employee central to the supervision of children on the playground, as well as in the Wellness Room, the primary space for social emotional support of the school’s Title I students. On their annual budget, the PTA lists this employee’s salary as the group’s main contribution to the school’s social and emotional needs.

And yet the employee had no previous background in education or working with children, nor even a high school diploma when he started working at the school. The staff member’s $70K salary range is well above the salaries of other employees at the school, including teachers who in some cases have earned master’s degrees and worked in education for years.

From a distance, it may look as if the choice to hire the man was one meant to bridge the community of the school with that of the project since he is African American and used to live there. But this staff member is a loud disciplinarian with the school’s low-income minorities and not with the children in the MI program.

Catrina McKneely, an African American mother and resident of Terrace-Annex, states that the school is tokenizing the few African American staff members it has, as well as a few African American parents who have recently started working with the PTA: “They are tokenizing people there. The people in charge of the kids on the playground are really there to control Black children. Our children deserve more.”

Privatization from within: Mandarin Immersion (MI) parents of the PTA leadership are listed as “Starr King Elementary Staff” on the school’s main communication platform. – May 2019 screenshot

McKneely, who was a very involved parent at the school during the time that her child was there, removed her child from Starr King after the 2017-2018 school year. “There are unhealthy things happening at the school. Some of the staff, and one administrator in particular, are interrogating African American children in ways they should not.”

Another African American mother of a boy who went to Starr King and asks to be identified as Mrs. Bernard states, “I would not put any kids in Starr King. Children should not go to that school.” A resident of Terrace-Annex, she states that she felt unsupported by teachers and staff on numerous occasions at the school.

In one instance, she was not notified by staff when a person not on her emergency contact list was allowed to take her son, and this event created a major trauma in her life. Currently pregnant, she explains that none of her other children will ever go to the school.

Also, as stated earlier, the police responded to reports of incidents on the school playground the same week as the PTA meeting in May 2018, and both of those events involved this staff member. In one case, the police were called because he had been involved in a loud verbal altercation on the playground with a parent and this altercation had come dangerously close to a full-on physical event.

In the second incident, which happened the same week, young children from GE, most from a lower grade, were unsupervised during recess and engaging in sexual activity on the playground. Their genitals were exposed, and according to a Terrace-Annex parent whose child was involved, they were pretending to have oral sex.

This parent, who chooses not to be named here, removed her child from the school the next day and states that the incident was highly traumatic for her and her child. Unsupported by staff at the school, she explains that she had previously told her child’s teacher that her child had been touched inappropriately in the classroom by some children, and yet her child was left unprotected.

This student’s teacher was present at the May 2018 PTA meeting on the $80K vote, which occurred only three days after the incident. In an odd moment, she stood up and spoke about how she thought that the money should go towards the MI program. This same teacher also did not attend the meeting held three weeks later devoted to discussing Starr King’s large achievement gap between its low-income African American students and other students at the school.

A mother of two children currently in MI and who asked to be identified as “Theresa” remarks that she spoke to an administrator last spring specifically about this teacher, “My children have brown skin. She has yelled at one of them and yells at children with black and brown skin. At Starr King, this mainly means children from GE.”

Theresa states that the administrator with whom she spoke responded by saying that the teacher in question is one of the best teachers – not only in the GE program but in the whole school. Strongly supported by Starr King administrators, the teacher is now the Site Leader of a new literacy program that sprang up at the school in the wake of the $80K funding decision and is supposedly in place to support low performing students.

This is just one egregious example at the school. Returning to Mayor London Breed’s announcement last week that the city will fund a $10 million pilot program to recruit and retain experienced teachers at under-resourced schools, the question for Breed and others is: How is the quality of teachers like those at Starr King determined and who is determining it?

These cases underline how funding for both proper social-emotional care and teacher education are deeply needed at Starr King. The PTA’s $80K for the MI teacher and $70K for the employee with questionable qualifications who staffs key social-emotional programs add up to $150K per year of funding that in theory could at least be partially directed towards teacher training and quality social services at the school.

Contemporary racism and classism: Financial inequity and the repackaging of segregation

In the wake of the various meetings, expressions of concern and formal complaints filed by Starr King parents with SFUSD between 2017-2019, or perhaps in response to them, SFUSD awarded Starr King an “innovation award” for the 2019-2020 school year. Not surprisingly, the PTA leaders – the very same people who had been at the helm of the vote on the $80K and subsequent allocation of $80K per year exclusively for the MI program – were intimately involved in the application process for the award.

In the meantime, the school administration has over the past year painted the GE program in a positive light, talking about the empowerment of its students. But careful attention should be paid to the allocation of funding at the school, as well as to the teaching and social services provided to the school’s low-income students.

As discussed here, the current infrastructure of the GE program is broken and in need of deep repair if the program is ever to flourish. Without this repair, any talk about the GE program as a good program is effectively repackaging segregation: keeping the two programs separate by using words to puff up the one that is struggling, making it out to be equal to MI, the more resourced program.

As has historically been the case, a promotion of a “separate but equal” policy usually results in inequity and inequality. GE students will be empowered when their program has equity in funding, quality teachers, and proper mental healthcare and other social services.

SFUSD also ignores a basic problem that has existed since the inception of the MI program at Starr King: There has been little outreach at Terrace-Annex (apparently none from the district) to truly integrate the school, which would happen by encouraging low-income people of color to join the MI program.

As such, many low-income families either do not know about the program or believe that their children do not qualify for it even though children need no knowledge at all of Chinese to enter MI at the kindergarten and first grade levels.

Rucker Johnson’s research on the history of integration in the United States shows that low-income minorities have a better chance at flourishing if they are in integrated classrooms. That is where they receive equity in teaching and other resources. But there have been no moves from the school or district to integrate the programs at Starr King and teach Chinese to low-income students of color too. As such, GE is most often the default program for those children coming in.

At the end of director Ava DuVernay’s 2016 award winning film, “13th,” which traces the direct link between slavery, the 13th Amendment of the Constitution and mass incarceration in the United States, widely acclaimed public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson states: “People say all the time, ‘I don’t know how people could have tolerated slavery, how could they have made peace with that.

“’How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that? How did people make sense of this segregation, this white and colored only drinking? That’s so crazy. If I was living at that time, I would have never tolerated anything like that.’ And the truth is, we are living it this time, and we are tolerating it.”

Stevenson is speaking about this acceptance of the mistreatment of humans, and in particular low-income people of color, in the context of mass incarceration. One need not look as far as the prison system. This acceptance starts much earlier, and it is revealed in the way that we as a society, often under the guidance of a more affluent set, are accepting, perpetuating and exacerbating the mistreatment of low-income children, and especially our low-income African American youth.

Often masked in today’s world, financial segregation is integral to the contemporary mechanisms of racism and classism as a whole.

The author of this article is a parent of children who attended Starr King Elementary School’s Mandarin Immersion program between 2015 and 2019. She served from 2017 to 2019 on Starr King’s School Site Council and was a member of the PTA’s short-lived “Inclusivity Group,” as well as the school’s new “Transformation Committee.” While at the school, she and her children also volunteered in Potrero Hill Terrace and Annex for the Walking School Bus program. They are currently working with other families and community leaders in the creation of a local Birth Circle for low-income families. She may be reached at amhennessey@mac.com.