Candidate Name: Rachel Norton
Phone Number: 415-754-0229
Web site: www.rachelnorton.com
Signed voluntary spending limit: Yes
Major Endorsements: SF Democratic Party, Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, Sen. Mark Leno, Supervisors David Chiu, Eric Mar, Carmen Chu, Mark Farrell, Scott Wiener, Sean Elsbernd, School Board President Norman Yee, Commissioners Jill Wynns and Emily Murase Incumbent School Board - I am working with Commissioner Wynns and Commissioner Fewer trying to get all three of us re-elected.
1. How are you currently involved in the SFUSD -- or how were you
involved in the past?
I've been a parent in the school district since the 2002-03 school year and I've been involved in school district issues for a long time: Longtime parent leader (including Site Council co-chair for two years) at Argonne Elementary School; Member of Parents for Public Schools - San Francisco since 2000; Member of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education 2005-2008; Member, Superintendent Search Community Advisory Committee, 2007 and Member, Steering Committee for Quality Teaching and Education Act (QTEA), 2008 - successful parcel tax measure benefiting schools.
Since being elected to the Board of Education in 2008, I've worked hard to hold district leadership accountable for improving achievement for all children, and I've focused particularly on efforts to improve our special education programs. As a result of my advocacy, we've launched a major redesign of programs and services for students with disabilities, and vastly expanded opportunities for mainstreaming. Now, students with disabilities can be fully-included at every school-something that was not possible four years ago. Finally, I've spent significant time working on improving transparency in district decision-making. I've used my blog, rachelnorton.com, as a vehicle for two-way communication with constituents: I post recaps of every Board meeting, discuss and explain important issues facing the district, and respond to questions and comments from readers.
2. Why are you running for school board?
I am seeking re-election to the Board of Education because - though I'm very happy with the school district's academic progress in the past four years - I'm not satisfied yet that our public schools are the best they can be. Both my daughters will enter high school in the next few years, and I want to be sure there are challenging, engaging programs that will help support them and encourage them to reach their dreams. I want the best academic outcomes for every child; I want to continue to monitor the outcomes of our redesigned student assignment system and ongoing work to transform special education to be sure those efforts are on track; I want to support our new Superintendent and leadership team in meeting our strategic plan goals of Access and Equity, Student Achievement and Accountability; finally, I want to work to improve our student nutrition programs so that we can be serving fresh, quality foods to students. This will take new engagement from the district and from funders, as well as leadership from the Board.
3. How can we redistribute the more experienced and higher paid teachers throughout the city? What do you think the school district needs to do to attract and improve the retention of good teachers who are willing to work in socially stressed schools?
There has been a great deal of controversy this election cycle about the Board's decision in February to "skip" teachers at the 14 Superintendent's Zone schools during our required Reduction in Force notification period. In past years we have skipped teachers with special education, math, science and bilingual credentials, but this year - after the significant investments represented by our $45 million School Improvement Grants and extensive professional development for teachers in the Zone - five members of the Board (including the three incumbents running this year) agreed with the Superintendent's request to also skip Superintendent's Zone teachers. While this move was not an easy decision, and has enraged United Educators of San Francisco, it was the first time the Board has actually made a decisive step to retain teachers who are getting results in some of our most challenged schools. You have only to look at our strong 2011-12 results reported on August 31 to know this is true. I do not know that such "skipping" would be my go-to strategy every year - I prefer giving teachers additional compensation and support in order to encourage them to stay in challenging positions - but in this case, where we already had teachers in place who wanted to stay, who were getting good results, and in whom we had invested millions of dollars, putting these teachers first in line to be laid off made no sense at all.
4. Would you ensure that all San Francisco students have access to a public pre-K program? If so, how?
I am a strong believer in early childhood education and I am proud that SFUSD has been a leader in providing preschool for all. I will be a strong supporter of the Child Development Program, because I know that every dollar invested in quality preschool pays huge dividends later in academic readiness. I believe we must work closely with First Five and DCYF to expand quality Pre-K opportunities for all students in San Francisco.
5. What is your position on JROTC in the public schools?
6. What would you do to increase learning support services in San Francisco's public schools?
To support students who are struggling, we need to do several things: first, increase the number of staff who can support these students: student advisors, counselors, as well as learning specialists. Second, we need to maximize the professional development for these staff members, focusing on methodologies that are proven to help students learn. Third, we need to do a much better job assessing students at risk for learning disabilities so that we have better information about the issues they are experiencing. This might cost more money up front, but will save us later because we can better focus our intervention efforts.
7. Would you support district elections for school board members?
8. What do you think of the public comment policy at school board meetings? How (if at all) would you change it?
I think our Board does a good job making sure that people who take the trouble to come speak to us during public comment are heard.
9. How would you expand the opportunity for staff development for paraprofessionals? What do you think of the district's staff development programs?
Paraprofessionals have a very important role to play in our schools, and they have borne the brunt of recent rounds of staff cuts. I would support adding a professional development day and creating a career path for paraprofessionals who would like to become credentialed teachers. I would also support increasing wages for paraprofessionals, because I believe so strongly in the support they provide in our classrooms and elsewhere in our schools. Finally, I would support additional pay or a stipend to allow special education paraprofessionals to attend IEP meetings held during non-school times, so that they could share their unique insights into how a student learns and help determine how that student should best be supported in the classroom.
I think we need to evaluate the effectiveness of our staff development programs and ask teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff to tell us straight out whether our current programs truly help prepare them for the conditions they face in the classroom.
10. What is your stance on allowing noncitizen parents, guardians and caretakers of students to vote in school board elections?
11. In what ways would you work to increase teacher input in administrative decision-making? How would you work to increase the voice of school site councils (parents, students and staff), in administrative decision-making?
While the district does listen to and incorporate input from parents, teachers, students, staff and the community into district policies, I don't think we do a good enough job of communicating the why and the how behind various decisions. If we had a more robust communications department we would be able to do this job more effectively. I do try to fill some of this breach with my blog, so that people who can't go to meetings at least have a way to find out what happened and what was discussed, but my blog can only go so far.
12. Would you strengthen the voice of the elected student representatives, so that they could introduce legislation and vote on measures?
I believe our system of student representation is working well - our student delegates and Student Advisory Council have their voices heard and work well with Commissioners.
13. What do you think of the District's and state's standards for curriculum? How would you increase student achievement levels?
I support the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and I am proud that the district is a leader in implementing these standards. Our 2011-12 achievement data were recently released, showing gains across the district and particularly strong gains in the Superintendent's Zone and the nine SIG (School Improvement Grant) schools in particular. To me, this indicates that our focus on improving instruction in recent years has begun to pay off.
14. How do you see the role of the School Board in comparison to the role of the superintendent?
School Board members hire and evaluate the Superintendent, set policy, approve the budget, and represent the community's concerns in fulfilling those functions. No Board member has individual power to dictate policy or other actions to the Superintendent or district staff - the Board's power is only collective. The Superintendent, by contrast, runs the day-to-day operations of the district, supervises and evaluates district staff, implements Board policies, and recommends initiatives to realize goals articulated jointly by the Board and senior leadership of the district.
15. What do you think of the current arrangement of armed police officers in schools? What measures would you support to make sure that our children are safe in our schools??
I would prefer that our School Resource Officers not carry firearms while on duty in our schools. I think the general presence of these officers is less of a problem, and there are great examples of School Resource Officers becoming integral members of the school communities where they work. Ultimately, to improve the safety of our schools, I think our focus should be on making sure that our schools are well-staffed with counselors, student advisors and other caring adults who serve as mentors and support to students. The more supported students feel at school, the safer they will feel; and the presence of more adults will contribute to a learning environment that is calm and safe.
16. How do you feel about the current school assignment system?
I do not think it is perfect - it represents a complex compromise between the need for predictability for parents and school administrators, and the need to give families a way to choose schools that work best for them. The policy was purposefully designed as flexible so that it can be adjusted from year to year, but we will need to have a few years of baseline data before we understand what various adjustments might do to the system. I did NOT support Prop H in 2011, which was poorly-written and overly-restrictive.
17. A portion of SFUSD income is from rental of various properties. What changes should the district make to increase the income from these properties?
We need to use all of our real estate assets to generate income for the school district. I am not generally a fan of selling surplus property because once you sell it, it's gone forever. I'm more a fan of ground leasing truly surplus property and allowing it to be developed for other uses. One exception was 700 Font St., which we recently sold to SF State. That sale made sense, because we were able to use the proceeds to pay down debt and generate ongoing cash flow for the school district - SF State was always the most logical buyer for that plot because it is located right in the center of their campus. Another option we are discussing is 1950 Mission, which is a logical site for some kind of housing project - I believe we have long-promised teacher housing and my priority is to keep that promise. However, I'm also mindful that the Mission is gentrifying rapidly, and that plot (convenient to transit and other services) is an ideal place for affordable/family housing. The issue before the Board is whether to create actual, physical units for teachers (and criteria for who qualifies to live there), or generate income for a teacher housing allowance fund by allowing the project to be developed as affordable housing, mixed-income housing, or market-rate housing.
18. What should the district do to make its schools more environmentally friendly?
Over the last four years we have begun separating and composting trash, and going paperless wherever possible. For example, at this year's Back to School Administrator Institute, all materials were distributed on flash drives instead of the heavy binders used in previous years. One area we have not yet tackled, but which I and other Board members would like to see implemented, is a paperless agenda for our regular Board meetings. The current agenda consumes thousands of pieces of paper each year when it is disseminated to staff and Board members. We have already gone paperless with our Closed Session agendas, but can and will do better with our public meeting agendas.
19. What is your assessment of how adequate the School Board Sunshine regulation is?
I believe it is effective, though staff could always do a better job responding to information requests in a timely manner.
20. Should every high school have a functional, open, operating library? If so, how could we make it happen?
Of course. Proposition H funds are expressly allocated for the purpose of upgrading and expanding library facilities in SFUSD. To my knowledge, every school does have a functional library, though not every library is open every day.
21. Would you favor a transition away from a reliance on paraprofessionals to team teaching in socially stressed schools?
I believe paraprofessionals have a very important role to play in supporting students, but as I said above, we must make sure these staff members have the training necessary to maximize their benefit to students. Team-teaching is another promising approach. Generally, I believe the most effective schools have strong teacher leadership and engagement, so I would be inclined to trust the judgment and recommendations of individual school communities as to which approach would work better at a particular site.
22. Did you support SB 1381, the proposal that raised the age requirement for students entering kindergarten?
23. What do you think of the current rules regarding teacher tenure?
I do not believe "tenure" is a major problem in our schools, and I believe that when teachers are appropriately and consistently evaluated, failing teachers leave the profession or are supported to get better. I would support changes to our teacher evaluation system - I actually believe teachers themselves have a larger role to play in evaluating and coaching their colleagues and that a teacher-led evaluation system would be effective.
24. Do you think Prop 13 needs to be reformed? If so, in what ways? How will you use your position on the Board to advocate for this?
Yes. We should close the loophole that allows corporations the same property tax protection as individuals. I have consistently advocated for Prop 13 to be repealed and I will continue to do this.
25. Have you read Diane Ravitch's recent book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System?" What lessons should the District take from this work? Whether or not you've read the book, what role do you see for charter schools in the public education system?
Yes, I have read the book and think it is an important answer to the current narrative of "failing schools" that is so prevalent. I continue to be concerned about the overall impact of charters on our educational system. I supported new applications for Gateway Middle School and a new KIPP high school because both of these charter management organizations had established constituencies and a strong track record with their existing San Francisco schools, but in both cases I voiced strong reservations about the ongoing effect these schools might have on their district-managed counterparts. I voted against Rocketship, Mission Prep, and Flex Academy because I did not believe these programs were what our district needs. In general I believe charters siphon enrollment (and therefore dollars) out of publicly-managed school systems; that some charters are guilty of "cherry-picking" students and discouraging those who may take more resources to educate; and I am skeptical of claims that charters provide a better education than what can be had in traditional public schools.
26. How can the public schools better address the needs of Special Education students and ESL students?
I am very proud of the work we have begun in special education, and indeed improving special education was a centerpiece of my 2008 campaign. The audit we commissioned in 2010 finally told the truth about the state of Special Education in the district, and initiated a public promise by the highest leadership of the school district to do better. The work is slow, and there have been setbacks, but it is proceeding - we are spending much less on lawsuits and have replaced every single administrator in the department since I took office in 2008. I have brought my own special-needs child back to public school this year because I believe that the program is improving. Finally, I'm most proud of the fact that now students with disabilities may be fully-included at every school - a basic civil rights issue and something that was not district policy just four years ago.
We also have a long ways to go to serving English Language Learners well, but we have made progress in the last four years. We have completely updated our Lau Plan (required by the Federal Courts as part of our compliance with the decision in the Lau case) and increased the amount of English Language Development instructional minutes given to ESL students.