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Bridging The Gap Between The City And Its Schools

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If San Francisco's economic future depends on a well-trained workforce, we must address the growing trend of families leaving our community in search of better schools.

No matter how pure our intentions, it's clear that we are failing our kids. We have just 56,000 students, but deprive far too many of them access to a high-quality neighborhood school. Increasingly lean budgets have led to teacher furloughs and draconian cuts to critical programs like summer school, music and art instruction.

The list goes on...

I have worked for more than a decade on the cause of public school reform, and led cutting-edge efforts to support teacher development and improve student outcomes in our most under-served communities. I know firsthand that change is possible when we focus on four basic building blocks: the expectation that every child can succeed, a dedicated teacher and mentor, a culture of innovation, and a broad network of stakeholders engaged in the process.

To affect change system-wide, we need a stronger bridge between the city and its schools. Most importantly, we need a mayor who will function as Chief Education Advocate, and make school improvement a top city-wide priority.

We must start by addressing our school placement system, and the unnecessary safety and logistical burdens it places on students and parents. Over the last year, I've been to neighborhoods where twenty kids living on the same block, including siblings, all attended different schools. Just last week, I met a sixth grader from the Bayview at a MUNI Stop. Traveling alone, the boy said he had to commute over an hour each way on a public bus to Marina Middle School every day.

This is simply unacceptable.

With strong leadership from City Hall, we can ensure every child has the chance to attend a quality school within walking distance of home. We can also help our schools to identify new sources of funding, and mobilize neighborhood leaders, parents, non-profits, businesses and philanthropists in a sustained effort to make San Francisco a national model for educational excellence.

For example, through 2004's voter-approved Proposition H, the city has helped local schools address key funding gaps. We should reauthorize and reform this measure to allow for greater flexibility in how funds are spent, with the city's annual contribution increased to $100 million in exchange for SFUSD allowing parents to send their children to a school within walking distance of their home as a first choice.

In committing to neighborhood schools, the city can also take steps to give all children the best possible chance to succeed. We should invest in innovative models like the Tenderloin Community School or ER Taylor School's Healthy Start Program, which bring traditional curriculum together with other community services: including counseling, health, family support, and after school programs. This strategic framework will improve student achievement, youth development and family well-being. The mayor is uniquely positioned to bring together the resources needed to bring this concept from idea to execution in neighborhoods across our city.

As we work to make our schools more responsive to needs in our neighborhoods, we must remember that providing our young people with first class schools begins with building first class facilities. No student should feel as if they are going back in time when they go to class. That's why citywide initiatives like Proposition A, a bond measure and the final phase of an almost decade-long project to modernize our schools on this November's ballot, are so vital to our future.

Finally, we need to get the business and philanthropic community into the act. San Francisco is the innovation capital of the world and we need to bring that same culture to the cause of school improvement. City Hall can play a vital role in engaging private and non-profit sector leaders to help to develop, test and fund new ideas in the area of adaptive leaning and individualized curriculum, and to provide mentorship opportunities that raise the sights of students, and support the development of teachers and administrators.

San Francisco has the potential to become the model for excellence in urban education, but the time to act is now.

It will take leadership from the mayor, cooperation from the community, and a shared willingness to make our schools synonymous with innovation. In doing so, we will prepare our young people for the challenges of a 21st century economy, and put our community a step ahead in the global competition to attract new businesses and high wage jobs.

Joanna Rees is a mother, entrepreneur, educator, and candidate for mayor of San Francisco.