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City efforts to save John Swett Elementary fail

SFUSD Board of Education hears testimony from parents, school children
and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi who pleaded with Board members
to save John Swett Elementary from closure.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Aldrich M. Tan

April 26, 2006

Seven-year-old Elijah House gathers with a small group of parents, teachers and students in front of the Board of Education building on Franklin Street with banners, bullhorns and a united battle cry.

"Save John Swett!" House shouts with the crowd amidst rush hour traffic. "Save our school!" He points to his school, the John Swett Elementary School, a small multilevel tan building across the street from the San Francisco Unified District offices.

House is among the 232 elementary school students who will have to relocate to other schools or go to John Muir Elementary School, located a mile away, based on the Board of Education's decision to merge the two schools in January.

On April 18, the Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that would allocate $660,000 of surplus funds to keep John Swett open. However, a divided Board of Education decided not to accept the money, sealing the elementary school's fate at their Tuesday evening meeting.

"We have better uses for it if the Board of Supervisors wants to give us money," Board member Dan Kelly said.

SFUSD Board Member, Dan Kelly, voted against saving John Swett Elementary

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi on hearing the comments by Dan Kelly said, "I'd be very careful in making statements like that. Someone could interpret them as being racist and elitist."

John Swett is a school that provides opportunities for young kids from lower income backgrounds to have equal access to education, said Andrea Polizzi, who runs the "Up On Top" afterschool program at John Swett.

"Up on Top" has been working with John Swett for five years to provide arts, literacy and tutoring, Polizzi said. It currently takes care of 11 kids ranging from kindergarten to third grade. Many of the participants come from low-income families.

"How can these kids believe in college when they can't believe in the public school system?" Polizzi pleaded to the Board of Education. "Please take the money."

The Board's decision devastated Elijah's father Emmett House. House, a desk clerk, said he transferred Elijah to John Swett from Diablo Elementary School because he was behind the second grade reading level.

"My old school lets me play around too much," Elijah House said, "but my current school makes sure that I keep my reading level up."

Emmett said John Swett's afterschool programs make sure that Elijah is doing his homework and provides opportunities for Emmett to work with Elijah's teachers.

Elijah's grades have improved and he has developed an interest in studying since he transferred to John Swett. Elijah said his favorite teacher, Betty Whittsit, helps him with his homework.

"My son is not going to John Muir," Emmett House said. "He's going to Tenderloin Elementary. Going to John Muir would be a rewind when I want my son to move forward in life."

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi expressed his support for John Swett at a rally outside the Board of Education building.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, City's champion to save John Swett from closure,
orates a chorus of displeasure at SFUSD myopia.

"If this city is serious about attracting families, they would not be closing down important public institutions," Mirkarimi said. "This school must stay open."

Members of the Board of Supervisors are not the only high officials opposed to the board's decision to close the school.

"This venerable school is a deeply rooted institution in the Western Addition neighborhood and is home to one of San Francisco's most diverse student populations," said State Assemblyman Mark Leno, in a letter to the group. "Now that an alternative, feasible solution has addressed the fiscal concerns, the board has an opportunity to revisit its decision to close down this elementary school."

School board Vice President Sarah Lipson said she does not support the way that the Board of Supervisors is interfering with how the Board of Education restructures schools. Lipson said she is against the Supervisors' grant requirement to look at the possibility of John Muir becoming a K-8 school.

"I welcome discussion if the Board of Supervisors wants to give us money without policy conditions," Lipson said.

School Board member Sarah Lipson voted to save John Swett.
Now wants City money with no strings attached.

Board member Mark Sanchez asked the board to have a special meeting declaring the failure of the John Muir merger and accept the $660,000 to keep John Swett open with more accessible funds. Sanchez said the board's original 4 to 3 decision was a bad one.

"It makes us even more unlikely to receive any further grants from the Board of Supervisors," Sanchez said. "We owe the public the right to hear us as we make a yes or no vote to accept this money."

Board member Mark Sanchez voted to save John Swett, expresses consternation
at SFUSD decision to dump school materials
without consideration of multiple secondary uses.

Board President Norman Yee said he would not entertain Sanchez's request but he would welcome a discussion if any of the board members who did vote in opposition of the ordinance requested to bring the issue back to the table.

School Board President, Normal Yee, wants unrestricted use of City gifts.

"I personally like Dan Kelly's idea of renegotiating with the city to see if there is some flexibility in how the money can be used," Yee said.

A group of county community schools will move into the John Swett's facilities following the school's closure, school district SFUSD spokesperson Lorna Ho said.

Lorna Ho refutes claims of wreckless dumping of John Swett curricula items.

Ho said the items discarded at John Swett on Tuesday morning were old textbooks that are not part of the current curriculum. Mirkarimi presented Ho with photographs of the dumpster contents which included new books, unused boxes of markers and other school supplies.

Ho said she would need to verify the photos with the school district.

Ho holds up eveidentiary photographs of unused school items
presented by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi

Tonight's decision was not a complete loss said organizer Ali Blum from the District 5 Community Network.

"We've made our point and the Board of Education won't be making any more decisions like this in the near future," Blum said. "It's time to focus on the John Swett families and supporting them wherever they go."

Commenting on the effort of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to take control of the Los Angeles School District, San Francisco Mayoral spokesperson Peter Ragone said, "Different cities need different solutions. It's not a solution that the Mayor of San Francisco is considering but it may be right for Los Angeles."




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