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The Good Fight

San Francisco's superintendent takes on "mission impossible"

"I started boxing when i was seven years old," says Carlos Garcia, superintendent of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). "You know what boxing teaches you? You get knocked down, but then you get back up."

That's exactly what Garcia plans to do in the wake of the financial crisis currently pummeling California. Garcia just saw his $400 million budget slashed by 25 percent, creating a $113 million deficit. Garcia calls these cuts "the greatest we have ever seen in public education, on par with the Great Depression."

He paints a bleak picture, to be sure, but Garcia is what he says he is: a fighter. He is currently looking into filing a lawsuit against the state of California for inadequately funding public education, and he is trying to rally the public to demand more money for schools. Still, taking on Sacramento doesn't mean he can ease up in his most important endeavor: to educate every student in his district every day, despite the lack of resources.

"There's not a day that I don't get in my car to go to work and play the theme music from Mission Impossible," he says. "But I truly believe you can't have a democracy without a great public school system, so I'm going to fight for it."

Rooted in His Own History
Garcia grew up in the barrio of Los Angeles harbor and is a product of Los Angeles Unified School District. He hung out with a rough bunch of kids and easily could have slipped through the cracks if not for one teacher who noticed him in the crowd. Rita Steele repeatedly told the then seventh-grade Garcia that she saw leadership potential in him.

"I was embarrassed to be seen talking to her," Garcia says. "I didn't want to ruin my reputation." But Steele was persistent, and the next thing Garcia knew he was the student body president.

This modest beginning led Garcia to a career in education, as a teacher, a principal, and then as an administrator. Under Garcia's tenure as principal of Horace Mann Middle School in San Francisco from 1988 to 1991, the school was designated as both a California Distinguished School and a Blue Ribbon School. Before joining SFUSD in 2007, Garcia was a superintendent elsewhere for 11 years, heading up large urban districts such as Fresno (CA) Unified School District and Clark County (NV) School District.

Garcia credits Steele with his success. "She saved me," he says. "She also made me realize how important it is to connect with our students and forge better relationships with them."

Equity in Education
Of all the challenges educators face, Garcia sees closing the achievement gap as the top priority, and he frames it as a civil rights issue. "In education, back to the civil rights movement, we have been talking about equality," says Garcia. "But, and this is easy to say in hindsight, we should have been talking about equity."

Fortunately for Garcia, he does not see building equity in schools as 100 percent reliant on funding, although, he admits, money always helps. His focus is on changing the culture in his district. He hopes to create a mind-set among teachers, students, parents, and administrators that all students can achieve academic success in a challenging curriculum and go on to a post-secondary education.

"We want to demystify college," Garcia says. "We are talking now to the parents of our youngest students about what their children need to do—from elementary school through high school—in order to get into college down the road."

To train teachers how to set high expectations for all students, the district has created Equity-Centered Professional Learning Communities, in which teachers come together to share best practices. The goal is to make lessons more relevant to the students. Garcia hopes teachers will learn to introduce more critical thinking into their curriculum and foster what he calls "joyful learners."

"You learn more if you're having fun," Garcia says. "We need to get students excited about learning."

As of next year, SFUSD will open all of its high school AP and honors courses to any students who want to take them. A number of SFUSD students have already transferred from the district's base curriculum into honors courses. According to Garcia, these primarily African-American and Latino students have reported back that although the classes were more challenging academically, they were also much more engaging. "If that's the case, we need to offer these classes to all our kids," Garcia says.

The Challenges
Despite California's economic collapse, Garcia says it's critical to identify certain targets and work on hitting them. In grades K­–3, he has asked his staff to hone in on literacy. In grades 4 and 5, the emphasis is on math. For middle schoolers, the plan is a dynamic curriculum that will keep kids excited about learning through high school and into college.

Although he knows the cutbacks will not allow him to do everything he wants, his vision remains clear. "On the back of my business card I have a little saying that I wrote up many years ago," Garcia says. "It goes, ‘Our schools will not be good enough for any of our children, unless we can make them good enough for all of our children.'"

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