A sixth-grader from San Francisco was enrolled in a public college but never showed up. She still has A’s

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Lila Nelson usually likes receiving report cards for her high-achieving daughter, Miriam, but the transcripts from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in San Francisco giving the 12-year-old a few A’s didn’t make her proud. They made her confused and angry.

Nelson, a single mother from Bayview, removed Miriam from the public school district after fifth grade and got financial aid at a parochial school where her bright sixth-grader is thriving. How did her daughter get A’s at a college she never attended?

But what I thought was one more chronicle of government incompetence, San Francisco’s specialty, turned into something deeper: a window into one of the toughest and most stressful college years since decades.

A shortage of teachers, a shortage of substitutes, declining staff morale, an unending pandemic, a budget crisis, relentless politics and struggling children in the wake of distance learning have contributed to a school climate extremely difficult. And one with so many cracks, it’s possible a girl who never showed up in sixth grade might fall through them.

“We have never had such a situation. Never,” Martin Luther King director Michael Essien said of Miriam’s report cards. “Just to be clear, that’s still not an excuse. This means that at some point in the system, we failed in our work on the school site by taking basic steps and doing our due diligence.

Principal Michael Essien is the latest to graduate from Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in San Francisco. “It’s the perfect storm of everything,” he says. “This year has been crazy.”

Felix Uribe/Special at The Chronicle

Essien, a popular and respected educator for 30 years, including nine as Martin Luther King principal and president of the principals’ union, said the 2021-22 school year was by far the toughest of his career, and the demands placed on its staff have been enormous.

“It’s the perfect storm of everything. It’s been a crazy year,” he said in a wide-ranging interview in which he sounded exhausted.

The newsletter saga began in the fall. Miriam attended public school until fifth grade, but her mother watched her spark and love of learning fade during boring, endless Zoom School. She elected to move her to a parochial school for sixth grade and did not participate in the San Francisco Unified School District middle school lottery.

Miriam still received a placement, which a district spokesperson said is normal and meant to help parents who accidentally miss the deadline. When Nelson continued to receive daily robocalls announcing that her daughter was absent from a college she was not attending, she spoke to two people at the school about the confusion. They said they would fix it.

But the calls kept coming, and then the report cards too. Her first progress report showed Miriam getting A’s in study skills and social studies, a C’s in physical education and “passing” or “no grades” in the rest. She received full credits for every class except science. By the end of the semester, she was still getting an A in social studies and had raised her physical education grade to an A. The rest were Fs or “pass.”

Her absences varied by class from 51 to 82 even though she had been absent every day. Nelson said no one from school or central office ever called to ask why Miriam wasn’t there.

Principal Michael Essien speaks with staff in 2016.

Principal Michael Essien speaks with staff in 2016.

Connor Radnovich/The Chronicle 2016

Nelson, who is black, said district officials say they “care so much about the education of black students and the well-being of black families, but you’re not really connected to the students or the families. . You can’t be. You are not related to my family.

She said it made her wonder if the school district with a longstanding academic achievement gap between black students and their white and Asian counterparts was paying full attention to the academic and social needs of other black students. they didn’t even notice that her daughter was missing.

As for Miriam, she loves her new parochial school.

“She’s completely back to being herself,” Nelson said.

The year was much more difficult at Martin Luther King. Seventy-one percent of his children at the school, in the Portola neighborhood but serving children in the southeast sector of the city, are from low-income families and 28% are learning English. Its student population is almost entirely made up of children of color.

Essien said pre-pandemic enrollment hovered around 450 students. This year, he said, it’s down to 386 students, and many aren’t showing up. No-shows have been a problem all year, but got worse during the omicron surge.

“We don’t even get 85% attendance,” he said. “There are times when we’ve had over 100 kids missing.”

He said he doesn’t know all the reasons why the children are not attending, but that parents’ concerns about exposure to coronavirus are significant. Teachers have also been absent in large numbers all year due to concerns about their own health, the potential spread of the virus to vulnerable family members or simply feeling overwhelmed, he said. Some positions he has posted have not received any applications.

There are so few replacements available that every adult in the building takes over, as do some central office administrators.

Essien said the school had a long focus on project-based learning, but teachers didn’t have time to collaborate and prepare for their lessons, which frustrated him and his staff. Much of her time is spent tracing contacts when teachers or children fall ill.

Essien said a huge help would be for the health department to take over contact tracing and other elements of the fight against the coronavirus so that teachers and principals can “get back to full-time focus.” on student education.

Children also have a hard time. Eighth graders arrived in the fall without having been inside a school building since they were in sixth grade. There’s definitely a learning loss, Essien said, but he’s more concerned about the social and emotional effects of such a long period of isolation.

“Even the best remote learning that was happening was not good for the kids,” he said, noting that some students’ social skills have declined significantly and they struggle to work with each other. others or even ask questions of their teachers.

Regarding Miriam’s report card, Essien said the social studies teacher had been away all year for personal reasons and the children had had a series of substitute teachers. Because of this, the school gave everyone in the class an A – including Miriam.

“It was just based on the fact that the kids who didn’t have a teacher all year didn’t get failing grades,” he said.

Principal Michael Essien, the latest to graduate from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, spends much of his time tracing contacts.

Principal Michael Essien, the latest to graduate from Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, spends much of his time tracing contacts.

Felix Uribe / Special for The Chronicle

It is only in recent days that candidates have emerged as long-term replacements for the social science professor. He said he didn’t know why his PE teacher gave him an A. He said he checked with all his supposed teachers, and they all said they never checked him out. view.

Essien said that when a registered student does not show up, the school reports the absences to the central office, which should remove the child from its computer system. Apparently that didn’t happen with Miriam. He said if a child has attended school and then stops coming, teachers often go to great lengths to register – sometimes even driving to the families’ homes.

School district spokeswoman Laura Dudnick said of Miriam’s report cards, “It’s the first time something like this has caught our attention.” As for Essien’s lamentations over the school year, Dudnick said the district “offers many tools” to help children struggling with the effects of the pandemic, including expanded mental health services. She said the district is trying to recruit new replacements and pay them better to deal with the teacher shortage.

Essien said the school district was plagued by politics and adult infighting and not child-focused. For example, the school board voted in 2020 to cut ties with the police department, a vote he said his families opposed.

Essien said a police officer worked closely with Martin Luther King students, taking them camping and even writing a play about bullying they were about to perform before schools closed in March 2020. Now , this relationship was broken.

Overall, he said, the focus on the city and the school district has veered off course and become “highly political” to the detriment of children.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what’s going on in SFUSD right now,” he said. “It’s an adult thing. It’s one thing to advocate for children’s needs, and it’s another thing to respond to children’s needs. We don’t have the conversation about meeting the needs of children.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]: @hknightsf

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