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Is San Francisco About To Close Some Schools? Chinatown Could See the First To Go

Written by Ida MojadadPublished Jun. 09, 2023 • 1:37pm
Principal Wesley Tang, center right, and students participate in a Chinese New Year celebration at Jean Parker Elementary School on Feb. 25, 2015. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The San Francisco Unified School District is considering closing a Chinatown school and merging it with another, The Standard has learned.  

Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School—which is geared toward non-English-speaking Chinese immigrants and named after the late mayor—may be consolidated with Jean Parker Elementary School, also in Chinatown. Amid the district's structural budget deficit and declining enrollment, this would represent the first school closure or merger it has undertaken since it fell under state watch in 2021.

Details are currently scant, so when this may ultimately happen is anyone’s guess. But the district said there are no changes for the location of the newcomer school “to begin” the next school year and no staffing or programming changes for the entire school year. 

“SFUSD is proposing to relocate [the newcomer school] to co-locate with Jean Parker Elementary to provide students with the best educational experience possible,” district spokesperson Hong Mei Pang said in an email. “We are prioritizing the continued access to newcomer programs and services for families and staff, while minimizing disruption to staff and instruction. We are actively engaging the community to understand the impact of our proposal.”

Educators tell a different story. Teacher Terence Li said that staff at the newcomer school have sought information since January, when the district relayed changes may be coming but largely kept mum on specifics. 

All that changed during a Zoom meeting in late May. Days before the end of the school year, Li said district representatives told staff for the first time that the school would be moved in August. 

Last week, one day before the school year ended, representatives from the school district met with families who opposed this sudden change, giving them only a day’s notice. After that discussion, the August move was called off. 

“We all definitely felt pretty blindsided by this, but we're willing to make it work,” Li told The Standard. “I felt it was really disrespectful that they wanted to push this through. Things are happening to us without dialogue with us.” 

The First in a Series? 

The question of whether the San Francisco Unified School District would have to close schools has loomed large since the pandemic. Later this month, the district will vote to approve a balanced budget for the upcoming school year, but anticipates a $87.6 million deficit when accounting for new labor costs from ongoing contract negotiations as staff vacancies proliferate.

Superintendent Matt Wayne is preparing a fall plan to map out an ideal school site structure and staffing, according to Board of Education President Kevine Boggess, who does not expect further proposals or mergers before then. 

“We’re not in a place now where we have to consider closing schools to adjust our fiscal deficit, but we are examining if schools are able to function,” Boggess told The Standard. “There is definitely a possibility, as we examine our school portfolio and adjustment enrollment, that we’re going to have to consider whether schools are sustainable.”

A Google Streetview composite shows Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School, left, at 657 Merchant St., with Jean Parker Elementary, right, at 840 Broadway. SFUSD has a proposal to merge the two schools, both located in Chinatown. | Google Street View

Boggess previously indicated to the San Francisco Bay View publication that without solving the deficit issue, the equivalent of 30 to 40 schools were under threat of closure in the near future. He told The Standard it was a “worst-case scenario” and doesn’t think it is likely to happen.  

Last year, the Oakland Unified School District put forth a highly contentious proposal to consolidate several schools. Due to community pushback, most mergers did not occur, but the topic has been subject to further consideration in a political back-and-forth

Testing the Waters

Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School began the 2022-23 year with about a dozen students and ended it with about 40. Li noted that new students need frequent one-on-one time to understand the basics of English and would fall further behind in a general education classroom with more than 20 students. The school is designed as a one-year transition for newly arrived families, which accounts for its fluctuation in enrollment. 

As district leaders begin to examine which schools may shutter, its educators have expressed misgivings about how the process may affect a small school with a unique purpose and structure. 

Li said that he suspects the district may change its plans again over the summer while teachers and families aren’t as plugged in, and that it ultimately wants to merge the schools but doesn’t know how to enforce the closures. Teachers have questions about how the district will provide proper support for newcomer students if they’re transferred to Jean Parker, and what happens if enrollment goes up again due to unpredictable immigration patterns. 

“There is no defined timeline at the moment, as the proposal was exploratory in nature,” Pang, the district’s spokesperson, wrote in response to questions about timing. “We are committed to offering opportunities for community engagement so that we can better understand the impact of our proposal, and will be sharing additional information with families and staff in the fall.” 

Li said he will be spending his summer break organizing families and community members invested in the school. 

“If the district is intending to move us or merge us with another school, we want to know it’s happening for a good reason,” Li said. “If we truly care about newcomer students and supporting them, it’s important that this school continues to exist.”

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