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San Francisco schools have started and there are hundreds of teacher vacancies

Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

As San Francisco’s public school students pour back into class on Wednesday, the district once again confronts multiple crises.

The San Francisco Unified School District welcomed roughly 49,000 students during a time of year typically filled with excitement and nervousness, particularly for kids starting at new schools or high school seniors in their final year. Parents in the Richmond District could be seen wading through the fog in puffer jackets, holding the hands of their small children to usher them to school.

Superintendent Matt Wayne greeted families in the morning, kicking off his second year in the role. Since starting in July 2022, he has faced a payroll crisis, large staffing vacancies, chronic absences and other persistent issues. Since then, Wayne has embarked on a listening tour and shaped academic goals with the Board of Education for the district while also reshaping the central office structure

“We have made real progress in our operational issues,” Wayne told The Standard at Aptos Middle School in Ingleside. “We have a good foundation from which to work, but we’ve got to get results done.”

Both the district and the teachers’ union chose to celebrate the new year on campuses with a community school grant, a bright spot for education in recent years. At the state level, California is doling out $4 billion to schools statewide over seven years, giving San Francisco $34 million in 2022 and another $24 million this year. 

At Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School near Japantown, kids started the school day by heading straight toward the playground. Principal Jeri Dean later amped them up with a brief assembly, where teachers and staff received a round of applause. 

As Destiny Haskell watched her second-grader reunite with friends, she said she couldn’t wait for him to start school again. Her son has attended Cobb Elementary since kindergarten, providing her family with a strong support system.

“If I tell someone, they’ll do their best to try to help me,” said Haskell, who lives in the Tenderloin. “Every kind of support you can think of, from housing to mental health.” 

However, some issues appear almost intractable, such as glitches in a payroll system that have still affected more than 2,000 staffers.

School officials grappled with 603 classroom vacancies going into this academic year. That figure is up from 464 last year and 350 vacancies for the 2021-22 school year as teachers hit their burnout thresholds. Like in previous years, district staff have been reassigned to fill classrooms while the district scrambles to fill the positions permanently.

The district may not know how many more teachers it needs until the end of the day, Wayne said. School board member Alida Fisher said that, as far as she was aware, there were more than 100 teachers and more than 100 paraeducators needed.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to build the confidence in the teachers out there to come work for SFUSD,” Fisher said. “[We’re] really focused on giving our teachers and school sites the tools they need to be successful.”

The start of the year also comes with the district in the throes of labor negotiations, which began in early 2023. Teachers are seeking substantial raises to recruit and retain teachers in an effort to stabilize schools while the district contends with declining enrollment—and, therefore, fewer state funds. 

Then there’s perhaps the thorniest issue of all: potential school mergers or outright closures, like the one looming at the Edwin and Anita Lee Newcomer School.

Many parents, however, are looking toward the district to make good on ambitious academic goals by 2027 and promises for curriculum improvements to make those possible. Parent demand has contributed to the district, working to overhaul how both literacy and math are taught to students.  

But the San Francisco Parent Coalition is looking for signs this year indicating that meeting those goals by 2027 is possible. 

“I think this year will be a really telling year,” said Meredith Dodson, a parent in the district and the coalition’s executive director. “They set the goals and guardrails, but can they start to make the shifts that will enable the board to move toward their goals? If we just keep the status quo, nothing changes.”

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