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Politics & Policy

California math wars: San Franciscans demand return of 8th grade algebra

A group of lawmakers and residents rally outside City Hall in support of returning algebra to San Francisco middle schools.
A group of lawmakers and residents rally outside City Hall in support of returning algebra to San Francisco middle schools. | Source: Tita Bell

San Francisco lawmakers took an initial step in urging the city’s public school district to change its policy on algebra Monday, when a committee recommended that a policy statement be placed on the March 2024 ballot. The vote was taken after testimony from parents urging support for the policy change. 

The Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee voted unanimously to move forward with a ballot measure urging the San Francisco Unified School District to make first-year algebra available to middle school students by the eighth grade. The next step is for the entire board to vote on the issue on Tuesday, and most members are likely to support the statement.

Though they have no direct role in overseeing school curricula, some supervisors believe they have a role to play in educational policy. Last week, Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Myrna Melgar, along with SFUSD administrators, embarked on a junket to Japan to learn about math education

READ MORE: San Francisco Supervisors Fly to Japan To Learn About Math

Around 20 local parents packed into Monday’s hearing to support the algebra measure. Supervisor Joel Engardio, who sponsored the measure, held a rally outside City Hall before the meeting.

“The Board of Supervisors doesn’t have control over the school district, but every resident of San Francisco is our constituent, including parents and students, and their voices deserve to be heard,” sponsoring Supervisor Joel Engardio said at the meeting. 

Supervisor Joel Engardio listens during a City Hall meeting on July 11, 2023
District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio is sponsoring a ballot measure to make first-year algebra available to eighth graders in San Francisco's public schools. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

“[Algebra] was not something I did well with in high school; I was one of those students who was struggling to catch up,” Supervisor Matt Dorsey said. “I feel especially representing Mission Bay and Downtown, where so many companies need to make sure we are competitive and have a well-prepared workforce, I think this is part and parcel of that.” 

Board of Appeals Commissioner and attorney John Trasviña told the committee that “we can never have a policy that discourages Latino kids from reaching everywhere they can reach; that means having algebra in the eighth grade.”  

San Francisco public schools haven’t offered middle school algebra since 2015, when the district adopted a new curriculum that offered algebra one in the freshman year of high school, followed by geometry in the 10th grade and higher courses in the 11th grade.  

The goal was to keep algebra from becoming a barrier to further academic achievement, but it led to a stiff backlash from parents who argued that waiting until high school to offer algebra stifled pathways for students to pursue advanced STEM coursework, requiring them to double up on math courses further down the line. 

Algebra became a rallying cry during the 2018 school board race, and some school board members who supported the controversial move to eliminate it in middle schools—such as former school board member Alison Collins—were recalled in 2022.

“I was really shocked when I learned that San Francisco public schools don't offer algebra until ninth grade and that the workarounds for it are so difficult and so hard,” said Autumn Looijen, an organizer of SF Guardians, an activist group created during the recall elections, told The Standard.

“I have a kid who took algebra in sixth grade down the peninsula, and we also have a kid who went through the standard math pathways here, including doubling up in his junior year,” Looijen added. “It was tough, you know. That's a lot of math to learn in a short period of time during your junior year when you've got so many challenging classes going on.”