S.F. school board candidates decry 2015 Arabic resolution

A San Francisco school board resolution last year approving Arabic instruction was a primary focus of discussion at a recent candidates forum hosted by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Eight of the nine candidates vying for four open seats on the seven-member San Francisco Unified School District board participated in the Sept. 7 forum at Congregation Emanu-El. Three candidates in the Nov. 8 election are incumbents.

The resolution, which passed unanimously in May 2015, approved Arabic and Vietnamese language and culture instruction in some K-12 classrooms starting in the 2017-18 school year. The point of contention in the resolution was a district recommendation to award a contract to the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center to “develop culturally appropriate professional development opportunities” for faculty.

At a meeting following the resolution’s passage, JCRC leaders objected to the school district’s partnership with AROC, pointing to executive director Lara Kiswani’s 2014 statement that “bringing down Israel really will benefit everyone in the world and everyone in society.”

 

Rabbi Carla Fenves (from left) interviews Ian Kalin, Matt Haney, Trevor McNeil and Phil Kim at JCRC education forum. photo/natalie orenstein

Criticism of the 2015 resolution continued at the JCRC forum, even though the school board later backpedaled from recommending a partnership with AROC. The district’s February 2016 feasibility study on the Arabic Language Pathways program did not include AROC among the list of resources for teaching materials or teachers.

 

Emanu-El Rabbi Carla Fenves, the forum moderator, called Kiswani’s statement “hate speech that feels anti-Semitic.”

“We’d like to know how you’d handle a scenario in the future in which an SFUSD partner is revealed to use hateful language against Jews or anyone who supports Israel’s right to exist,” she said to the candidates, who echoed one another in condemning the comments. Incumbents Matt Haney, Rachel Norton and Jill Wynns apologized for having recommended AROC.

Board president Haney, an author of the original resolution, said it was a mistake to name as a partner “an organization that has made such inflammatory or politically charged speech.” The goal of the resolution was to make marginalized students feel welcome and celebrated, he said.

The discussion about AROC led to a tense moment when an audience member interrupted the forum and was removed from the room by security guards.

“If you get elected, please don’t support JCRC’s tactics against Arab organizations in the social justice community,” the unidentified audience member yelled. “JCRC does not speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community.”

JCRC executive director Abigail Porth said after the event that she felt heartened by the candidates’ statements.

The incumbents “acknowledged they had made a mistake and were descriptive of the important advances that have been made to distance the district from AROC demonstrated leadership,” she said.

The education forum was among a series of events the JCRC is hosting to spur Jewish civic engagement and connect public officials with the Jewish community. On Sept. 14, the organization hosted “Civic Connection SF,” a gathering of local elected officials and candidates. On Tuesday, Sept. 20, panelists will discuss race and voting rights at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, and the focus will be on race and education at a forum on Sept. 27 at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

School choice was the other hot topic of the evening. Candidates discussed whether SFUSD’s lottery enrollment system decreases or perpetuates segregation.

Students enrolling in SFUSD rank their school preferences. If there are too many requests for a given school, the district uses a hierarchy of “tiebreakers,” such as residency in an area with low test scores. The lottery is meant to give all students an opportunity to attend strong schools. Instead, racial segregation grew in SFUSD in the years after it was implemented, according to district officials.

At the forum, Haney and fellow candidates Ian Kalin and Trevor McNeil called for an overhaul of the enrollment process, advocating for user-friendly technology and better communication from the district. Using race as a factor in student assignment, which now is illegal, would make the system successful, Wynns said.

Fenves asked candidates how they would address the district’s well-documented racial achievement gap.

“Paying teachers more, quite frankly, and improving working conditions,” Norton said, would ultimately boost student achievement.

Candidate Stevon Cook, who grew up in San Francisco public housing and attended Thurgood Marshall High School, said committed administrators and faculty enabled his success. Cook, who is black, said it is critical for school leaders to build inroads in the communities where they work, so they understand how to support students.

 “You can’t talk about literacy without talking about kids not coming to school hungry,” Cook said. “We have to address that we possibly have a school system that is not prepared to serve African American and Latino families well.”