This is the fourth and final excerpt taken from Kristina Rizga’s new book Mission High. With her permission I have published descriptions of math, English, and history lessons. In this post, Rizga describes the principal of the school. Mission High School has 950 students with the vast majority coming from Latino, African American, and Asian American families. Seventy-five percent are poor and 38 percent are English Language Learners.
As the head of a school at which students carry passports from more than forty countries, Eric Guthertz probably has one of the most multicultural closets of any principal in the nation. Dressed in his usual getup this morning—slim-fitted, button-down shirt, dark grey slacks, and a large, black walkie-talkie pinned on his belt—Guthertz shows off dozens of his favorite clothing items that he wears throughout the year for various cultural events. Hanging on the wall in his office that doubles as a closet, there are several guayaberas—formal men’s shirts worn in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean—which he wears to the students’ Latino Club celebrations. There is a traditional Moroccan cream-colored shirt with black buttons that a student from Morocco gave him. The Black Student Union gave him a traditional kufi hat and scarf from West Africa. His favorite piece is a dark navy, three-piece suit that students from the Chinese Club gave him five years ago.
In Guthertz’s universe, hustling to find funding to keep Mission’s cultural clubs and events alive is as important as improving test scores. As an educator with twenty-seven years of experience in inner-city schools, Guthertz is convinced that multicultural and student-run clubs, after-school programs, and extracurricular activities not only engage more students in the core academic subjects, they also teach crucial skills for success after high school: familiarity with different cultures and worldviews, experience working through cultural misunderstandings with respect and common sense, and the ability to see diversity as an asset of a community….
Guthertz’s convictions come at a price. The continuity of school funding—and with that the job security of teachers and staff who run many of these programs—depends on the school’s ability to show consistent growth in standardized test scores. In 2009 Guthertz almost lost his job to secure SIG (School Improvement Grant) funding for the school, as part of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative. The $4 billion education funding package awarded competitive grants to states that agreed to meet a set of principles, such as using standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, easing restrictions on the number of charter schools, and restructuring or closing low-performing schools (as measured by test scores). Race to the Top offered hard-to-resist financial “carrots” during the economic recession to low-performing schools like Mission in exchange for “sticks.” Mission High had to choose between firing a principal, firing half of the teachers, closing the school, or replacing it with a charter school. The district found a loophole to avoid all of these scenarios. Guthertz had been a principal for less than two years and could be listed as a recently “replaced” principal. In 2012 the school’s score on the Academic Progress Index (API) dropped by one point (out of the total of one thousand maximum points any school in California can receive on its API, which is calculated primarily based on standardized test scores), and the school faced the loss of close to $1 million, about 12 percent of its annual budget.
The district appealed the decision and requested recalculation of the scores, which came back with a one-point gain, saving the jobs of at least seven teachers, Guthertz says.
Despite these external pressures to prioritize test scores in math and English, Guthertz refuses to tell educators at Mission to “teach to the test” at the expense of giving up rich curriculum or hands-on projects, field trips, and music and art classes, or of closing student clubs and elective courses. He is convinced that such a pedagogical stance pays off, and he has data about his school to prove it. College enrollment went up from 55 percent in 2007 to 74 percent in 2013. While the API index fluctuates from year to year, there has been an overall gain of 86 points since 2009. School attendance has been rising. The graduation rate went from the lowest in the district, at 60 percent in 2008, to 82 percent in 2013, on a par with the district average. The graduation rate for African American students was 20 percent higher at Mission than the district average in 2013. While the rest of the country is embroiled in a debate over how to reduce suspensions, Mission High has reduced its suspensions, from 28 percent in 2008 to 3.9 percent in 2014. In the yearly student and parent satisfaction survey of 2013, close to 90 percent said they like the school and would recommend it to others….
While Guthertz and his team spend at least half of their time building a healthy and inclusive school culture outside of the classrooms, most of the work that helps students develop as mature and compassionate adults happens in the classrooms, Guthertz says, echoing Pablo’s view. That’s why teacher-leaders and the administrative team regularly observe classrooms and comb through reams of data, paying particular attention to the number of referrals and suspensions, as well as the number of Fs and Ds desegregated by ethnicity and race, to see which students and teachers need extra support. When teachers struggle, Mission High provides one-on-one coaching by successful and experienced educators [at the school]. Teachers meet regularly to plan units together and analyze student work collectively. As a result, unlike most inner-city schools, Mission High has very low attrition among teachers—by district and national standards. Mission High is the only school in the district that teaches high numbers of African American, Latino, and low-income students and is no longer considered a “hard-to-staff” school, according to the San Francisco Unified School District’s chief communications officer, Gentle Blythe. “Mission High is famous at the district because it is known as a learning community and good, supportive place to work,” Dayna Soares, who has now been teaching math for two years, tells me. “It’s hard to get a job here.”
The Mission High School museum maintains a deep archive of historic photographs of the school and its people, athletic trophies, and articles, as well as newspaper clippings featuring alums. There are portraits of Nobel Prize–winning Maya Angelou, Grammy-winning Carlos Santana, and the award-winning chef Charles Phan. The museum is full of multigenerational stories, like the sister and brother security guards, Iz (or “Izzy” as the staff call her) and Ed Fructuoso, who both graduated from Mission High and still work here. Ed’s daughter, Reign, recently graduated from Mission High. Principal Guthertz’s daughter, Eva-Grace, started at Mission in 2014.
Almost every week a former graduate or a family member of a former graduate comes to Mission High to look at the graduation photos dotting the hallways and other memorabilia the school has been archiving in the museum, Guthertz tells me one morning in May 2014, as we walk down the hallway toward Mission High’s school museum. Just last week Veronica Gomez—the granddaughter of Mission alumnus Ronald Gaggero—came to see the school her late grandfather used to talk about when she was a little girl. Gomez told Guthertz that her grandfather dropped out of school in 1960 to enter the workforce just two months before he graduated. His girlfriend—who became his wife of forty four years—had gotten pregnant. Gaggero became a successful owner of several small businesses in San Francisco and raised three children with his wife, but he always told his granddaughter that his biggest regret was not getting his diploma. Guthertz and his team invited Gomez to attend the graduation of Mission High’s class of 2014 and presented her with an honorary high school diploma for her late grandfather.
Mission High serves an often overlooked but vital role in the community. It is a central meeting ground and celebration space for the predominantly working-class parents whose children go there, as well as a repository of its collective memories and community pride. The yearly choir and Latino Club performances bring out hundreds of parents. When in December 2014 the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown—unarmed black men killed by police officers who were later acquitted—sparked national protests across the country, Mission High’s Black Student Union organized a community event for students and parents in the city. The Gay-Straight Alliance, as well as Teachers for Social Justice, hold their national gatherings at Mission High….
Guthertz loves giving personal tours, including stops at the museum, to any outsiders who come to Mission, because he can show all of the qualitative and quantitative factors besides test scores, which he believes tell a more accurate story about the place that he has called home for thirteen years—first as an English teacher and now as an administrator. “We sent more African American students to college this year than any other school in the district,” he says as we enter Mission High’s school museum. “Our achievement gap in grades is almost half of that in the district, thanks to the hard work of our teachers.”
“Sorry, I talk too much,” Guthertz stops himself midsentence. “My father was a PR man,” he adds. “I probably get it from him, but we have such amazing students and teachers here. The best in the city, in my opinion.”