SFUSD Pink Slip Threatens Lone ‘Bridge’ to Samoan Community

SFUSD Pink Slip Threatens Lone ‘Bridge’ to Samoan Community

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SAN FRANCISCO – It’s lunch hour at Visitacion Valley Middle School, located in southern San Francisco. The halls are filled with screaming kids, when a young Samoan student saunters into Maua Teofilo’s office hoping to kill some time.

Teofilo tells him several times in English to come back later, to no effect. Then he mutters something in Samoan. The boy gets up and leaves.

“It’s more direct when I say it in Samoan,” says Teofilo. “It means more to them.”

Teofilo, 47, is the only parent liaison of Samoan descent within San Francisco Unified School District. In April he was among eight out of about 40 liaisons, paid paraprofessionals who act as “bridges” between the school and parents, to receive a pink slip from the district.

“I was hired in 2005 by the previous principal [at Visitacion Valley Middle School], who was looking specifically for a Samoan-speaking parent liaison,” says Teofilo. Ten percent of the school’s 400 students are of Pacific Islander descent, one of the largest concentrations in the district.

Teofilo says the idea when he was hired was to turn Visitacion Valley into a hub of sorts for educational resources targeting Samoan and Polynesian students. Concentrating such resources under one roof would also make it easier to draw funding from the district, he explains.

Samoans, and Pacific Islanders in general, are among the most at-risk student populations in the city. For the 2011-2012 school year nearly half of the cohort of 94 high school seniors of Pacific Islander descent dropped out, according to district data. There are just over 900 Pacific Islander students enrolled in SFUSD.

Statewide, the dropout rate stood at around 15 percent for the year -- double that of whites and roughly tracking the Latino rate of 16 percent. African Americans had the highest rate at 22 percent. The number of Pacific Islanders in higher education is equally troubling. Less than half of Pacific Islander adults over 24 have gone to college, according to UCLA’s Pacific Islander Education and Retention Program.

Teofilio fears the repercussions of that achievement gap could span generations. “I don’t want my people saying ‘Yes, boss’ for the rest of their lives.”

He put the question of his pink slip to board members during a May 14 hearing. “How can you consider laying off the last Samoan?” he queried, explaining that his work has gone well beyond that of his own community. “I’m very proud of my success at [Visitacion Valley] … in reaching the minorities that can’t be reached.”

Board members didn’t offer an answer.

Parents at the school credit Teofilo with helping to launch its first-ever PTSA group. Elisha Rochel is the parent of a seventh-grader at Visitacion Valley, where the majority of students – 72 percent – are low income. She is also the current president of the PTSA, which claims some 60 members.

An African American who grew up in the neighborhood, she initially did not want her daughter attending the school. “I didn’t like the environment,” she explains. But today she spends most days on campus helping to plan and organize events and, when needed, mediate conflicts.

Rochel, who was among those speaking on Teofilo’s behalf at the hearing, credits him with helping to galvanize the school’s parent community. “This gentleman has empowered us,” she told board members. “He has shown us how to make a presence at our school and be present … for all students.”

Parent liaisons are appointed to traditionally underperforming schools with a demonstrated need for more services. But like teachers and other faculty, they are subject to the annual layoff notices that get sent around as board members attempt to balance the coming year’s budget. Seniority usually determines who gets such a notice.

This year SFUSD issued more than 200 layoff notices, including 35 to paraprofessionals, an unlicensed position that is nevertheless represented by the teachers’ union. The district reportedly plans to move forward with 105 of them, despite a $50 million surplus in its reserve fund.

SFUSD Deputy Superintendent of Policy and Operations Myong Leigh acknowledges the surplus, but says that by the end of the year the figure is expected to fall by about $20 million. “So the fund balance that we project to end the year with is in the neighborhood of $28-30 million.” At the end of three years, the district is projecting a $60 million deficit in its general fund.

Leigh adds that annual notices are issued based on preliminary projections, and that as budgets begin to take clearer shape as the year progresses, “the notices are reduced.”

But critics of the practice say it erodes trust among teachers and staff. For Teofilio, the pink slip felt like a “betrayal of my community.”

SFUSD Spokeswoman Gentle Blythe says district employees who are certified as bilingual can be “skipped” in the layoff rounds, noting in Teofilo’s case that he lacks that credential. She adds that the school will still have a position for a parent liaison and that it can hire from within the district.

But chances are Teofilo’s replacement won’t be able to speak Samoan or be familiar with the culture. Teofilo is the only Polynesian liaison in the entire district.

Teofilo came to the United States with his family in 1984 after graduating high school. Back in Samoa, he says, parents typically take a hands-off approach to their children’s education, putting their trust “100 percent” in teachers and schools.

“Here in America, it’s the total opposite,” he observes. “Parent involvement is critical, and that’s the problem.” Teofilio says a lot of the Samoan parents he works with are less interested in hearing about the problems their children may be facing and more insistent that the school simply provide a solution.

“It’s a tough job,” he admits, “trying to get them on board.”

He also cites Samoans’ emphasis on church, as he puts it, over and above academia as another potential hurdle for parental involvement in schools. “The church is like the new village,” Teofilo remarks. For him, it’s the “school that needs to be at the center of community.”

Speaking at the May hearing, Teofilio recalled his late father, who spent close to 40 years working in education. It was something he couldn’t understand, given the high stress and low pay. Now, he said, after his years at Visitacion Valley, he understands.

“I know why he did it,” Teofilo told board members. “Because my people need help.”