Years of advocating for improvements to San Francisco Unified School District’s literacy plan are finally paying off. What started as a few people speaking up at occasional board meetings has grown to an energized movement that has won the attention of district leadership, the school board, local community, and the media.
San Francisco USD has been a balanced literacy district for many years. Some of the most well known balanced literacy programs include Lucy Calkins Units of Study, Fountas & Pinnell Classroom, Fountas & Pinnell LLI, and Reading Recovery. You will find all of these programs in SFUSD schools. Balanced literacy materials and methods do not work for a large percentage of kids, and are especially inappropriate, even harmful, to those with dyslexia, yet SFUSD has stood by this model for many years, until now. As a result of growing advocacy, the district may be on the cusp of change.
What lessons can we learn from San Francisco, to help build a movement in other districts:
1. Build a coalition
The San Francisco Dyslexia Parent Support Group served as a critical space for parents to meet, learn from one another, and join forces. At their monthly virtual meetings, parents helped one another understand their children’s needs and how to get them help. Fed up with what they had to go through, many parents then turned their energy towards improving the system so others won’t experience the same heartache and expense.
Teachers who understand the problem also joined the movement. As a result of a wave of recent media attention and exploding facebook groups on the topic, many educators have realized they weren’t sufficiently prepared to teach kids to read. Teachers are learning the district-provided materials and the assessment and intervention practices they are told to follow are ineffective. Not all teachers feel safe raising criticisms of their employer, which is why the voices of those who choose to speak out are so important.
A variety of other professionals, including psychologists, a pediatrician, and leaders from business and the public sector, added diverse perspectives on the problem. The literacy coalition also connected with other parent and community groups, which helped to amplify their message.
2. Expose the problem
Having the statistics on student performance in your district is critical. You need to know where the gaps are because the general district data often does not reveal which students’ needs are not being met. Two helpful resources are here and here.
In the case of San Francisco, the student achievement data showed a catastrophic problem. But, it was the findings of a K-5 curriculum audit, which elevated the conversation. All of a sudden, the typical excuses weren’t acceptable, as the findings of the audit pointed to a new why behind low reading performance: majorly deficient curriculum and methods of instruction.
3. Get involved
In San Francisco, members of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education have advocated for screening for risk of dyslexia and structured literacy for years.
Every district has stakeholder groups, such as CACs, LCAP Advisory Committees, School Site Councils and parent groups such as PTAs. These bodies offer important platforms for advocacy. When people advocate from across diverse committees and associations, leadership listens.
Connect with one of the eighteen Decoding Dyslexia CA parent support groups. If there is not a group in your community, we’ll help you get one started. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Spread the message
In just this past school year, members of the San Francisco coalition wrote op-eds, hosted inspiring talks and informational events, and brave teachers fed up with SFUSD’s practices were even radio show guests. Love it or hate it, social media is also important in growing a movement, and advocates got vocal there too.
So, the work is not near over yet, but the real conversation has begun. San Francisco advocates await the second wave of curriculum audit findings, expected in September, and from there they hope the district will develop a literacy plan based in the science of reading that San Francisco students deserve.