How SFUSD’s new superintendent says he’ll try to ‘rebuild trust’ with parents

Everyone just wants what’s best for the kids, Matt Wayne says, and it’s time to focus on that

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Matt Wayne holds a stop of his listening tour at Willie Brown Middle School in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, October 4, 2022.
Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle
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San Francisco’s school district has reeled from one crisis to another, frustrating parents. Many were furious schools didn’t return to in-person instruction sooner, while others felt their kids were being pushed back into underprepared schools. Attendance, academic achievement, students’ mental health and overall enrollment were all battered by the pandemic, while longstanding racial inequalities in student achievement only got worse .

At the same time, the Board of Education faced widespread criticism for a series of controversies . Voters overwhelmingly recalled three members, then elected two mayoral appointees and a more progressive challenger to replace them later that year. Between elections, the board hired new superintendent Matt Wayne.

Wayne, who took over the role in July 2022, is steering a district that’s still in trouble. There’s the ongoing meltdown of the district’s payroll system , chronic student absenteeism and a teacher shortage . A smaller student population, and associated budget decreases, are also concerns. After a precipitous drop in enrollment during the pandemic and only a partial rebound, the district now serves just under 50,000 students. Its most recent budget totals $1.1 billion.

“Now that we have these goals for student outcomes, we are going to need to both realign our resources and see how we can bring in additional resources,” superintendent Wayne said. “Those are going to be some difficult conversations because we can do anything, but we can’t do everything, as a district.”

Wayne spoke with the SFNext podcast Fixing our City to lay out his plans for steering the school district toward better literacy, addressing a payment system emergency and rebuilding trust with parents. You can listen by clicking the player above, or by downloading the episode on your favorite podcast app.

Below is a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo above: Matt Wayne gestures during a "listening tour" meeting at Willie Brown Middle School in October.

Laura Wenus (narration): San Francisco’s school district is weathering several different crises at once, so new Superintendent Matt Wayne started his job with many fires to put out. When we talked, I started with the concern I hear most frequently from parents and advocates: The achievement gap. Lots of students aren’t learning what they should be, and there are stark disparities by race. I asked Wayne for examples of interventions that he knows work to narrow or close achievement gaps.

Matt Wayne: Yeah. So, we're talking about addressing an issue that's very challenging for school districts. Right.

When student progress is being tracked and you understand where the student's starting and you have clear goals and a process, then whether you're talking at the teacher level or at the school level or even at the district level about how we're monitoring that progress, and then what steps are we taking to reach it? That in and of itself can serve as a very helpful intervention to move student achievement. And then, when there's programs and practices, instructional practices, when they focus on the foundational skills that students need, as well as the critical thinking and the and the broader skills that they need to be successful, that's been able to move the needle for student achievement.

So, for example, as a principal teaching at my school, we had a big improvement in math. We really focused on the students having those foundational skills while also learning how to problem-solve.

Wenus: Is there any way to track that without repeated testing, or is that sort of the way that you would see where a student is at?

Wayne: So you do need to use assessments to see where students are. It depends on what skill you're measuring. But what we are looking at in San Francisco, what I think is a helpful way to think about looking at the data, is: There different levels of data. There's the satellite-level data, the map-level data and the street-level data. So as a district leader, I look at the satellite-level data. That is looking at the state test scores to see how we're doing our district-wide assessments. As an educator, though, and a school leader or a classroom teacher, they want to look at what's called the map-level data or the street-level data. The map-level’s like, maybe the assessments they do with each unit that they're teaching. The street-level data is the day-to-day interactions they have with the students: How they’re responding to questions in a classroom, or how they're working together in a classroom. So that's just as important to move student achievement. But at the systems level, I'm looking at — and districts are looking at — those more standardized assessments.

Wenus: Is there any particular outcome for students — I don't know whether that's literacy or math achievement or graduation or readiness for the next grade — that is your top priority for improvement?

Wayne: Yeah. So over the past several months, the Board of Education went through a process to update its vision and values and establish goals for student outcomes. And so they have identified three goals for us to work on as a district where we are going to focus our efforts. It's third grade literacy, eighth grade math and college and career readiness. And we identified the baseline of where our students are at and where we want to go over the next five years. Then on the other end of the education spectrum, around college and career readiness, I appreciate the board adopted this goal. It’s based on the California dashboard that measures how students, when they graduate, how ready they are for college or career. Students can demonstrate this through different measures, through completing the A-G requirements, which are necessary to go to college. But they can also achieve this by being successful in community college classrooms, or by being in a career pathway where they earn a grade C or better. And what I really appreciate about this goal is it it gives students different opportunities to find their path for success beyond San Francisco Unified.

Wenus (narration): In San Francisco, the School Board sets policy while the superintendent is more of an executive role. Since Wayne says he appreciates that the board adopted a goal to get kids college and career ready, I wanted to know what policies he agrees and disagrees with — and where he might differ from the board. But it sounded like they’re in agreement.

Wayne: What the Board of Education did, they're going through a process with the Council of Great City Schools on effective governance. It involved establishing the vision, values and goals for students. And in order to do that, the Board of Education— as I said at the beginning, they're meant to reflect and speak to the values of the community— so what the board did is go out into the community to talk about what our priorities are. And, you know, as you can imagine, there are a lot of different conversations. But what I think they heard most overwhelmingly from the community is wanting there to be a focus on what's happening in the classroom and giving students the foundation necessary to be successful when leaving the district.

And so while in some cases, one might think, well, of course a school is going to work on literacy and math, by establishing these goals and having that be the focus, it's emphasizing that our core job is to make sure our kids are being educated and have those skills. And that's reflecting where the community is, that they want us to focus on what's in the classroom. So I actually really share those priorities because I came to the district with — and my background’s in education. I came up through the system as a teacher and as a school leader, not, say, in the business department or in the human resources department. And so I'm really pleased that this is our focus and this is what we're speaking to and working on.

Wenus: Yeah, I mean, readiness for career college makes a lot of sense intuitively, but why third grade literacy in particular?

Wayne: So when you look at a student's progression through education, third grade is considered a critical benchmark for students to be successful moving forward. So if a kid is not reading in third grade, there's a lot of evidence that with each passing year it becomes harder and harder for them to catch up.

Wenus: I want to talk about attendance a little bit. I was reading this analysis from the San Francisco Standard , and there are five high schools in the district that have a chronic absenteeism rate of more than half, which to me was sort of astonishing. Maybe that is not as surprising as it sounds to a non school-involved person. There's one high school, Ida B Wells, where it's more than 90%. I know that there's a lot of reasons why kids might not come to school. And of course, we are still in a pandemic and to some degree, COVID surges are playing a role here. But what do you think the first steps for addressing this need to be?

Wayne: So if you don't mind, I also want to back up and just explain chronic absenteeism. It refers to basically when students have missed 10% or greater of the school days we've had in a school year. I think that's way too much school for students to miss. But since coming back from the pandemic, we've seen, you know, that there's definitely been an increase in chronic absenteeism. Some of that is attributed to the fact that there is still COVID in our community. I mean, right now we're dealing with three different types of flus and we're seeing a spike in absences. And so students are falling into that chronic absenteeism range because of those current conditions.

Another reason is, coming back from school, we have had a challenge of, you know, after a year and a half of remote learning, integrating the students back into school and making sure that they're prioritizing being at school every day. We can't control the public health issues that our students are facing. But where we have influence and control and where we need to work with our students and families is on: Are there any other factors for why they're not coming to school? And so that's really where we have, you know, staff at schools whose job is focused on working with students and families and understanding what might be the root cause behind the student not coming to school, and then working as a team to address that.

Wenus: Is that working?

Wayne: Well, you still see that we have a lot of students chronically absent. So we're monitoring. I think we have a good system. We call it a Coordinated Care Team that's at a school that looks at that. So I think we have the right system in place, but we definitely need more resources. And I think it's going to take a lot of work, again, considering the environment we're in right now.

Wenus: You know, it's clear that you can't control that there is a pandemic. But aren't there mitigation methods that the district could adopt, like masking, for example, to try and control the spread of these various diseases?

Wayne: Yes. I mean, we're still encouraging masking and encouraging safe and healthy habits. So, you know, definitely, you know, that is something we can influence. But again, we're just, we see it's still impacting our students and, you know, and our staff as well.

Laura Wenus (narration): Superintendent Matt Wayne took over the top position in San Francisco’s school district at a troubled time. One major problem Wayne inherited: Some staff weren’t getting paid. In December, the district declared a state of emergency to get a handle on the problem. I wanted to know how that declaration would help.

Matt Wayne: So the district moved to a new payroll system back in January. And frankly, when we went to the new payroll system, it went live before everything was set up for it to run as smoothly as possible. And so while there's always some issues when transitioning to a new system, they have been, you know, becoming increasingly more challenging.

When it got to the point where it was clear that our current response was not going to address the magnitude of the issue, I felt it was important to declare a payroll state of emergency, to, you know, signal: We need to spend our time and energy on this. This is our top priority as well as organize our resources to support this effort. So through that payroll state of emergency, I have reassigned staff to a command center to follow through on a corrective action plan. So we do have other work that isn't happening so that we can make sure we're resolving this issue and our employees are getting paid accurately, all their benefits are in place, and we're responding to issues in a timely manner.

Wenus (narration): So what steps can be taken now that weren’t available without the state of emergency? Wayne says before the state of emergency was declared, the people who were working on implementing a systemic fix were the same ones who had to respond to individual problems as they cropped up. Now, there are several key teams mobilized to address the problem piece by piece. For example, there’s a systems team making sure the district’s software is configured correctly and communicating with the city’s programs that administer health benefits. There’s also a process team adjusting the district’s onboarding steps to make sure new hires’ information is entered right, and corrections don’t need to be made after the fact when pay issues arise.

It’s never a good time, exactly, for a district to struggle to pay its employees, but San Francisco schools are already short-staffed. I wanted to know how the district is attracting educators, especially since many other districts are also looking to hire.

Wayne: So we have many supports in place to retain educators. First, just recently, we reached an agreement to increase salaries by 6% for our educators. That's our teachers and our paraprofessionals. We also just announced the city allocated funding to be able to give a one-time stipend to educators to help retain them.

And then we also have developed innovative programs where we have a pathway to teaching program, where we can actually issue a credential to a teacher, and they're getting the training within our schools. We also look to have a program to support paraeducators for becoming teachers. We are working with the universities to help. And then lastly, and I think what you speak to when talking about payroll, there are working conditions that we need to improve to make sure our teachers know that when they're here that they're going to be supported and valued.

Wenus: You know, one thing that I've heard about teacher training programs is that often they rely on trainee teachers, or educators of any kind, who are at the beginning of their careers being stationed at schools that are struggling or distressed in some way. And I just wonder if San Francisco's programs for training depend on that as well.

Wayne: It's actually great. I got to see, when I got on board, the intern teachers that are in that pathway to teaching program work with their mentor teachers and those who are supporting them and providing them with the education they need to to get the credential. And these are experienced classroom teachers in San Francisco. And so that's what I think is really unique about doing the program ourselves, the intern teachers get the benefit of an experienced teacher working in the same context.

Wenus: Well, and is the internship program concentrated at particular schools?

Wayne: No. They’re where we see we have needs. And we do want to try to… I guess, yeah, they're where we have needs.

Wenus: And are there schools that have a particularly high or distinctly high rate of vacancy compared with others in the district?

Wayne: Yeah, so we do have schools that are harder to staff, and we actually provide an additional bonus for teachers that go to those schools.

Wenus (narration): These staffing difficulties are happening at a time when the district is under scrutiny for how much it spends on administration versus teaching staff. A few weeks after this conversation, the San Francisco Standard reported that a Budget and Legislative Analyst audit found that SFUSD spends more than similar districts, and has allocated more staff, to central administrative functions. It remains to be seen whether the report will lead to changes in how the district spends its money.

Meanwhile, there’s the question of attracting new teachers. I asked Wayne whether all of the benefits he laid out — the 6 percent raise, the retention incentive, the teacher training program and bonus for going to harder to staff schools — make SFUSD competitive.

Wayne: So we're definitely competitive. And I think something that's helpful, too, is that we offer health benefits. There's numerous districts in the area, and I'm coming from one, that didn't offer any health benefits support for staff. And so that makes a big difference. But we, you know, we want to do what we can to really stand out and to bring teachers in. And so we have upcoming contract negotiations with our educators again and know that, you know, we're looking at how we can invest to make sure that we're getting the best in San Francisco.

Wenus: I want to talk briefly about enrollment. I think that, especially during the pandemic, there was a lot of conversation about parents taking their kids out of the public school system and enrolling them in private school. What can be done to address enrollment?

Wayne: So my first few months in the district, I used this time to really listen and learn and get to know the community and understand the needs. And, you know, unsurprisingly, the biggest need, that short term need that stood out was the need to rebuild trust with our community and to help remind everyone the amazing things that are happening in San Francisco schools and ensure that people have confidence that when they send their kids to schools, they're going to be not just taken care of, but they're going to thrive. So we have a lot of work to do around the rebuilding of trust. And I know that in part contributed to families making decisions to go to other schools.

We want to demonstrate that, you know, the best decision for your child is to be in a San Francisco school. Because something I can say for sure is overall, as a district, we offer programs and opportunities that no other district, no other school can offer. I mean, we have so many different language programs that are amazing, our arts programs and our career pathways, that's something that other schools and districts can't compete with. And so, you know, really focus on rebuilding that trust and highlighting what you get when you have all your students in San Francisco schools.

Wenus: On that note. Can you share some ways in which you've reached out to, or made an effort to listen to, parents who either may be on the other side of the digital divide or may have a language barrier that makes it harder to access the district or you, its leadership, with their concerns?

Wayne: Being such a diverse city, San Francisco Unified already has a lot of effective ways to reach families through our translation department, making sure we're very conscientious about translating materials, to going out in the community, to working with community partners who might have connections with the families that we we don't have. I mean, for me, it's been important to be in community.

And so when I was doing my listening and learning, I had meetings at school sites and where I could talk directly with families, and then I was intentional about having those meetings being held in multiple languages. So I did four meetings. One of them, the primary language we spoke was in Chinese. So I, instead of having other people have to wear the translation headphones, I wore the headphones to listen, to be able to understand what the community was saying. And then we did another one in Spanish. Fortunately, I do speak Spanish, and so I was able to lead that one in Spanish. But I think, you know, we need to take those extra steps to make sure we're connecting with all of our families of students.

Wenus: Let's talk about some of your previous experience, because this is not your first rodeo and it's not the first time that you're taking over during somewhat difficult times. I believe your predecessor in the Hayward School District was actually fired. Do you have any sense for how your past experiences are shaping, how you're leading at SFUSD now?

Wayne: When I started in Hayward, there was a pretty tumultuous time. What I saw was, that led to there seeming to be divisions in the community about how to support the schools. But in the end, what I found was that Hayward— and the same in San Francisco, as I think would be the same anywhere— When you're talking about schools and kids, everybody wants the best for for their, for our, students. Right. So then it becomes having the focus be on students, student learning, and not on any of these adult issues. And that's what we were able to do in Hayward.

Everybody wants the best for their kids here in San Francisco as well. And then, the process we went through to identify our vision and values and our goals for student learning has helped bring people together to have the conversations that are necessary to get the focus back on student learning. And so we have a ways to go. But, that's how I lead and try to work with everyone. And by demonstrating that the conversations need to be about how we're helping students and how we're supporting our staff at schools. When the conversation is focused on that, that's when whatever divisions there were, come to the background. And in the foreground is what we need to do together to address our goals for student learning and, really, in San Francisco, to address the equity issues we see in education and, you know, how we're going to change that.