By Joel P. Engardio
Two months into the school year, 31 students in the 5th grade are still without a teacher at Sunnyside Elementary. There has been a revolving door of substitutes after the regular teacher didn’t show up for the first day of class and has been absent ever since.
The school district said there have been four “primary subs” but parents said they have counted at least seven so far. The exact number of subs doesn’t change the fact that chaos has ruled the classroom – with inconsistent lesson plans and instructors not around long enough to know the names of the students.
“My son was very engaged in school. But this year he doesn’t want to go because he says he isn’t learning anything,” said Vega Freeman, one of the parents who participated in a school walkout last month to put pressure on the school district to hire a new permanent teacher. “5th grade is a very important year before middle school. It’s hard enough to keep kids engaged at that age and I’d rather my son not fall off the tracks now. I don’t want him entering middle school with the attitude that school is pointless.”
This week, Freeman began touring private schools to see if she can salvage what’s left of the 5th grade.
“I never thought I’d do private school. As a taxpayer, I really believe in public education,” Freeman said. “But 31 kids without a teacher lost in this bureaucratic vortex is beyond frustrating.”
Yet Freeman and other parents in her situation said they waited to take drastic action because Sunnyside is such a great public school and they want to stay.
Sunnyside has math and science enrichment instruction, a robust arts program and a three-year winning streak in the San Francisco History Day competition. There’s also a costume carnival, international potluck and a “Parents vs. Kids” soccer game. Campus renovations were finished last year and more than 200 parents are active in the PTA.
“We love the school and its community,” said Susie Mui-Shonk, who has daughter in the 5th grade. “This is not about Sunnyside being a problem school. This is about a game of chicken between the teachers union and the administration with the kids paying the price. And that’s a shame.”
Kerri Spruston, president of the Sunnyside PTA, said a resolution is needed for the welfare of current students -- and the school's future. Prospective parent tours began this month for next year’s enrollment.
“It makes me sad that some families might be turned off of public schools because of something that is happening at a district level,” Spruston said. “We all really want a permanent teacher in the 5th grade classroom as soon as possible but it is stuck in a union and human resources loop.”
Last month, 60 families staged a walkout at Sunnyside to protest the lack of action in hiring a new 5th grade teacher. The district provided a credentialed “core” substitute scheduled through October 31 along with a teaching coach and shared student teacher to offer additional classroom support.
But parents say they will organize another walkout if yet another substitute shows up in November. If the district won’t hire a new teacher, parents at the very least want the continuity of the same substitute for the rest of the school year.
“We understand parents are concerned and frustrated with the current situation,” said school district spokesperson Gentle Blythe. “There are processes and procedures defined by law and a contract with our teachers union that we must honor related to the rights of teachers.”
The teacher contract is 203 pages of dense text, but it doesn’t seem to have any answers for ensuring the right of 31 students to get a 5th grade education.
“The union is protecting a teacher that parents have complained about,” said Noell Toso, who has a son in the 5th grade. “We need to show empathy…but we also need to figure out how to get around the rules and hire a new teacher. Students should come first.”