Talking Education With Stevon Cook

"The only source of knowledge is experience."
-Albert Einstein

Special attention is being paid to the upcoming Board of Education election for San Francisco's school district in light of a report released in December by the San Jose Mercury News that highlighted disparities in trustee pay at various Bay Area districts. The pattern the paper found was that low-performing school districts paid their trustees much more than high-performing schools. Some of the highest performing districts didn't pay their trustees at all.

Such disparities in pay highlight broader national themes regarding compensation for teachers and administrators who work in low-performing schools. Education reformers generally believe that paying educators based on their skills in improving student learning outcomes is a way to attract better talent to struggling schools and help change them. Critics of the movement point to larger social conditions, such as poverty, that cause low performance. Citing studies, many of them believe incentivizing teachers to improve test scores cannot achieve the systemic change necessary to bridge the academic achievement gap.

Stevon Cook, 28, a candidate for the San Francisco Board of Education election on November 4, took some time to talk with me about the crucial debate in education over how to help failing schools, along with other issues prominent in the campaign. Stevon, who works for the San Francisco Education Fund as a senior coordinator of high school and career programs, is in a unique position to comment on local and national education movements meant to close the achievement gap between low-income and high-income areas.

"I am a native of San Francisco," he said. "I grew up in public housing, low-income housing. And my home was torn apart by drugs and alcohol which led me to move in with my grandparents when I was 10 years old. Those first few years, with a lot of dramatic experiences, I developed a lot of issues around trusting adults, misbehaving. I was a very troubled young person. So that made school difficult for me. Folks didn't expect much."

Stevon's personal story of educational achievement--including graduating from Williams College in 2007--is one of inspired perseverance. The lessons he drew from his journey also inform what he views as the educational process and how administrative systems impact students.

I asked Stevon what he thought he could do to help change the San Francisco school system. "Ultimately I want to build a school system that puts students in a position to live here after they graduate," Stevon said. "San Francisco is dealing with a lot of issues around income inequality, displacement and people being kicked out of their homes. It's an incredibly expensive place to live. The school system is 90 percent students of color; 60 percent receive vouchers for lunch. If they're not prepared, they won't be able to live in this city. Income inequality is the biggest determinant of educational outcomes, more than race. We study race as a gauge of the achievement gap but really it's a lack of resources that plays out at every step of a child's life. As a school district, I want to deal with all the other things that address that reality."

In order to address issues of inequality, Stevon said he favors working with funding formulas in order to increase the amount of resources to support students, but recognized that money is tight. As recently as last year, California was 49th of 50 states in education spending per student. He also sees potential in forming public-private partnerships and recruiting philanthropy from the business community to help provide resources and form educational partnerships. The partnership model is having success across a range of educational initiatives and the World Bank is studying it.

After graduating from Thurgood Marshall high school and attending college, Stevon spent a year as a City Hall fellow in San Francisco and then returned to work at Thurgood Marshall as an academic adviser. He recounted how a change in leadership at the high school during his senior year resulted in an effort to weaken tough standards for credits needed to graduate. Thurgood Marshall had long been a school known for its ability to help young people of color get into college and many thought the strenuous standards were the reason for their success. But the administrative move backfired, inspiring protests and confrontations between groups over the reforms, one of which grew heated enough to warrant police helicopter patrol and a SWAT team. The school hasn't been the same since, Stevon said.

Part of Stevon's motivation for running for the Board of Education is making sure the school system's decisions do not result in punitive measures that students and teachers feel are unfair. "We want to put the best people in place to carry out what they need to do," he said. "For me, I want to be that voice for teachers and students because a lot of my teachers are still teaching in schools where they don't feel like they have people at the school who know how to do their job, teach. I plan to be a very active and engaging commissioner. But we don't meddle. We don't give a principal marching orders. It's about informing policy and making budgeting decisions for the district." Stevon favors restorative justice measures that provide alternatives to punitive disciplinary practices. He also favors coaching for teachers and increasing the number of school support professionals, such as nurses and social workers.

He wants to address teacher retention at low-performing schools by widening the support system for teachers, helping them to find housing and receive professional development. And he wants to begin standardizing preschool education and literacy in the early grades in order to improve post-secondary outcomes for students from San Francisco public schools. At the San Francisco Education Fund, he helped increase college acceptance by 33 percent for African-American students and 14 percent for Latino students at the three partner schools working with his non-profit.

In reflecting on his journey so far, Stevon came back to what was working so well at Thurgood Marshall High School before the 2002 school year. "What it built was a school culture and a staff that was able to create an experience in the school that led toward positive outcomes. I was a part of that and when I had the support of my grandmother combined with the influence of the teachers at the school, I was able to have experiences that changed who I was, how I fit in the world and what I can do through education." His plan for San Francisco involves nothing less than trying to give students in a similar position hope that education is the surest path to a more equal world.