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How can San Francisco support its most vulnerable black residents? Help them succeed at school.

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Lee Romney
Kevin Williams, left, and Stephren Ragler, right, hoist up kids during some horseplay at the Walking School Bus gathering that takes place each weekday morning at the Alice Griffith housing project.

This is part of an ongoing series “Learning while black: The fight for equity in San Francisco schools.”

San Francisco’s African American community has shrunk by half since 1970. Of the families that remain, nearly a fifth live in public housing or get a rental subsidy. Now, a city effort is turning public housing into a key front in the battle to improve educational outcomes for African American kids.

At a community room at the Alice Griffith housing projectjust after sunrise, a bunch of squealing kids are sprawled on exercise matts, working on their abs. They’re at a before-school program and all of them live in the project’s new blocks of pastel-colored apartments — some directly above this room.

When they stumble in sleepily, two young black men are here to greet them, for a little mind and body grounding.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
The Alice Griffith housing project, formerly known as Double Rock, is among four HOPE SF sites that have undergone redevelopment by the city in partnership with federal housing officials. HOPE SF has brought services in to the mixed income development, among them educational liaisons.

“If you can tell me why we meditate you can do a walking meditation, Felton,” Kevin Williams, the housing project’s educational liaison tells one boy.

Felton nails the answer: “So we don’t have to get in trouble and we get our mind right, and we get every single paper A plus,” he says to murmurs of approval from the adults in the room.

Williams is 29 with a neatly trimmed beard and today he’s wearing a purple T-shirt that says “School is My Hustle.” His sidekick is Stephren Ragler, who’s singing a little Bob Marley this morning. Ragler’s 23 with mellow energy. He sports stylish heavy-rimmed glasses and converse sneakers. He’s a student government vice president at San Francisco State University, too.

San Francisco’s African American community has shrunk by half. since 1970, and of the families that remain, a fifth live in public housing or get a rental subsidy. So when the city decided to try to retain and support black families, focusing on public housing made sense.

A city initiative called HOPE SF has been collaborating with federal housing officials to reimagine some San Francisco’s projects — including this one: Rebuilding them as mixed income housing and bringing in services: Nutrition classes, job training — and educational liaisons like Williams.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Felton, right rear, and another girl help serve breakfast at the Walking School Bus at the Alice Griffith housing project one morning.

After a quick breakfast, everyone piles out the door to walk to Bret Harte Elementary School just a few blocks away. Plenty of parents and guardians here have trouble getting their kids to school — for all kinds of reasons. Having Williams and Ragler as escorts every morning at what they call the Walking School Bus helps.

Outside, one mom of a 3-year-old asks Williams if her son can join in. He goes to a pre-school that’s located at Bret Harte. Williams tells her sure. None too small to take part.

Williams and Ragler aren’t teachers. They work for a neighborhood nonprofit called 100% College Prep that partners with HOPE SF to support kids in public housing. The men are grassroots educational advocates. And they’re important, because even a great school can’t give these kids everything they need to succeed. It takes more: more attention, more knowledge of their home circumstances.

Williams and Ragler are part of a big web of support that’s surrounding the kids from this housing project.

When their group gets to the crosswalk near the elementary school, it’s time for a daily ritual — a song, more of a chant really, that Williams wrote with help from the kids.

“Keep it moving keep it moving, what? We ain’t got no time to be cruisin. It’s the Walking School Bus and the people we trust and at the end of the day all we got is US!” they shout.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Robin Robinson, a grandparent volunteer with the Alice Griffith housing project's Walking School Bus, heads to the corner across the street from Bret Harte Elementary, where the kids sing their special song each morning.

The chant’s a little thing, but as the educational liaison for the housing project, Williams is big picture: He tracks how all the children are doing in school and designs programs to help them do better.

And Ragler? He follows the kids into the classroom, to keep an eye on them during the school day and help them with their work. Bret Harte Elementary’s principal, Jeremy Hilinski, loves these guys.

“The more kids that show up to that breakfast the better,” he says as the kids stream onto the school field for morning assembly. “They get here on time. They’ve got good rapport with Steph and Kevin and then they show up. Like Felton. Felton used to be kind of a hot mess, and he’s here smiling in the morning now. I’m telling you these differences are tangible. Like you could see it. Two African American men.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Stephren, far left, and Kevin talk with students on the schoolyard of Bret Harte Elementary after arriving with the Walking School Bus. "They know all the kids," Principal Jeremy Hilinski says.

Two African American men. That’s important, because more than half of the residents at the Alice Griffith housing project are African American too. Ragler says, “if they don’t have a father they’re looking for a father figure to like attach on to, which is sometimes the reason why they act up in class.”

Ragler gets it. His mom is a single parent too, he shares, “so I definitely see the struggle.”

Some of San Francisco’s African American students are doing really well, and some are thriving. But data from the San Francisco Unified School District show that overall, as a group, black students post some of the highest absenteeism rates. HOPE SF data show that at half its sites — including the Alice Griffith housing project — African American kids were even more likely to miss school.

That’s why Theodore Miller, the director of HOPE SF created the position of “educational liaison” — to make sure these kids get to class.

There’s more. As a group, African American kids by far score the worst on the district’s standardized math and reading tests. It’s been that way for decades — here and around the country. A recent analysis of data for students who live at the housing projects supported by HOPE SF showed their scores were even lower.

That’s why Williams passes the baton to Ragler every morning. He usually spends about two hours in each classroom. He gives any student who needs it extra support, but he keeps a special eye on the kids from the Alice Griffith housing project who go to this school.

This morning, he heads to a fourth grade class. It’s not a quiet classroom. The teacher spends a lot of time just trying to get students to calm down. Ragler stands in the back of the room. He notices one kid hitting himself on the head with a book and jots it down. It might mean the boy is struggling with something that’s distressing him — or he might just be bored.

Some kids start doing their work — book reports in the form a letter to the teacher — and Ragler glides around, squatting next to them to help them out. He asks them about the books they’re reading, and helps them with their spelling.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Stephren Ragler, whose title is student success coach, follows the kids into the classroom at Bret Harte Elementary School to help them with their work.

Two of the students are in their fourth schools — and they’re only in fourth grade. That bouncing around makes it harder for them to trust the adults here. On this day, one boy — who Ragler says is super sharp — can’t sit still. Ragler tries to stick close to the boy, to show him some love.

“That’s all I gotta do,” he says. “That’s all I’m trying to do.”

When a classmate taunts the boy, calling him “crackhead,” it just makes things worse. The teacher tells the other kid that’s unacceptable, but the damage is done.

“I ain’t got my notebook!” he screams.

“Why are you yelling? No one’s yelling at you,” the teacher tells him.

“Because!” the boy shouts. “Because. Because!”

Ragler moves in close to do something simple. Show the boy he cares, that he’s there.

“Come on, I got you,” he tells him in a low voice. “We good.”

HOPE SF created the job of educational liaison in in public housing in response to high absenteeism rates. But HOPE SF itself grew out of something called the Seven Corners Study which looked at child behavioral health, child welfare, juvenile delinquency, school attendance problems. It found that the neediest kids in the city were concentrated at seven San Francisco intersections. Almost all were in or near public housing, and almost all were in disproportionately African American neighborhoods.

The circumstances these kids contend with are all over the map, though. Some just don’t get enough sleep, Mom works graveyard shift, auntie isn’t as strict, they stay up too late, that kind of thing. Others are dealing with family deaths, and a lot more. Back at Williams’ office at the Alice Griffith development, he says lots of kids here experience violence and family addiction or incarceration.

“High rate, high rate. Very much so, high rate, high, very high,” he says. “They’re dealing with that, I don't want to say on a daily basis, but they've been exposed to a lot here.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Kevin picks a different African or African American leader to discuss with the kids each week at the Alice Griffith housing project. There's exercise, breakfast, and meditation too, to help the kids self-regulate. "They've been exposed to a lot here," he says.

Williams’ job has more moving parts than Ragler’s. He explains that he’s an educational liaison not just for the kids, but for parents and guardians, to help them support their own children. The idea behind the Walking School Bus, he says, is not to have high numbers, but “to get the kids that are struggling with attendance into the school, and the overall goal is to have self-sufficiency, to get parents to walk their own kids to school.”

If a kid’s a no-show or late to school, Williams tracks that parent down to say, “you know, we have the Walking School Bus as an outlet if you need it” and to ask if there’s anything else that he can do to better support them.

About three dozen of the kids from this housing project go to Bret Harte Elementary down the street and the Walking School Bus is for them, but more than 200 school-aged youth live here and Williams is available to all those families. To get parents involved, he needs to strike a delicate balance. Not long ago he showed up in a van to ferry families to a district-wide enrollment fair in the Mission District. No one showed up — even though he’d alerted them two weeks in advance.

“I feel like there’s a thin line between providing too much of a service here and therefore they get somewhat of a sense of entitlement, and then they don’t want to go out right because they know that we’re gonna bring the services back to them,” he says. “So those are the harsh conversations that we’re gonna start having.”

To coax parents to nurture their kids academically, Williams runs a meeting once a month so they can all talk it out together.

It’s a fall evening, and Williams is playing some R&B from his iPad. A big tray of turkey lasagna sits waiting. One grandmother and a couple of parents trickle in. A bunch of kids are going to be honored for strong attendance, but most of their parents aren’t here tonight. Attendance hasn’t been great and it’s a small group again. He pulls some chairs into a circle and gets going.

“We’re gonna start out with an introduction, like a quick ice breaker,” he explains, introducing himself as Brother Kevin, the housing project’s educational liaison. “And the question we’re gonna be answering is, as a child growing up, who was your educational support system other than your teacher?”

Williams tells them his mom worked all the time, “so my brother helped me with my homework every day. My brother and an after school teacher was my support systems for me.”

A grandmother named Regina Allen joins in. She says that when she was in school, her support came from her parents “and maybe the club that we attended.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Kevin Williams, the educational liaison at the Alice Griffith housing project, convenes parent meetings once a month. Regina Allen, a grandmother now raising her grandkids, is on the far right.

Williams gets the group talking — about what works for their kids and how they can be more involved. They go around the circle, talking about the kinds of connections they’ve made with their kids’ teachers at school.

When it’s time to eat, Grandma Regina says she’s appreciative. She didn’t expect to be raising her grandkids, but here she is, doing it. Having these meetings, some guidance, it helps.

“This make me think all over again from when I raised my kids,” she says. “I’m starting all over again and I think they really need a little bit more, but it’s a good thing. It’s a start. It’s a start.”

The goals of HOPE SF and 100% College Prep, the Bayview nonprofit that Williams and Ragler work for, are long-term — because raising the academic achievement of these kids won’t happen overnight.

On a morning not long after the parent meeting, Williams heads to a meeting with his boss, Diane Gray, the nonprofit’s executive director. He’s here to brainstorm with her about a literacy campaign called ‘Get Caught Reading.’

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Kevin Williams, left, the educational liaison at the Alice Griffith housing project, meets with his boss, 100% College Prep executive director Diane Gray, to discuss a literacy campaign called Get Caught Reading.

“My idea was the getting caught reading campaign was really largely for parents,” Gray says. “It’s like, ‘ You don’t have a habit of reading in your own home, how can you get caught reading?”

Williams is murmuring in agreement. “And then,” he chimes in, “it becomes one joint thing” to get parents to then help their kids read — billboards, grocery labels, cereal boxes or whatever.

Getting parents hooked? That’s Williams’ challenge. And it’s a big one. A lot of his meetings are informal, he tells Gray, catching parents as they’re hanging out outside or heading to work.”Maybe I can pass out some newspapers,” he suggests, “‘Here you go, my brother,’” or, he says, it might help for him to just model that himself, by reading while he’s outside with them.

He has to get creative, he explains, because some families that need the greatest support haven’t been coming to parent meetings. That’s where Williams’ one-on-one work comes in — like with one family that he’s been supporting for a long time. The mom’s youngest boy had been at a small elementary school where he got a lot of focused attention, he explains.

“You know, if anything went wrong he had a teacher walk with him and calm him down,” he says. But at the boy’s big new middle school, “with all of his friends, you know, he had a difficult time there adjusting.”

Williams stepped in and helped mom get her son into a new school, across town. He’s in 7th grade now, and Williams says he says he’s doing much better. Though he’s one of just a handful of “black folk there,” he needed a “new environment, he needed to get away, he needed to be exposed to new things.”

Williams leads the way to mom’s home, up a steep dirt embankment, through a hole in a fence and past vacant units boarded up in an attempt to keep out squatters. Her name’s Yvette Blankenship and her family is one of just a handful still living in the old rundown section of the Alice Griffith housing project. They’re scheduled to move within weeks to a the newly-built pastel-colored apartment blocks.

Blankenship, 48, has lived here for a couple of decades. She says it took her awhile to trust Williams, and embrace his help — with her older twin boys, who are high school freshmen now, and her 7th grade son, Dion.

“When he first started coming around with Dion, I kept saying, ‘Who is he?’ And Dion was like, ‘This is Kevin, this is Kevin, mama.’ And I said, I need to meet this Kevin. All I keep hearing is about this Kevin.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Yvette Blankenship, left, with her daughter, Danielle. Danielle is the twin of Dion, the 7th grader who has received support from Kevin Williams, the Alice Griffith housing project's educational liaison.

Blankenship laughs, a deep warm laugh. She says she had to warm up to Williams but once she did, she got used to him “coming to get the boys, take them out to do more things, you know, showing them different things besides being right here,” like taking them to play basketball.

Getting out is key. Because a big part of what HOPE SF — and Williams — are trying to do is reduce some of the isolation that some of these families experience. Blankenship’s health is poor and she has no car. So when Dion moved schools, she couldn’t accompany him. Williams helped arrange for a school bus, but until that got started, it was Williams who gave Dion rides across town, “picking him up, dropping him off, bringing him back home,” Blankenship explains, “which was good. I didn't want him catching the Muni Bus, because he's so little. Too much going on.”

Williams also helped Blankenship straighten out a housing problem that came up when her husband of 18 years left the family a while ago. The thought of losing her housing was stressful, and it came on top of other difficult circumstances. Not everyone in this housing development has experienced traumas, but Blankenship’s family has, and that affects not just her but her kids. Blankenship has Lupus and suffers from seizures. Her health took a turn after her oldest daughter was murdered nine years ago.

“I had to go identify all that and it was so terrible. Oh my God, Oh my God,” she says. “But I got to keep my head up and move forward, you know. I gotta stay strong.”

Blankenship says she keeps the kids close, so they’ll be safe, and she makes sure they do their homework. For now, she says, they’re keeping their grades and attendance up. That’s really important to her.

It’s too early to say whether students at the Alice Griffith housing project been doing better in school since Williams started doing this job in the fall of 2017, but by the end of that first school year, the number of Bret Harte students from the project deemed “chronically absent” dropped from half to less than a third.

The school’s principal, Jeremy Hilinski, says those numbers fluctuate a lot. They go way up when families from Central America and Samoa take extended vacations back home, for example. But he says the Walking School Bus has definitely helped, and some kids who participate are really transformed, like Felton, who joins the Walking School Bus on a lot of mornings.

“He was literally hanging from the chandeliers last year,” he says. “Well, the closest thing we have to chandeliers. Curtains.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Felton, 9, talks with Bret Harte Elementary School Principal Jeremy Hilinski about how well he's been doing in school.

Hilinski says it’s not just Felton’s behavior that’s improved. He’s doing much better academically. Because he’s calmer, he’s in class much more often.

Felton’s 9 years old, in third grade now. He’s got a mischievous smile and a bit of confident, know-it-all attitude. During a chat in the principal’s office he says his own hard work is paying off, especially in math and science. He’s on the dance troupe this year, too and shares that he’s “got some dance moves.”

Lots of factors play into Felton’s happy turnaround. Principal Jeremy Hilinski says, every student deemed at-risk at his school — including just about all from the housing project — gets a one-on-one adult mentor. And lots more. The district uses a tiered system to channel extra support to schools with the neediest students. Bret Harte Elementary is Tier 3, the highest. So the school gets extra funding for literacy coaches and family outreach, and teachers get time and training to do a lot of group planning.

But as schools improve, the district scales those resources back. The principal says his school nurse was already cut to half time a couple of years ago. So having Williams and Ragler around to focus on Felton and the other kids from the Alice Griffith housing project is a huge help.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Kevin Williams, the educational liaison at the Alice Griffith housing project, talks to a distraught boy on the Bret Harte Elementary schoolyard. "They know all the kids," Principal Jeremy Hilinski says of Kevin and Stephren Ragler, who follows the kids into the classroom to help with their work.

It’s slow work, though, supporting students one at a time. Williams and Ragler are on the job way more than their scheduled nonprofit hours dictate. They make sure the kids make it to weekend science fairs. They take them to the movies and zombie tag.

Both men used to live in the neighborhood, but neither of them do anymore. Williams commutes from Daly City and Ragler from Pittsburg.

“My grandmother sold her house,” Ragler explains. “You see that dollar sign on the paper you really can’t pass that up.”

Both men are part of that big out-migration of San Francisco’s black community, but they both get up before dawn, day after day, to do the Walking School Bus all over again.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
A little boy helps Stephren Ragler put away the exercise mats at the Alice Griffith housing project Walking School Bus event.

“So listen, after we sing this song, I don’t mind if you guys run but we have to run where?” Williams asks the kids as they stand at the ready across the street from school.

“Inside the crosswalk,” they answer in tired unison. Then they count down, and they chant.

“Keep it moving, keep it moving, keep it moving, what? Cuz we ain’t got no time to be cruising. It’s the Walking School Bus and the people we trust, cuz at the end of the day all we got is us.”

Then, they run. Inside the crosswalk.

This story in the series, Learning While Black: The Fight for Equity in San Francisco Schools, was reported with the support of the Fund for Journalism on Child Well-Being, a program of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism.