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A survey of Mission District families tries to discover why kids are falling behind

Melanie Young
Amelia Martinez and Elizabeth Montiel hit the streets to survey Mission residents

With the start of a new school year, families all around San Francisco are sending their children off with hopes for a good year and a bright future. But according to Carolina Guzman with the nonprofit Mission Economic Development Agency, or MEDA, children in the Mission District struggle on every rung of the education ladder. She says half the children entering kindergarten aren’t prepared to learn.

“They don’t know their figures, colors, letters,” she says. “So that’s a big problem.”

The problems continue as the children advance through school.

“We have some of the lowest-performing schools in the county,” says Guzman. “We also have very high truancy and dropout rates throughout our high schools.”

According to Guzman, the odds remain bleak, even for those who earn their diplomas and enter college. She says 30% don’t graduate from college. They drop out in the second year.

“So we want to understand, ‘Why is that happening?’” she says. “‘What can we do to improve it?’ We want to change that curve.”

MEDA and the nonprofits that serve neighborhood families and children believe many of the answers lie in how the Mission itself functions as a community. And so they’re getting families to open up about life in the Mission.

Canvassing the neighborhood

On a weekday morning at the Mission Economic Development Agency, logistics coordinator Sophia McGurk hands out backpacks filled with surveys, maps, and pens. She’s sending teams of staff and volunteers on a quest for answers.

McGurk pairs Amelia Martinez, who works at MEDA, with Elizabeth Montiel, a volunteer. With their survey forms, a list of addresses, and GPS in hand, they head out the door with high hopes.

 But the morning is full of challenges. There are homes vacated and on the market. There are doorways without doorbells. The women leave postcards inviting those they miss to take the survey at MEDA.

Mission resident Rosie Bustamante accepts the invite.

Questions for residents

Bustamante comes into MEDA to answer questions about raising her family. The questions range from whether she volunteers at school, to how much exercise her children get, to how many servings of vegetables they eat daily, to what she likes and what she’d hope to change about the Mission.

Between April and June, over 450 households completed the 57-page survey. Now, MEDA is crunching the numbers. Guzman says their preliminary findings already show the connection between what’s happening in the neighborhood and how kids do in school.

“Families are spending 60% to 70% of income on housing,” she says. “We’re finding there’s a lot of overcrowding, and that has true impact on children’s ability to do homework, to engage in school. Because they don’t have a space to study. It’s always noisy, there’s always something happening.”

Student performance, says Guzman, has neighborhood groups and parents worried and looking for a way out.

“Our Headstarts in the Mission, their job is to make sure kids getting ready to enter kindergarten are ready to learn,” she says. “What we’re finding is a lot of our Headstarts are encouraging parents to apply for schools outside of the Mission. Because they don’t think the schools in the Mission are going to help the kids succeed.”

Applying the answers

Guzman remains optimistic though. The Mission is a US Department of Education "Promise Neighborhood." That means the federal government is helping fund both the survey project and programs to support students from cradle to college. Feedback from the surveys will help guide how the city, schools, and organizations serve the community. That input, says Guzman, could help turn around school performance.

“What we want is for programs like Headstart to say, ‘You know what? We trust our elementary schools. We know they will be great for your kids,’” she says. “That doesn’t just happen over one day. That doesn’t just happen by hearsay. We need to create the evidence as to why those schools are the right schools for these families.”

MEDA will present its initial findings in October. They’ll conduct two more surveys over the next three years, with the goal of making sure services, and the people who need them, match up.