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The Big Lift: Meeting Family Needs In A High-Poverty School

Lee Romney
A Carver Elementary School student plays tetherball on the schoolyard at sunset with a staffer from the after-school program.

This is part of an ongoing series “Learning While Black: The Fight For Equity In San Francisco Schools.”

The Big Lift, an original KALW documentary, follows Carver Elementary School’s family liaison over the course of a year as she works to support struggling parents and guardians — so their kids can thrive in the classroom.

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Our stories are made to be heard. Please listen if you are able.

Mauricha Robinson is greeting a big crowd in the family center at George Washington Carver Elementary School. Today there’s a ribbon-cutting: for a freezer and a steady supply of quality protein to fill it. 

Her job title at this San Francisco public school in the city’s Bayview district: family liaison. That position has been around SF Unified for more than 15 years because dozens of studies show that when parents or guardians are engaged in their kids’ education, it has a huge impact on academics, student attendance, sense of self-esteem, and behavior in class. It holds true across income levels. 

On this early fall day in 2018, Carver’s family center is packed with parents, educators, district dignitaries, and even the neighborhood’s elected county supervisor, who wields the scissors. Mauricha opens the freezer with flair to show off whole organic chickens and grass-fed beef. There’s also a cupboard full of dry goods, like pasta and pinto beans. Mauricha knows how to make these groceries last. 

“I’m a mom of five,” she tells her audience. “So I stretch pretty far.” 

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Mauricha Robinson, rear left, prepares for the ribbon cutting at Carver Elementary School, for a freezer and high-quality protein to fill it. Carver Principal Emmanuel Stewart, right, and SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, foreground, also speak at the event.

Her big lift at Carver is to build relationships with families who often had bad experiences in school themselves. She wants to get them in the door, participating in the school’s daily rhythms. So this bounty of meat and grains doesn’t only feed the brains of hungry students — it helps Mauricha earn trust. 

Mauricha was once a parent at George Washington Carver, and she’s now starting her second year as the school’s family liaison. Most of the parents in attendance this morning work — some more than one job. But they made the effort to be here, and a few get up to share their gratitude. 

These parents are some of Mauricha’s regulars. Her stars. They sit in on their kids’ classes, helping “be a mom to not just their babies or a dad to just their babies,” Mauricha tells the crowd, “but to everyone’s babies.”

They also do schoolyard duty, make sure kids get to and from Carver safely, and show up at school events. But if families aren’t ready or able, Mauricha explains during a quiet moment in her office, she’s there for the kids. 

“If I can’t work on that mom, I can work on this baby, and when they’re in this space they need to feel love,” she says. “They don’t need to feel like, ‘Oh they know my mama’s at home drunk, and that’s why they’re treating me this way.’ They need to feel like, ‘They love me for me,’ you know?”

Building Trust

Carver staff put a lot behind that love. They buy uniforms and backpacks for kids and slip money into birthday cards — paying for it all out of their own pockets. 

But Mauricha’s goal is bigger than those gestures of support. It’s to help parents advocate for their own kids’ education. When school started this year, she moved her desk to a room within earshot of the main entrance — and the principal’s office. This way, she’s closer to the action, so she can jump in when parents or guardians show up with concerns or complaints. Because an angry parent is often Mauricha’s first point of contact. 

This way she can pull the family aside, “and say, ‘I’m here for you.’” And she makes sure to tell them, “SFUSD pays me, but I work for y’all. I’ll lose my job behind one of y’all before I lose my job behind one of them. So y’all have to be honest and forthright with me in order for me to support you.” 

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Carver Elementary students line up to begin the school day at the campus in San Francisco's Bayview district.

Nearly 90 percent of the students at Carver Elementary are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. But the statistic masks a deeper reality. Carver’s Principal, Emmanuel Stewart, taught at this school for 14 years before he led it. He’s seen community poverty deepen, particularly for African American families. A lot of parents are on edge, and the principal is often the default target for their stress. So having a designated family ally, he says, is key.

Sometimes, he and Mauricha are “joined at the hip because it’s important for our families to feel that they have somebody that they can trust,” he says. “And she’s building that trust and relationship with most of our parents.”

That takes time though. “They have to see you,” he says. “And they have to see you for multiple years.”

Every Wednesday, Principal Stewart gets up before dawn to help longtime Carver staffer Haley Laurent set up a giveaway of fresh produce, eggs, and rice outside the school’s main entrance. Mauricha can’t get here this early — mom of five, remember — but she promotes the weekly food bank to her families, because it’s one of the few concrete things she can offer them.

Still, one mom who showed up to drop off her son and collect some staples says, though she’s grateful for Mauricha’s efforts, parents need more.

“We need job resources, we need resources on how to get more food. We also need resources on how to get the PG&E bill paid, how to do job readiness programs,” Jewell Taylor says. “And I think if we had that over here at Carver, we would have more parent participation where parents would come in.”

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Jewell Taylor, a Carver Elementary parent, picks up some fruits and vegetables at the food bank outside the school.

Mauricha agrees with all of that. 

Her family center, in a bungalow out on the schoolyard, doubles as the music room, and it’s a work in progress. Computers that Mauricha hoped to have here by now to help families job search or pay bills, haven’t materialized. And what does get done are pretty much the things Mauricha can do on her own. 

When she finds out there’s a new baby on the way, she throws together a gift basket with, she says, “a cheapie pack of Pampers, and a pack of onesies, and some washcloths, a receiving blanket.”

That comes out of her own pocket, too, but she’s been so busy, she says, she hasn’t had time to build connections with community organizations that might donate, especially to her community closet of clothing and shoes. 

But Mauricha has a vision for much more, including those job resources Jewell was asking about. 

“Some of my kids who have the most severe behaviors are from families who don’t have employment,” Mauricha says. “So can you imagine them looking for a job or going to a job fair right here on campus?” The kids, she explains, would settle down, just knowing, “Oh, my mom’s here.”

Bringing in regular dental and immunization clinics is on her list too. And some of it may be in Carver’s future. The campus is one of more than two dozen across the district getting city funding over the next five years to become a “community school,” which includes a commitment to connect families to community resources. The plan is new, though, and not much is in place yet here. 

District support for the family liaison position has been fairly steady over the years, but the approach has shifted a bit. The liaison job is no longer centralized like it once was. It’s up to schools to decide if they want one and how to best reach families. Some pay the salary out of their own school funds, district officials say, and most liaisons only work part-time. Carver is lucky, if you can call it that. Because the school has such high student and family needs, the district covers Mauricha’s salary. But, she has no budget.

Around the time of the ribbon-cutting, Mauricha gets some good news. Moms Against Poverty, the global nonprofit that donated the freezer and the food that fills it, is giving Carver a washer and dryer. Students who don’t have access to clean clothes sometimes stay home from school. If they show up in a dirty uniform, it’s hard on their self-esteem. This gift is a big deal for Mauricha. 

“I have two file cabinets right here full of like uniforms and pants,” she says, pointing to it in her office. “I take them home, and I wash them, and I bring them back, and we swap them out on the kids.”

Even her husband gets in on the action. As a reward for the boys who’ve been on good behavior, he’s been coming down to Carver to cut hair. 

Family Stressors

One afternoon, Mauricha sits down with one of her “work besties,” social worker Ashley Bonton, to talk about what they’ve been hearing from families. The cost of living is rising and wages aren’t keeping up. Other stressors, Ashley says, range “anywhere from families losing their housing to a lot more community violence, to turf stuff going on right now. So it’s a lot.” 

Mauricha adds that she’s been hearing about some domestic violence, too. “Yeah,” Ashley sighs, “it’s been a rough year, and we’re only in month two, is it?”

Yes, month two. It’s late October, 2018. But family stressors seem worse. Black students make up the bulk of Carver’s student body, followed by a smaller number of Pacific Islander and Latino kids. But the housing crunch has been pushing black families out of the Bayview District for years now. Some kids who have left San Francisco still go to school here. Mom or dad kept their job and bring them in. But those long commutes take a toll. 

A few days ago, Ashley says, a kindergartner came in. He’d had an OK morning. Then, a meltdown. So his teacher sent him to Ashley in the school’s “wellness center.”

“He’s like, ‘I’m just tired,’” she recalls, “and I was like, ‘Well what time did you go to bed?’” He told her 8 p.m., but he was up by 2 a.m. “And I was like, ‘Where are you coming from?’”

The boy’s answer: Modesto. That’s rare. Modesto is nearly 200 miles roundtrip. But Antioch, Fairfield, and Pittsburg — about half that distance — are more common. These drives take hours, and kids are often exhausted. And when families live that far away, it’s harder for Mauricha to get them involved at school. As for students from the neighborhood, plenty are dealing with traumas outside of school, Mauricha says. 

All of it can trigger some difficult behaviors. Kids flipping tables over, walking out of class and refusing to come back, even threatening self harm. Teachers and staff just have to deal with it. 

“But for a teacher, that’s hard,” Mauricha says. “One teacher. That’s hard to do. And we don’t put kids in hallways. That’s not what we do. We push in.” 

Push in. Parents help with that too, at Mauricha’s urging, serving as backup to special ed resource teachers and instructional aides. They come into class to help kids calm down, focus, and work through the academics. It’s a team effort. But even one or two kids in a class with big behavior issues can be incredibly frustrating to parents whose kids aren’t struggling that way. Parent Jewell Taylor says it means teachers are doing more discipline rather than teaching.

Outside The School’s Control

Principal Emmanuel Stewart is outside one morning, when a dad and mom pull up in separate cars for a kid handoff. The parents argue. They split up five years ago. She lives in Stockton. Dad lives in the Bayview. The boy is struggling a ton, so mom sends him to live with dad hoping the male bond will help. It doesn’t seem to be working. Carver staff love this child, but he recently broke the glass on a fire extinguisher.

“I enjoyed your son,” Principal Stewart tells the mother. “I just wish he could have gotten some things together around the self regulating. But as a student, he was coming around for Miss G.”

“Miss G” is Anaia Gilliam, a third grade teacher who gets lots of props. But Mom has decided to bring her son back to Stockton, where she can get him into special ed, and back into therapy. 

This is how it happens. One more student lost, for reasons outside the school’s control, outside Mauricha’s control. They go inside to do the paperwork.

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Carver Elementary Principal Emmanuel Stewart completes the paperwork for a mother who is pulling her child out of the school to bring him back to Stockton with her. He had been living with his dad.

Family departures like these come with all kinds of costs. For one, switching schools is hard on “the babies,” as Mauricha calls the kids. National research showsstudents who change schools four or more times by 8th grade are disproportionately poor, black, and from families who don’t own their home — Carver’s core demographic. The hopping around hurts them academically. They have higher drop-out rates. And there’s no guarantee there’ll be a Mauricha, or any family liaison, on the other end to ease their way. 

At Halloween, dozens of families show up for a costume party in the schoolyard. Principal Stewart makes sure to tell them he’s thrilled to see them, but he wants them here more often. 

Mauricha is in a lion costume greeting the kids. When she stops some students who aren’t dressed up, she hustles them into the family center and gets them set up with whatever’s left in her costume bin. 

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Carver Elementary School family liaison digs through a bin in her family center searching for Halloween costumes for kids who came to school without one.

There are plenty of parents here at Carver — even those under a ton of stress — who do participate in their kids’ education. Christina Chapman is one of them.

“A lot of parents think that you send your kids to school, and the teachers are supposed to teach them. You are your kids’ first teacher,” she says. “Yeah you go to a summer school program, but when you come home you’ve got two hours of study time. At the end of the school year, I ask the teachers, ‘What will my kids be working on next year?’ They let you know. So when I see kids acting out, and there are challenged children, it’s the parent."

Still, there are some neighborhood realities parents can’t change. And neither can Mauricha. 

By December 2018, the Carver holiday gift giveaway is in full swing. Every family that fills out a survey is in the raffle and guaranteed a gift. Some kids win bikes, including a first-grader who attends the school with his twin sibling. Their dad was killed just six months ago, not far from the school. Their mom, Sarah Thomas, says that’s been really hard. 

Carver, she says, is a good school, but she wants to move the kids at the end of the school year. 

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Carver mom Sarah Thomas laughs with her youngest son at the school's holiday gift giveaway. Her older sons, twins in first grade, attend Carver, but Thomas plans to move them. Their dad was killed recently in the neighborhood and walking past the crime scene, she said, has been traumatic.

Another mom, LaRonnda Hampton, has a lot of good things to say about Carver Elementary, too. She moved her daughter here from another school just four months ago, she says, because even though the girl was about to start third grade, she could barely read. 

“My daughter is reading at second grade level now,” she says, adding that “Miss G, her third grade teacher, is one of the best teachers I’ve seen in a long time.” 

But life in the Bayview has just gotten too hard, she says, with lots of people losing their housing. Plus, the drugs. 

“The drugs are taking over,” she says. “I’ve had somebody walk in and sit on my couch next to my daughter, and I found out that he was not just mentally ill but on drugs. It’s time to go.” 

She says she’s planning to move to east Contra Costa County. She wants her daughter to stay at Carver through fifth grade, but she’s not sure she can hang on that long. 

By the time the school cafeteria starts to empty, Mauricha is exhausted. She has her youngest daughter, Zuri, in tow. And she’s been running around making sure the gifts get into the right hands. 

More Departures

Credit Lee Romney / KALW
Mauricha cleans up after the Carver Elementary holiday gift giveaway. Her youngest daughter, Zuri, tags along.

It’s back to school night in September 2019 — the start of Mauricha’s third year as Carver’s family liaison. Enrollment has dropped. About 25 families who had enrolled failed to show up. Some, Principal Stewart says, left for the East Bay. He’s in a discouraged mood. 

“They are trying to manage how to stay and live in a city that I just feel, and this is my own personal opinion, that does not want them here,” he says. “This city does not want black families here. I’ll say it, and I’ll continue to say it, and I don’t care who hears me.” 

There’ve also been some departures on Principal Stewart’s team: his assistant principal; the staffer in charge of boosting attendance; and some teachers, including the popular Miss G, who left for a better paying job in the Palo Alto School District. 

This kind of churn plagues high-poverty schools everywhere. The “newness,” can be good, Principal Stewart says. It brings in new ideas. But he’s having to train multiple first-year teachers and that, he says, “is really tough to deal with.”

Mauricha’s experiencing some newness too. She got booted from her family center, because Carver’s music program needed the space. The new one will be in what used to be the computer lab, and that could be a good thing. The machines are outdated — kids in the classroom all use Chrome books — so Carver will get rid of all but half a dozen, Mauricha says, and keep those for the families. 

“The idea is that they can use the technology resources to surf the web. They can job search,” she says. “I honestly don’t mind if they’re sitting here all day on Facebook. What matters to me is that they’re here, and that way I can partner with them. I can be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got this event going on. What do you think about this?’ I’m able to capture their ideas and thoughts without always convening a meeting.” 

Mauricha’s also found someone to offer her parents and guardians online GED classes, so they can get their high school equivalency diplomas. And someone from the city’s Human Services Agency will be coming in to connect families with other online resources. Mauricha’s also starting a club for Pacific Islander parents. 

Mauricha signs parents up on a school volunteer sheet during Back to School Night in September 2019. She is starting her third year as Carver Elementary's family liaison.

Getting families in the door has been tough, but she says she’s made some breakthroughs. 

“It may not be like what everyone wants it to be, like the big bang and all of a sudden it’s, ‘We see this momma or daddy every day,’” she says. But they’re reaching out. “They’ve called and said, ‘Miss Robinson, I have a problem.’ For me, that’s big because I’ve built some type of trust. And even if it’s negative, negative, negative, I’m happy that they’re just coming at all. And I’m happy to support them in advocating for their child’s learning.” 

And thanks to Moms Against Poverty, the nonprofit that donated the freezer, Mauricha’s now offering laundry detergent and bleach to families, along with “portable kitchens.” That’s a plastic tub with a single stove-top burner, pots and pans, and dish soap. It’s for the many families who are couch-surfing, and the four-or-so Mauricha knows are living in cars.

As for that washer and dryer, it’s been ready to go for a year now. But, Mauricha says, the district hasn’t gotten around to installing the outlet. 

Mauricha is excited for a new year. But it turns out that some of her hard work from last year is pretty much out the window. Because she won’t be seeing some of the parents whose trust she earned — parents who did get involved at the school. 

Sarah, the mom of the twins whose dad was killed, moved the boys to a charter school in a different neighborhood. And LaRonnda, the mom who was so pleased with her daughter’s reading progress, didn’t come back either.