Harvey Milk school not slated for closure, SF district says

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday January 31, 2023
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San Francisco Unified School District officials said there are no plans to close Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in the Castro, but some parents are concerned that declining enrollment may shutter the elementary school. Photo: Rick Gerharter
San Francisco Unified School District officials said there are no plans to close Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in the Castro, but some parents are concerned that declining enrollment may shutter the elementary school. Photo: Rick Gerharter

First it was Harvey's bar and restaurant in the Castro that abruptly closed January 22, now, rumors are swirling that Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in the LGBTQ neighborhood might shutter.

San Francisco Unified School District officials told the Bay Area Reporter this week that the public elementary school in the heart of the Castro is not on any closure list — nor are any other SFUSD campuses during the 2023-24 academic year.

Recently, a Facebook post speculated that the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in the Castro was slated for closure.

In a January 23 Facebook post, education advocate Gloria Maciejewski wrote that the "Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy is in danger of being closed by SFUSD." The reason, she wrote, was that the school had to cut one of its kindergarten classes. "The District decided to cut one of 2 kinder[garten] classrooms, which puts the school into a position that it can't get out of until the 2nd K class is reinstated. This is hence a 'death spiral' move."

"It's not just the BEST little public school in the Castro," Maciejewski's post concluded. "It's the ONLY public school in the Castro. Don't let the district destroy it."

(The Milk school feeds into Everett Middle School, which is between 16th and 17th streets on Church Street. Sanchez Elementary School, which is between 16th and 17th streets on Sanchez Street, also feeds into Everett, making Milk one of three public schools in the Castro area.)

In a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter Maciejewski said, "the reassurances of non-closure are empty promises" if the school does not try to expand its reach. She has a child at the school and said that cutting an entire kindergarten class last year has made the school less attractive to parents considering sending their children to the campus. Some schools have as many as four kindergarten classes, she said.

"We had parents turn away from applying because they were told we had reached capacity," Maciejewski said. "So we are being sabotaged, in a way."

Superintendent Matt Wayne will be visiting this week, she said, and if teachers don't like what he has to say, there may be a protest.

"I don't believe they're trying to keep schools open by cutting kindergarten classes," Maciejewski said. "We feel like it's being done on purpose. ... The school has a wonderful community, an incredible environment, and really lives up to the name."

Laura Dudnick, interim SFUSD communications director, wrote to the B.A.R. in an email January 31 that the district is maintaining the 22 seats for kindergartners at the Harvey Milk school, the same as last year.

"We are committed to working with the Harvey Milk community as well as all of our other school communities to explore opportunities to increase enrollment as well as to thoughtfully manage our resources," Dudnick added.

The school opened in 1891 and was named Douglass Elementary until it was rechristened for the gay slain trailblazing San Francisco supervisor in 1996. At the time the move was controversial according to a contemporaneous article in the San Francisco Chronicle that included a parent who said she'd take her two children out of the school if the renaming went through.

Over the years, the school has been embraced by the Castro community. Businesses like Cliff's Variety have raised funds for supplies for the school.

"We have and continue to do so," Terry Asten Bennett, a straight ally who manages Cliff's, wrote in a Facebook message this week.

The K-5 school has an enrollment of 228, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Dudnick stated to the B.A.R., "There are no school closures planned for the 2023-24 school year."

"Like many districts across the state, SFUSD is experiencing declining enrollment," Dudnick continued. "We are using a district-wide process to determine how many seats will be available at each school next year. This is done so that we align our resources and staffing with the number of students at each school, and in an effort to keep our schools open despite declining enrollment."

Indeed, Axios reported that enrollment in the city's public schools declined by 3,574 students, or 6.8% of the total student body, from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2021-2022 school year. In 2022, however, enrollment was 1,099 students higher than predicted, though it was still 500 fewer than the prior year, according to SFist.

"Revisiting school capacities and the assignment process itself are closely linked with the new elementary student assignment system that SFUSD is working to implement, focused on the goals of improving predictability, prioritizing proximity, and enhancing diversity at SFUSD schools," Dudnick stated.

Lisa Weissman-Ward, the vice president of the city's school board, told the B.A.R. over the phone that as far as she knew, "the school to the best of my knowledge is not in danger of closing."

Tom Ammiano, a gay man who in the 1990s served as president of the school board before his time as an elected city supervisor and state assemblymember, told the B.A.R. that he heard from parents and others worried the school might be closing. When asked why they thought that, Ammiano said school board watchers are adept at reading the tea leaves.

"Harvey Milk fought for the school to remain open back when it was called Douglass," Ammiano said. "It's important to follow up so there's no danger of closing."

Mark Sanchez, a queer man who is the only LGBTQ member on the school board, did not return a message seeking comment.

The school is one of two in the United States named for Milk, the other being M586 Harvey Milk High School in Lower Manhattan in New York.

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