When Carlos A. Garcia moved back to San Francisco in 2007 to take the position as Superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, he found that a city that had changed—some parts for the good.
Garcia moved from Watsonville in 1988 to take the job as principal at Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission district. He stayed at Horace Mann until 1991, when he left San Francisco for a new job at the Fresno Unified School District. Garcia has noticed the dramatic change on Valencia Street since the early 1990’s.
“Before, everyone viewed the Mission as a solidly Latino district, and that has changed over the years. When I came back, it caught me by surprise to see such a radical shift,” said Garcia. “The projects were all gone and it was more of a yuppie community. In some ways it made me feel older and I realized how long I had been away. A lot had happened in 16 years.”
Garcia laments the cultural piquant that the Mission once had and which is now fading away through gentrification. “I really liked the cultural aspect of Valencia Street. In some ways it is good because the crime element has gone down. It brought restaurants and other retail shops, but I just fear that it has lost many cultural aspects that made it a very unique place.”
The late 1980’s were a difficult time for San Francisco’s public schools. The NAACP sued the school district, alleging that the district’s policies were encouraging segregation. As a result of a 1983 Consent Decree settlement, a number of policies were instituted, including “reconstituting” underperforming schools in San Francisco’s most depressed areas. As part of this process, Garcia was appointed Principal at Horace Mann by Ramon C. Cortines, then Superintendent at SFUSD. Cortines who went on to head the public schools in Los Angeles and New York before he retired in 2011.
“Horace man was not doing well. We were brought in to turn around the school, so we did it”, Garcia said. Besides hiring new teachers and paying attention to the quality of education that the students were getting, Garcia also protected the school’s physical environment.
“The school was being tagged every day,” Garcia said. “I had a zip on suit that I put on and I went out there every day to paint. The school is like our sacred temple of learning. I never have been one to ask more of someone else that I wouldn’t do myself.”
Garcia said that the achievement gap between rich and poor schools was a big issue back then and it is still an issue now.
“My big concern is that we’re pushing out the underprivileged kids. If things continue, only the wealthy will be able to live here. That’s one of my greatest fears. Even the low income housing is high compared to other communities.”
“Look at the statistics,” Garcia said. “We are a city of roughly 800,000 people and over 80% don’t have children. Thirty percent of those who do have children send their kids to private schools. In our school district, 60% of the kids are on free or reduced lunch. Lots of families live in one room.” And although San Francisco is home to several leading edge technology companies, Garcia sees that lack of technology in the classroom as one of his greatest challenges. “We’re so far behind in San Francisco. A poll was taken and most teachers don’t have laptops. We certainly don’t give them to the kids,” he said. “We’re using the tools of the last century to teach our children. We need to figure out how do we get there from here.”
Garcia is also concerned about racial disparities in school performance. “Why do we have an achievement gap? If you’re African American or Latino, on average, you will underperform. This has been going on for 30 to 40 years. But what is the root cause of the achievement gap? It’s because they don’t have an advocate. My job is to stand up for everybody. And that involves giving preference to the kids who live in the lowest performing zip codes.”
Asked if he tires of the being in a thankless job, Garcia said “that’s why I love my job. My job is not to make everyone happy. I don’t work for adults. I work for children! But one thing we can say: The super wealthy and the poor have equal access to schools. Everyone has the same privileges.”
Garcia sees things improving overall. Speaking of the 30% that go to private schools, he said “San Francisco has been like this all the time. But, we’re getting them back. The economy is one factor, but we’re getting better,” he said, and that’s attracting more affluent students
Garcia sites high schools such as Balboa High and Galileo High that used to be underperforming. “Now there are waiting lists to get in. There are several middle schools and grammar schools that have turned around. Our goal is to make all the schools like that.”
In order to stay grounded in what is truly going on, Garcia has visited every school in the district and makes it a practice to visit schools twice a week. “No one knows where I’m going to go,” Garcia said. “And each school that I visit, I ask in my own mind, is this a place where I would want to send my own children?”
The lower performing parts of the city are a big concern for Garcia. He said that they have closed down the Bayview district’s Willie Brown School and are building a brand new state-of-the-art school to replace it.
“They deserve it,” he said. “People say that it’s unfair to pay special attention in what I call the superintendent zones, the Mission and Bayview. And I say, if you’re complaining that I am I putting extra money there, why don’t you send your children there? People forget that when we had busing, it is all one way. No one was busing their kids into those areas. The schools are relatively empty in those areas and we’re trying to reverse the trend. I believe that your academic success rate should not be determined by your zip code. These are the battles that I like to fight.”
Garcia said that he saw the opportunity to turn things around in San Francisco before he took the job as superintendent. “I looked at their data before I applied, and when I looked at the discrepancy of Latino, African American, Samoan kids compared to everyone else in the district, we have one of the largest achievement gaps in America! That’s what drew me here. It is a social justice issue. Our whole strategic plan is built around the achievement gap as a civil rights issue.”
This passion for racial equality comes from Garcia’s childhood in a Los Angeles barrio. “I grew up poor. By all accounts, I shouldn’t be here. I had to go to school and learn English. I got discriminated through the entire system. I survived, made it through, but most of my homeys did not! Most of the people I grew up with ended up speaking “Spanglish”. And the educational system was a system that just sorted people like you sorted fruit or something, by size, by weight, whatever! “
Garcia said that when he was in school, no one was allowed to speak Spanish. “We were hit with a ruler. We were put in shop classes for two or three periods in middle school. I was smart enough to get my mom to write a note. She didn’t speak English, so I wrote the note and she signed it and it said “I demand Carlos to study algebra classes and college prep classes.” I explained it to her and she agreed. “But not everyone did that,” said Garcia. “When you went to the math classes, algebra, geometry, there weren’t a lot of brown kids or black kids. They were very segregated class rooms.
“There’s a saying that says those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. My job is to make sure that no one has to do that. We value and honor kids regardless of where they are from or what language they speak or whatever they are into. Our job is to educate EVERYBODY.”
“That’s why I’m such an advocate of public education,” said Garcia. “We will not have a democracy if we don’t have a strong public educational system. And our job is not to give money to charter schools. I don’t want to give it to vouchers. No, give us the funds, support us, and we can compete with anybody. The problem is we don’t get the funds. In California, we rank 48th or 49th in the amount that we spend per student. And we’re competing with states that give three times the amount of money to schools to do the same mission. That’s unfair. We cannot give us this good fight. There’s too much to lose!”
Garcia’s office at the School District’s headquarters is adorned with art work, photos and momentos gathered from his 35 year career in education, including Edward Gonzales’s poster “La Cocina’, depicting a boy reading in a chair next to the kitchen stove where his mother is preparing food. The caption reads in English and Spanish “In the kitchen is where my father learned to read.”
Growing up in Los Angeles, Garcia was the fourth son in a close-knit Latino family that spoke Spanish at home. He first learned English when he went to school. Garcia credits his parents with instilling a work ethic and a desire for education. “Despite their lack of education, they read everything!,” he said. “I used to read to my mother in English. Sometimes I would make up stuff and she knew it, but she just let me do it.”
Also on the walls, a clipping from the Los Angeles Times about Garcia when he was Superintendent of Fresno Unified School District and a child’s drawing of Garcia when he worked in Sanger California—his first job as a school district superintendent.
Like most adults, Garcia can point to a teacher who had a big impact on the direction of his life. “Her name was Rita Steele, and she taught at Wilmington Junior High School. She was a little old lady with white hair. She picked me out of the crowd, hanging out at lunch time and recess. She came up to me and was relentless, told me that I was a leader. I kept telling her to back off because she was cramping my style. You know, in the ‘hood, you have to act a lot tougher. I was a boxer since I was 7 years old. You have to act tough so that people leave you alone. You portray this image and don’t want sold old lady bugging you. She told me that I was a leader. She said that among people in the yard, everyone wants to hang out with me. She said ‘You just don’t hang with one group. You hang out with Blacks, Samoans, Japanese. You move around and no one else does that.’”
Garcia told Steele that she was crazy and she challenged him to watch for himself.
“I was oblivious to the fact that everyone was in their own clique, primarily racial, and that I didn’t do that. This lady put my name on a ballot and the next thing I knew, I was student body president.”
Explaining how he became a teacher, Garcia said “I went to Claremont Men’s College, now named Claremont McKenna, to become an attorney. But in my last semester at Claremont, I took a child development class and part of the class required that I had to go and observe students in the classroom. There was a teacher, a friend of someone I knew, who had a teacher’s aide position in her class. She said that I could come in and work, do my observations and get paid for it.”
“I had never thought of being a teacher. Then someone said, “Do you want to teach a lesson?” I said sure and I got turned on by it.” Later in the semester, Garcia went to a law school orientation. “I was already accepted at law school and was ready to go. I just sat there at the orientation, thinking about going through three more years of school, and I knew exactly what I what I wanted. I got up and left and never looked back. I got into a teaching program and started teaching right away.”
“But my family said, are you crazy? What’s wrong with you? My whole life, teachers and others always said. ‘Carlos, you’re going to be an attorney because all you do is argue with everybody.’ In high school, I led walkouts. I was this hippie radical, very left wing, and so everyone thought this guy’s going to be a politician or attorney. As it turned out I was content to become a high school social studies teacher.
“It worked out great for me. It was something that you just feel inside. It was what you wanted to do.”
Garcia and his wife Gail live in the Richmond District near 26th and Balboa. “On weekends we take long walks all around Golden Gate Park,” he said. “One day we were walking near the polo fields along the track that goes out to Speed Meadow. Who do we see coming at us—Minnie Mouse! It was a woman dressed as Minnie Mouse, carrying a suitcase, with a tail, big round ears, everything. She comes up to us and says she’s lost. I thought she had lost her cheese, but she’s looking for some place to go and we know the park very well, so we gave her directions and she went on her merry way. But it was unique to see Minnie Mouse in the middle of the park.”
“This is what my wife and I love about San Francisco, the fact that it’s the freest place in the world. You can be what you want to be. You don’t have to pretend. Some people think that we San Franciscans are way out there, but I like to celebrate our diversity. I’ve lived in places, such as the Central Valley and Nevada, where unfortunately they say ‘why don’t these people learn English?’ instead of viewing it as something beautiful. What I love about San Francisco is that I never hear those comments about language. It makes me proud. In Golden Gate Park, I hear people speaking Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish. Maybe because English is not my first language, I celebrate the diversity of this city. It is probably the greatest asset of this city.”
“Of all the places I’ve lived in, that’s what I like best about San Francisco. The food, the culture, the languages—Wow, it’s an international city! I wish the whole world was like San Francisco. You betcha, we have differences and everybody has a voice. Even though it’s a lot of work sometime to make things happen, it’s something we ought to cherish. It has value. Things can be inconvenient here. You can go to a lot of places that are so-called ‘convenient’. The convenient thing is not necessarily the right thing.”
Garcia has heard complaints about allowing undocumented children into the schools. “I get calls as the Superintendent from people that say ‘why do you allow these kids in your school, they don’t even live here legally.’ The children didn’t make these decisions. The adults did. We ought to treat every child as if it were our own. In a city that has more dogs than children, sometimes we treat our dogs better than our children.”
“The only thing that I don’t like about San Francisco is the weather during the summer. I think Mark Twain was right. If I ever do move, maybe it will be because of the cold summer weather. Garcia said that when the time comes for him to retire, he will do so either in San Francisco or Santa Cruz, where his grown son and daughter live.
Garcia said that his neighbors on either side of his Richmond home are a retired teacher and a retired pastor. “I love the Richmond because it has a lot of great places to eat, like the Pacific Café. We like the beach and we walk Ocean Beach all the time. My wife and I like to go on three or four mile walks.” Garcia said he married his secretary and they’ve been together for 33 years.
“We never dated while we were working together,” he said. “I left for the summer, went travelling in Southeast Asia. I travelled for six weeks. In Hong Kong I bought a diamond ring. I realized during that trip that I missed her.” When Garcia came home, he proposed marriage to her and she accepted. “She’s my best friend.”
On vacations, Garcia said he loves to travel, especially to Southeast Asia and “places that haven’t become westernized.” That’s one problem with my job: It is difficult to get away for a long time. I love my job and I’m somewhat of a workaholic,” he said. He was planning a trip to China in November. He said that he is drawn to countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. In South America, he said he loves countries such as Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina.
“I’ve done lots of daring things. I have flown in an F-16 and I once got to drive an Indy race car. We took classes and got to drive up to 180 miles per hour. I’ve parachuted with the Golden Knights, an elite US Army parachute team. I like action, taking risks. That makes me suited for this job. And, unlike Shirley MacLaine, I believe that you only live once. This [life] is not a rehearsal. I try to make the best of it. I like things that are fun, exciting, risky.”
Garcia’s leisure activities also include hiking, bike riding and fishing. “I have a motorcycle and we love to cruise around. Whenever we get a sunny day, we go.”
“My family calls me “Mr. Fixit” because I’m so handy. I can lay tile. I think I could build a whole house. I like manual labor. I worked in fields as a child, I worked in factories and I picked fruit. Every job that I ever had, I liked. I once had to put labels on paint cans and soon after I figured it out, I was the fastest at my job. My philosophy is if you don’t like what you’re doing, find something else to do. I’ve been blessed with good work.”
What advice does he have for someone who wants to move to the Richmond district?
“Consider the weather,” said Garcia. “Overall, I think it’s a good thing. The fogginess makes for great walking weather. In Vegas we couldn’t walk half the year—in the winter it was too cold; in the summer it was too hot. There’s so much to do in the Richmond and it is such a short distance away. I love that there are so many restaurants and the people are friendly. And Golden Gate Park is wonderful. I would never want to live too far away from Golden Gate Park for walking and biking. It is so beautiful.”
“But what I love most about San Francisco is the attitude “we can do anything”. When I was in other places, it was “everything is wrong” and I would never hear anything positive. I don’t have time for a bunch of whiners. If we spent 10% of the time doing rather than complaining, the world would be a better place. I want to live in a place that’s positive, that talks about our aspirations and how we want to get better. That’s what San Francisco is. It’s a place where people say “let’s go out and do something positive.”
“That’s why I do like the People’s Republic of San Francisco.”