School officials also tried to create a sense of community by instituting features common in upper-middle-class schools, such as nights for games, science activities, and movies, and added a robotics program and a school garden. It even added an outdoor classroom designed by fourth- and fifth-graders, who spent months determining its décor, building planting beds, walkways, and walls, with the help of the National Organization of Minority Architects and the Center for Cities and Schools.
On a recent morning this past spring, 10 fourth-graders were musing over the ideas they had come up with for a playhouse that will accompany the outdoor classroom; some wanted the playhouse to be decorated with large geometric shapes, while others thought it should include thick, painted plywood flowers. There was talk of a superhero theme, and a discussion of flooring options. Buss, with the Center for Cities and Schools, stood by a cardboard panel that incorporated all of the student’s ideas. As they waited to vote, they were given one last chance to promote their proposals. “Do you want to talk about your idea?” Buss asked a boy sitting at a table near the front of the room. “You’re lobbying for it. Talk it up.” The boy mumbled something nearly inaudible, after which Buss went on to the next student, who wanted to incorporate several themes into one playhouse, a collaborative idea that had been bantered about earlier in the day. “If we do that, we can have a floor,” the girl, Genesis Martinez, said. “And we can put the flowers on the floor.”
Nearby, in a fifth-grade classroom, the teacher Laura Walker was showing her students a documentary about their historic neighborhood. It was developed in the 1940s during the Great Migration, when African American men flocked to the area with their families to work in the now-defunct naval shipyard. Walker said the film was part of a social-studies unit on migration and exploration, which would include lessons on the Vikings, Christopher Columbus, and the American explorers Lewis and Clark.
Families whose children attend the school say they have noticed a difference. Lisa Afalava, a mother with a fifth-grader, says Malcolm X offers impressive after-school programs, including Mandarin classes. The school, she says, has worked to improve attendance by offering students awards for coming to school on time, and has created a warm learning environment. “The staff is really passionate about the kids,” she said. Others, like Brenda Rios, whose son graduated from the school and now attends KIPP Bayview Academy, a highly regarded charter nearby, said the staff members excel at helping to place students at good middle schools.
But Diane Gray, the executive director of the Bayview Association for Youth, which offers academic support to students in the area, says the school needs to do a better job of promoting itself. Gray pointed to other San Francisco schools that she said have been successful in diversifying their populations to reflect their evolving neighborhoods by targeting preschools, looping in middle-class parents, working aggressively with developers, getting their names on brochures and fact-sheets, and encouraging teachers to attend community meetings. “I have no doubt that the same thing can happen here,” she said. “But there has to be a lot of work done on both sides of the fence.”