On Monday morning, the start of the school week, five teenagers rowed toward the breakwater leading into San Francisco Bay.
“It’s so foggy you can’t even see the Golden Gate Bridge,” said Austin, a 17-year-old student at Downtown High School in Potrero Hill, as he worked the oars. When the students passed an old sailboat, their instructor, Jeff Rogers, told them it was built 120 years ago in Hunters Point.
“Hey,” Austin said. “My ’hood.”
If not for the boating expedition, Austin might have still been home, in bed, instead of in school. But on that day his classroom happened to be a sailboat. Before coming to Downtown, he was a chronic truant in the San Francisco school system, one of the thousands of students at risk of dropping out. Now he attends school about 80 percent of the time.
For decades, teachers and school districts have battled truancy, struggling to engage students who cope with economic hardship, community strife, domestic violence and drug abuse. Some students avoid school because they are not interested or because they are being bullied. But since 2008, in part because of programs like those at Downtown, the San Francisco district’s chronic truancy has dropped by 31 percent.
Downtown High is a continuation school, with one of the two largest concentrations of truants in the city; the other is Ida B. Wells High School in the Western Addition. There are no ringing class bells or six-period school days at Downtown; the curriculum is “project-based,” meaning students choose one course each semester to fulfill all of their academic requirements. Math, science, history and English are taught in hands-on classes in music, nature, drama and social movements.
Jaime Osorno, Downtown’s counselor, came to the school four years ago after working in the district as a truancy specialist. “I chose this because I felt that we were offering something different to students,” Osorno said. “When I was in other schools, it was like, ‘Here’s your classes, good luck.’”
Most of the 275 students at Downtown High have exhausted efforts by other schools to get them on track to graduate, including parent meetings, support programs and mediations with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. As a result, “attendance drives everything” at Downtown, said Mark Alvarado, the principal.
At Downtown, success means that a student attends school at least 80 percent of the time and earns at least 17.5 credits each quarter. Roughly 100 students achieve that mark, up from about 25 in 2007, but the numbers fluctuate weekly.
The students fall into three categories. Those with 80 percent attendance or better are in Cohort A; students in Cohort B show up 40 percent to 80 percent of the time; and some students in Cohort C have never even set foot on campus.
“These are the kids that make me nervous,” Alvarado said of Cohort C, adding that few of them make it to graduation. Instead, he tries to connect those students to adult education and vocational training programs.
“Cohort B wants to graduate,” he said. “They could have dropped out already. They weren’t successful before for whatever reason, but they’re coming to school.”
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the school put on a holiday feast and a talent show. Alvarado estimated that 145 out of 275 students attended, a typical showing at Downtown.
Widny, a lanky 18-year-old, put on a giant Afro wig and played guitar with his funk band, MMARSS + 1, in the cafeteria. He said later that Downtown High’s music program was what got him to school each day.
“It mixes music with math and English and literacy, all of that stuff,” he said. “We’re learning about logarithms, advanced math I never thought I’d get to.”