2018 Innovator, United Teachers San Francisco
Virginia Marshall strongly believes that Black Grades Matter. When African-American students in San Francisco Unified School District make honor roll, she singles them out for special recognition, with a celebration attended by their families. Last year’s ceremony was a joyous and heartfelt event that included hundreds of attendees at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The African American Honor Roll (AAHR) has strong support from faith-based organizations, corporate sponsors, the school district and local unions including United Educators San Francisco (UESF), to which Marshall belongs. In fact, UESF has contributed funding, gifts and handed out awards at ceremonies.
Last year, after a decade of organizing this awards ceremony, Marshall was honored herself. She received the Ida B. Wells Risk Taker award for her hard work organizing the AAHR, which was presented to her at the National Alliance of Black School Educators conference.
When asked why black students deserve a celebration of their own, she explains that she wants their achievements to stand out — and inspire other African-American children to do well, including their siblings.
“Unfortunately, the target population for improving student achievement has been the African-American child,” says Marshall. “Years ago, our district was the focus of a lawsuit over the achievement of African-American children, so I feel that it’s important to showcase the talents of our students and let the world know there are many talented, young black people with an academic focus that earns them a 3.0 or above.”
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It also sends a message that academic success is something to be proud of. Honor roll students mentor other students, and are told to pay it forward by bringing someone back with them next year.
Her work is having an impact. When the program started more than a decade ago there were 1,000 students honored.
Last year there were 1,400. As more black families are pushed out of San Francisco due to rising housing costs and gentrification, it’s wonderful to see the number of black scholars on the upswing, says Marshall.
Her goal is to see many of these students be the first in their families to graduate from college. Marshall, one of 11 siblings born to a mother with an eighthgrade education and a father who never finished elementary school, was a first-generation family member to graduate from college, along with nine of her siblings, who grew up on a farm in Tennessee. Her parents instilled in their children the importance of education.
“The day of our honor roll celebration is such an amazing day. It captivates the hearts of our community. Many of our parents didn’t graduate from high school or have a positive experience in school, so they are delighted and proud to see these honor roll students receive the recognition they deserve.”
It’s a one-day celebration, but there is a huge amount of work involved over the school year, because the event encompasses students attending 100 schools. Each student receives an award medallion and honor roll certificate, and all attendees receive a printed program and can attend a reception afterward. Students with a 4.0 GPA receive a Kente cloth from Africa. There are no district funds for the event, so she engages in community fundraising, too.
“I don’t mind the work,” she says. “I would much rather do volunteer work to help students rather than attend a funeral for a student who got into trouble. And I have attended several student funerals.”
I have always seen my job as extending beyond 3 o’clock when the school bell rings. it’s just part of who i am and what i ’ve always done.”
Marshall was a classroom teacher for 22 years. For the past decade she has been the facilitator of the City Wide Tutorial Program, overseeing a group of teachers and paraprofessionals who provide after-school programs at various sites in San Francisco, including one in the Bayview district at a supportive housing unit for formerly homeless families.
At the Bayview Hill Gardens Center, Marshall finds it extremely gratifying to know that students have a beautiful after-school facility with a computer lab, where they can do homework and receive tutoring. She has brought in community members to provide STEM enrichment activities and mentoring.
The biggest reward is when students come in waving their report cards. “They say, ‘Miss Marshall, Miss Marshall, I got an A in my class.’ ”
Last year she decided to address social-emotional learning and the whole child, so she encourages students to talk about their feelings and participate in yoga and nutrition workshops to help with stress relief and overall health. There is also a food pantry at the after-school center for students’ families.
“I have always seen my job as extending beyond 3 o’clock when the school bell rings,” says Marshall. “I always listen to students and provide them with help anyway I can through a variety of resources. It’s just part of who I am and what I’ve always done.”