Health and Environmental Justice Influence New School Design: Horace Interviews the Founders of Bayview Essential School of Music, Art, and Social Justice

Editor’s Note: At the time of print publication, the Bayview Essential School for Music, Art and Social Justice was on track to open in August 2008. Developments since have delayed the school’s opening until 2009.

In August 2008, the Bayview Essential School for Music, Art and Social Justice (BES) will open in San Francisco as a public high school. BES will be the first high school to open in they city’s Bayview Hunters Point (BVHP) neighborhood in nearly 30 years. BVHP, a traditionally African-American Neighborhood located in an industrialized area adjacent to San Francisco Bay in the southeastern part of the city, is a community with few material resources; it is struggling with the toxic results of now-defunct manufacturing, shipyards, and public utilities. Historically underserved by San Francisco’s municipal services, BVHP residents are also now coping with recent interest and investment in its real estate from the city, developers, institutions, and other outside forces.

As part of the Small Schools Project, the Coalition of Essential Schools has been working with BVHP community members for more than two years to get this school opened. BES will start with 80 ninth and tenth grade students and will add a grade each year until it reaches its capacity as a high school serving grades nine through 12. The school was granted approval to be a small, community public school operating under the new Small Schools by Design policy, which grants small schools more autonomy over their instructional program, the hiring of staff, and use of resources. The school’s mission is to engage, educate, and empower Bayview youth to transform their lives while positively contributing to the improvement of their community.

The school will focus on the digital arts—recording arts, digital filmmaking and graphic arts—scholarship, and social justice to engage students and get them excited about learning, leadership and civic engagement. BES aims to empower youth to use their knowledge, creativity, and skills to become the next generation of BVHP scholars, artists, and community leaders. BES founders and CES staffers Mara Benitez and David Siegfried talked with Horace about the ways that environmental justice is being incorporated into BES’s mission and curriculum. Siegfried is the 2008 Teacher in Residence at CES; much of his time is spent facilitating the work of the BES design team. Benitez is one of the founders of BES and CES’s Senior Director of School Development. Francisco Gutierrez, not present for this interview, is the BES Design Team Leader and CES Lab School Coordinator.

Horace: Where in Bayview-Hunters Point is BES located?
David Siegfried: We’re on the Gloria R. Davis school site, with a 360-degree view of power plants and the rest of the city. It’s exciting—the building is new, and the interior of the classrooms are nice. Our main focus right now is enrollment, because BES didn’t get approved until when high school students had made their first selection of where they want to go to school. School enrollment is a chaotic process in San Francisco; we know that we are going to have kids who didn’t choose any other school. Until we have a reputation, that’s who we will get, and that is fine—we welcome all kids. But there’s an inherent challenge to finding kids. Because San Francisco’s school policies encourage students to choose where they want to go anywhere in the city, there’s a stigma attached to staying in your neighborhood; it’s as if you had no other choices, and since it’s been so long since there were any choices in Bayview-Hunters Point, many kids are already placed elsewhere. Yet we want, and really expect that over time we will get, students from this neighborhood, since the neighborhood is going to generate so much of what they study.

Horace: Describe the origins of BES.
Mara Benitez: We were approached by representatives from the neighborhood with the idea of CES collaborating in the creation of a school in Bayview-Hunters Point. So we didn’t select the school as a design team—it’s more like the school came to us. And the issue of dealing with the neighborhood’s legacy of environmental degradation and racist environmental polices was built into the school by neighborhood activists who went into the community and talked with lots of people about what was on their minds, and how a new school could help a new generation remake their world.

Siegfried: The issues of environmental justice and health loom large for everyone who is committed to Bayview-Hunters Point. There’s more asthma and diabetes there than in any other zip code in the state of California. The murder rate, compared both within San Francisco and statewide, is outrageous. The community is dealing with the closed PG & E [Pacific Gas and Electric] plant, abandoned shipyards and industry sites that have created huge areas of waste and toxicity, and two-thirds of the community lives in poverty.

Benitez: When this proposal was put on the table, we believed that Bayview-Hunters Point was a place we should be investing in, and we knew that the school should address health, wellness, and environmental justice. We took our first steps to get the school started in 2006. We interviewed youth and other community members and, based on their ideas and concerns, designed the Sound of Truth summer program. We taught 25 kids to use action research: they interviewed 20 leaders in the community that were working on social change issues, environmental justice, mediation circles with women, and related issues of health and wellness, such as the role of an organic garden and farmers’ market in this neighborhood that lacked even basic services such as accessible grocery stories. Within the Sound of Truth program, young people decided on four strands of curriculum that the school should address: health and wellness, environmental justice, violence prevention, and economic and community development.

Siegfried: You have to know that Bayview-Hunters Point’s young people and families were facing these issues in the context of a huge city-driven plan to create a new community essentially on top of their neighborhood. Folks felt pressed by urban removal and a quick gentrification that was creating a Black exodus out of Bayview. There have been so few resources in the neighborhood: no restaurants, grocery stores—nothing in the neighborhood that helps sustain healthy community. Most of the low-income housing has never been cleaned up. People are living with mold and fungi, which are leading causes of asthma. The asthma rate is double that of any neighborhood in San Francisco, and it’s the same with diabetes. In 1989, the Hunters Point shipyard was named one of the nation’s worst toxic sites, and parts are still unusable due to toxic and radioactive waste and neglect. Twenty-one percent of Bayview’s 33,000 people live under the poverty line, and many more are coping with barely livable or unlivable poverty. There is lots of discussion and organization in the community around working together to take on problems. We’re supporting the neighborhood as it creates BES as an institution that will address health issues and prepare young people to be advocates, agents for change, and residents with roots and a stake in the neighborhood’s renewal.

Horace: How does founding a new small high school help address this really terrible legacy of environmental and economic inequity?
Benitez: Schools have a great effect on the lives of young people and their communities—that is, they can, but they don’t always. Part of what we needed to do—part of what any new school founders need to do—was to learn about the community where we planned to build the school. The need for a school in Bayview-Hunters Point was related to us via the CES Small Schools Project application process, and we responded by doing more research about where the school would go, connecting with more people, and creating a process for them to shape the curriculum and intention of the school. And, of course, we learned that there are a lot of layers: major unemployment, a gang injunction in the form of a curfew, and all of the environmental disaster. And through this, there was the threat that what happened to the Fillmore district—a flight of the Black working class—could happen to Bayview. Our job is to figure out who the school can join in conversation and in the process of engaging in renewal to help young people and their families to deal with the issue. Through the Sound of Truth summer program, we met with community groups and policymakers, and we could say, “Here is what young people have learned through their research.” A year of town halls and focus groups in the community shaped what the curriculum should look like and what the graduation requirements should be. Having this level of autonomy through the Small Schools by Design policy helped us infuse health and wellness in every aspect of the school.

Siegfried: It’s one thing to talk to students about diabetes abstractly, and it’s another to find ways to understand how diabetes and hypertension might affect their own behavior and ability to participate in certain ways. Health and wellness is another lens to look at racism and history, and wellness is immediately interconnected with the learning that will take place. Our approach is that it’s not an added course—it’s infused in science, social studies, and community projects.

Benitez: We want to contribute to this conversation and to the effort by growing this new school that is positioned to teach relevant skills and knowledge to students so that they see themselves as social scientists, testing water and air, asking questions about how poverty affecets family situations and looking at choices that young people are making. And they will need to work together and work across differences. The demographics have changed in this community; it is no longer all African American, and we want to equip young people with the tools they need to befriend people who are outside their immediate circle, and train young people to implement their skills within their community. Bayview-Hunters Point is a lab for the school, an extension of the school.

Horace: How will BES become a part of the ongoing activism within the Bayview-Hunters Point community?
Benitez: We are partnering with Literacy for Environmental Justice, an organization that is helping the community to envision what it could look like now that the PG&E plant is gone and renovation is taking place. That’s just one example of the kind of organization the school is and will be partnering with. We are not trying to solve problems by ourselves; instead, we’re using an assets-based community model to build on existing strengths, especially those that include or would benefit from young people’s perspectives. Young people will raise real-life issues that the community is struggling with in real time. By learning to be critical thinkers and problem solvers, they will be able to play roles in the community’s development. This creates a strong context to develop curriculum; it frees you from what you think should be in the canon of the high school curriculum and lets you focus on skills required by students who see themselves as capable of taking on the challenges of their neighborhood.

Siegfried: By asking students, “What are you going to do about it?” our hope and intention is to give them a clearer understanding of how to be a scientist and a critical thinker. There hasn’t been a school in the community for kids to go to for years, so they have been traveling far, and can’t get involved. Thirty-three thousand people and no school? While it may make it difficult to attract kids at first, it’s a great opportunity to create a school that’s an asset that the community will be proud of.

More about the Bayview Essential School for Music, Art and Social Justice
“Our mission is to engage, educate, and empower Bayview youth to transform their lives while positively contributing to the betterment of their community. Our students will become independent thinkers, problem-solvers, and self-directed learners. Our school community will model the values of dedication, care, creativity, and interdependence that will help to shape our students into successful lifelong learners.”

For more about BES, visit, where you can hear music produced during the Sound of Truth summer program, read BES’s blog, and follow its progress.

More about Bayview-Hunters Point
If you would like to learn more about the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, please visit “Profile: Bayview-Hunters Point,” an extensive web-based multimedia profile assembled by the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism that includes “An Industry’s Legacy of Pollution,” an audio and pictorial slideshow detailing various industries’ environmental destruction, neighborhood cleanup efforts, and health effects. The profile is available online at

Literacy for Environmental Justice
BES partner Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) is an urban environmental education and youth empowerment organization created specifically to address the unique ecological and social concerns of Bayview-Hunters Point and surrounding neighborhoods. LEJ’s website features extensive information about health threats in the community as well as educationally- driven solutions. Visit