Meet the Super Mom Trying to Reopen Schools

This Q&A is excerpted from UDC board member Joel Engardio’s recent newsletter

Meredith Willa Dodson with her husband and two kids, ages five and three. Photo credit: Deeksha Prakash

Meredith Willa Dodson is a founder of the parent-led group Decreasing the Distance. Their mission is to get all public schools safely open full time. Too many children have suffered from distance learning in what has become a lost year. The toll is both academic and mental health.

The amount of advocacy that Meredith and her fellow parent volunteer leaders have accomplished — against all odds — is amazing. I interviewed Meredith to learn more about the person beyond this powerful parent movement. You will be inspired by her drive, passion, and motivation.

JOEL ENGARDIO: Tell me about your connection to San Francisco. How long have you been here and where from? Your husband, too.

MEREDITH WILLA DODSON: I was raised in New York and moved to the Bay Area in 2007 to start a masters in public policy at Berkeley. The focus was on education policy. I fell in love with the city of San Francisco — and I fell in love with a native San Franciscan. My husband, proud of his Vietnamese roots, was born and raised in San Francisco, attended Alamo Elementary, Hoover Middle School, and Lowell High School.

How many kids do you have and how old are they?
I have two kids, ages three and five. My five-year-old is enrolled at Rooftop pre-k and we’re awaiting our kindergarten placement.

What part of SF do you live in and what do you love most about San Francisco?
I live in Noe Valley. My favorite thing about San Francisco is how we’re surrounded by nature and it’s ingrained in the culture here. When I first moved here from New York City, I remember being thrown off by social invitations for a Saturday morning hike rather than Saturday morning Bloody Mary. It is such a healthier lifestyle and I love being able to pass that down to my kids. Our favorite family activity on the weekends is hiking through Glen Canyon or McLaren Park.

What kind of work have you done before and why are you making Decrease the Distance a full-time volunteer job?
Most of my career I’ve focused on lifting up kids and families out of poverty, with a primary focus on early education. Great child care is crucial for low-income families — for parents and children alike. For the parent, it enables them to work and maintain self-sufficiency. For the child, a high-quality program has the potential to prepare them for kindergarten. With my decision to become a full-time volunteer with Decreasing the Distance, some days it feels a little insane — especially with the amount of personal attacks I get and questioning of my intent. But I keep going, because I see a city that is now failing it’s duty to provide a high-quality education for its children. This is disproportionately impacting the kids who are already struggling the most, and I just can’t look away from that.

Why are the public schools worth fixing? What motivates you to do the hard work needed versus leaving for private or leaving San Francisco for better public schools elsewhere?
Public education is the most important institution in our society. It is the great equalizer. It is what allows kids growing up in a family with fewer resources to have the same opportunities in life as kids in a family with more.

When did Decreasing the Distance start, what was the inspiration for the name, what has it grown into? (how many followers, volunteers, etc.), and what is the main mission?
Decreasing the Distance began as a small eight-person workgroup in July 2020 in response to how the pandemic was impacting our public education system. We were concerned about the impact of moving students to prolonged distance learning supervised by their families. We also saw how many families were left struggling to make ends meet while trying to support their children’s learning. Our mission became defined as advocating for equitable education solutions on behalf of public school students and families. We initially focused on creative ground-up equitable solutions like “mobile bus classrooms” coming to neighborhoods or “equitable pods.” But when it became clear by the fall that in-school transmission was close to zero, we shifted our focus to reopening schools as the most equitable education solution for our city’s students. It has grown into a substantially-sized grassroots effort, with 3,500 newsletter subscribers, 1,200 Facebook members, 1,000 Twitter followers, a 50-person Slack team with our most engaged volunteers, and lots of “on-the-ground” members. We also have a sizable group of Spanish-speaking moms in the Mission.

You told me you felt sad when your best volunteer left San Francisco public schools for another city. What is your pep talk message to other parents and families on the cusp of leaving?
The very first thing I say is that “I get it.” I really do. We already have this problem without a pandemic, in terms of one of highest opt-out rates in the nation from our public education system. And the way our school board is handling the pandemic and reopening is not giving anyone confidence in the system looking out at what the next year or even a few years might be like. The reality is that distance learning is not public education. Our school board needs to admit that and get our schools opened. I understand when families reach their breaking point. But as many of us as possible, who can stick it out, need to keep fighting for what’s right and necessary. This movement is getting stronger. We’re having real influence. They’re not going to be able to ignore us for much longer. We’re already seeing a shift.

If your group’s focus is the reopening of schools, what are your thoughts on other efforts to fix the school board itself (recall and charter amendment to change how the board is formed)? How do you feel about the ecosystem that has sprung up with you, Patrick Wolff and Jennifer Butterfoss’ charter amendment group, and Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj’s recall effort? They’re all parents and seem to be effective voices and leaders for their lanes. Do you foresee these efforts all working in tandem?
It’s nice to not feel totally alone in trying to improve the system. It feels like a bit of a puzzle and we’re all tackling different parts. Some of our families are interested in recall, and we’ve sent them over to Autumn and Siva, though we’re not endorsing the recall. Similarly with the charter amendment, though we’re not actively involved or endorsing the effort, some of our families are, and we’ve sent them to Patrick and Jennifer. For our group, who knows what is in store for our future. But for right now we want to be laser-focused on returning to a quality public education system, which means getting our city’s students back into the classroom with their in-person teachers.

The school board woefully ignored parents and their core job to safely reopen schools for many months, even seemingly working against reopening schools — until parent pressure forced them to make it a priority. Should parents have to work that hard to be listened to? Is the school board now acting too little, too late? Will parents remember what the school board put them through when they are up for re-election or if faced with a recall?
Speaking personally, I will never, ever forget this. Feeling utterly abandoned, ignored, and even shamed by our education leaders who are supposed to have our student’s best interests in mind. I see their handling of this school year completely abysmal and unforgivable. This isn’t supposed to be our job, it’s supposed to be theirs.

You have a lot of work ahead to get every school open full time. But when that day comes, what happens to the community and energy you’ve created with Decreasing the Distance? Where do you channel that energy next?
It makes me exhausted just thinking about all of the work that will be needed to shift our schools from just “open” to “quality.” And also to address the devastating impacts on our city’s students, particularly those who’ve been hardest hit by the pandemic and by school closures. There will be years and years of work to do. Plus, touching on your earlier question again, I don’t think families will be willing to return to the previous state of affairs where we had no collective voice. I said this at our rally: We’re not going away anytime soon. We’re just getting started.