Monday, October 22, 2007

Poll: should San Francisco change the public school enrollment process?

We all complain about the public school enrollment process. But if you could do away with it, would you want to? Let's say the alternative would be that you go to your neighborhood school, the one that's closest to your house—the one you can walk to.

You wouldn't have the option to go to any other school in the city (unless it was private). That means no choice—no choosing between Spanish or Chinese, arts or technology, small or big. You couldn't try to get into the top-performing school or the one that's close to your work.

I've posted a poll in the upper-right corner of the page that allows you to make this decision.

But before you place your vote, here's a little refresher on the current system and some background info to help you choose wisely:
The current system was created to diversify San Francisco schools. If a school has more families wanting to get in than it can accommodate, the district's "diversity index" kicks in. The index uses five factors—but not race—to determine how to create classroom diversity. The factors include the following: the family's socioeconomic status, academic achievement of the student, whether the student's mother graduated from high school, and whether the student speaks English at home. Students living near the school get a preference as long as their socioeconomic factors would diversify the school. The idea is that the schools are mixed with all different sorts of people from various backgrounds. And it can allow a child from a difficult inner-city neighborhood to go to a school surrounded by a supportive community.

This school-assignment system was established in 2001. Before then, race was a determining factor and parents were less likely to get one of their seven schools. Some claim the change in the system has led to resegregation. And it is believed that schools would become even more segregated if everyone went to the school in their community. Last spring, the Chronicle ran a story, With more choice has come resegregation, which provides an overview on this complicated issue.

Ready to place your vote? Should San Francisco change the lottery system so you can go to your neighborhood school? Or do you think it's important for children of various backgrounds to learn together?


  1. With all due respect, the wording of your poll is flawed. SFUSD kids CAN go to their neighborhood school, and a huge number do. They just aren't GUARANTEED their neighborhood school.

    My daughter attends our neighborhood middle school, Aptos, as her older brother did before her. My son attends School of the Arts, which is an alternative school but happens to be walking distance from our house. For K, my son was initially assigned to our neighborhood elementary school, which we did not want and appealed to get out of. So clearly, my family's experience is that our kids can attend the neighborhood school -- for K, back then, it wasn't the school we wanted.

    The previous system used race in the process, and set caps on the percentage of any one race at any one school -- I think it was 40%. The caps were removed and the use of race in the process was eliminated after a court case called the Ho Decision -- Chinese parents sued because the caps meant Chinese kids had to score higher than others to get into Lowell.

    It was the lifting of the caps on race that clearly led to resegregation of some schools.
    There are some that are now more than 70% Chinese, and a few that are similarly majority Latino. On the other hand, even the SFUSD schools considered resegregated are very diverse compared to schools in many other big cities -- which are often 95-100% black or Latino. And they're fabulously diverse compared to private schools and schools in the wealthiest suburbs (though some suburbs, like Daly City and Alameda, are very diverse).

  2. How does the school district determine the index factors—such as the family's socioeconomic status, academic achievement of the student, whether the student's mother graduated from high school, and whether the student speaks English at home. Are these questions on the application?

    thanks for the blog!

  3. Kate ("Kate") might want to do an actual post on those questions.

    I've been involved in committees working on trying to improve the process at various times, so here's what I recall from them.

    1. Socioeconomic status is based on whether the family qualifies for free/reduced-price lunch or other benchmarks like living in public housing. So it's not a varied gauge; it's just below or above a certain threshold.

    2. The student's individual academic achievement isn't part of the process. For entering K, it's whether the student went to preschool or not; for grades 6 and 9, it's API of the school the student came from. It's an effort to mix up kids predisposed to higher academic achievement vs. not.

    3. Mother's educational background was dropped as a criterion. The reason it was there is because it's supposed to be the single factor most strongly linked with the child's academic achievement, and again they were trying to mix up likely high achievers with non-. But it was dropped officially because it was totally unverifiable (probably also because there was so much outcry and ridicule).

    4. I think whether the student speaks English in the home is based on the family's say-so.

  4. We were told by PPS that there is actually a process for verifying the language component.

    The mother's education component was sexist and punitive. Thank goodness it was dropped.

    One other point here - there seemed to be a lot of 'either or' in the way the question was worded at the end:

    Should we change the system OR do we want diversity?

    Query whether neighborhood schools would kill diversity entirely. I think it would lessen it certainly, but there are other ways to achieve diversity w/o the choice-lottery system.

    For example, there is also the (dreaded) bussing option (have neighborhood kids reserved slots, but also reserve spots for kids bussed in from elsewhere).

    I'm not convinced that the way it is done is the only way. But right now, it strikes me as the best, as painful as it is for me, since none of my top choices are in walking distance, alas (but all are very diverse!)

  5. Re the mother's educational background -- I think it sounded sensible to insiders because it so closely correlates with academic success, but it didn't come across to the public like that, obviously!

    The busing option described in the previous anonymous comment is basically one of the ways it has worked in the past. Remnants of that system still exist.

    All schools that weren't alternative schools had designated assignment areas. They included the contiguous area, within whatever boundary, but many schools also had satellite zones elsewhere in the city with busing to the school, entirely for diversity.

    This was the case when we first applied in '96. At that time, parents were told that our only choices were our designated schools of assignment or an alternative school. This wasn't strictly accurate, because you could request another school and often get it, but that wasn't revealed openly.

    Those satellite zones still exist for many schools, because the buses still come from them. My daughter's middle school, Aptos (near Ocean/Junipero Serra), has one in the Mission, to increase the Latino population. The need to do that is outdated -- Aptos' feeder K-5s would send plenty of Latino kids anyway without it -- but the buses still run, so it still exists. These are yellow school buses, to be clear, not Muni.

    We have friends who live very near Leonard Flynn Elementary (just off Cesar Chavez). In the day, their neighborhood school of assignment was what's now Gordon Lau Elementary in Chinatown. A yellow bus came down Mission to pick up.

    A veteran teacher described to me the earliest busing plan, I think in the late '60s. Here it is: There were all these K-6 neighborhood schools around the city. The district turned half of them into K-2 and the other half into 3-6, and paired off two schools in different neighborhoods. You get the idea. I think it caused a firestorm. And that was an era when (IMHO) parents weren't expected to and didn't pay a fraction of the attention to their kids that our generation* of parents is expected to and do, so a lot were still oblivious or not in the protest mindset. "Firestorm" would be far too mild for what would happen if something like that were dropped on us today.

    *(I am really a different generation of parent from most reading this blog, I'm sure -- I'm 53, with kids 13 and almost-17.)

  6. We came from NYC a few years ago and there the public school system had economic diversity (middle class and wealthy kids) because a child could attend the local school. PS6 and manhattan new school had kids of doormen and housekeepers as well as Park Ave types. No it had it's problems but it kept a significant percent of liberal well to do families in the public system. The SF system means well but so did Marxism and simply doesnt work. The white middle class has left in droves.

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