Monday, October 20, 2008

Sometimes dinner is about something else

In San Francisco these days everyone is writing about public schools. Buena Vista parent and food writer Molly Watson writes about schools on her food blog, The Dinner Files, in a recent post titled, "Sometimes dinner is about something else."

She writes:

The public school assignment system in SF is insane. One person last night recounted his inability to see his child through the process, and instead just opted for the private school that accepted his child. The lottery system as it currently exists is daunting, bizarre, inscrutable, and opaque. It needs to be fixed. However, after some discussion, he recounted how, like me, he knows many people who saw it through and ended up with the schools they wanted.

I’ve done it on several school sites, I did it in a now long-shelved radio interview for “Philosophy Talk,” and now I’ll do it here. I’ll come out as pro-public schools. Rabidly so, one might say. I am a product of public schools. I believe strongly in their importance as the foundation of democracy. That’s right: the god damn foundation of democracy. I was pushed over the edge, however, by a friend years ago who said: “if a school isn’t good enough for your kid, why is is good enough for anyone else’s kid?”

Touché. Words to live by. Someone at dinner last night, someone I like and respect very much, someone I’ve always looked up to, to be honest, said “well, San Francisco schools are a lost cause.” She said it as one would say the sun rises in the east. As undebatable fact. As fixed and determined as the place of dry-farmed heirloom tomatoes in the average foodie’s wet dream. Internets, this person fights the fight against all kinds of food problems, all kinds of sustainability issues, all kinds of labor issues. But her local schools? She was willing to write them off.

It made me want to cry.

Read the full story by clicking here.


  1. Interesting reading, thanks for sharing it. I am just going to launch into my rant as a parent searching for K right now. I am touring something like 8 schools, my husband the same. We will collectively take time off or show up late for work approximately 150 hours, making special arrangements to drop off our two kids at preschool/daycare early, or having someone else take them in. I do this so that I can find the schools I am willing to put on my list of 7. Yes, this is free choice and access, but is it really? When hourly wage earners, people who have fixed hours, people who have a long commute (yes, some of us work outside the city) cannot spend the countless hours searching for a school? It's not (just) the lottery that's bothering me, it's the amount of work parents need to put into the process. And, on the school side, the real disruptive and time consuming effects of parents tromping through classrooms once or twice a week for a few months. This is a real barrier to parental involvement, before you even start your relationship with SFUSD.

    Ok, I am just tired and stressed. Sometimes I feel I should just make my list without going on tours but well, I have seen real differences between the schools I've toured.

    I'm hoping the changes in the assignment system in future years take into account the burden on parents this system of choice creates.

  2. We will be spending about $1000 on babysitting fees just for the initial tours. So you can probably double that amount by the end.

    And, yes, the time spent is outrageous. And this process is relatively easy for us because we have a lot of flexibility. My heart goes out to those who don't.

  3. Possibly this is self-serving, since I'm a candidate, but I just want to remind people that the best thing you can do to support our schools is to get educated about the school board candidates and VOTE. There are 13 candidates vying for four seats this year, and lots of new faces. Most of the candidates have web sites - there are links to them at: (scroll down to Board of Education). Also there are hour-long interviews with most of the candidates posted at

    This is particularly important for people who are invested in the assignment system: the new Board will certainly be making changes next year and who we elect will determine what changes are made.

  4. In the end, does it really make that much difference to take all this time, energy, and money to tour schools? If in fact there really are as many good elementary schools as people say, wouldn't it be just as effective to find 7 schools that would work for your family logistics-wise (e.g. location, transit, start time) and just put those down on your list instead?

  5. For some of us, the only way we can determine whether or not a school with be a good fit is by touring. Some schools seem great on paper, but when you actually go and visit the classroom, meet teachers, get a "feel" for the school vibe, that speaks volumes.

  6. I agree this is a problem. I toured 15 schools last year, so probably spent about 45 hours away from work when you include extra travel time. And it is certainly inequitable, considering that many parents simply can't afford to take this time.

    But I don't quite understand the point of view of those who, like me, choose to do so many tours but believe that a change in the school assignment system will be beneficial. Presumably, any change will limit our choices by making neighborhood a much more significant factor. (And don't tell me it's possible to make neighborhood matter more but still preserve the same level of choice -- that just doesn't make sense.) Aren't those of us who do so many tours trying to maximize our choices and unwilling to limit ourselves to the few closest schools? And wouldn't any proposed change to the system LIMIT our choices?

    Yes, it won't feel necessary to do so many tours, because we'll have fewer options, but couldn't we voluntarily limit our options now?

    I'm not trying to discount anyone's frustration. Just trying to get a better sense of what kind of system people would like to see.

  7. @9:22 I have wondered whether I would trade off the option of choice vs. looking at only the 5 or 7 closest schools. We are in Sunset and of course, the 7 closest to us are generally pretty good schools.

    So for me, voluntarily limiting our options to nearby schools is a sane suggestion--but adding back in those with distinguishing programs i.e. immersion or year-round.

    For the future I would see some kind of blended system, maybe automatic lottery for the 5 closest schools with an option to list 1-2 schools out of area? Or making certain schools true alternatives again (with rationale for why they are alternative). And if you don't apply for out of neighborhood, a guarantee that you'll get one of those 5.

    I have no idea if that would work for the system in general, just trying to make it all work.

  8. 1:56, that does sound sane and would be a relief in many ways, except that a "guarantee" for one of one's 5 neighborhood schools would pretty much sew up the spots in many of those schools that are clustered in the mid to west side of town, and leave us out who live on the east side. I mean, even if we could apply for those spots, they would be gone in a flash given that guarantee.

    Even more inequities would develop if the true alternatives, such as immersions, are treated differently (which I believe they should be), because then our neighborhood schools are limited to a very few on this side of town that most folks on this blog disdain.

    I'm sorry, but I have a lot of trouble seeing how neighborhood schools don't create more segregation and inequalities. Though it would be a dream if one lived near a cluster of so-called good ones.

  9. That's what so stupid about the tours, it is a lottery, not a "choice" system. Yes, you still have to pretend you have an actual choice, and look at lots of schools, but in the end, it's just a roll of the dice.

  10. I think we are all fooling ourselves to think that "choice" helps as much as it does and that it lowers the inequities. It just doesn't do enough and I don't think that it will. Schools lose their Title 1 status and those kids just get shipped to a new, less desirable location. How does that bring continuity (which I think is underrated) to the system?
    In the 5 schools I've toured, I can't get over how inequitable they are. It's not fair that one PTA can raise more money than another. If we really believed in the public school system, we'd demand that all our schools be created equal. That would involve combining all the PTA money raised and redistributing it equally to each and every school. If we're really concerned about the greater good, give up immersion. I'd love to see our schools more integrated but are we moving to a neighborhood to integrate it or gentrify it? Why do we push integration on our kids, when we can't do it ourselves? This is not Sesame just seems to me that we are a bunch of people who have to much time on our hands and that we know what would help the poor kid in the next neighborhood.

    By the way, I feel fortunate that I had the time and energy to rant and visit 5 schools and the remaining schools.

  11. Neighborhood schools would force integration for most of the families on this blog. If integration is the goal, what is the problem?

  12. "If we are really concerned about the greater good, give up immersion".

    I adamantly disagree. Kids in this country, even buddy Obama noted(mentioned this in a speech for heaven's sack, pooh poohing American kids), do not have the language skills that the World competition demands.

    Immersion is a great program. If you want integration, get rid of the bilingual programs that ethnically and culturally isolate kids, and by the way, their parents. Just feeds on itself.

    The gov't exists to restribute income alreadly. They are doing it right now. Not very efficiently, mind you. The gov't can't even handle the taxes they have taken from the people. NO need to redistribute what individuals do on own, which is to start PTA, PTO, whatever club, and to do something to improve THEIR OWN SCHOOL. One by one, thats how things improve.

    If you think for one minute that a district wide fundraising program that redistributes all the money would work, you are very wrong. I for one, want accountability for money contributed. (see comment on taxes/state funding of schools). I would very much not contribute to some huge pie, which by the way, would require administrative costs to administer/distribute, so even less money in the end gets to the very people we want, the children.

    And I've ranted now. thank you. I guess I'm on edge with this $851 billion bailout (does it nauseate anyone else that it went from $700 b to $851 billion because of add'l pork barrel projects!!)

  13. Yes, the tours can change your view of the school. I toured Rooftop, and I thought What is the big deal here? I didn't like that place. I toured AFY and West Portal and decided, Gee, my daughter would never fit in here. Still, I named seven top top popular schools and got nothing.

    On the second round, after getting nothing, I toured a couple other places that were convenient, and I fell in love. Had I named these in the first round, my experience wouldn't be so stressful.

    However. From a near technical standpoint it doesn't matter. It is a lottery, after all. If you look at and the brochure and pick a place that is convenient, it's fine too. In the end, that's the school I got, and I've very very happy.

    Believe me. When you are waking up at 5:30 and trying to get the kids ready for a 7:50 start time, and it's totally not you, and you are changing your whole life and facing doing that for the next six years, something that is totally not you, it doesn't matter what the school is.

    Convenience, start times, bus routes, etc. are all totally important.

    Finally, yes, it is just as easy to put seven schools on your list based on rumor. They put you where they put you.