Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hot topic: How can we get more parents to choose public over private?

An SF K Files visitor asked me to start the following thread:
It seems as if there has been a movement of parents returning to our city's public schools. This is wonderful and the schools are improving. Yet still so many families are opting for private over public. Our city has more kids in private school than any other city in the country. It seems as if in order to have a top-notch district we need even more families to choose public. But how do we get them to make this choice?

29 comments:

  1. Some people will always choose private. The reasons vary.

    Perceptions (not always accurate) and reasons might include:
    (a) desire for religious instruction
    (b) perceived social/business opportunities of sending their kids to school with the "rich and powerful"
    (c) desire for language instruction not available in public school (French and Hebrew come immediately to mind as languages available in private SF elementary schools but not public SF elementary schools)
    (d) desire for smaller classes and more personal attention for their kids
    (e) desire for a school with consistent and adequate funding that does not depend on the whims of legislators or California voters
    (f) desire for specific on-site or school-provided activities or opportunities that a private school offers but a public school does not
    (g) perception that public school teachers are so overwhelmed dealing with problem children that their kids will be lost in the shuffle
    (h) perception that private schools have better teachers because they can terminate ineffective teachers more easily
    (i) perception that public schools devote excessive time "teaching to the [standardized] test" and complying with "no child left behind" standards

    I am not saying that all of these reasons are good or all of these perceptions are accurate, only that they are common examples of private school parent thinking.

    Public schools will never get the snobs or the people for whom religious instruction is a priority.

    The other things that would attract parents to public schools are all possible--with money and different labor contracts that give public schools more leeway to weed out poor teachers.

    Things that ARE working really well to attract families to public schools and will continue to work are:
    (1) It's not free, but it's cheap compared to private school, especially if you have more than one child.
    (2) Public schools are improving their performance dramatically, and parents see it in test scores and hear it by word-of-mouth from other parents. Word-of-mouth is invaluable, especially if it comes from trusted friends and people who do not grind "private parents are bad for society/private parents are crazy" axes.
    (3) Language immersion programs

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  3. I am about to begin the K process for my 4-year-old. I must say that the SF magazine article back in January and spending time on this blog (making myself crazy with worry since my child was 3) have opened my eyes to all the realities--good and bad--of the public school system and assignment process. For the record, our family situation mirrors almost exactly that of “Kate’s” at the time of the article, in terms of education level, income, hopes and dreams for our kids. The privates are really out of the question for us financially, and I do want my child in a school that truly reflects where we live. That said…

    The reasons for going private over public or vice versa are enormously varied, of course. But I must say that, in the end, knowing that the *real* chance of new families to the district (i.e. not with sibs already enrolled) getting any of their round 1 choices is about 55 percent, if that, makes me resentful. We both work, and while we will make the time to visit some schools, I resent a system that asks me to learn about so many schools with absolutely no assurance that we will get into *any* of them. Location is huge for us. I refuse to drive 45 minutes across the city if we get assigned a school in, say, Bernal Heights--heck, I wouldn’t even drive to Clarendon. That’s more than an hour of driving for me before I even commute to work.

    I get what the assignment system is supposed to do, but it doesn’t work: It doesn’t truly solve the diversity problem, and it causes undue strain on applying families--OMG, I would be losing my mind right now if I didn’t know where my kid would be going to school in less than a month! Truth told, if we don’t get into any of the fine schools in our general area, we’re going parochial (we attend church, though not Catholic).

    A few months ago, I was feeling sanguine about the public school process--even after the article-- but as summer wears on and I see people still having to stress about their assignment... Hmmm. We'll go through the process, but I just don't have it in me to turn this into my second job. It's not hard to see why some people just want to opt out.

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  4. What does it mean to improve the schools? Raising the API scores a hundred points? Reducing class size? Decreasing the drop-out rate? Increasing the diversity class level, culturally, etc?

    We improve USD by pulling in a wider range of families. But by increasing the pool this it become more competitive to get into the most sought after schools. Families do not want to sacrifice their children's education to benefit the greater good of the District. There might be a noble few who can say, "Sure I'll send little Johnny all the way across town to school with busted restrooms and poor teacher attendance, because I believe in public schools". But that's few and far between.

    The problems that affect public schools in SF are affected by the greater web of problems of this City's economic crisis, laws that favor renters over home owners, and laws that don't make it easy to raise a family in this city.

    I'm a native born, and raised San Franciscan. I went to some horrible public schools on the South East side of town. My immigrants parents were just happy to have me attend school. I am expecting more from my son who just entered kindergarten in the District. And I am blessed in the last round to have gotten a school of our choice. But we hadn't gotten that call from the District I am certain we would've paid for private school. I didn't want my son to experience what I did.

    We need to make this City more livable for families, small business owners, and the working class. This will help bring in a wider range of families, and improve our schools.

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  5. "But I must say that, in the end, knowing that the *real* chance of new families to the district (i.e. not with sibs already enrolled) getting any of their round 1 choices is about 55 percent."

    It's not that low. It's about 68%. Shrewd choices can increase it, though not completely obviate the risk of going 0/7. Think of it in the same way as college applications, with your top choices and your safety choices.

    "A few months ago, I was feeling sanguine about the public school process--even after the article-- but as summer wears on and I see people still having to stress about their assignment"

    Some are still in limbo, yes, but a lot aren't. This year not as bad as last year (anyone remember Flynnarado?), despite higher enrollment. Also bear in mind that those most likely to be commenting here are those unfortunate enough to be still hanging in limbo.

    [FYI, we were fortunate enough to get our second choice in R1.]

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  6. I am European and I posted about this before. Where I am from, most if not all public elementary schools are good and parents do not have to worry that their child will be left behind in some way, be it socially or academically. Education is a top priority for law makers and money doesn't get cut at every corner.

    We made the sacrifice last year to move our twins mid-year to a private school on the Peninsula (on our commuting route to work) that offered us to slots. I had a lot of anxiety switching them, but it all turned out great, the school rocked, both of the kids learned to read in less than 6 months and became such confident little people. It would have been okay to leave them there, albeit a financial strain, which we would have made, without flinching, hadn't we been one of the lucky families to get something in our top 3 out of round I.
    Some might think it's unfair - some kids got neither public nor private - and I would almost have to agree, but unfortunately that's how things work in an unfair system. It's a shame! We walk away happy, but I feel for all those who don't - starting Kindergarten should be full of promises and excitement for the kids and the parents, and not heartache anxiety and sleepless nights. I totally understand if parents continue to pick private or parochial, if public schools cannot provide equal opportunities for all. Why would some be asked to settle for less when it comes to their kids?

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  7. I question the underlying assumption that in order to have "a top-notch district we need even more families to choose public (that are choosing private now)". I do not think that the latter leads to the former, rather the other way around.

    Also, if the assertion that "our city has more kids in private school than any other city in the country" is true, then the question to be asked is " what makes San Francisco different to produce this result?"

    Are SF residents that much richer, elitist or religious than other communities? These are the qualities often cited as correlating to private school attendance. I don't think that this is true.

    Absent any other obvious reason, it seems that the difference is probably the SF school lottery and the uncertainty that it engenders.

    In financial investments, people will pay a premium to reduce risk and uncertainty to obtain a desired result. I think there are enough people on the bubble financially who do not want to risk an uncertain result for their kids, no matter whether their fears are valid. The same families, put into a different situation, would probably happily choose public school as a valid economic decision.

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  8. "Absent any other obvious reason, it seems that the difference is probably the SF school lottery and the uncertainty that it engenders."

    No, the proportion attending private & parochial schools was high even before the lottery was introduced. The consent decree desegregating schools increased the trend towards privates. The decline in %age of non-Hispanic whites decelerated marginally from 1997-2005, but did not reverse. The district-wide lottery was introduced in 2001, as a consequence of the 1999 judgement against SFUSD using race as a criteria for placement in the old Optional Enrollment system: up until 1999 you got your neighbourhood school automatically unless you filled out an Optional Enrollment form.

    Anecdotally, I'd guess things have changed for the better, as SFUSD has registered 10% increases in applications two years in a row, but don't have data to confirm that.

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  9. So, rather than the lottery specifically, the split is because of the consent decree trying to desegregate the schools of which the lottery is the latest mechanism to try and address this issue.

    It seems to come down to people being uncomfortable about race and class issues manifesting in school issues. I am sure private / parochial school attendance jumped after busing was started in school districts way back when. The divide is an ongoing legacy of this problem and one of the reasons reading this blog is so fascinating.

    Speaking as a non-white professional, I think it is just an inherent problem of pluralistic societies and indicative of the tribalistic nature of human behavior. Not going to be solved easily or without pain.

    I do think that trying to attract more “private school” families is really code for getting more white families into the system so that people will feel more comfortable with the schools. No one wants to be one of the only white families in a school. I am not judgmental about that desire at all. Just trying to get to the underlying basis so a better solution can be formulated. I do think that the needs of "poorer, non-white" students don't always correlate with the needs of middle-class white families.

    I still think that the lottery probably accounts for more people opting out of the SFUSD system above and beyond those who would probably choose private school for the various reasons. This would account for the claim that SF has the highest percentage of private school attendance.

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  10. TeamLaLa has it right when s/he says the question to be asked is what makes SF different in the percentage of private vs. public attendance. For myself, the issue centers completely on the lottery and wild variances among our many choices. Great teaching but no on-site aftercare? Close to home or not? Close to home and with on-site before and afterschool program but no foreign language? There are certain things that just need to come together for us and that narrows our mileage here considerably.

    My impression so far is that the parochial schools--obviously not the right choice for many--are just as racially mixed as the public schools.

    We might get really lucky and score one of our top picks in round 1 or 2. There's no Rooftop in our mix, but I'm not comforted even by the 68% figure. Fingers crossed.

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  11. I disagree that the lottery has a lot to do with the percentage of kids enrolled in private school.

    As tmcvey said and as I've read elsewhere, the percentage has stayed fairly steady since well before the lottery was introduced.

    If you didn't have the lottery, you'd have neighborhood assignment or some other system where parents had no control, which wouldn't solve the problems WestSide mentions. In fact, WestSide, you seem to be arguing FOR the lottery because your neighborhood school is unlikely to offer the start time, after-school care, and enrichment programs you want.

    But having a pure neighborhood assignment system might lower the percentage of kids in private because, in general, the kids who'd be assigned to low-performing schools in the southeast of the City are from families who'd be less likely to be able to afford private school. I don't think that's the goal the original poster had in mind.

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  12. I restate my point. Presumably, as others have noted , there is probably a baseline of parents in any community who will choose to send their kids to private no matter what It has been posited that SF has a higher percentage of private school kids when compared to other similar metropolitan areas. The question then becomes what separates out SF to account for this difference? If a similar increase from the mean occurred in Salt Lake City, I might postulate that might have something to do with a larger Mormon population. What then accounts for the presumed difference in San Francisco?

    The interesting data points to look at would be the following: Does SF have a higher rate of private school kids compared to similar metro areas? What was the private vs. public division before the consent decree? Did it increase after the consent decree? Did it increase again after the lottery was instituted?

    Answers to these questions would help focus attention to the actual causes of any discrepancies.

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  13. I propose moving toward having neighborhood schools! This way, families buy into a school when they buy into a neighborhood. Until then, put this argument to rest, please! My neighborhood school is one of the hardest to win in the SFUSD lottery. And, my son lost. Not that it mattered much, because we had our eyes set on private school no matter what. The lottery was our back-up plan. Fortunately, he got a seat in our top private school choice.

    WE ARE NOT SNOBS! And, we have met many families attending my son's private school--and, THEY ARE NOT SNOBS! Trust me, I don't like snobs myself.

    I like to think we are realists. Realistically, we know disenchanted families with older children in public school. These are families who were really into the public school experience in the early grades and who never even considered private kindergarten. We know families who moved out of the city after 3rd or 4th grade. We know families who looked at private school after dealing with the public school experience for a handful of years. This is the reality of the public school experience.

    I have been told that there are some kids who do fine in SFUSD. I have been told that it is not for every child though...

    So, we took the safe route with our child. It does NOT make us snobs. It is our way of being able to stay in the city we love.

    PS-Good public schools should not have to rely on parent funding/fundraising. It should be built into the system. San Francisco is an affluent city. And, being an affluent city, it should be able to pay for good schools on its own, through its tax base. I propose that the city TELLS the state it wants to use its property taxes they way it chooses. Then, we as a city, can put the money into the schools. That is how it works in many other places.

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  14. I just want to add:

    Just this past year, one friend, who loved her daughter's SFUSD experience for two solid years, broke down. Her daughter was in a classroom with too many students and SFUSD did not place an aide in the room. The teacher was used to having smaller classes and was frazzled.

    Another friend just moved because of an out-of-control class in one of the five dream schools (I am respecting my friends' privacy and not naming schools). The stories were bad. I asked, "How do the other parents feel?" Her reply, "Stuck."

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  15. I will say that in our experience, we would have gone public if not for the lottery.

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  16. "I propose moving toward having neighborhood schools! This way, families buy into a school when they buy into a neighborhood."

    Problem is, what happens to the folks who can't afford to buy into the neighbourhoods with the good schools?

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  17. Second problem is, what happens when the district redraws the boundaries so that your house is no longer assigned to that desirable school?

    When you say you went private because of the lottery, I think you mean you went private because you were not guaranteed your neighborhood school. There's a big difference.

    There are a lot of different ways to assign kids to schools, and the method is supposed to change this year. Here's a good thread from last year about it:

    http://thesfkfiles.blogspot.com/2009/03/hot-topic-assignment-process-redesign.html

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  18. "The interesting data points to look at would be the following: Does SF have a higher rate of private school kids compared to similar metro areas? What was the private vs. public division before the consent decree? Did it increase after the consent decree? Did it increase again after the lottery was instituted?"

    That's probably Masters-level thesis questions you're asking, from my experience trying to get data to answer this question.

    Finding data on private school participation in SF was very difficult: I used at the percentage of Caucasian kids in SFUSD as a proxy (as Caucasians are the most likely to go private: about 2/3 do currently), but didn't control for %age of school-age kids that were non-Hispanic Caucasians (while the %age of non-Hispanic whites was pretty constant from 1983-2005, I don't know if the same was true for school-age kids in that ethnic group).

    In other words, answering your (very salient) questions are not gonna come from some quick Googling.

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  19. "Second problem is, what happens when the district redraws the boundaries so that your house is no longer assigned to that desirable school?"

    I think there's a real "far away pastures are greener" fallacy amongst people thinking here. Whatever the SFUSD chooses as the alternative in 2011, you are going to see a lot of nostalgia for the current lottery that year. There will be winners and losers, and you may find out that the situation for your kid for their neighbourhood elementary school is different when it comes to middle and high school.

    My preference for the lottery is that (1) outcome is independent of ability to afford to live in certain neighbourhoods, (2) it forces SFUSD to Do Something if a school is tanking in popularity, because the money follows the student, and below a certain enrollment level a school isn't viable. Does anyone think you'd have the rapid spread of immersion programs (e.g. Webster and DeAvila in teh past two years). A decade ago, Noe parents didn't consider Alvarado an acceptable option. Five years ago, the same was true for Bernal and Leonard Flynn.

    Losing the quasi-market aspects of the lottery would be to the disadvantage of the public school system as a whole, IMHO.

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  20. On the subject of neighborhood schools, I just heard this from an American friend who's lived in Paris the last 15 years: She said school quality within the city varies a great deal depending on the affluence of the neighborhood. To get kids into a desirable school when they don't live near one, parents will be buy or rent a "chambre de bonne" (maid's room, barely more than a small closet) so they can claim an address near a desirable school. I know Kim Green has French connections--can you or anyone else corroborate or debunk?

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  21. "To get kids into a desirable school when they don't live near one, parents will be buy or rent a "chambre de bonne" (maid's room, barely more than a small closet) so they can claim an address near a desirable school."

    Heck, that goes on in Piedmont and Marin, so doesn't sound like a stretch to me.

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  23. The 1st choice lottery percentage is not 68%. That statistic includes siblings, who get priority, and that isn't a true lottery (albeit fair.)

    Also, there has been much discussion on this blog about neighborhood preference WITH EXCEPTIONS. Lots of great ideas. I think there is something much better than a straight lottery.

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  24. "The 1st choice lottery percentage is not 68%. That statistic includes siblings, who get priority, and that isn't a true lottery (albeit fair.)"

    We've been over this before. You have to subtract the sibs from the nominator and denominator to get the right percentage of non-elder sibs who get one of their choices.

    ~30% of applicants get sibling preference. 78% got 1 of their 7 choices this year. So the correct fraction of non-sibs getting one of their choices is 48/70 = ~68%.

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  25. Thanks for the clarification, tmcvey. I've seen wild comments around here about that rate being 50% or less--I guess a combo of bad math and high emotion. 68% is about correct, I think, in the aggregate: 68% of non-sibling applicants get one of their seven picks for kindergarten.

    Of course anyone can raise or lower the odds on an individual basis. Basically, add two or more schools that have not been oversubbed in past years and your odds go way up (though still no guarantee). I mean this exactly--schools that have not been over-subbed. That doesn't mean schools that used to be much less popular but have since climbed the charts (like McKinley, Flynn, etc). The round one numbers are posted on sfusd.edu under enrollment--you can figure out exactly which ones did not have more apps than spots in the last few years. These numbers will also give you a sense (fwiw) of which schools are gaining in popularity over time.

    I don't say that to mean there is some kind of moral obligation to do this--anyone has a right to list only the top-requested schools if those are the only ones you like. Just that eyes wide open is good. If you do put only popular (over-subbed) schools, you *may* hit the jackpot on a popular school that you like. But the odds are good that you won't, especially if those schools are *wildly* over-subbed (Clarendon, Miraloma, Rooftop).

    My takeaway point from having gone through it is that the universe of schools that are not over-subbed is really varied, so you might to include a couple of them of *your* choosing. JOES in the last year would be a good example, though I bet it climbs a bit this year--as Sunnyside has also been doing. Paul Revere or Rosa Parks or Daniel Webster or Glen Park or Sheridan would be ones to look at next year. Harvey Milk is a sweet school that is is perennially undervalued (imo)--it tends to sit right on the bubble of getting the same # of apps as spots.

    Anyway, the point is that if you don't put down a couple of these schools, you are more likely to be assigned to a school in round one that is not of your choosing or liking.

    The advice on having a backup plan is good. Especially a first-come, first-serve parochial, since the odds of getting accepted at that private school (let alone getting financial aid) aren't so great either, and that process is arguably more stressful than any.

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  26. Following on an excellent post by grylkymt:

    "If you do put only popular (over-subbed) schools, you *may* hit the jackpot on a popular school that you like. But the odds are good that you won't, especially if those schools are *wildly* over-subbed (Clarendon, Miraloma, Rooftop)."

    Also, as how you rank a school is used as a tiebreaker between kids with the same diversity index in the lottery (or at least it was in this year), if you put a heavily oversubscribed school like Clarendon, Miraloma or Rooftop lower than 1st, 2nd or 3rd place, you've essentially wasted that slot on your application.

    The only reason to list a "trophy" school in 6th or 7th place is if you've only interested in the trophy schools, and are optimizing your chances of getting into a trophy school by making sure that you go 0/7 if you don't get one of your top 2-4 choices. But that's a high risk strategy requiring gonadal fortitude and a private or parochial or "move to the burbs" Plan B.

    Also, getting in off the waitpool may leave you scrambling for an aftercare slot.

    "My takeaway point from having gone through it is that the universe of schools that are not over-subbed is really varied, so you might to include a couple of them of *your* choosing. JOES in the last year would be a good example, though I bet it climbs a bit this year--as Sunnyside has also been doing. Paul Revere or Rosa Parks or Daniel Webster or Glen Park or Sheridan would be ones to look at next year. Harvey Milk is a sweet school that is is perennially undervalued (imo)--it tends to sit right on the bubble of getting the same # of apps as spots."

    Other schools that are underappreciated relative to their quality are Moscone, E.R. Taylor, and S.F. Community, all in the SE of the city. All are very solid in their test scores. Longfellow also has good scores, but to be honest left me cold for a couple of reasons (mostly lack of aftercare for the kinder year).

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  27. Regarding SE schools, I echo tmcvey's assessments, and note that the Daniel Webster campus is looking great these days with the new coat of green paint and all the greening (planting) efforts.

    On the other side of town from SE, I would add William Cobb as one to look at as they expand the Montessori program.

    And I say again: Rosa Parks; great parent base, intentional approach to diversity and connections to their diverse neighborhood.

    Also on the north side, I would urge parents to check out Redding, which has a diverse student body, decent test scores, an experienced staff, and a decent arts program.

    Then there are several high-performing schools in the Chinatown/Russian Hill area that may be accessible to "not-poor" families as many of their students are free-lunch qualified. In other words, the mostly middle-class and well-off SF K Files base would actually represent diversity in the lottery. These schools might be good options for parents who work downtown.

    Potential options abound below the radar, but you have to look, ideally in the first round. To my mind, these are the schools most worth touring, because there is so little information available online compared to Miraloma (which even has virtual tour available online) and Clarendon et al. If you have limited time available to tour, I'd put the time into finding the below-the-radar options rather than be one of the huge herd on the tour of Clarendon.

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  28. "Then there are several high-performing schools in the Chinatown/Russian Hill area that may be accessible to "not-poor" families as many of their students are free-lunch qualified. In other words, the mostly middle-class and well-off SF K Files base would actually represent diversity in the lottery. These schools might be good options for parents who work downtown."

    Man, I never even thought of using looking at the %age free-lunch qualified to figure out the socioeconomics of a school and how that would affect what that school needed to add diversity. My hat's off to you.

    Listen to grylkmnt. They speak wisdon.

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  29. Tmmcvey - I believe this is not the case. "Diversity" at SFUSD is not true diversity. There is no attempt to get a cross-section. Percentage of kids on free-lunch is often used as an indicator of a school's "poor" index. Marshall is close to the top of the list w/only a few schools in Bayview having more % free lunch kids.

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