Every year a significant number of San Francisco families are denied access to a viable public school option for their kids. In some cases it is the result of sheer misfortune as a result of the lottery system. In other cases it is the “misfortune” of living in an area with an undesirable attendance area school and a preference system that favors you going to that school, not escaping it. In all cases, it is unfair.
Neighborhood School Assignments Will Not Work Unless Disparity Between Schools is Reduced
I disagree that because only 24% of people selected their neighborhood school as their first choice that parents do not want a neighborhood school system.
Just about every parent I know dreams of being able to walk to, or be in close proximity to, their kid's school...assuming of course its a good school. But, under the new assignment system you still have the same set of desirable and undesirable schools in place. You can't expect people to automatically want to go to a struggling school simply because it is now their "neighborhood school." And it is unfair to place the burden of turning that school around solely on the families that live in that attendance area.
Data does not accurately reflect demand
The preliminary data shows that the neighborhood school assignment system did work in neighborhoods where the school is desirable: Clarendon (62 first choice requests from the assignment area), Sherman (51), Miraloma (47) just as examples. Even in desirable neighborhood schools not considered the top 14 most requested schools, the data shows that the number of applicants who requested those schools as a first choice exceeded the capacity of the school: New Traditions, Grattan, Sloat for example. High percentages of offers for these schools went to attendance area applicants, demonstrating that there is demand for quality neighborhood schools, despite the fact that data indicates system wide a low percentage of people listed their attendance area school as a first choice
True demand for neighborhood schools is not accurately quantified in the preliminary data. For example, many parents in the Grattan attendance area who I know listed Rooftop as their first choice. Rooftop is one of the cities top schools and is a K-8 (as opposed to Grattan which is a K-5). Given the close proximity of Rooftop to Cole Valley parents considered it a great “neighborhood school” option (even though it wasn’t their attendance area school and expressed their preference for a K-8. They did so because the new lottery system did not penalize them for the order in which schools were listed. Just because they didn’t list their attendance area school first doesn’t mean they do not desire a quality neighborhood school above all, simply that they shot for the stars and requested a K-8. Thus, one needs to look beyond the first choice listed by applicants in order to assess demand for neighborhood schools.
Furthermore, the data doesn't reflect true demand in areas such as the Southeastern part of the city which has attendance area schools considered less than desirable by many applicant families. If polled I’m sure many of these families too desire to send their children to quality public schools in close proximity to their house though their attendance area schools do not meet that criteria for them...yet, at least. Demand for neighborhood schools is of course not reflected in their application choices.
The problem of Demand, Disparity and Disenfranchisement
As long as great disparity between the schools in the city remains, the neighborhood school concept will remain controversial and inequitable. Demand for desirable schools will exceed supply. And, as long as demand exceeds supply, we will continue to have families forced out of the system because they are not given a viable public school choice. Thus, it is a large percentage of people most hurt by the system that leave the system and are therefore no longer visible to remind us of the problems with the assignment system and to be involved in the process of changing the system. This disenfranchisement of families most hurt by the system only perpetuates the system.
There is hope in that there have been changes to the student assignment system AND the SF School Board seems receptive to making changes and fine tuning that process to meet the demands of families. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how a neighborhood schools movement can occur in San Francisco when: 1) there is such a disparity between schools in San Francisco that many people do not want to send their children to their attendance area school and 2) those who have desirable attendance area schools can’t even get them because demand exceeds supply.
If neighborhood schools are going to work something must be done to equalize schools. It seems that families, much more than the district, have been the driving force in turning around troubled schools. So, perhaps it is up to families to lead the push in turning around the poor performing schools. That is, schools that your child doesn't even attend. If the district has done their part to put the staffing resources in place at these schools then (in overly simplified terms) the true disparity in most cases is the lack of PTA involvement and additional funding for programs which are generated through PTA efforts. Many of the desirable schools raise close to 200K a year. They fund art, music, garden, PE and other programs that seem fundamental but are lacking in public schools these days. They organize parents to help in classrooms and around the school. Until parents are willing to share the wealth and volunteer resources of their own PTAs with other struggling schools, the disparity will exist. It is a problem that no one wants their own kid to wind up in a low performing school but, when they escape it through sheer luck, they don't look back.
What if top performing schools were partnered with low performing school through a sister schools program? For example, active PTAs from desirable schools such as Clarendon, Grattan and New Traditions, could be paired up with low performing schools like Muir to strategize about fund-raising, increasing volunteers hours and organizing parents at those schools. Thus, everyone in the system is part of the process of turning around schools, especially families who had the good fortune of getting assigned a choice school.
Demand Exceeds Supply for Desirable Neighborhood Schools
The preliminary data released by the SFUSD indicates that even if you live in an attendance area with a desirable school, it still takes a stroke of good luck in some cases to get in that school. Take the microcosm of Cole Valley as an example of this problem. According to the data, Grattan received first choice applications at 135 % of capacity. This means, given the 66 spots available, 87 people listed Grattan as their first choice school. Thus, there is an entire Kindergarten class - about 21 kids - who want this school and did not receive it. If they are attendance area residents (we can't tell that from the data at this point but anecdotal evidence on listserves suggests a number of attendance area applicants did not receive their first choice of Grattan) they are also shut out of all schools in the immediate surrounding neighborhoods because those too are desirable neighborhood schools who were also likely unable to accommodate their attendance area applicants - West Portal, Clarendon, New Traditions, Miraloma, etc. They may get a citywide, but those are a longshot given that 66% of applicants received the "high density" tiebreaker.
This year it appears, most of the families shut out of Grattan received Muir as their assignment. Based on history it seems some number of families will automatically go private or leave the city and others will stick around and roll the dice with other rounds in the application process. Not a crucial majority will go for the school they were assigned and attempt to turn it around. (Side note: we have to stop expecting that simply because of the luck of the lottery families should be expected do this. Noone, including those in the attendance area, should have to send their kids to poor performing schools in the district.)
But what can be done immediately (before schools are equalized) to solve the problem of demand? I read somewhere that the goal of the new assignment system is to allow families to attend their neighborhood school, if they want to. But clearly in many attendance areas that simply will not work and parents are left with the same dreaded feeling of uncertainty that they had under the old system. The district and the schools are going to have to be flexible enough to meet the needs of fluctuating demand from attendance area families if they plan to legitimately accommodate them. I realize I'm completely naive about schools, unions, etc, but what if in our Grattan example above, an extra K class was added this year only to meet the first choice needs of the 21 families shut out? One more K teacher, one additional pod on the blacktop, a significant number of families served by the district. Is it possible? I'm not talking about requiring people to attend their neighborhood school, simply being able to meet the fluctuating demand of attendance area families for neighborhood schools.
Create a true Preference System to Close the Gap -- The CTIP Preference Advantages Families with Resources in CTIP Areas Above All
So, while simultaneously improving the disparity between schools, and meeting the demand among attendance area applicants for desirable schools, we need to devise a true preference system that targets the populations of students most impacted by the test score disparity gap. The current CTIP preference makes it all too easy for families with resources to game the system - shutting out attendance area applicants from neighborhood schools.
The data indicates that, contrary to predictions, a number of CTIP families flocked to desirable, hard to access (far from CTIP areas) neighborhood schools like Clarendon (30 CTIP), and Sherman (17 CTIP). One could argue, at Clarendon anyway which had the vast majority of offers made to white students, that diversity factors were actually thrown off by this preference. Certainly it worked to shut out neighborhood attendance area families from being able to attend that school (36% of offers went to CTIP families leaving only 10% for neighborhood families).
As long as families can move temporarily to a low test score performing area and be practically guaranteed a spot in one of the top performing schools in the district, they will do so. Think about it, a temporary move - to save a quarter of a million dollars in private school tuition (20K a year for the next six years times two kids) or a move from this beloved city, is totally worth it! Some families did that this year, dozens more are kicking themselves for not having done it and increasing numbers will undoubtedly do it in future years. These are families with advocate parents, resources and the ability to move. These are not families that the CTIP preference system was designated for. Continued use of this system will only encourage gaming of the application process and encourage families with resources to flee CTIP areas - thereby making it even harder to turn those neighborhood schools around.
Perhaps a preference system based on qualification for school lunch programs or other factors could be considered? (Side note: It seems futile to consider a preference program for this population if they have no way to even access schools in other parts of the city. Thus, back to the point above, all families should be willing to give time and money from their own PTA coffers to ensure that programs that serve low performing schools are equalized.)
Okay, that’s my rant. Call me naïve, misguided, whatever -- I admittedly am. I have an incoming SFUSD kindergartener and I realize I am new to these issues which have been debated by parents and the school board for years. I’m just writing my thoughts down because this entire process has been so upsetting to participate in. And guess what, we got our first choice school! But, our many many of our good friends and neighbors did not. I'm curious to hear from other parents -- what do you think about these or other ideas are out there for addressing problems of the current assignment system?