5-year-old twins split up by San Francisco school assignments 

click to enlarge Separate ways: Kaitlyn, left, and Gianna Lee go to elementary schools 3 miles apart. “They miss each other,” their grandfather says. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE SF EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The SF Examiner
  • Separate ways: Kaitlyn, left, and Gianna Lee go to elementary schools 3 miles apart. “They miss each other,” their grandfather says.

C.K. Cheung spends hours each day behind the wheel of his Toyota minivan, with one of his twin granddaughters buckled into a booster seat. Gianna attends kindergarten at Commodore Sloat Elementary School, but Kaitlyn was assigned to Alice Fong Yu Alternative School, almost 3 miles from Sloat.

The twins’ separation is a quirk of San Francisco Unified School District’s complicated student assignment system, which is based on parental choice but uses a lottery and tiebreakers to place children in popular schools such as Sloat and Yu.  

“We don’t know how to handle it,” Cheung said. “We have no way to appeal.”

Cheung, 68, has been the girls’ primary caregiver since their mother died of cancer three years ago. Keeping up with energetic twin 5-year-olds is tough enough, he said, but having them at separate schools takes a greater toll.

“They miss each other,” Cheung said.

The family’s situation is not as unusual as it might sound, said Carol Lei, interim program director at Parents for Public Schools, a local advocacy group.

“Multiples are not that rare anymore,” she said. “Last year, we got a lot of calls from parents who got them separated.”

Todd David, a parent whose children attend Alvarado Elementary, knows of several such cases.

“This is a problem that comes up every year with the district,” he said. “I think they’re so hardened to the problem coming up every year, they don’t have compassion for how difficult this can be for families.”

District spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said school officials try to put twins and multiples in the same school. There also are several rounds of the admissions lottery, so if children are not placed together the first time, families can try again.

“Historically, most twins or multiples were ultimately placed together,” Blythe said. Twins are only separated when parents decline to take an opening in an undersubscribed school not on their list of choices, she added.

Cheung acknowledged he might have been able to secure places this year for both girls in less popular schools, but those are often poor performers, which he was not willing to accept.

“I want them more educated,” he said.

This year, the school enrollment form, which must be submitted by Friday, allows parents to specifically request that twins be kept together. But that means that if they don’t secure two spots at a school of their choice, they will be assigned to any school with vacant seats.

“This is at least a start,” said Lei, whose group asked the district to add the option. “You won’t know until you find glitches.”

Cheung has applied to transfer Gianna into Kaitlyn’s school for first grade. Meanwhile, he shuttles them to and from their respective schools and does his best to participate in their parents associations. One school or the other often has an evening event, and he sometimes serves as a volunteer janitor at Sloat.

“They have a meeting at 6:30 and then a parents night over there at 7,” he said. “This one says, ‘Grandpa, we have to donate,’ and this one too. If they have a pot luck party, oh, you have to work two or three hours there.”

Cheung will learn in March whether Gianna’s first-grade transfer was approved.

“We need help,” Cheung said. “I don’t know how long I can stand.”


How student assignment works

Families list preferred schools. Students are given priority in the following order:


  • Younger sibling of student already enrolled in the school
  • Live in neighborhood and enrolled in nearby district preschool
  • Live in area with lowest average test scores
  • Live in neighborhood

Sixth Grade

  • Younger sibling
  • Enrolled in designated feeder school
  • Live in area with lowest average test scores

Ninth Grade

  • Younger sibling
  • Live in area with lowest average test scores

Source: SFUSD

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