Frustrated San Francisco families wait hours to fight for school assignment 

Monday was the first day of school for 55,000 San Francisco public school students, but it wasn’t for Jay-Ron Jones. The 12-year-old woke up extra-early because he was excited, but when his grandfather dropped him off at James Denman Middle School, he was told he was in the wrong place.

“They couldn’t find him in the computer, period,” said Jay-Ron’s father, John Jones.

Instead of starting new classes, Jay-Ron and his parents spent nearly 4 hours waiting in a line that stretched around the block at the Franklin Street headquarters of the San Francisco Unified School District.

Though it’s nothing new to have hundreds of parents trying desperately to enroll their children in a school they find acceptable on the first day of school, the lines this year were longer than in the past.

Whether the longer lines could be blamed on the brand-new school enrollment program, the executive director of that program, Darlene Lim, could not say. She suspected it was more likely caused by the fact that the center had lost five placement specialists since last year due to budget cuts.

But she admitted there was no shortage of parents unhappy with their child’s school assignment.

“We have a choice process, and not everyone gets their choice,” she said.

The previous school selection process had been panned by parents and advocates for years because it was complicated, unpredictable, did not allow students to attend neighborhood schools, and failed to desegregate the schools in the way officials had hoped. Last year, the district announced a new selection process they hoped would work out better for parents and students.

The jury is still out on whether it will in fact improve diversity in the schools. But thus far, it has not proved to help parents enroll their children in their top-choice schools:  when students were first given assignments in March, just 56 percent of families received  first-choice schools, down from 62 percent with the old system in 2010.

Parents have also complained that the new system, which does not have a first-come-first-served waiting list system similar to the previous system, is more unpredictable, which Lim admits is the case. But she said that was necessary to give everyone an equal opportunity to attend the school they like.

“It’s a little more unpredictable, but I think the advantage of the system is it puts everyone in the same status,” Lim said.

She said that once all students are assigned to a school — whether it’s their choice school or not — the district will begin analyzing how the process went this year, and if it achieved the goals it set out to.

For parents such as Trammese Walker, who was waiting in line yesterday, no such analysis is necessary. The system simply broke down for her.

“First they told me she was in Guadalupe (Elementary) and then Carver (Elementary), and we went to both schools this morning and she’s not even in the system,” she said.

Both schools are acceptable to Walker, but asked what she’d do if her daughter was enrolled in a different school, she raised one eyebrow skeptically.

“I’m not going for it,” she said.

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Katie Worth

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