New rules for city’s controversial school-assignment process 

Parents currently enduring the unpredictable and nerve-wracking process that determines where their children attend public schools in San Francisco are offering mixed reviews about a new assignment system that is supposed to make everyone’s life easier next fall.

Families of students entering kindergarten, middle school or high school were notified via mail by the San Francisco Unified School District in recent days of the school their children may be attending.

It is the first round of a complex and long-criticized school lottery that defies the logic employed in many suburban areas, where students are typically assigned to the schools that are nearest their home.

The nearly decade-old lottery was set up to provide students from all backgrounds an opportunity to attend The City’s most popular schools.

Parents are asked to apply to seven preferred schools. Students are then entered into a computerized lottery that assigns them to campuses based on five factors, including a family’s economic status and a student’s English-language proficiency and previous academic performance.

The system was the latest attempt to diversify schools in San Francisco stemming from a 1978 lawsuit decrying racial segregation.

The lottery, however, has ultimately failed to diversify schools, and has done more to agitate parents, the district said.

Every fall, hundreds of parents enter into an exhausting and chaotic process to prepare for the lottery — one that includes researching and visiting up to a dozen schools, attending parent meetings and launching strategies to beat the system — with little to no expectation that their efforts will help get their child into their most desired schools.

Only 61 percent at the kindergarten, sixth- and ninth-grade levels received their first choice last year, district data said. Of those entering, 20 percent did not get any of their top seven choices.

In response to those frustrations, the Board of Education approved a new assignment system last week after years of research. But reviews among parents are mixed about whether the system is an improvement.

The new process — which will begin this fall to select sites for the 2011-12 school year — will be somewhat of a return to the neighborhood school system. While parents will still be able to choose from schools citywide, students living closest to a desired campus that has more applicants than seats will have a better chance of getting in.

The process will also give high preference to children living in areas where test scores are the lowest in The City — usually low-income areas — in order to promote academic diversity.

Some parents complained to the Board of Education that the system doesn’t go far enough to create schools that are more exclusive to neighborhood children, saying families are leaving The City for the suburbs because they don’t want to send their kids across town to school.

However, the majority of parents The Examiner interviewed said they feared the new system would result in segregation at city schools. Civil-rights groups and Board of Education members have seconded that assessment.

Dave Mertz, an Inner Richmond district resident, said he and his wife want to raise their son James in San Francisco so he can be exposed to The City’s diverse populace.

Mertz, whose son is half-white and half-Japanese, chose Rosa Parks Elementary School in the Western Addition as his top choice for this year’s lottery due to its strong Japanese program.

“To me, it would be very boring that a certain race and certain kid is all at one school,” he said.

Similarly, Michelle Jeong said she is searching for a quality immersion school for her daughter with the expectation of a diverse cultural education. She also said The City is small enough that she doesn’t care about traveling for a quality education.

“It’s what, 20 minutes from one side to the other?” she said. “I know it’s important to most moms, but immersion and academics are top on my list.”

Some parents said they felt comforted the new assignment system would offer preference to children in low-income neighborhoods.

“I do believe in an integrated education,” said Angie Yuan, a Richmond district resident whose daughter, Amelia, is entering kindergarten.

She said she doesn’t see how the new system will create diversity. Then again, Yuan has mixed feelings on the subject.

“I do like the idea that you’re friends with kids in your neighborhood,” she said. “It would be wonderful to get to know all her kids on her block.”

The district said the new system will help promote diversity better than the current system. While the current system attempts to offer children from low-income areas access to the best schools citywide, data shows that many families in those areas have opted not to participate in the lottery and thus end up passing up on those options, the district said.

Parents cautiously optimistic

Michelle Jeong, a Duboce Park mother, said she is crossing everything — “my fingers, my eyes, my toes” — that her hard work will pay off.

Angie Yuan, a mother from the Richmond district, described her feelings as a mix of doubt and nervous excitement.

“I want to see if I won,” Yuan said.

After an exhausting few months last fall in which parents spent much of their free time searching for the best schools to send their children, they received first-round results of the San Francisco Unified School District lottery in their mailbox in recent days. Results were mailed Friday.

The lottery offers little predictability. Only one of the parents The Examiner interviewed expected to receive his top choice.

Dave Mertz said he listed Rosa Parks Elementary School in the Western Addition as the preferred choice for his son, James. It is not among the most sought-after of The City’s selection of 70 elementary schools.

“I think we have a good chance,” Mertz said. “A lot of people are afraid of that school.”

Mertz toured 10 campuses last fall and loved Rosa Parks, particularly its Japanese program. His son is half-Japanese and half-white, he said.

On the other hand, Jeong, who toured upwards of 12 schools, said she was less expectant. A quality immersion school located in a safe area was on her list of priorities, she said.

“You do all this work with zero promise,” Jeong said. “But I’m hopeful.”

Yuan had a strategy: Place four desired schools atop her preferred list, and fill the rest of the list with popular schools they know they won’t get. That way, if she doesn’t get her desired schools she can try again in Round 2 of the lottery without getting stuck with a lesser choice.

In Round 2, parents can submit an appeal, get on a waiting list or apply for another lottery round before the March 26 deadline. The district is scheduled to mail out Round 2 results on April 30.

“You can only do what you can do,” Yuan said. “I did feel a bit helpless.”

It is a sentiment many parents feel toward the lottery system, said Crystal Brown, who leads tours at Sherman Elementary School and helps parents become acclimated.

“There’s a lot of anxiety around the process,” Brown said. “The reality of having a choice is so slim that people leave very frustrated.”

However, while parents spent a lot of time visiting schools, the consensus is that there are a lot of quality schools in The City, parents said.

“The public schools, although not perfect, are another reason why I’m thrilled to be raising my children in San Francisco,” said Leiasa Beckham, a Nob Hill parent.

— Mike Aldax

New school rules

The new proposed school assignment system would give preference to students based upon these descending factors:

Elementary school

1. Siblings already attend school

2. Students living in attendance area of school and are attending a district pre-kindergarten program in same attendance area

3. CTIP1 (students in areas with lowest test scores)

4. Students living in attendance area

5. Students living in attendance areas where all schools are filled to capacity

6. All other students

Middle school

1. Students receive initial assignment to middle school based upon elementary school attended.

2. Siblings

3. CTIP1 (students in areas with lowest test scores)

4. Attendance area

5. Students living in attendance areas where all schools are filled to capacity

6. All other students

High school

1. Siblings

2. CTIP1 (students in areas with lowest test scores)

3. All other students

All Source: SFUSD

How students end up at certain campuses

History of the San Francisco Unified School District’s school-assignment system:

1978: The NAACP sues San Francisco Unified School District and the state on behalf of a group of black parents whose children had been assigned to racially segregated schools.

1983: The lawsuit is settled with a consent decree, or court order, which mandates reforms the SFUSD must make to improve academic achievement and desegregate schools. The district implements racial caps at schools that limit the number of students of one race to 45 percent.

1994: The families of several schoolchildren file a class action lawsuit against the state, the school district and the NAACP challenging the consent decree as a denial of their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

1999: The class action lawsuit is settled with an agreement that race will not be used in deciding school assignments. 

2001: The consent decree is extended until Dec. 31, 2005, and a new assignment system is created that uses a “diversity index,” which considers six socioeconomic factors — not including race — when assigning students to popular schools. 

2005: The SFUSD’s Community Advisory Committee on Student Assignment releases recommendations for improvements to the student assignment process.

2005: A UCLA report on the SFUSD’s assignment system concludes there is “a pattern of continuing re-segregation at close to half of the district schools since 1999.”

2005: The consent decree is closed Dec. 31 by a federal judge.

2008: The San Francisco civil grand jury recommends dismantling the current enrollment lottery system and reverting to offering families preference at neighborhood schools while redrawing school boundaries.

March 2010: The Board of Education approves a new school-assignment process, which uses proximity to schools and test scores as primary factors. The new process goes into effect for the 2011-12 school year.

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