San Francisco parents say best school choice not always close to home 

Before deciding on a list of seven schools she would like to send 5-year-old son Grove to next fall, Michelle Horneff-Cohen made a spreadsheet to organize her thoughts.

The 42-year-old mother of two spent hours touring 25 schools to find the perfect one for Grove.

“We were looking for a public school gem,” Horneff-Cohen said.

She and her husband, Ephram, broke down and rated elementary schools based on 20 factors, including overall school feel, diversity, class size, hours and after-school care.

Among their top choices are Clarendon, Rooftop, McKinley, Harvey Milk, San Francisco Community School, Sunnyside and Commodore Sloat.

One school is not on their list: E.R. Taylor, the school in their Portola neighborhood. Taylor “lacked diversity,” Horneff-Cohen said.

She and her husband’s preference to not send their son to their neighborhood school is not unheard of in San Francisco, but noteworthy for the timing.

This is the first year a student’s home address will play a part in school choice, with the idea being to give families a greater opportunity to attend their neighborhood school.

The changes to the San Francisco Unified School District placement system, which was approved a year ago, update a decades-old selection process that used a complicated diversity-index lottery. A variety of factors — including socio-economic status, language and race — were used to determine where students should go. In some cases, students were bused across town. 

For years, many parents fought to change the placement system so they would have a better chance to send their kids to schools near their homes. But now that the selection process has changed, not all parents are celebrating the rebirth of neighborhood schools in The City.

According to Darlene Lim, the executive director of the school district’s Education Placement Center, while some parents do want their neighborhood schools, others such as Horneff-Cohen want to be able to choose where to send their kids.

Lim estimated that as many as 13,000 students entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade annually are placed into San Francisco schools during the application process. As of now, Lim estimates about 80 percent of
students in the district do not attend their neighborhood schools.

“We don’t know with new system how the choice patterns will change, or if the demand patterns will change,” Lim said.

School applications for the 2011-12 year are due Friday.

The old system was notoriously frustrating for parents, who had to roll the dice by choosing seven top schools and hope for the best. Many times, if they did not receive their top choice, they had to pay to place their children in private schools.

But even with the SFUSD’s new more neighborhood-friendly system, that kind of gamble is not going away.

For instance, Grove Horneff-Cohen might be on his way to private school in fall.

“It really depends,” his mother said. “We don’t know where we’ll be put in public school. It’s all still chance.”


San Francisco public schools

55,000 Students enrolled in SFUSD
13,000 Students who apply for placement annually
72 Elementary schools in district
13 Middle schools
17 High schools
80% Students who do not attend neighborhood schools

Source: San Francisco Unified School District

Important dates

Applications due

March 18
Placement letters mailed

April 15
Parents must enroll their children in school

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