School Beat: Student Assignment Options Unveiled

by Lisa Schiff on September 17, 2009

San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) student assignment redesign effort turned a corner on Monday when three alternative plans were presented to the Board of Education’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment. The contending options, still with many significant aspects to be fleshed out, were offered up within the context of a significant review of how the current system is designed and its effects, the priorities of the Board of Education (BOE) and an extensive demographic analysis of San Francisco’s children and schools, provided by Lapkoff & Gobalet Demographic Research, Inc. Materials used to present and develop the proposals are all available on the SFUSD website and those who couldn’t make the meeting can view it online.

As BOE members articulated at their meeting on Monday, proposed student assignment systems were and will be examined in terms of how well those systems move the district towards achieving some very specific priorities previously established by the BOE, namely to:

• Provide equitable access to the range of opportunities offered to students.

• Reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school.

• Provide transparency at every stage of the assignment process.

These priorities for student assignment are tied to the overarching goal of reducing the achievement gap (in which academic outcomes for African-American and Latino students are much lower than for Asian-American and Anglo students), which in turn is tied to providing quality educational experiences for all students.

Another rubric for evaluating any student assignment proposals could be the findings from previous community engagement efforts, particularly the Student Enrollment, Recruitment and Retention (SERR) effort, which gathered information from parents all over the City about what they wanted from the schools and what some of their concerns were. These both overlap and complement the Board’s priorities and include:

• Quality schools close to home—all schools should be acceptable options, where a basic well-rounded education with caring teachers will be reliably found

• Greater transparency and communication in the assignment system, more support in finding and enrolling students in a school that’s a good fit and having to surmount fewer hurdles.

• A system that is fair in assignment and in terms of feeling confident in the quality of schools everywhere in the City.

SFUSD staff member Orla O’Keefe, along with consultant Jeanne Gobalet, Ph.D. presented a wealth of data (thanks to BOE commissioner Rachel Norton for making the PowerPoint available from her blog) covering the demographics of students in the City, enrollment patterns and projections, and different ways of drawing assignment boundaries. This is just the kind of data that’s been needed for so long and without which so many decisions (e.g. school closures) were made. Included in the presentation were breakdowns of the distribution of students across the City by city planning areas and census tracts; enrollment projections from new housing; and maps of SFUSD students according to socio-economic, linguistic, racial/ethnic and academic achievement categories. All of this data was used to devise three general approaches to assignment, described below.

Option 1 assigns a given student to a school in his or her attendance area (attendance areas would be newly drawn, as they are decades old) and feeder patterns from Kindergarten (and potentially preschool) could be created through the high school level. Some element of choice would still be available for families wanting their children to attend language immersion programs. English language learners and students requiring special education services would be placed in schools outside their attendance area based on program availability.

Option 2 is very similar to the current system, so families could express a choice, but the system would be designed to maximize certain outcomes, such as: priority to students in the attendance area, diversity, choice preferences or a combination. Families would have more certainty than they do now in that if they did not receive one of their choices, their children would be automatically assigned to the attendance area school.

Option 3 would create zones, either large swathes through the city, or smaller zones. Students within a zone could be assigned to specific schools in that zone, or families could express preferences for schools within a zone in a controlled choice system designed to maximize a specific outcome, as in Option 2.

Some commonalities between the proposals include the following:

• New boundaries, whether they are assignment areas or zones will be drawn.

• High school assignment will likely be separated from K-8 assignment and considered as a 100% choice system.

• The current diversity index should be streamlined, with one or two indicators at most being used in order to make the process clearer as well as more effective.

• Clear criteria will be created to develop a list of schools with no attendance areas, probably schools that are entirely language immersion and schools with acceptance criteria.

BOE members were not enthusiastic about any of the presented options, but some clear patterns emerged. No one liked Option 1, so it seems that is off the table. A few commissioners slightly preferred Option 2, although many pointed out that it’s not that much different than what we already have, and as Commissioner Wynns noted, is reminiscent of the days before district-wide choice. In addition, as Commissioners Fewer and Mendoza pointed out, attendance areas would replicate the socio-economic and racial/ethnic concentration patterns that exist within the City, something we’re trying to move away from.

Most BOE members, including Mendoza, Fewer, Yee and Kim, favored Option 3, because they felt it would most likely get the district closer to meeting the stated priorities, with the acknowledgment that student assignment alone was not the answer and that transportation and program placement were essential components of this puzzle. In fact, Commissioner Kim requested that current transportation routes and projected transportation costs be included in the next chunk of data in order to incorporate that factor into the discussions. She also had an interesting proposal regarding choice, suggesting that perhaps families could choose program types (e.g. an arts-based program or a language immersion program), but not a specific school

Special education assignment was minimally discussed, even though this assignment redesign effort offers the potential to redress some great inequities in that regard, and to potentially accrue some significant transportation savings. In particular, it was stated that special education assignment would more or less continue as is (students would be bussed to appropriate programs as necessary). However, if inclusion were offered at all schools as it should be, transportation costs would be drastically reduced (and potentially legal fees would go down as well) and in all likelihood educational outcomes for those students would be higher. This seems like it would be a win-win situation for everyone and hopefully can be incorporated into the assignment design process.

Despite the hopes of the staff and the groups organizing the upcoming community conversations regarding student assignment (the Parent Advisory Council and Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco), the Board was not able to definitely declare which of the options they wanted community feedback on. Options 2 and 3 are the options that will be explored more, but given the questions raised about each option and the fact that the board had just seen the information that morning, they decided to postpone the final selection of proposed systems. Given the expressed commitment to have a new system in place for the 2011-2012 school year, next month’s meeting (6pm on October 19th) will no doubt result in a final set of assignment optoins to present to the community.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend Everett Middle School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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