School Beat: Can SFUSD Take Away Your Child’s School Assignment? In a Word, Yes.

by Kim Green on September 25, 2008

The call came as I was packing for a long-awaited trip to Las Vegas. The caller introduced herself as an EPC counselor and—in what would be the last honest words I’d hear from an SFUSD employee—told me she had some bad news.

“Your daughter’s been disenrolled from Leonard Flynn. She’s been reassigned to Daniel Webster.” Her voice shook. “I have to call 23 families.”

I plucked the sparkly top I’d guarded vigilantly from grubby hands and balled it in my fist. We’d finally gotten into Flynn Spanish Immersion off the waitlist after touring 25 schools, enduring the disappointment of going 0-7 in Round I and cobbling together a Round II list emblematic of our lowered expectations. We had already attended school picnics, joined the PTA, bought uniforms, sought out other Flynn families and familiarized our daughter with her school.

“How did the last parent respond to that statement?” I managed to stutter.

So began what I think of as The Dark Period of our wobbly enrollment dance with SFUSD: The case of the so-called Flynnarados. The next day, the official letter the counselor had warned me about arrived, informing us that, because of a data entry error, we had indeed been “relocated” to a Spanish Immersion program that did not, in fact, exist. The program at Daniel Webster, a school that by all accounts has a strong supportive community, but still shows a rating of “1,” a 7:50 start time, no school bus service to our neighborhood and no reasonable public transport options, was slated to launch a dual-immersion strand in ’09.

It was July 25, 2008, and school was scheduled to start in exactly one month.

Within days, word of the assignment debacle leaked to The SF K Files (a popular blog for families looking for elementary schools), the media and the 0-15 parents, who correctly deduced that this mess could only portend more bad juju for them.

Backstory trickled in: A clerk had mistakenly labeled all incoming English-speaking siblings as Spanish-speaking, fooling the computer into thinking more English slots were available than was actually the case. The problem affected all Spanish-immersion programs except Marshall and Revere, which historically have not received many English-speaking applicants. Alvarado was the most grossly imbalanced.

Whether to address the imbalance was left up to individual schools. Fairmount and Buena Vista elected not to kick out registered children. Flynn led the charge to disenroll us; Alvarado rode shotgun. Monroe? Who knows. Hardliners at Flynn insisted, and others confirmed, that this problem was not a new one, that Spanish-speaking applicants to dual-immersion programs had been systematically denied admission for years, that there was funny business going on at EPC that predated this particular mistake. (School Beat Note: look for future columns about these historic problems with assignment to Spanish-Immersion programs and updates from parent advocates about how the system should be changed.)

The days ticked by. The 23 families had no assignment, save a piece of paper that named a program that hadn’t actually launched yet.

SFUSD’s first acknowledgment that it intended to do more than assign the disenrolled families to a school they had likely never seen in operation was to schedule a meeting at—you guessed it!—Daniel Webster ES. Parents for Public Schools followed suit with an earlier meeting intended to function as a forum for interested and affected parties from all sides. Unfortunately, the general public was invited to attend both meetings, including the small but vocal group of parents and teachers at Flynn who had led the charge for involuntary disenrollment.

Learning #1: When enrollment disaster strikes, don’t force the families most directly affected to attend half a dozen painfully useless—and inappropriately public—meetings designed to shame them into thinking the way they’ve been treated is justified because some other group has, historically, suffered more than they. Just cut to the chase and get them a new assignment.

The PPS forum, well-intentioned though it may have been, was an exercise in frustration and personal insult as it felt to me that the very real trauma the Flynnarado families were experiencing kept getting overshadowed in a game of one-upsmanship as several groups built cases that they had, in fact, suffered the most. My ire mounted as we were once again cautioned to use “I” statements.

Here’s an “I” statement for you: I’m really disgusted that we’re not allowed to be mad about this.

Disappointingly, the SFUSD-run meeting at Webster was even more scattered, pointless and alarming. There, we were given the hard-sell on the proposed Spanish Immersion program—which we were assured could function brilliantly following a three-week gestation—along with the admonition that the program would not be launched unless 7-10 of us committed to it. We were invited to submit questions that were never answered. We were told the district would not facilitate the families learning each other’s identities.

Let’s see if I have this straight: You’ve said you’re going to give us hardship status in the waitpool so we can at least have a crack at other schools we may have actually seen and wanted, as well as hold a special lottery to divvy up a handful of spots you’ve “made available” at desirable non-immersion programs plus unwanted spots at struggling schools, but you expect us to gleefully embrace Webster, even though in all likelihood any family that chooses it will be left stranded like the proverbial island as lucky waitpoolers flee for calmer, better known, waters. Er, no thanks!

Learning #2: When enrollment disaster strikes, don’t treat parents who are simply safeguarding their children’s educations like entitled monsters…or prisoners of war.

Finally, game day arrived: The special lottery to regain our children’s school assignments. Though there was no hope of securing spots equal to what we had prior, we attended in good faith. Though SFUSD had summarily rejected the (extremely reasonable) counter-proposal 16 of the families had spent hours putting together that asked for little in terms of additional spots and that would have precluded the need for a painful and resource-draining lottery altogether, we still believed district representatives would conduct themselves honorably.

How wrong we were.

Learning #3: When enrollment disaster strikes, don’t change or renege on the terms of your offer to affected families on a daily basis. This undermines trust and makes negotiation and resolution impossible.

After a laughable two hours during which an impressive array of senior SFUSD staff tried to figure out how to administer the special lottery fairly and reneged on heretofore agreed upon offerings to the outrage of the families present, the lottery was underway. Several parents shouted; a few cried. People straggled out after they secured schools, saddened but relieved (for the time being). Many had no before- or aftercare options; most did not get assignments in their neighborhoods, near the schools they’d had. The meeting had a farcical air about it. My husband and I accepted our slip of paper and EPC’s congratulations with straight faces and escaped.

Kim Green is the mother of a kindergartner who attends Clarendon JBBP and is waitlisted at Fairmount ES, a dual-immersion program. EPC representatives have informed her that district superintendents have instructed them not to draw English speakers from immersion waitpools until the 50/50 balance has been restored, even if that means leaving seats empty. Kim plans to attend this week’s informational session on enrollment volunteering for Parents for Public Schools.

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