School Beat: Finding a Public School in San Francisco

by Lisa Schiff on September 10, 2009

School is only in its third week, but already families across San Francisco are starting to think about next year and where their children will be attending elementary, middle or high school. This is a more complex issue than some might think, because the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) uses a combined school choice and lottery model, as opposed to a neighborhood assignment system — in short, where you live doesn’t automatically determine where your children will go to school.

What families lose in the certainty of neighborhood assignment, the SFUSD hopes will be made up in the expanded opportunities the current modified school choice system provides to most (but not all) children. To really take advantage of these options requires putting some time into investigating the available schools and programs and determining which seem to be a good fit for your children.

Multiple resources are available to help families in the school enrollment process. One of the best starting points is the annual school fair, where each school has a booth staffed by the principal and usually teachers and parents. Typically held in November, this is a unique opportunity to get a first impression of many schools at once and to get some essential resources, such as the updated enrollment handbook, which has summary descriptions of each school along with what programs are offered where, which schools have after-school programs and more.

Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF) is another great resource for families looking for schools. On the website are tools and tips for families, including lists of tour dates, suggested questions to ask, specific guidance for families needing special education services, and more. In addition, PPS-SF holds enrollment events all over the City that typically include panelists of parents from a selection of schools and a representative from the SFUSD’s Enrollment Placement Center (EPC) who can walk through the process and answer questions.

PPS-SF’s first Kindergarten enrollment event will be held on Wednesday September 30th from 7-8pm at the Mission Library at (300 Bartlett at 24th St) — see their events calendar for other enrollment events. Finally, PPS-SF also has Parent Ambassadors at most of the schools in San Francisco and for special programs. You can contact them ( or 415-861-7077) to get put in touch with parents from a particular school or who are in certain programs, such as language immersion or special education.

Nothing takes the place of actually touring a school and getting a direct impression of the school climate, how engaged students are, how teachers are interacting with students, what kind of work kids are doing, and the philosophy and vision of the staff and principal. Looking at schools in person takes time, but it’s time well-spent, since it’s the only way to get information that isn’t filtered by other people’s impressions and, as is too often the case, out-of-date rumors and misconceptions.

On the flip side of the search process is helping families navigate it. Those who have this new vantage point can share what they’ve learned about their school and the process itself by becoming a Parent Ambassador or an enrollment coach. After getting trained on the specific changes to the system for the current year, you can volunteer at enrollment events and work directly with families to help them understand the process, suggest strategies for finding and evaluating at schools. The next training is at the PPS-SF office on Thursday, September 17, from 10am to 12pm at The Women’s Building (3254 18th St., between Valencia and Guerrero).

Redesigning Student Assignment

Families whose children are several years away from entering Kindergarten or moving on to middle or high school are less concerned with what the system is like now then what how it will work in the near future. The student assignment system has been undergoing a protracted review for years now, in hopes of divining a process that will maximize educational opportunities, choice of schools and programs, certainty and diversity for the greatest majority of students. Although that revised system was expected to be debuted this year, it is now scheduled to be in effect for the 2011-2012 school year. Families looking in the fall of 2010 will have a new set of rules to consider.

Years have now been spent gathering data, listening to legal and program experts (for example, the Harvard Civil Rights Project, now based at UCLA), and convening a variety of community advisory committees, surveys, forums, and focus groups. The most notable example of the latter was an extensive community engagement process conducted by community groups several years ago, referred to as the SERR — Student Enrollment Recruitment and Retention effort.

Many wonder why San Francisco can’t simply use the familiar neighborhood assignment system in which students attend the school closest to their home address. Neighborhood assignment has not been a realistic option for San Francisco for decades. Housing segregation resulted in school segregation and efforts to diversify schools using bussing and quotas became seen as discriminatory in new and different ways. Related, schools in varying parts of the City, particularly schools with high numbers of African-American and Latino students, overall didn’t provide their students with access to the same quality of education students were receiving at schools in other neighborhoods in the City.

Several lawsuits and legal actions later a “Consent Decree” was agreed to, which in a nutshell required the SFUSD to ensure racial diversity without using race as an assignment indicator (see a presentation regarding this history by former EPC head Orla O’Keefe for a more detailed background). Thus was born the diversity index and related lottery, which though it has morphed a bit over the years, has essentially stayed the same. In this assignment method, children are not restricted to schools within their neighborhood, but can in theory attend any school in the City. Parents submit a list of up to seven schools, in descending order of preference, that they would like their child to attend. If a school is oversubscribed, meaning more people want their children to attend then there are available spots, a lottery process kicks in, in which a computer system generates a socio-economic profile of the school and then, applicant by applicant, determines whether or not a child will add diversity to that school, according to a suite of socio-economic indicators, closely correlated with academic achievement.

This means, for instance, that if a school has more students than not whose parents are receiving certain types of public assistance, a child whose family is not receiving that assistance will add diversity, and vice versa. The system aims to achieve as much parity as possible for each indicator, not a majority one way or the other.

The plusses and minuses of such a system are readily apparent. The advantages are many, two of the most important being that if you don’t like your neighborhood school you don’t need to move to get your child into a different school. More positively, from the very start you can choose among the great variety of programs and educational approaches that are offered, from language immersion, to arts-based instruction, to a traditional general education, not too mention getting to consider various start times and whether having your children at school near your home, work or another family member would be desirable.

The disadvantages include the significant degree of uncertainty about which school your child will be assigned to, the time it takes to research schools, and the fact that not everyone has equal access to these choices. For instance, families for whom transportation is a challenge might not realistically be able to put schools across town on their list. Students who need special education services are restricted by the much fewer program offerings, the lack of information about openings and past levels of requests, and restricted access to information about which schools are on special education bus routes.

Another disappointing aspect of the current assignment system is that it hasn’t achieved the underlying goal it was intended to achieve, namely reducing racial and ethnic concentrations within a school or within programs in schools. This was captured in the final report of the Consent Decree monitor, filed in December of 2005, which provides a compelling, though now a bit dated, snapshot of how far the district was able to go under those restrictions.

This brings us back to the present moment, in which the Board of Education (BOE) Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment continues the redesign process by meeting monthly to discuss various enrollment options. The first meeting, will be held September 14th, at 7pm at 555 Franklin (note that these meetings will be televised and offered up in a live on the web). These meetings are open to the public, but public feedback is designed to be gathered in a series of community meetings (held in multiple languages) that will take place after a set of options has been determined.

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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