School Beat: Finding Schools and Evaluating the Assignment Process

by Lisa Schiff on September 18, 2008

School is in full swing for many of San Francisco’s kids, but some families’ minds are already on next year. Thousands of us are beginning the process of finding a school for children who will be entering elementary, middle or high school. As veterans of our public school system can attest, there are indeed many great options out there, but it does take some time and effort to find the schools that feel right for your family and aren’t on everyone else’s short list.

San Francisco, like other diverse urban areas, has attempted to use elements of parent choice (maybe better thought of as preference), school capacity and indicators of socio-economic diversity to assign students to schools in such a way that access to programs and schools for all children is maximized and segregation across programs and schools is minimized. In brief, parents list their top seven schools in order of preference. When there are more applicants than available spots at a given school, a “Diversity Index” kicks in, in which children are assigned based on whether or not they will add socio-economic diversity as defined by a number of measures.

Unfortunately, due to many factors such as continued housing segregation across the city and persistent unevenness in academic performance of our district’s schools, achieving diversity and prioritizing parent preference don’t always coincide. It’s a tall order and unfortunately one that we haven’t succeeded all that well at.

In particular, the Diversity Index, which was devised as a way of complying with a legal agreement requiring the district to achieve racial and ethnic diversity without using racial or ethnic data about students, has resulted in less, not more, diversity. (See the final Consent Decree Monitor report and the Civil Grand Jury Report and the district’s response.) Using the Diversity Index has also added a level of complexity to the process, both for the assignment process run by the district and for parents and advocates trying to understand how the system works.

In addition, this most recent assignment year saw a baby-boomlet related jump in applicants to elementary schools. This increase in numbers was welcome to all who advocate for stronger public schools and greater participation in them, but stretched the capacity of the district, particularly the Educational Placement Center (EPC), which seemed unprepared for the increase in applicants and the required amount of assistance that would necessary follow.

Despite a large majority of families receiving assignments to a school on their list, significant errors occurred, seemingly more than in previous years. The most well-known of these is the “Flynnardo 23” situation, in which English-speaking children were mis-coded as Spanish-speaking, thus preventing native Spanish-speakers from being assigned to immersion programs. The resulting incorrect placement caused created a gross linguistic imbalance in Spanish-Immersion kindergarten classes. The district responded in an unprecedented way by un-enrolling a randomly selected set of English-speaking students.

School Beat columns next Thursday and in the following weeks will discuss from different perspectives what has happened to these families, the difficulties that Spanish-speaking families have had getting access to these programs, and what kinds of changes to the process the community could be calling and watching for as we go into this next assignment cycle. These stories, and others about additional areas where there are breakdowns, such as with special education, are important for all of us to be aware of as we participate in and carefully watch the process unfold over this next year.

As part of such a critical evaluation, Parents for Public Schools has requested from the EPC documentation of the assignment process for students to immersion programs as well as of testing routines to ensure that those procedures will actually function appropriately. Parallel information on all parts of the assignment system is similarly required for us to have any degree of confidence in the process this year and to hold the district accountable to our expectations that the assignment process is equitable, consistent and impartial.

For those looking at schools now, the shadow of this past year’s problems may make an admittedly intense process even more foreboding. As a parent who experienced this six years ago and ended up discovering a fabulous but consistently overlooked school (McKinley) and who is about to undergo the search process again for middle schools, the possibilities seem promising. The difficulties of school choice–the time requirements of tours, the degree of uncertainty about ultimate assignment and the danger of never looking beyond schools one has heard of before—remain, no doubt. But so do the benefits, primarily the chance to go past what we know and assess a wide variety of schools, which can only increase the odds of finding more than one that is a good fit for your children. This is the familiar challenge; the new test will be how carefully we can watch and analyze the assignment process so that it does begin crumbling around us again.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary Schoolin 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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