School Beat: SFUSD’s School Assignment Process Needs Transparency, Equity and Reliability

by Lisa Schiff on October 16, 2008

Critical public processes need to be transparent; it’s a necessary ingredient for holding our public systems and public officials accountable. That’s why we fought for the Sunshine Ordinance in San Francisco, making discussions by elected officials available to those they represent. That’s why computerized voting booths are so troublesome (especially to coders, and especially given the utter failure of each high-profiled roll-out of such systems).

Those who don’t have school-age children may not think of the procedures by which students are assigned to schools as critical public processes, but they most definitely are. Which schools and programs are available to whom, especially in a continued setting of insufficiently resourced and varying quality schools, is indeed of major concern to all of us working together to provide excellent educational opportunities to all of our city’s children.

Even were all students at all schools achieving at high academic levels, there would still be concerns about issues such as how to distribute spots in various programs and how to deal with the natural shifts in student populations over the years. In other words, there is really no scenario in which assigning students to schools is not going to be a major concern to parents and advocates for kids.

What we need, and what we must demand it seems, is that the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) assignment processes be as transparent as they possibly can be, and in this way, make them as clear, reliable and equitable as they can be.

Certainly these qualities have been sorely lacking of late and the subsequent results have been serious. Enrollment complications arose, accompanied by a dramatic drop in confidence in the process. Schools were over-assigned according to seemingly ad hoc decisions; applications were incorrectly processed, creating inaccurate data from which incorrect placements were made; families were unassigned to schools well into the summer; and other families were counseled away from programs.

The result of public disclosure of these problems has All of these problems resulted in parents and public education supporters insisting that the district approach the new assignment year from a much different perspective. This call specified that the district document its assignment procedures including testing procedures that should occur in advance to ensure that the systems and processes are working as advertised.

One of the main questions that families have about finding schools, is how the assignment process works. This year, as in past years, the district has good descriptions of the assignment process as it is intended to work and there are many opportunities to read about the process and attend events such as the school fair on November 8th.

But this year, our questions should not be about how the process is supposed to work, but how we, the public, can know that it has worked. We need descriptions, proof of testing; evidence of quality control; and procedures for addressing failures.

So instead of only asking about the assignment process mechanisms, let’s ask for proof of its accurate implementation, details about testing procedures, and evidence of quality control measures. Here are some questions that we need authoritative, reliable answers to:

• Where is the documentation regarding the assignment procedure, beginning with the acceptance and data entry of individual applications to the mailing out of assignment letters?

• What specific testing procedures will be undertaken before the official assignment process? How will those procedures and their results be made available to the public?

• What quality control procedures will be used to determine the reliability of the assignment process? How will the public have access to those procedures and the results?

• For any of these assignment steps, what measures are undertaken when an error is found?

• How is the consistency and quality of information from Enrollment Placement Center (EPC) staff to be achieved and maintained? What measures will be put in place to ensure that families do not continue to receive conflicting information about the same question from various staff members?

• What training does the EPC staff receive in regards to counseling families about schools and various programs, from language programs to special education programs? What guidelines are they following in making recommendations? What kind of review of counseling activity and staff is there to ascertain the quality and nature of that counseling?

• What determines the number of students assigned to a given school? How are decisions made regarding assigning more students to a school than available stops? What are the processes used? Where does the data come from that goes into this process? Is it reviewed and approved by school-site staff?

Those who’ve followed the immersion assignment fiasco this year can appreciate that a similar set of questions needs to be asked about immersion programs. On the SFK Files, a popular blog for parents looking at schools, one can find this disturbing post, which communicates a response from the district to an individual parent about the “Flynnarado” disaster this summer. This response leads to the following questions:

• How will the assignment to immersion programs, particularly the oversubscribed Spanish Immersion programs, work?

o What is the ratio of language speakers –target language, English and bi-lingual speakers in the classes?

o Will students’ language abilities be tested? If not, how will students be properly assigned to the program? If students are tested, what standards and guidelines will the tests follow? Who will do the testing? What will be their qualifications and training? How can parents review or appeal the results of tests?

o What is the specific process that is used to assign students to language immersion programs? How will that process be tested this year? What kind of quality control measures will be taken for this year’s assignment process and how will the public know when those steps have been taken and the results?

o How does the immersion assignment process intersect with the rest of the admission process, in the case for instance, in which families put both immersion and non-immersion programs on their lists?

Our families and public education advocates need answers to these questions this year and every. We need to know how the process is being overhauled to be reliable so that when we submit our application it means something. Advocates and school communities need to know how they can hold the district accountable to a publicly vetted procedure. Schools need to know how they can plan for incoming classes. The district must make all of this public and easily accessible, in translation, on the SFUSD website, in paper at enrollment events, and through regular communication to schools. This is the only way we can be certain that this critical public process is working as our city needs it to.

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