School Beat: Student Assignment Round 1 Recap

by Lisa Schiff on March 19, 2009

Thousands of families opened their children’s student assignment letters last Saturday and Monday. Those highly anticipated envelopes always generate a variety of reactions, from relief, to happiness, to disappointment, to anger. This year, with just over 400 more applications than last year, the pressure on the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) student assignment system was greater than ever and the results, as one would expect, are mixed …

While almost 11,000 students received one of their preferred schools (a number inflated by sibling placements), this year almost 3,100 students (948 of them Kindergarten students) did not receive a school assignment of their choice—700 more than last year. The reasons for this breakdown are many, starting with the increase in the number of applications; the continued, though anecdotally less severe, trend of parents to submit school applications listing only the most well-known, highly sought-after schools and the decision to nearly halve the capacity at one the most popular high schools, Washington (compare 2008-2009 capacity to 2009-2010 capacity).

San Francisco, for anyone who isn’t involved with school age children, uses a “school choice” model for assigning children to schools. The system is complex, but in brief, it allows families to specify up to seven schools in order of preference. As long as there are not more requests for a school than available spots, students will be assigned according to their indicated preference. When there are more requests for a school than available spots, a lottery system kicks in that attempts to ensure a measure of equity of access and socio-economic diversity at that school, by comparing a given student’s demographic profile (excluding race and ethnicity, as was required by the now expired Consent Decree) to the aggregated demographic profile of the school’s student body.

Families who list only schools that are traditionally highly sought after risk not being assigned to any school on their list, and instead being assigned to the closest school near them, just as is done with families who don’t submit a form at all. Luckily, given the tremendous amount of community outreach that has occurred over the last few years, the number of on-time school applications has significantly increased. Also increasing is the number of schools receiving more requests, a change that can be seen in data released by the school district.

Years of work by public school advocates have raised the profiles of schools all over the City, paying off in big increases in requests for a far wider selection of schools. These are schools that offer great programs, but until fairly recently have been under the radar for a variety of reasons. But because we are still in a position where not all schools are equally strong, when there are an increasing number of applicants, there will still be families who don’t receive schools of their choice.

The district has responded to the rise in applications, coming at the same time as severe budget cuts, by increasing Kindergarten class sizes to 22 from 20, as well as by opening a new Cantonese immersion school at the De Avila site, a school that was shut down four years ago in the first round of school closures, when some on the Board of Education and in the district were emphatic that enrollment was dropping sufficiently to close even more schools than they ultimately did.

Parents have themselves responded in interesting and admirable ways. On the SF K Files blog, where venting, celebrating and organizing all occur at the same time, parents who were assigned to schools not on their lists have been finding each other and strategizing about what to do next. On the Parents for Public Schools of SF members list, these same families have announced websites and gatherings to meet. This is impressive to watch and feels like the beginning of something very positive for these families, their children and the schools they were assigned to.

But it also highlights the weaknesses in the system, a system that has been in the throes of revision now for quite some time. Earlier this year the district rolled out a timeline for a new student assignment system that targeted implementation for families looking for schools for the 2010-2011. But just recently, notice was given that the process has been extended, again. The good news is that this means more opportunities for families to weigh in with their opinions and ideas by submitting email, filling out a survey or attending the Board of Education Ad Hoc Committee meetings on the topic. (See the SFUSD student assignment page for details.)

The bad news is that designing an alternative system to the one we have now is no easy matter. In addition to supporting the ultimate goal of providing a sound education to all students, other goals such as providing parents with choices, achieving diversity in schools and programs, and providing more certainty about where children will be attending school are often in tension, and those are just a few of the factors that need to be considered. Additional challenges include revamping the drastically flawed assignment approaches for students interested in language immersion programs or those students requiring special education services.

Although a neighborhood school assignment system can simplify some matters by virtue of automatically sending your child to the school closest to where you live, the current school choice model has many strengths that are hard to let go off: it allows families to look at all schools in the City to find the ones that have the programs and qualities that best suit their children’s needs; it supports logistical needs of families who might want a school on a commute path or near a grandparent as opposed to near home; and it allows schools to individuate, and at the most extreme, offer unique programs like language immersion that some, but not all, people would want for their children. In theory, and as was hoped for in the SFUSD, it can allow us to break away from historic segregated housing patterns, although in practice, that has disappointingly not turned out to be the case.

The school choice model does have weaknesses, which any of the families who received no school assignment of their choice can speak to, as can schools that are unknown and under-enrolled. The biggest weakness is the degree of uncertainty that families have to live with until they are finally assigned to a school.

This uncertainty is exacerbated by a second weakness, which is that to be selected by families to begin with schools must market themselves and have a sufficiently high profile for families to take the time to look at them. This involves getting past all kinds of misinformation and out of date reputations schools may have and being open to forming an independent opinion, not as easy for some as it sounds. An important piece of data that could help us all better understand how the assignment process failed this year would be to see which schools were on the lists of those families who received none of their choices. Another piece of data that we need and will get in the upcoming enrollment round is the available capacity at schools throughout the City now that the first enrollment is finished. These two sets of information would let us see how well we’re doing in getting the word out about other schools.

A third weakness, as mentioned above, is that the quality of schools across the district, as with all school districts, is uneven. Not every school is providing an equally strong educational experience, and families are understandably going to seek the schools they feel are the best for their children. The trite statement that sums it all up is that we need to make every school in the district a quality school, something we’ve all been working hard at these past years, with considerable success though much more work still lies ahead, duality that this years enrollment data reflects.

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.

Filed under: Archive