reposted with permission from Caroline Grannan
A new online startup here in San Francisco is spreading misinformation about how our district’s school assignment works. So I’m posting a myths-vs.-facts commentary to help combat the misinformation. Feel free to share this if you like.
I’m not defending the current system, because it’s stressful and problematic, but I’m rebutting the widespread claim that it’s simple to fix, and the widespread misinformation making it sound worse than it is. I’m sorry this will piss some people off. (Naturally, I would prefer not to be yelled at or insulted.)
Background: Since about 1970, the San Francisco Unified School District has tried an array of assignment systems in its effort to diversify schools and give the highest-need students access to higher-functioning schools. It was under court order to do so for many years.
The current system is “all choice” – families may request any school they want, and a computer lottery makes the assignments. Siblings of current students get preference (essentially a guarantee). After that, extra weight is given to census tracts (small slices of neighborhoods) where the students have low standardized test scores, as a proxy for poverty, and after that, proximity to the school.
Families may list as many schools as they want, in order. If the computer lottery doesn’t assign them to a school on their list, the assignment is to the closest school to the home address that has openings after the lottery is run. In reality, that will be an unpopular school. There is a waiting list process, and there’s a great deal of moving around and new assignments after the first computer run.
In my time, I never met a family who stuck it out through the process who didn’t get a school they were satisfied with accepting. An ongoing issue is that many middle-class families leave the school district and about 33 percent of San Francisco students attend private school.
This commentary refers to kindergarten. My background at the end.
Myth: Families can’t get their neighborhood schools.
Fact: Most kids attend the nearby schools their families request. I live around the corner from what’s now one of the most-requested K-5 schools (Miraloma Elementary), and the children of next-door neighbors on both sides, others on the block and many others on the surrounding blocks attend Miraloma.
Myth: Under the current assignment system, the private-school percentage has soared.
Fact: The private-school percentage has been the same, 30-33 percent, dating back at least to 1982, under various assignment systems, including one that essentially did guarantee families their neighborhood schools (that was in effect when my family first applied to kindergarten for our oldest, for fall 1996).
Corollary questionable claim: Many people who are newer to SFUSD and didn’t experience the old system have told me that if families were guaranteed their neighborhood schools, the percentage going private would drop. (In fact, one family that DID experience the old system, and moved to a white suburb despite being guaranteed their neighborhood SFUSD school, told me that.) In reality, when that was the case, many families didn’t want their neighborhood schools and were enraged to be assigned to them. When I point out the above myth, people always give me a reason why that wouldn’t be true now. Interestingly, they all give different reasons why they think it would be different now – I don’t think I’ve ever had two people give me the same reason.
Myth: Children in high-poverty neighborhoods are “shipped across town” and can’t get into their nearby schools.
Fact: It’s the high-poverty schools that don’t get many requests, so children who live near them have no problem getting into them, and will wind up in them by default in them if their families don’t navigate the assignment process. If children in high-poverty neighborhoods are “shipped across town,” it’s by request, which is the way the system was designed.
Myth: The initial assignment is locked in, and there’s no hope of getting it changed.
Fact: There’s a huge amount of movement after the first lottery assignment. It’s highly stressful, but a great number of families succeed in getting assigned to preferred schools if they don’t like the initial assignment.
Myth: Every other school district has solved this problem and has an ideal assignment system resulting in happy families, social justice and diverse schools.
Reality: No diverse, high-poverty school district has solved the problems of diversifying schools, creating schools with equitable resources, raising the achievement of impoverished students and making all families happy. There is no easy or obvious solution. A middle-class friend from another city told you the assignment system worked fine? It’s almost guaranteed to be a city where the privileged have their own well-resourced schools and the impoverished have their own bare-bones schools.
Myth: We could just make all the schools good.
Reality: Schools that serve a critical mass of impoverished, high-need students become overwhelmed and struggle. Those are the schools we harshly brand “failing schools,” a cruel label that shouldn’t be used. No school system anywhere in the world has solved this. (Schools that are more successful with impoverished, high-need students are always — 100 percent of the time — schools that have an admissions process that selects for compliant, motivated students from motivated, supportive families, and that are free to kick out any students they don’t want.)
A new myth from the Bay City Beacon is that families were happy with the proposed middle-school feeder process and were outraged when the district put it on hold. In reality, many families were very upset by it; that was left out of the story.
Myth: It’s simple.
Reality: Forehead smite.
My background, regarding qualifications for writing this: I was an SFUSD parent from 1996-2012 – 26 kid-years. My two kids attended Lakeshore Elementary, Aptos Middle and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. I was active in Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco, my kids’ school PTAs/PTSAs and the district PTA. I did official and unofficial volunteer parent peer counseling on the SFUSD assignment process for most of those years. I’ve tabled and presented as a volunteer at many, many school fairs, kindergarten nights, middle school nights and high school nights. I was volunteer parent tour coordinator at Lakeshore, and organized informational events for prospective students at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. I served on a Parents for Public Schools task force and a school district committee studying and making recommendations on refining the assignment process during those years.