Issue 508

Prioritizing Neighborhood Schools

Has San Francisco finally gotten its student-assignment system right?

Urbanist Article


The San Francisco Board of Education adopted a new policy for the 2011–12 school year that again attempts to address community concerns and the academic needs of students. The new system gives greater weight to those applying to a neighborhood school, with priority given to students living in census tracts with low academic performance to provide increased opportunity.
Even with greater neighborhood weighting, there was no increase in parents choosing their area school during the first year of the new system.  The long term results of this policy change remain to be seen.
San Francisco has a long and complicated history of striving toward a student assignment system that is fair and equitable for families and that provides the best academic outcomes for students.
In the 1970s, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) — like many urban districts — adopted the policy of busing students in order to desegregate schools. Reverberations from this policy were swift and widely felt: Private school enrollment skyrocketed from 15 percent to near 30 percent of all San Francisco children. Additionally, families began to leave the city once their children neared school age. These trends have continued, and today San Francisco has the smallest proportion of households with children of any major U.S. city.
SFUSD eventually returned to a neighborhood assignment policy and developed magnet schools to attract families. But to address lawsuits in the 1980s by the NAACP and the 1990s from Chinese-American families and also appease families that now were clamoring to opt out of their neighborhood schools, the choice-based diversityindex student assignment policy was born. In 2001, the district implemented a lottery-style choice system employing non-race-based factors, such as eligibility for food stamps or residence in public housing, as a proxy for race to balance out student populations. Parents could list up to five, and later seven, schools of their choice to participate in the lottery. More recently, increased parent activism and a mini baby boom have helped bring about changes in enrollment patterns. In 2007, kindergarten enrollment increased for the first time in 30 years.  Families began to choose a wider variety of schools instead of a select few. Still, a minority of parents make their designated area school their first choice.
With more schools perceived as quality educational options, many parents faced increasing competition from families throughout the city for a spot in a nearby school. Additionally, a distraught 15 to 19 percent of parents received none of their first choices and were left to fend for spots in subsequent rounds.The achievement gap widened in San Francisco as many schools once again became more segregated. Disadvantaged and disconnected families often found themselves left out of the application process, resulting in limited school options and increasing racial isolation.
In 2011, the school district introduced a new school assignment system that is weighted more heavily toward neighborhood schools than in recent years. However, SFUSD reported no increase in parents choosing their area school in the first year of the new system. Furthermore, the November 2011 Proposition H advisory measure encouraging increased focus on neighborhood resulted in a virtual dead heat, indicating that San Francisco remains divided on the issue.
All things being equal, families report that they like the idea of a neighborhood school. But for too many, the “right school” — whatever that means to them — trumps proximity. Uneven school leadership and program placement, coupled with wide disparities in neighborhood crime, housing patterns and social challenges, result in limited options in many neighborhoods. It remains to be seen if the new system will do any better than previous schemes, but based on past experience we can expect that the current system will not be the last. Hopefully, though, it will provide some respite for the community to refocus on the root issue: ensuring that all San Francisco public schools are quality schools.

Lorraine Woodruff-Long