SAN FRANCISCO—Just two weeks into the start of the academic year, San Francisco parents are already focused on the process for selecting schools for 2011-12—and if a community meeting this week is any indication, district officials are in for a long, unhappy year.
Parents in the San Francisco Unified School District, which serves some 55,000 pupils, have long been critical of the current student assignment process, which seeks to balance the desires of families with the economic and language diversity of the schools. This complicated “diversity index” has often resulted in students being dispersed throughout the city, far from their neighborhoods, with no guarantee that children from the same family will attend the same school at the same time.
After much debate, the San Francisco Board of Education approved a new set of placement procedures, set to take effect in the fall of 2011. The system would switch back to a neighborhood school approach, with elementary schools “feeding” into pre-determined middle schools and parents and students having much less choice than under the current system.
On Tuesday night, more than 50 parents made their dissatisfaction known at a two-hour community meeting organized by the district and held at Everett Middle School, in the Castro neighborhood. The purpose of the meeting was to share information and gather feedback. But it turned into a heated debate filled with complaints and skeptical questions about the revamped middle-school placement process.
Ana Lanuza argued that the new system will take away her right as a parent to choose the most suitable school for her children. Her 7-year-old twin sons, who attend Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, will be automatically assigned to Everett, one of the district’s lowest-performing schools.
“I graduated from this school,” said Lanuza, who is Latina and African American. “I know nothing has changed in this school. I would like to see my kids going to better schools, such as Hoover or A.P. Giannini.”
Under the new placement system, elementary school “Attendance Areas”—geographic borders drawn around the city’s 58 public elementary schools—will be redrawn to accommodate demographic shifts. Students who reside in, or went to preschool in, the same Attendance Area as a particular elementary school will be given priority at that school.
In middle school placements, the district will create, for the first time, a pipeline that assigns students based on the elementary schools they attend, regardless of where they live. The goal of the plan is to provide more predictability and better transitioning than the current application-based lottery system, which draws elementary kids from throughout the city to every middle school.
High school assignment procedures will remain similar to the current system, except that in competitive schools, test scores and having siblings in the school will replace the diversity index as the formula for assigning spaces.
The new system will take effect next August with classes entering kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades.
Tony Lopez, a 38-year-old Sunset district resident with three kids under the age of 7, expressed concern about what will happen to his daughter after she graduates from Sanchez Elementary School, near the Castro. Under the old system, he planned to move her to a middle school closer to their home. But under the new system, she will be assigned to Everett.
Lopez said he picked Sanchez in the first place because none of his neighborhood schools offered a Spanish bilingual program. He worried that, with the new system, his original intention to place her in a bilingual learning environment will end up putting her academic development and physical safety at risk.
The school district argued that students and parents would still be able to participate in a “choice process” because, in addition to receiving their initial assignments, they will be able to submit applications for their desired middle school. But parents expressed strong doubts that a “choice process” would get their kids into a more academically competitive middle school, since first priority would be given to students assigned there.
“Good schools get filled up quickly, leaving our kids nowhere to go. There is no choice, ” said Sally Payson Hays, whose older son attends James Lick Middle School in Noe Valley but whose younger son will probably be assigned to James Denman Middle School in the Ingleside neighborhood. Not only would this create stress for her family, Hays said, but Denman does not offer a Spanish-immersion program, so that her younger son, who attends such a program at Monroe Elementary School, could not continue his studies despite his eagerness to do so.
Hays, a research associate at the Young Adult and Family Center at UC San Francisco, expressed anger that, even though she is an actively involved parent, she was not informed about the feeder pattern and its impact until recently. She questioned whether there has been much outreach to parents whose primary language is not English.
Vali Govier, who immigrated from India 17 years ago and whose two daughters attend the same school as Hays’s younger son, shared the same frustration. She strongly urged the district to limit implementation of the new school assignment process to incoming kindergarteners, to reduce the impact on students who are already in the system. Many parents also asked school officials to delay implementation to allow time for further study.
“We are not guinea pigs. Don’t do it, ” said Govier, who is considering moving her girls out if the district goes ahead with its plan as scheduled.
Gently Blythe, the SFUSD’s director of public outreach and communications, said she is aware of complaints about the new system, but she pointed out that many other parents have expressed support.
“There are another set of parents who really like the feeder system,” Blythe said, “but they did not show up at the meetings because they are happy with it.”