Families across San Francisco are beginning to think about where their children will be attending school next year. For the little ones who will be entering Kindergarten to the newly minted teens who will be freshman in high school, the search for next year’s school is underway.
Many people know through direct experience or urban lore that the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) does not use a neighborhood school placement process, but instead assigns students based on a combination of factors, including elements such as the prioritized ordering of schools on the student’s application form, where a student lives, test scores of the student’s census block and more. How these factors play out for students applying to different school levels (e.g. transitional kindergarten versus high school) are laid out in a FAQ
developed by the District.
Some of these elements, for instance the test scores of the area where the student lives, have evolved out of previous SFUSD assignment policies designed to respond to the legal Consent Decree
that has since expired. Under that order, SFUSD was supposed to ensure racial and ethnic diversity at schools and programs across the city, without using ethnic or racial identification as direct inputs. While this was a legal mandate, it was also a moral one, the primary goal of which --equitable access to high quality schools and programs for all students--has persisted as an aim by the Board of Education (BOE)
. Other elements, such as the middle school feeder plan
that associates clusters of elementary schools with middle schools, are an attempt to provide some known quantities in a highly variable, complex process, though the success of the feeder plan, which is still unfolding, is as yet unproven. Another significant change designed to increase equity of access was the BOE’s passage last year of a policy requiring that all schools have inclusion seats available to ensure that students requiring special education services, as detailed in an Individual Education Plan (IEP) also have at least some access to all schools.
A major difficulty in the realization of these plans is the continued lack of resources that our schools face, even with the passage of Proposition 30 and Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula. We are not losing dollars like we were in the recent past, but we have a long way to go to get to where we need to be. This means that even as we work to address imbalances and inequities, change will not happen as quickly as we wish. In terms of student assignment, there are several highly visible results of the resource gap. The availability of programs and even schools is not evenly distributed across the city, so some schools are more frequently requested than others. Transportation options have been reduced due to budget cuts, so some schools are just not feasible options for all families. Certain schools have significantly more resources coming in to them based on the ability of parent communities to raise independent funds, which again will often attract.
Within this uneven mix of objectively difficult problems, subjective issues exist too, the most pernicious of which is the continued impact of inaccurate, ill-informed opinions. Frustratingly, it remains all too common an experience to end up in a conversation with someone who assumes that the schools of today are what they were at some vague point in the past and that this older experience is an accurate predictor of what the children of today will encounter. Even worse is the person who energetically passes judgment or makes pronouncements about a particular school -or all schools- without ever having set foot in the building.
The reality of public education in San Francisco is of course much more complex than this. On the positive side, many wonderful schools and programs are out there, filled with educators committed to maintaining a vibrant and nurturing environments for their students. These teachers and administrators work hand-in-hand with school families to address the challenges of the existing strained public education infrastructure head-on, typically with great success.
But not all schools are working well, and not all students will always have excellent experiences. There have been, still are, and will always be conflicts between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and administrators and families. And even among all of the many schools that are doing great, not all of those schools are the right fit for any given child. In this context then, the ability of families to indicate preferences is a plus, because in theory for all and in practice for many, it allows families to identify those schools that are the best fit for their students. A critical factor then, is for parents to get as close a look as possible at the schools that are out there.
A great starting point is the annual SFUSD Enrollment Fair
, which this year will be held on Saturday November 2nd, from 9:30am to 2:30pm at the Concourse Exhibition Center (East Hall) at 620 7th Street in San Francisco. All schools have booths at the Fair, staffed by principals and usually teachers and parents, and sometimes students. This is a great opportunity to get a first sense of the community at a given school and a glimpse into the leadership style and vision of the principal. For those anxious to get started earlier, the district is holding enrollment workshops
in October. Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco
also has a tremendous number of resources for families, including Parent Ambassadors at various schools and tips for questions to ask on school tours.
In addition to the SFUSD public schools, San Francisco families also have a handful of charter schools available to apply to. While these schools operate under the general umbrella of the district, they have their own rules and governing boards, including their own application procedures. While legally they are not allowed to exclude students
based on things like test scores, grades or the need for special education services, all of these practices have been observed at various times with charter schools, including in San Francisco.
The moral of the story for San Francisco families is that there are no short cuts for finding the set of schools you feel would serve your child well. Attending the Enrollment Fair, enrollment workshops, and most importantly touring schools you are most interested in is a significant investment of time and energy, but it is time and energy well-spent, since no one will ever be able to tell as well as you if a certain community and set of educators will really be the ones who can give you child what you know he or she needs and deserves.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.