The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is inaugurating a new method of assigning students to schools this year. The design of this new policy has been underway for many years, fueled by confusion with the previous process and the fact that it failed in its goal to diversify schools and programs. Change was required to address both of these issues and so last spring the Board of Education (BOE) finally adopted the current policy, which means that families looking for schools for their children for the 2011-2012 school year have a new set of rules and procedures to get a handle on.

The BOE had three top goals for the new assignment system:

• Reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school;
• Provide equitable access to the range of opportunities offered to students; and
• Provide transparency at every stage of the assignment process.

These goals reflect a recognition that the SFUSD’s assignment system is the product of a complicated history of inequities that have existed from the moment our schools were formed and that have persisted even within some of the very efforts designed to eliminate them. Great things are happening in our schools, even with all of the grave financial and political struggles that challenge us every day. The new policy is the latest effort to support those great things and to make them more equally available to all families. Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses in the design that will hinder the advancement towards that goal, but time still remains to make adjustments.

In many ways, the new assignment policy is not that different from the past policy in that there is still some measure of choice and there is still a mechanism to address the circumstance when more families want access to a school than there are available spots to meet that demand. All of the details on the changes are available online from the district, but the essential differences can be boiled down to the following:

1. Elementary-age school students will have an attendance area school, or put another way, elementary schools will be associated with a designated geographic area around that school. Residents of that area will have that school as their attendance-area school. These new attendance area boundaries will be set by mid-November, updating those from years ago when those assignments reflected desegregation efforts and busing patterns that no longer exist. They will provide a default (though not guaranteed) assignment for both elementary and middle schools.

2. Middle school feeder patterns from elementary schools (available in list and map formats) are being established, so that the default assignment to middle school (though again not guaranteed) is known at the point of elementary school enrollment. When parents are considering elementary schools, they may also be thinking about middle schools. High school assignment procedures, including the application processes for Lowell and SOTA, are staying essentially the same; there are no middle-to high school feeder patterns or attendance areas for high schools.

The elementary-to-middle school feeder patterns as proposed provide a high degree of certainty and transparency, but at the middle school level they also lock in the entrenched East/West divide. The consequence is that for desegregation and equity of access to be achieved throughout the middle schools, they will first have to be achieved at the elementary school level as it is unlikely that many families will move from middle schools that currently are (or are perceived to be) quite strong.

3. The procedure for assigning students when there are more applicants than available spots has been dramatically simplified. The previous “diversity index,” a composite of several different socio-economic indicators, has been reduced to one variable – whether or not the child lives in a census track with average scores in the bottom quintile on standardized tests.

The actual process from the perspective of a given family looking for a kindergarten, middle or high school is still very much the same. Families will be able to list schools in order of preference and decisions about assignment to those schools that have more requests than available spots will be made on the basis of what the district is calling “Tie-Breakers,” In this more streamlined decision-tree, those tie-breakers kick in in a specific order. For instance, according to the district’s FAQ, the elementary school tie-breakers are:

1. “Siblings: younger siblings of students who are enrolled in and will be attending the school during the year for which the younger sibling requests attendance

2. SFUSD Pre-K students who live in the attendance area of the school and are also attending an SFUSD PreK program in the same attendance area

3. Test score areas: students who live in areas of the city with the lowest average test scores

4. Attendance area: students who live in the attendance area of the school

5. Dense-population areas: students who live in attendance areas that do not have enough space to accommodate all the students living in the attendance area

6. Others: If you do not get one of your choices, you will be offered your attendance area school if it has openings. Otherwise you will be offered the school closest to your home with openings.”

If with all of this there are still ties among applicants, a random lottery is used to determine the assignment.

One potential, immediate solution to the middle school problem described earlier would be to have middle school tie-breakers more closely resemble those of elementary schools. In other words, instead of having initial assignment be the first test, sibling status, and then test score status should come first in the sequence, followed by initial assignment, and then attendance area and so on. Making this modification would once again open up middle schools to students from any part of the City, while at the same time still providing some degree of certainty.

Assignment policies for special education services are still being worked out pending a program redesign currently underway. The BOE’s adopted policy states that the Individual Education Program (IEP) team will decide on a placement, but that leaves much room for interpretation, so this component is still an unknown. Transportation is yet another wild card factor that is being addressed alongside the finalization of the attendance area strategies and some confusion seems to exist around immersion pathways as well.

Apart from the above, the process as laid out is certainly more comprehensible than the old system. The proposed attendance areas correspond to common-sense geographic boundaries and provide a qualified measure of predictability regarding an assignment, except of course for those areas associated with schools that tend to be over-requested.

This will no doubt be a piece of data many families are still interested in – how likely is it that there will be available spots in a given school’s attendance area? Because there is still the ability to express a preference in the system, but because that preference still has no guarantee, families will want and need just as much information as ever about historical enrollment patterns, current projections and of course, essential information about the school itself.

Beyond understanding the mechanics of the system, a fundamental concern still remains: how will we know if the system is working as expected? In the past, not only was the assignment process difficult to understand, each assignment cycle was prone to errors – both human and system generated. In order to have any confidence in the implementation of the new system, we need to know how it’s been tested and how problems that do occur will be identified and resolved. What is the process for ensuring that information in enrollment applications is accurately entered into the system? Can we be sure that there aren’t shadow systems, such as for immersion programs that have to be manually connected to the general assignment process? What kind of testing will be done ahead of time to work through errors of data entry and/or logic?

One of the strategies that could be used to address concerns about the technical aspect of the assignment system would be to make it an open source application. This would entail working out the intellectual property rights with whoever is actually building the software so that the source code could exist in a publicly available location, such as SourceForge, GitHub or even Google Code, where developers and other technologists could examine the code, build it and run it themselves, and contribute either bug fixes or alternative approaches. A side benefit of this would be that other districts could use this code as their starting point.

Equally important to testing the system before it is implemented is evaluating it after it’s been implemented. Such an evaluation was highlighted during the redesign process, and will be an essential activity. Community input on the results of the first year as well as on the results of the district’s evaluation process will be instrumental in making meaningful modifications for the following year.

The Board of Education ad hoc committee on student assignment will meet again to review assignment areas and transportation issues on Monday, September 13th and the final decisions will be made on Tuesday September 28th at the full Board meeting (both meetings are at 6pm at 555 Franklin). Opportunities still exist to get your opinion to BOE members and district staff in advance of these decisions. In addition to an online survey, the district has been holding a series of community meetings to get feedback and answer questions regarding the policy. Upcoming events include:

• Saturday, August 28 9:30 - 11:30 am Francis Scott Key Elementary 1530 43rd Ave

• Tuesday, August 31 6:00 - 8:00 pm Everett Middle School 450 Church St

• Wednesday, September 1 6:00 - 8:00 pm Marina Middle School 3500 Fillmore St

Any student assignment system can only go so far in addressing goals of access and equity that the district is rightly trying to achieve, especially when it is also trying to provide measures of certainty and choice. The proposed system still needs some adjustments in order to get closer to all of these marks, but at the same time, we have to realize that it is just one piece of the solution. An absolute requirement is an equally focused effort on ensuring that every school can provide a solid academic foundation for our City’s children. The same time and attention that has been devoted to analyzing, experimenting and crafting assignment solutions on the part of the district, BOE and the community needs to go into improving all of schools.

Despite the remaining uncertainties in the student assignment system, we can be sure of one thing: all families want their children to go to a school they feel confident in. Regardless of where a family lives, their background or what level of schooling the child is entering into, the desire for a good education for our kids is more or less a shared, fundamental value. And that is a very good thing, because public schools are a public good, something that we all benefit from throughout our entire lives, even if we don’t have children.

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 and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.