School Beat: High Schools – the Last Stop in School Searches

by Lisa Schiff on December 1, 2011

San Francisco voters were generous once again and passed Proposition A, the last in a trio of facilities bond measures to repair and refurbish our city’s public school buildings. Those among us who are touring schools as part of the student assignment process have had ample opportunity to view both the benefits of the previous two bond measures and the need for this last round. If only all school improvement efforts were as tractable as physical plant upgrades, we would be in great shape, but of course this isn’t so.

My family is currently looking at high schools for next year, so we are in our last-ever engagement with San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) school assignment system. This system has been the focus of much debate and angst over the years, no less so these days after being recently revised to more strongly weight a child’s home address, while at the same time attempting to prioritize choices for children likely to be experiencing educational disadvantages.

Because of past lawsuits, legally binding agreements, and a moral imperative to provide equal access to educational opportunities, SFUSD has not had a “simple” neighborhood assignment policy for years. Apparently voters understand the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in, as evidenced by the Proposition H advisory measure failing to pass.

Still, the very fact that such an advisory measure was on the ballot highlights how student assignment captures the majority of attention regarding school issues. But the problem with focusing so much energy on this one aspect of the school system is that it can only go so far in addressing a more fundamental issue – the inequalities in schools across our city and what we must do together to strengthen all of our schools. A positive attribute of our school system is that, within quite a burdensome set of financial and policy constraints, schools have developed in unique ways. Various types of programs and approaches are found from school to school; sizes are different; communities are different. These differences can present meaningful, distinct options for families.

The flip side of course, is that our schools are not individuating from a shared strong, baseline foundation. Disparities persist and because they are based in a multitude of factors, they are hard to tackle. One approach that was supposed to address resource inequities was the Weighted Student Formula (WSF), but this has not completely panned out. In this model, resources follow a student. If a student falls into certain categories that have specific funding associated with that category – say a student who is an English Language Learner – those monies go with that student, wherever they are, regardless of school. That works to a certain degree, but students don’t receive education like they do servings of food. Portions of education can’t be easily meted out on a student by student basis.

Complicating this even further is that schools, not just students, get special designations – and targeted resources that go with those designations. One of the most significant of these is the federal “Title 1” designation, which is meant to provide extra resources to address the educational disadvantages of poor and low-income students. Schools designated as “Title I” schools if a certain percentage of their students fall into this category. This has resulted in a bizarre inequity, in which large schools can have more “Title I” students by headcount, but not percentage, than smaller schools and because the proportions are off, the larger schools don’t receive the resources needed to support those students. Because schools are so severely underfunded, any decrease in resources has a magnified impact.

All of this just begins to touch on why families often see so many differences in educational opportunities as they visit and consider schools. At the high school level, issues of interest to my family include access to a variety of languages (i.e. not just Spanish or Chinese); the availability of Advanced Placement classes across the range of disciplines; the variety of extracurricular offerings; whether the size of the student population matches the type of experience we’re looking for; how many students are in a classroom and how feasible it will be for our kids to get to and from a given school on their own.

These feel like basic needs, but they aren’t basic offerings. Smaller schools can’t provide a wide variety of languages because they just don’t have the student bodies to fill the number of seats required to justify teachers in those languages. Similar tradeoffs have to be made for Advanced Placement classes.

The crazy reality is that some schools have classrooms bursting with students. In these hard times, super high enrollment is almost the only reliable way to ensure that a sufficient financial base exists for providing a solid spectrum of academic choices and a reasonable set of electives. Drawing down populations at these schools and increasing assignment numbers in other schools may or may not be sufficient to bring in the dollars necessary to increase offerings. It certainly seems a backwards approach that accepts what is given to us as reasonable, further enabling our state and nation’s bankrupt attitude towards public schools.

By contrast, a child/student-centered approach would begin by ensuring that rigorous, well-rounded academic and extracurricular offerings were available at every school, that the foundation was a foundation for the district and not just for one place. In the absence of fiscal support and policy leadership from the federal government or the state, our district’s recent adherence to the University of California’s A-G requirements, which determine eligibility though not acceptance to UC, has helped this by refocusing resources. Similarly, the partnership with City College is exciting and is also being used to fill some of the gaps the high schools are facing, but with community colleges facing their own severe financial crisis, this may not be a reliable strategy.

And so we come back to the same question that’s been asked so many times before – how to refocus our public resources to ensure a quality public education for our children? A new initiative in California aims to address the revenue problem in a progressive way by creating a separate funding stream filled by a new sliding scale income tax. The California PTA is supporting this initiative and the rhetoric sounds good, but the text of the initiative itself is surprisingly short on details about the actually implementation and the strings attached to this new money. Those new strings include things such as requiring school boards to “to explain how expenditures will improve educational outcomes” and to “report back on what results were achieved so that parents, teachers, and the community will know whether their money is being used wisely”, an eerie echo of No Child Left Behind if there ever was one.

The Occupy movements around the country are bringing to light the hypocrisy at the very highest levels regarding the continued distribution of funds up to the top of the income ladder. Figuring out realistic ways for parents with kids at home and other public education supporters to add our voices to this movement may be the best strategy for improving the health and longevity of our schools.

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.

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