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Data shows more students placed in desired schools through lottery system, but frustrations prevail

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Students walk to class at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in the Bayview. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

School assignment letters were mailed out to San Francisco families starting Friday, and San Francisco Unified School District officials said slightly more K-12 students were offered a school of their choice in the first round lottery for the coming school year.

Still, parents finding themselves on the other side of those statistics this week said the complicated lottery system is often disheartening and, in some cases, forces families out of the district.

Among kindergarten applicants, 89 percent received one of their choices, up from 85 percent last year, while 63 percent received their first choice, up from 59 percent last year. While 3 percent fewer sixth grade applicants were offered their chosen schools, 85 percent of ninth grade applicants received one of their choices, up from 83 percent last year.

Of the ninth grade applicants, 67 percent received their first choice school compared to 58 percent last year.

Across all age levels, 81 percent of all SFUSD students were assigned to a school that was among an often lengthy list of choices in 2017-18, compared to 85 percent this school year.

Families who didn’t get the assignment they hoped for can reapply for schools they do want in three additional rounds or can appeal for extraordinary circumstances, such as medical or family hardships.

“The system aims to maximize parent choice and use tie-breakers to achieve more school diversity and give preference to students who live in census tracts with the lowest test scores,” said SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe, adding that data from last school year shows schools are becoming “slightly less segregated,” with fewer schools having more than 60 percent of one student population.

The current school assignment system, which allows parents to submit a ranked list of school choices and participate in a “lottery,” is part of an ongoing attempt by the district to achieve classroom diversity in San Francisco’s historically segregated schools. It was arrived at after past efforts, such as busing students and limiting the percentage of racial groups at schools following lawsuit and court order in the 1970s.

But district leaders said it has not had the desired impact and, in some ways, has encouraged resegregation while causing anxiety and uncertainty among parents.

“The choice patterns are highly correlated with race. The top choices for white, black and Latino families tend to be grouped. We are facilitating segregation through our system,” said Board of Education Commissioner Matt Haney. “It also creates a sense of winners and losers, which I think is not healthy for our school system.”

Across the SFUSD, language and socioeconomic barriers can result in families being left grouped in a pool for less popular schools.

“A lot of times parents pick schools they heard about, especially affluent families listen to [online] chatter on next door, mommy blogs,” said public school advocate Alison Collins, who is a candidate in the school board race. “The problem is that those families may only hear about 10 [good] schools and think the others must be bad. It creates a false sense of scarcity.”

Commissioner Mark Sanchez estimated that up to 35 percent of the SFUSD’s students opt for private school alternatives.

“It’s hard to have an integrative system when really integration isn’t just about black and Latino kids, it’s about white kids,” he said. “People make choices that don’t lead to integration.”

The system is also difficult to navigate for many parents.

“[I] grew up with immigrant parents. If they were in this situation they would have no clue how this system works,” said Sunset resident Valerie Ngo, the parent of an incoming Kindergarten student. Ngo said she listed 17 schools on her son’s application, but he was assigned to none of them.

“It’s confusing no matter how much research you do,” Ngo said, adding that her family is considering private school and “moving out of San Francisco because of this.”

Amy McColley said she homeschooled her three children after failing to receive desired placements for them last school year. This year, she attempted to re-enroll in the district and, again, her children were assigned to schools in three different neighborhoods in the first round.

“Both my girls are starting school at 7:50 a.m., my son is at 8:20 a.m. and we are in four different areas,” McColley said. “I’m trying to work a 9-to-5 job and have to run around town for my kids. [Is] the computer system not taking into account that they have the same last name?”

An ad hoc committee on student assignment is currently exploring changes to the assignment process for the 2019-20 school year, including giving preference to SFUSD staff and expanding a current initiative that gives preference to students from certain middle schools in the high school selection process.

Sanchez said there have not been “any robust conversations about really revamping the whole system.”

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