For more than three decades, the San Francisco Unified School District has placed students in schools based on socioeconomic factors, no matter where in The City the child lived.
Instead of attending a school down the street, a student could be bused across town in the name of district diversity.
Many parents were frustrated with the old system, which was created in the 1980s following a class-action lawsuit that charged that students were being assigned in such a way that created racially segregated schools.
The initial settlement forced the district to create a school assignment process based on a number of socioeconomic factors, including race, income and langauge skills. In 2001, a group of parents successfully sued to have race removed as one of the factors.
Each year, parents of children entering the San Francisco school system give the district a list of their six top school choices in order of preference. Families who were not placed in their first or second choice have often decided to abandon the school district, opting for private schools, or have moved out of The City.
This year, however, a family’s proximity to a school will be considered, meaning elementary students will have a better chance of attending neighborhood schools.
Last March, the San Francisco Board of Education approved the revamped school-assignment system focusing on neighborhoods. New maps outlining attendance areas were drawn for The City’s 72 public elementary schools.
District officials continue to work on middle school placement while high school remains a lottery system that doesn’t take addresses into account.
According to Superintendent Carlos Garcia, the new student-assignment system is simpler, though he acknowledged it will not please everyone.
“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. “We can have the best recipe in the world, but until it’s fully baked we don’t know what its going to taste like.”
There are already critics who saythe new system is not as neighborhood-focused as it should be.
Johnny Wang, spokesman with Students First — a nonprofit parent group — said the district student-assignment redesign is headed in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s not directly based on a neighborhood school system,” he said. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty for parents who live in certain neighborhoods.”
Though a family’s home address plays a role in determining placement, it is not the only factor. Parents still may choose to send their child across town to a specialized language program.
Siblings of children already enrolled in schools will have first preference, followed by children in historically low-performing test areas, and then a family’s address — their proximity to the school in question — will be factored in to the assignment. A low-performing test area is comprised of average scores over four years. Most low-performing schools are in the Mission and Bayview neighborhoods.
Students First collected enough signatures to place an advisory measure on the November ballot that would strongly suggest the district allow students attend class closer to home. The group collected 12,737 signatures, more than the required 7,168 valid signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot, according to documents from the San Francisco Department of Elections.
Garcia said while a neighborhood-based system was the focus, not all families want their children to go to the school down the street.
“That’s why we created a hybrid,” he said. “It does give families choice, but also has some element of neighborhood schools. So families who do want to go to their neighborhood school, they will have more of an opportunity to do so.”
The hybrid still leaves parents to figure out their best chances at various schools when filling out their
For instance, many parents of incoming students tried to find out the number of siblings entering kindergarten in a given school. While the district does not release the number of siblings entering any given school, many parents asked parent organizations for estimates.
Now that addresses play a larger part in the assignments, parents are employing different strategies. Some listed schools closest to their home highest even though only a small number of seats may have been available. Others placed schools with more open spots higher on their list even if it wasn’t in their attendance area.
Thousands of applications were turned in to the San Francisco Unified School District Education Placement Center last month by parents wishing to send their children to their preferred schools. Now their fate is in the hands of district officials, who will start sending out school-assignment notifications March 18.
The stories from four San Francisco families
The San Francisco Examiner spoke to families involved in the school-assignment process and asked why they are making the decisions they are.
Culture, diversity play a role
To get through 18 school tours, Heather Nelson Brame said she had to be organized and in control.
The 38-year-old Bernal Heights resident and mother of two said her biggest challenge when choosing schools was gathering information.
“I feel like everyone was asking questions before the district was putting out answers,” Nelson Brame said. “At the beginning, it does take initiative. Thank goodness I’m organized.”
That organization, Nelson Brame said, allowed her to minimize stress that so many parents endure while trying to decide on the right school for their children.
Nelson Brame said she did not place too much emphasis on test scores. Rather she looked for schools that felt right for her 5-year-old son, Mansour, and also represented the diversity of The City.
“I’m looking for a place where he can learn to write, read and play and has teachers he likes,” she said. “But also feels welcome. It’s more than just academics.”
Nelson Brame said she also did what she felt was right and ignored the buzz from the parent community over what a good school was versus a bad one.
“We wanted to make our own decisions because we liked it or we thought it would be a good fit for our kid,” she said.
In the end, she submitted a list of nine schools she hoped to send Mansour to.
What was absent from the list, however, is the family’s neighborhood school: Leonard Flynn. The school didn’t feel like the right fit, she said.
A neighborhood school, she said, was not her priority.
Nelson Brame said Flynn did not match the diversity standards — a mix of cultures and backgrounds — she was looking for. Instead, location near her second son’s preschool in the Western Addition and her work in the Sunset also contributed to their final choices.
In addition to her public school picks, Nelson Brame also opted to apply for private school to give Mansour options.
“Financially, public school is a better route,” she said, “but we also want the best school for our kid.”
Brame family school list
1: McKinley (Duboce Triangle)
2: Grattan (Cole Valley)
3: Clarendon — Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program (Forrest Knoll)
4: Clarendon — general education (Forrest Knoll)
5: Rooftop (Twin Peaks)
6: New Traditions (NoPa)
7: Claire Lilienthal (Presidio Heights)
8: Miraloma (Miraloma)
9: Alvarado (Noe Valley)
Language programs top list
Midori Tong’s son Kai will be attending an immersion program next school year.
Which one, though, is yet to be decided.
Tong, 47, a Japanese-American, said she and her husband, David, of Chinese descent, want their son to master another language through an immersion school.
The 4-year-old already has the basics of Mandarin and Japanese because of his home life, but they both want him to be part of a rigorous curriculum in school to keep up with the momentum of his learning.
Tong said the family did not look at a fourth language such as Spanish or Cantonese because they want to be able to help him learn.
“He would pick it up,” she said confidently. “But our belief is that the family should be able to speak some amount of the language at home to help him learn. Neither of us know Spanish.”
The family, which lives in Diamond Heights, toured six schools before submitting their application, according to Tong.
The Tongs used factors such as parent involvement and proximity to home and work to round out their choices.
But because their neighborhood school — Alvarado — does not offer the Japanese or Mandarin immersion program, they opted to travel farther to enroll Kai in kindergarten.
If Kai does not make it into one of the San Francisco Unified School District’s two immersion programs for Chinese — at Starr King and Jose Ortega elementary — or the Japanese programs at Rosa Parks and Clarendon elementary, the family has also applied to private schools with language-immersion programs, Tong said, but there are limited options.
Tong said she hopes her son’s foundation in either language will give him an advantage over other applicants. She said many immersion schools have English speakers, but target language speakers are scarce.
Because she is looking at immersion programs, Tong said she is indifferent to the new rules. While she thinks Alvarado is a good school, she knew she would have to go through the lottery system regardless to get him into a language-immersion program.
“It’s very popular,” she said of Alvarado. “But language is our priority.”
Tong family school list
1: Rosa Parks — Japanese immersion (Western Addition)
2: Jose Ortega — Mandarin immersion (Merced Heights)
3: Starr King — Mandarin immersion (Potrero Hill)
4: Clarendon — Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program (Forest Knolls)
5: Alvarado — General education (Noe Valley)
6: Lafayette — General education (Outer Richmond)
7: Clarendon — General education
1: Chinese American School
Mom wants to keep it close
When Lucy McAllister first moved to her Marina district home seven years ago, she visited the nearby school — Claire Lilienthal — to participate in the school fairs and get to know the school community, in hopes that one day her own children would go there.
Little did she know that there was no guarantee her twin daughters would go to a neighborhood school.
“It never crossed my mind,” McAllister said. “Not only did I believe they would go to school nearby, but on more than one occasion, I went to Claire Lilienthal and thought this was cute and I couldn’t wait for them to go to school here.”
Her stress, though, is double that of many San Francisco families applying for kindergarten. Not only did she assume she could enroll her daughters in a neighborhood school, but she assumed they could go to the same school. The district has no guarantee that twins will to go to the same school; each child is looked at separately.
McAllister learned of her misconceptions when she started looking to enroll her daughters in kindergarten. She also learned she is in Sherman Elementary School’s attendance boundary, not Claire Lilienthal’s.
McAllister toured 12 schools, but only submitted an application to the district for three schools. She said she wanted her daughters in a neighborhood school unless she felt they would get an “exponentially better education across town.”
She wants to be able to walk her children to school, meet and talk with their teachers, and have the comfort of knowing her daughters could have friends attending the same school who also live in the neighborhood.
“I’ll do what everyone else does,” she said when asked what she will do if she doesn’t get those things. “I’ll move to Marin.”
McAllister school list
1: Sherman (Cow Hollow)
2: Claire Lilienthal (Marina)
3: New Traditions (NoPa)
Keeping the sisters together
Three weeks before applications for student placement in the San Francisco Unified School District schools for the 2011-12 school year were due, Peggy Mirpuri had already submitted her choices for her daughter.
If she held on to the application, Mirpuri said, she would continue thinking about and question her choices.
“I’ll continue agonizing over it,” the mother of two said.
Mirpuri is one thousands of parents who submitted applications in hopes of getting placed in top-ranked schools.
For Mirpuri, whichever school her daughter Emily is placed in, her second daughter will likely be attending the same campus when she turns school age. That fact — and the fact that thousands of other families have more than one child — weighed on Mirpuri’s mind when she compiled her list of nine schools.
Mirpuri said though sibling preference — the No. 1 tiebreaker for student placement in schools — will help her in the future, she feels it limits her choices for her children now.
For instance, Mirpuri said her neighborhood school, Miraloma, is packed with incoming siblings. After talking to other parents at the school, she estimates that more than half the spots for the incoming kindergarten class will be taken by siblings, leaving about 25 open spots for new families.
Mirpuri listed Miraloma as her No. 1 school because, she said, she stands more of a chance of getting in compared to other high-performing, highly sought after schools.
The sibling preference, though, had not scared her from still asking to be placed in highly sought-after schools, such as Clarendon, which also has a large number of siblings entering kindergarten.
Because she has better chances of getting a spot at Miraloma, Mirpuri said she put that first on her list, even though it is not her preferred school.
“I would prefer Clarendon,” she said. “But that has 30-plus siblings.”
Mirpuri said even though the system was expected to be easier for families to choose and predict where they will be placed, it’s still a game of chance.
“It’s a simple process that’s not so simple,” she said. “Getting your neighborhood school is not an automatic thing.”
Mirpuri family school list
1: Miraloma (Miraloma)
2: Clarendon — Japanese Bilingual Bicultural program (Forest Knolls)
3: Rooftop (Twin Peaks)
4: Alvarado (Noe Valley)
5: Fairmount Spanish (Glen Park)
6: Commodore Sloat (Outer Sunset)
7: West Portal (West Portal)
8: Clarendon — General education
9: Alvarado — General education