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Plans to revise school lottery system stir controversy

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The full San Francisco Board of Education is set to vote next week on a resolution to begin revising the district’s school assignment system. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco school board members preparing to revamp The City’s complicated and controversial school assignment system are already facing opposition from parents and other advocates.

A resolution launching the process was unanimously voted out of committee by members of the school board Tuesday and is expected to move before the full board for a vote next week. Introduced in September by Commissioner Matt Haney and since cosponsored by board president Stevon Cook and commissioners Rachel Norton and Mark Sanchez, it calls on district staff to develop alternatives for placing students in schools across The City.

Families have long voiced frustrations with the system, and according to the resolution “want more predictability in the enrollment process and are uncomfortable with a process that feels excessively complicated or random.” But parent groups and district stakeholders at the committee meeting criticized the effort as hasty.

They called on the commission to wait for the results of efforts to address the district’s persistent achievement gap for African American and Latino students, under-enrollment at many schools in The City’s southeastern sector and parent frustrations with the current lottery-based system before making more changes.

“With respect, I think we are getting ahead of ourselves here,” said Alida Fisher, chair of the community advisory committee for special education. She urged the commission to allow time for efforts such as Superintendent Vincent Matthews’ PITCH initiative — an effort to focus resources on schools where the African American student achievement gap persists — to be analyzed.

“Why aren’t we tweaking the existing enrollment system based on feedback that has already been given?” she wanted to know.

The district implemented the current lottery-based system in the 2011-2012 school year in an effort to increase student diversity, provide equitable access to resources and boost enrollment, among other things.

But it has not had the desired effect. Per the resolution, “for families across The City, diversity is often trumped by a school’s location, academic quality, and their own feeling of belonging.”

“People are leaving The City over the student assignment system,” said Cook. “People are commuting two hours in the morning over the current system.”

The resolution approved Tuesday calls for the superintendent to convene a working group and hire a project manager to develop recommendations on revising the current policy, implementing plans and timelines, and developing “measurable definitions” for the concepts of creating quality and integrated schools, equitable access, diversity and neighborhood schools.

Staff recommendations will focus on access to transportation, predictability and serving the needs of historically underserved students.

However, while Haney’s original resolution called for an end to the “all lottery” based approach for placement at elementary schools, the resolution was amended to instead call for staff to “model and present different options for elementary schools.”

These models would include a “home” based assignment system in which students have a choice of citywide or specialized options; an individualized choice based system based on a family’s home address; or a zone-based assignment within which students will have “guaranteed access to a set of schools.”

But parents and student advocates present at Tuesday meeting pressed the commission to shift its focus to creating “quality educational experiences” at every district school or to further revise to the resolution.

“The reality is that not all of our SFUSD schools offer the same educational experience and I think that is at the crux of why student assignment is such a critical issue,” said Georgia Williams -Bratt, of the Parent Advisory Council.

A resident of Treasure island, where schools are 137 students below capacity, said that as the mother of a four-year-old, she opposes a proposed shift to neighborhood school placement.

“It doesn’t matter where, I look at what opportunities [my daughter] will have. If that means I have to cross town, then I will cross town if I believe that is the right school for her,” the woman said. “I want my daughter to go to any school she wants to and not be told that I have to stay within in the grounds of Treasure Island.”

Others, including Commissioner Shamann Walton, criticized the projected $500,000 cost of the revamp, which includes the hire of a full-time project manager for some $160,000 annually and some $300,000 for technical services. Community engagement to inform the new systems design would total $40,000.

The process would also require 10-20 percent of district staff to devote time to the project, according to district officials.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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