While 95 percent of Chinese families take advantage of the first round of the district’s school choice system for their incoming kindergartner, only 50 percent of African-American families took advantage of that option by submitting applications, according to district data.
In hopes of getting a handle on declining enrollment, as well as increasingly segregated schools, the San Francisco Unified School District has been conducting interviews and studying data to determine who enrolls in The City’s public schools and how to improve the process of student assignment.
One public school parent, who drives her two children across town to attend an elementary school with higher test scores, says many of the families in her Bayview neighborhood
aren’t aware that they can choose a better school, or don’t have the resources to explore the wide range of school options available.
“I don’t think everybody’s been satisfactorily educated that they do have the power to make choices,” Miraloma Elementary parent Heidi Edwards said. “And let’s face it, when you go through the process of touring schools, that takes time, and there are those families that don’t have cars.”
Recent studies have shown that nearly half of San Francisco’s 110 public schools are “severely segregated” at one or more grade levels and that academic achievement for African-American students lags far behind that of white and Asian-American students. In an effort to integrate schools, the district assigns slots at popular schools through a socioeconomic formula that provokes the ire of some neighborhood parents who want an automatic assignment to those schools.
“Black families aren’t successfully outreached in the process, and then they get what’s left,” said N’Tanya Lee, executivedirector for Coleman Advocates, a family-oriented nonprofit in San Francisco. “But from our prospective, we need to make the school system more equitable in terms of achievement, even if African-American families don’t participate in the enrollment process.”
Directed by the school board, district staff members, along with the board’s Parent Advisory Committee, have been hosting a series of small parent meetings at various school sites to ask questions about what parents are looking for in a public school and what they think about the current assignment process. The parent input will be analyzed and considered when the district puts together its long-range enrollment strategy this spring.
Already, some interesting facts have emerged. For example, challenging the oft-told tale of parents leaving the district as a result of not getting a preferred school, approximately 1,000 families last year received their top choice, but still didn’t enroll in the public school system.
“We assume that some families apply to both public and private schools and view public schools as an option only if they do not get into the private school of their choice,” said district spokesperson Gentle Blythe, who said district data shows that about 30 percent of San Francisco’s school-aged children attend private schools.
For the past six years, enrollments have been declining in San Francisco’s public schools due to a reduction in the number of births and children in San Francisco, according to an independent study, although district officials also point to The City’s high cost of living as forcing families out of San Francisco.
District critics also blame the enrollment drop on test scores that are lower than those found in local private schools or public schools in neighboring suburbs.