Mired in debate, school assignment system remains

A long-sought change to the controversial system San Francisco Unified School District uses to assign students to campuses is still in the works, but the Board of Education is plagued with the same cyclical problem: No one can agree on an alternative.

The district is apt to promote statistics showing that the majority of families — 78 percent this year — receive a school of their choice. Every year, though, that leaves thousands of students assigned to a school they did not request.

The current system asks parents to apply for up to seven schools.

At schools that have more requests than seats, students are assigned through a complex calculation that considers such factors as socio-economic status, prior academic achievement and home language in an effort to diversify enrollment.

The system is rooted in a former federal mandate to integrate schools, a task that, due to a subsequent lawsuit, cannot involve race as a factor.

For years, district staff, school board members, parents and others have held meetings and discussed ways to improve the system, but no major changes have been made.

Board of Education member Rachel Norton, who was elected in November, said the board should stop trying to make everyone happy and just put its foot down.

“You've got to bite the bullet. You've got to make a decision and say, ‘This is the best way to go based on what we know’ and create a system with the spirit of continuous improvement,” she said.

At a recent meeting, the board was presented with three possible alternatives. One focuses on assigning students to schools in their neighborhood. The second allows more opportunity for families to request schools outside their neighborhood. The third would expand neighborhood school options to several campuses within a “zone.”

The district has said its goal is to have a new system in place for the 2010-11 school year, but several officials said that’s uncertain.

Choices for a new method of allocating students

The Board of Education was recently presented with three alternatives to the current — and controversial — student assignment system.

Option 1: Attendance Area Assignment

Students are assigned to a campus in their attendance area.

  • Schools that have language programs or admissions criteria remain open to request
  • Special-education and English-learner programs not available at every school are grouped geographically

Variations

  • Expand the list of programs and schools available for families to request

Option 2: Controlled Choice Assignment

Similar to Option 1, but families could make requests.

A controlled choice system could be designed to:

  • Give priority to attendance area students
  • Maximize diversity
  • Maximize choice assignments
  • Any combination of the above
  • Students who do not get one of their choices get assigned to their attendance area school

Option 3: Zone Assignment

Instead of attendance areas, draw zone boundaries around a series of schools.

  • Use a system designed to maximize diversity to assign students to a school in the zone

Variation

  • Allow families to submit choices for any school in the zone, and use a controlled choice system designed to maximize diversity

Source: San Francisco Unified School District
 

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