School assignment system set for major overhaul

SFUSD board weighing proposal that would limit choices, offer increased predictability

School board members on Tuesday will discuss a long-awaited proposal to overhaul the notoriously complicated student assignment system.

The San Francisco Unified School District has been working since 2018 to develop an alternative system that increases diversity in elementary schools while offering families predictability on which school they will attend within a reasonable distance from their homes.

The proposal set to be presented to the board Tuesday would end a decade-old lottery system that lets families choose from more than 100 schools across The City and instead limit their choices to eight to 10 sites.

Elementary school students would be assigned to sites within a certain zone, which have yet to be determined, which will provide access to language and special education programs.

Assignments would first prioritize students who have older siblings at the same school or live in federal public housing or historically underserved areas, or attended a pre-kindergarten program at the same school. The student’s attendance and test score areas, which are currently factored into the assignment process, would no longer be priority considerations.

“Ultimately we hope this policy will lead to integrated schools and classrooms, offer families of elementary school students greater predictability in where their children will be enrolled in school, and create strong community connections,” said district spokesperson Laura Dudnick.

The district has struggled for decades to integrate schools. As in many districts, San Francisco schools were staunchly segregated from 1851 to 1971, and were hit with a legal order in 1983 to desegregate. Since then, the district has been through several different systems, but the current system, which was intended to bring more choice for families, continues to produce high levels of racial segregation at many schools.

“It appears in many cases to have made it worse,” said Board of Education member Rachel Norton, who has been leading the ad hoc meetings on student assignment. “The current system that we have has made segregation in our schools worse, and it was already pretty bad to begin with. In addition, nobody really likes it.”

Norton, who grew up in Berkeley, has heard anecdotal feedback that a same zone system similar to the one SFUSD is considering seems to be working, or at least not bothering families, but has concerns over how it will translate to San Francisco. For one, The City’s terrain, with Twin Peaks in the middle, makes accessing some schools more difficult than others.

Norton acknowledges that some families won’t be happy with the more limited choices, but argued the proposed system is a more rational option.

She and Board member Alison Collins both noted that choice is inherently inequitable. Plus, an obsession with test scores — often linked to coded language on race — may prompt some families to discount schools in their communities.

“We always have self-selection working against us,” Collins said. “I don’t believe any policy is going to lead to substantial change if we don’t involve trying to change the culture in our schools, actually having conversations with our families about race and the history of school choice. If you want the best for your kids, you also need to work for the best of other people’s kids.”

Once the prioritized groups are put through, the new algorithm assigns students to make up a student body that reflects characteristics of the school’s zone, including race, household income, language proficiency and special education needs.

The proposed system would run the risk of further dividing students along socioeconomic lines if it did not consider such diversity categories, according to a staff report. A litmus test for the process is whether it results in enrollment that includes at least 15 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.

Without diversity considerations, just 64 percent of schools would have the ideal makeup, compared to 90 percent when the categories are included, district staff said in a report. About 69 percent of schools met the threshold in the 2018-19 school year.

The debate over which students get access to coveted schools turned ugly last week when the Board of Education heard a proposal to temporarily end Lowell High School’s 54-year-old merit-based admissions process. Without letter grades in spring or a standardized test due to coronavirus, incoming ninth-graders for the 2021-22 academic year cannot be evaluated the way they usually are.

Some parents have objected, saying it is unfair to students who worked hard at the chance of getting in and threatens to reduce the quality of the nationally-recognized school. But others, including some alumni, said it was a step toward diversifying the largely Asian and white high school and broaden opportunities for other students.

“That people who have graduated from Lowell have a badge of superiority is deeply insulting to the rest of our high schools across San Francisco,” Norton said. “I just know from having been on the school board 12 years and being a parent in the district for two decades, that perception of school quality is not necessarily the realities of school quality. I’ve definitely seen that when parents change their assumptions about what a quality school is, they suddenly see the picture very, very differently.”

Norton, who declined to run for reelection this year, won’t be on the board to see the change implemented but feels she and the district led a good process with community stakeholders.

Board members will vote on the Lowell admission policy Tuesday. They will discuss the proposed change to the student assignment system again on Dec. 1 and vote on Dec. 8.

If the change is adopted in December, it would likely take effect for incoming kindergartners in the 2023-24 academic year.

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