School board approves major overhaul of student assignment system

Choices to be limited to 8 to 10 schools to encourage diversity, predictability, shorter commutes

San Francisco school officials on Tuesday approved a new elementary school assignment system that limits choice in a bid for better integration and predictability.

San Francisco Unified School District Board members voted to overhaul the district’s notoriously complicated school assignment system. Details on the new zone-based assignment structure, planned since 2018, will be determined over the next 18 months, in a process expected to cost around $2.5 million.

“We believe that changing to a zone-based system is going to be a paradigm shift,” said Orla O’Keeffe, SFUSD’s chief of policy and operations. “Unfortunately, under our current system, there are schools that get very few requests and they are under-enrolled and, as a result, they’re under resourced.”

Incoming kindergartners and their families are expected to be admitted under the new system by the 2023-24 academic year. They will go from choosing from more than 100 schools citywide to eight to 10 sites in a designated zone.

Students would be assigned to schools within a yet-to-be-mapped zone that will include language and special education programs. Assignments would prioritize those with older siblings at the same school and those who live in federal public housing or historically under served communities, or who attended a pre-kindergarten program at the same school.

Limiting site selection would bring greater predictability for parents and, theoretically, less travel time. Officials hope it will also promote greater diversity in San Francisco schools, which have struggled to integrate since being legally ordered to in 1983.

The new system could also make the socioeconomic divide worse without diversity considerations, SFUSD staff warned. To counter that, students assignments will be made with an eye toward creating a student body reflecting the zone’s characteristics on race, household income, language proficiency and special education needs.

Student bodies with at least 15 percent of students on free and reduced lunches are considered diverse. About 69 percent of San Francisco schools reached that threshold in the 2018-19 school year.

Should students be enrolled based on zone characteristics and other factors, an estimated 90 percent of schools would have that low-income population. Without those considerations, 64 percent of schools would.

But officials are not under the impression that the new system will solve school segregation along lines of race and class.

“Doing this isn’t going to change how redlining is, that’s a bigger issue than San Francisco Unified School District,” said Board President Mark Sanchez, referring to historic racial segregation between neighborhoods. “But it will disrupt the hyper segregation…and make our schools more diverse than they are right now.”

What the zones look like and which schools students have to choose from are not yet determined. Over the next 18 months, SFUSD will hire analysts to draw zones and tiebreakers, engage stakeholders and help them transition, as well as develop new software to manage the zones.

Part of the price tag includes $200,000 for a transportation analyst to create new routes and bell times based on zones.

Parent advisory groups, backed by board member Alison Collins, who was the sole vote against the proposal, sought to delay of a vote to allow for more time to rethink school enrollment, given the energy spent on distance learning and reopening.

“We asked very specifically to halt this process because we wanted to focus on what do quality schools look like and defining that,” said Laticia Erving, program manager for the African American Parent Advisory Council last week.

Outgoing board member Rachel Norton, who led committee meetings on the proposed policy, assured parents that there is plenty of room to shape the new assignment system and recommended keeping the special committee going.

“This is a framework, this is not a whole system,” Norton said. “There’s going to be a lot of opportunity and a lot of decisions the future board is going to have to make. I don’t want anybody to think this is done, this is just the beginning.”

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