School board member proposes scrapping student assignment system for focus on ‘community schools’

A resolution to reimagine San Francisco’s current student assignment system with a focus on “community schools” at the elementary level will come before the school board Tuesday.

The resolution, introduced by Commissioner Matt Haney and co-sponsored by board Vice President Stevon Cook, seeks to begin moving the district to a system that is “predicated on greater predictability, transparency, accessibility to neighborhood options, equity, and a strong commitment to integrated schools.”

If approved, proposed changes for students enrolling at elementary schools across The City could include a “home based” assignment with a choice of citywide options; an individualized choice that is dependent on a family’s home address; a “zone based” assignment or a system that would allow students access to a set of schools through a “blended approach,” per the resolution.

A new system could be modeled after one used by the Berkeley Unified School District, in which the city is divided into three zones, in which families are guaranteed access to one of a set of schools. In Boston, public school families are offered a list of schools within a one-mile radius of their homes through a “home based” system that also includes access to other schools based on perfromance factors.

“Most other schools districts have an initial assignment to a certain school. In most cases you register at the school itself and if you want to opt-in to a lottery you can do that — We should look at that option,” said Haney, who is running for District 6 supervisor.

If elected in November, Haney will not oversee the potential implementation of a new assignment system. Responding to criticism that he waited until now to change a system that he has long criticized, Haney said, “I think we wanted to give it a little bit of time to work.”

“Most of us have a been on record saying we are done with this current system. There will be some important discussion and debate about what to do instead. But it’s critical that we give direction to the superintendent that we want to see him develop a new process,” said Haney. “I don’t want to see us five years from now in the same place we are now.”

The plan for the shift toward a “community-based” assignment system would by developed by the district’s superintendent with input from SFUSD families and staff. The resolution requires the superintendent to set timelines for feedback, review and implementation.

The resolution calls for simplifying the process for student enrolling in The City’s elementary schools only, but Haney said that the board could take up the assignment process to middle and high schools in the future.

“We have a great system of middle school feeders, which has been effective and demonstrated the importance of predictability and cohort based decision making,” said Haney, referring to a program implemented in 2012 that assigned groups of elementary schools as “feeders” to adjacent middle schools. “I don’t want to disrupt that.”

Following next week’s hearing, the resolution is expected to move before the full board for a vote in December.

The “all lottery” approach since 2010 has required parents to submit a ranked list of school choices to the district in January. Students are then placed using a complex algorithm that considers a series of “tie-breakers” for families that live in areas with low test-scores, near neighborhood schools or have siblings that attend schools in the district.

Families are notified of their placements in March, and those seeking different placements have the option of participating in additional rounds of the lottery.

The process is a long-standing attempt to achieve classroom diversity in San Francisco’s historically segregated school, but it has not achieved the desired results — partly because of its complexity, according to Haney.

“The number one goal of the system was to reduce the number of racially isolated schools and we saw pretty early on that it is not doing that,” said Haney. “The means were not justifying the end, and we are putting a tremendous burden on families with this complex process that lacks predictability and transparency, with the goal of equity choice and integration.”

According to the resolution, the lottery system has inadvertently compounded segregation in San Francisco’s public schools — in the 2015-16 school year, 30 schools in San Francisco had a student population that is over 60 percent one race.

Cook, whose campaign for school board was predicated on revamping the complicated system, said that part of the issue is that while it was meant to give families in low-income neighborhoods the choice to attend high-performing schools in other areas, the “only people really opting into that process were mostly white and asian families that lived in the area.”

“The overwhelming majority of whom this system was designed to support were just going to the schools that were near them,” said Cook. “In turn, a higher concentration of low-income students [are placed] at certain sites and that compounded all the issues associated with their homelife that is hard for schools to wrap their arms around.”

The current system has also forced many families to leave the system, he said.

Cook said that he is in favor of a “home based” system.

“With that system, you have a set of choices based on your neighborhood. That encourages participation within your community,” he said. “There are a lot of families here that get up at 5 a.m. to get on the bus, they take Muni. They sacrifice for quality. They should just be able to have that where they live.”

It is unclear who will ultimately vote on whether or not to implement a new system. Three current school board commissioners are terming out this year, and 18 candidates are vying for their seats in November.

Whether or not neighborhood schools should be prioritized in the student assignment system was an question that elicited mixed emotions from candidates at school board debate held on Tuesday.

“It’s not as simple as that — we can’t move solely to a neighborhood assignment system,” said candidate Michelle Parker. “We don’t have schools and seats where our families live…in the south sector.”

Haney agreed.

“I’m not proposing neighborhood schools — I think we can have a better system,” he said. “We would want to draw zones or attendance areas across neighborhoods that would maximize diverse outcomes. We should take the best of both systems.”

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