Students could be automatically assigned to area schools under some proposals being considered by the SFUSD board.

School district faces tough assignment this year as it reworks lottery system

Nearly a year after the San Francisco Unified School District board directed staff to begin developing a new process for assigning students to public schools, the district has come forward with three potential proposals.

Each concept is based on the goals of achieving greater “predictability, diversity and proximity” for families in the assignment process, school district officials said at a special school board committee hearing held last month.

The district will be gathering input at a number of community meetings scheduled for the beginning of this year before a final proposal is forwarded to the school board for approval in June.

A new assignment system, which initially would only apply to elementary schools, could be in place by the 2022-2023 school year.

The current process determining school assignments has long drawn the ire of families, who are required to take part in a complicated lottery system. That system, implemented in 2011, was intended to ensure diversity in schools, but district leaders who last year voted unanimously for an overhaul say it has fallen short of that goal.

Under the first proposal, families would be automatically assigned to a school located in their attendance area — a geographic boundary to be determined by the district that includes one school — before being given the option to choose from the district’s portfolio of citywide schools.

“The idea is that elementary students would get an automatic assignment to a single school based on where they live, then can opt to participate in choice process with citywide schools,” said Orla O’Keeffe, the San Francisco Unified School District’s chief of policy and operations, at a Dec. 3 hearing on the issue.

The second proposal does not offer automatic assignment, but would give families an option of three to five elementary schools to choose from in a designated zone through a choice-based system, before opening the process up to include citywide schools.

Lastly, district officials have proposed a concept that is similar to the second, but would first expose students to a choice system in “medium”-sized zones, comprised of eight to 12 schools, and would not offer the option of a citywide choice process after that.

O’Keeffe said that all three options would require “some significant structural shifts within SFUSD.”

Currently, the assignment system is based on a choice process that places students in their highest ranked requested school, so long as there are openings.

If the requests for a particular school outnumber the openings there, students are placed at their subsequent choices through a complicated algorithm that weighs a series of factors, or “tie-breakers” — including whether a student has a sibling at a school or lives in the attendance area.

According to a resolution passed last year, “choice systems are limited in their ability to reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school.” The reasoning is that the applicant pools for individual schools are racially isolated, and all families do not have the same opportunity to choose schools and submit choices due to language or technological barriers.

Even with the proposed concepts, some of the school board members who weighed in worried that equity issues regarding enrollment at certain schools would persist.

“I’m concerned that there’s too much choice,” said Commissioner Gabriela Lopez. “Really highlighting what schools have to offer is something I’d like to see in this process. How are we sharing what each school is able to do, what languages they offer?”

Commissioner Alison Collins said that any new system would have to work to intentionally “center” families who historically have struggled with the assignment process.

“I want to see how we are centering those groups of folks [that] have very different needs. In some cases the need may be similar, like technology access in low income communities,” said Collins. “But there are also different barriers — having an IEP is very different than speaking English as a second language. How will this enrollment system be made easier for those families?”

Along with the community hearings, O’Keeffe said that district staff will be partnering with researchers to explore ways of measuring diversity and integration and test how the proposed concepts align with the district’s stated goals.

A draft policy recommendation is expected to be reviewed on April 20 by an ad hoc committee on student assignment, which will provide input at that time.

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