Josephine Zhao on School Assignment & Enrollment

Do you believe that SFUSD’s school assignment system needs reform? If not, why? If so, how would you change it?

It is a hard act to balance the need for neighborhood schools and racial diversity in school assignment.

There are advantages to both the neighborhood school assignment model and the diversity-oriented lottery assignment model. Historically, SFUSD had tried both models and neither was a full success.  And now, it has rested in a compromise in which neighborhood assignment for kindergarten/elementary schools, and the feeder pattern for the middle schools - where a few nearby neighborhood schools are fed into a middle school to achieve diversity are the norms.

There are advantages for neighborhood school assignment - it provides a sense of community...

for the students and family, and it reduces stressors on families who are faced with poor quality options for commuting. Working parents who rush to work, as well as grandparents and caretakers who can’t drive, can easily take small kids to school if it is a neighborhood school assignment. Otherwise, we have to rely on busing. Yet most busing has been cut due to budget shortfall over the years.

There is definitely an advantage for the full lottery assignment model which offers the promise of  racial diversity. However, during the time it was tried in SFUSD, it created a massive uproar from the parent community.  One of the biggest reasons for families to leave our school district is the lack of assignment predictability, and burdens associated with commuting in an ever crowded city. Families leaving SFUSD (but not necessarily the City) has resulted in San Francisco having the largest number of private and parochial school per capita in the nation. About half of our City’s school age students are enrolled in private and parochial schools. In addition, at 12%, our City has one the lowest school age populations, lower than the 16.9% in California, which ranks 23rd in the 50 states.  Retaining families in SFUSD and maintaining family satisfaction is key to the vitality of our school district.

Therefore, retaining a level of predictability in assignment is essential in family retention.

On one hand, the makeup of neighborhood schools are predisposed by the neighborhood.  Our City is diverse yet neighborhood oriented. As the City’s demographics are changing, we see that the biggest minority in the City is now Asian (33%), followed by Hispanics(12%) and African Americans (6%).  Most residents fight to stay in the neighborhoods and communities they have built. Therefore, we see San Francisco is full of culturally unique and attractive neighborhoods - Chinatown, Latino Culture District, Japantown, Fillmore, etc.; these neighborhoods determine a big portion of the racial makeup in the schools within. A general concentration of population by race in the City naturally leads to the population concentration of neighborhood schools.

While we celebrate the diversity of neighborhood culture, on the other hand, we struggle to bring diversity within neighborhood schools.  Historically, SFUSD has tried different assignment models, from strict neighborhood school assignment to full lottery system, neither was able to strike a balance between the need for neighborhood school and diversity, until the 2010 reform of school assignment.

As an advocate in the 2010 Neighborhood Kindergarten Assignment and the Middle School Feeder Pattern, I'm proud to have helped bring racial diversity and a level of predictability to the school assignment.  

There is still lots of work to do to fine tune the assignment process, the best way to advance increased diversity in neighborhood schools is by improving the performance and offering of EVERY neighborhood school, so that families of all backgrounds have no hesitation to send their children to any school.