Assignment system meltdown may open the door for true reform

Over the past week I’ve been closely monitoring an almost unprecedented meltdown in the district’s assignment system. In a nutshell, the district has for years failed to achieve the necessary balance of Spanish- to English-speakers in our language immersion programs (the stated policy is to have 50 percent of each group represented in each immersion classroom). This imbalance has long been a source of frustration to immersion teachers and advocates, as well as Spanish-speaking families who wanted immersion but for some reason didn’t get it. This year, when advocates again saw imbalanced programs at Flynn and Alvarado, they pushed back hard enough to finally focus attention on the problem. This attention has led to the once unthinkable: 23 families have had their assignments to those two schools rescinded just four weeks before the start of school, causing an uproar and a number of ripple effects on other families still waiting for assignments. (A much more complete discussion of this situation is available on the PPS-SF web site and the popular SFKfiles blog–most of the action is in the comments section).

I’m convinced that the roots of our current problems lie in management issues which must be addressed if we’re really to enact true reform of the assignment system and other long-festering problems, and prevent what has happened this year from ever happening again. These issues include:

  • Unclear expectations and procedures for documenting and incorporating input from parents and community members on district policy, procedures or initiatives. Whether you are talking about student assignment, language immersion, special education or Proposition H, we are very good at asking people to volunteer their time to serve on advisory committees, but not very good at incorporating the advice these committees issue into district policies or goals. The school board needs to develop a mechanism where recommendations issued by advisory committees are incorporated into the work of the Board’s policy committees and returned to on a regular basis so that progress on such recommendations is monitored and assessed. Members of advisory committees should work with the Board to develop clear expectations for how their input will be used to improve policy, and monitor adherence to existing policies.
  • An almost pathological insistence on controlling access to information on enrollment and capacity data which might help families make better and more realistic school choices. For example, it took a Public Records Act request to establish that the widely-publicized “81 percent of incoming K families get one of their choices” figure actually includes pre-assigned siblings. If you constrain the data to include only families new to the district, that figure falls to 55 percent for Round 1 requests — a sobering but far more honest picture of demand patterns.
  • A failure to acknowledge a deep chasm of mistrust between the district and its primary partners. Administrators don’t quite seem to grasp that past mistakes and communication failures have led to a widespread assumption in the community that the district does not have families’ best interests at heart. Restoring trust and open communication is essential for future progress.

If anything positive can come out of this current debacle, I think it will be that district leadership may finally be ready to have a more honest conversation about reforming the assignment system, and may finally acknowledge that involving parents and families in a meaningful way in that conversation is essential.

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