Student Assignment update – March 9

At this month’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment, we kicked things off with a presentation by Orla O’Keeffe and Ritu Khanna on the challenges of the current plan, the correlation between school composition and indicators of school quality, and the priorities of a new assignment system:

  • The achievement gap for African American, Latino and Samoan students has widened since 2001, even though all groups have made progress;
  • Schools have re-segregated since the total choice/diversity index system was put in place — in 1999, there was one school with more than 60 percent of a single ethnic group; in 2008, there were 26 such schools.
  • Under the choice system, high-demand schools generally fill up in Round I, while schools that are under-requested get assigned students throughout the year. As a result, late applicants, transfer students and families in transition have less oppportunity for choice and become over-represented in low-demand schools. Further, there are clear patterns of Round I participation for different racial groups: 84 percent of whites and 88 percent of Asians apply on time, while only 50 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of Latinos do.
  • Indicators of school quality like API score, teacher satisfaction and turnover, suspension rate, attendance and teachers’ average years of service are closely linked to school composition — in other words, schools with increasing concentrations of African American, Latino and Samoan students or underperforming students are more likely to have a low API score, low teacher satisfaction and high turnover, a higher suspension rate and lower attendance. They tend to have newer (i.e., less experienced) teachers.

Then Ms. O’Keeffe summarized the three priorities for a new system, priorities which are designed to address issues like re-segregation, school quality and school composition, and through those, help make progress towards closing the achievement gap:

  • It will provide equitable access to the range of opportunities offered to students;
  • It will reverse the trend of racial imbalance and the concentration of underserved students into the same schools;
  • It will be more equitable to all students, regardless of family background.

During public comment, we heard a wide range of views and suggestions. Most parents said they favored diverse schools, but some expressed a desire to send their children to a neighborhood school while others spoke in favor of choice. There were comments about the depth of our achievement gap, which never ceases to shock even when you have seen the numbers before. Some parents expressed frustration with the slowness of the process and said there has already been too much talk and not enough action. Parents spoke for the need for better-trained teachers and better-equipped schools, and at least one parent noted that transportation between neighborhoods can increase options for parents. A number of people reminded the board that the assignment system can only address one root cause of the achievement gap — and said other issues like teacher training, recruitment and retention will also play a huge role in closing the gap.

Commenters urged the board to look at what other cities have done (one specifically mentioned the Harlem Children’s Zone, chronicled in a really wonderful book I just finished called “Whatever It Takes.” — the story is inspiring and the idea has merit, but we’ve actually tried the model here already, with disappointing results.) They said we should market the public schools better to the middle class and one parent said –which really got to me — that it “felt like a risk” to send his child to public school.

I don’t want to dismiss this father’s anxiety and his desire to give his child the absolute best future he can; and after all, we showed some pretty depressing statistics about the achievement of kids of color in SFUSD this evening. We need to look at those numbers unsparingly and never forget them because they are absolute evidence that some of our efforts are failing. But, wow. These are our schools — all of them, successful or struggling, and if they aren’t good enough for us  . . . well, we need to do more than simply opt out because of fear. I don’t mean that parents should not exercise their right to do what they think is best for their own children, but I do ask that parents at least give the schools a chance, and recognize that with a small investment in the system, things can improve.  Some of the most profoundly positive changes in our schools in the last decade have come because parents decided to give the scorned public school around the corner a second glance, and then realized they liked what they saw.

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