Where to start? Tonight’s three-plus hour Committee of the Whole meeting on the student assignment redesign was full of new information and developments. So be warned, because this is a long post. We started with a presentation from our Parent Advisory Council and Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco, partners who have worked very hard over the past few months to conduct community conversations with almost 600 people, recording their reactions to the proposed options for a new student assignment system and their overall aspirations for their children’s education.
This was an incredible effort, and I know the Board is tremendously grateful to the hundreds of volunteer hours that went into doing this outreach — on a very tough timeline, I might add! The conversations were conducted between mid-November and early January, when families are busy with holiday plans and travel. But the PAC and PPS have really nailed community outreach, and the report they gave us tonight was eye-opening, and at times uncomfortable. Some excerpts:
People understood the problems associated with concentrating “under-served” students in the same schools, but they also pointed to the challenges of both achieving and supporting diversity at school sites. Parents noted that schools that are currently academically and ethnically diverse struggle to serve the complex needs of their students. Most participants questioned whether any of the options would achieve this goal and asked why the district’s priorities for student assignment did not address improving schools. (p. 6)
Many students face barriers to their education based on their family’s income, primary language, need for Special Education services, or lack of transportation. These obstacles won’t be resolved just by having a new assignment policy, and need to be specifically addressed within the implementation plan for the new system. (p. 10)
As in previous community engagement initiatives, we found that — even among families who are engaged in their children’s education and happy with their schools — there is not much trust in the SFUSD on the whole. (p. 11)
There was a great effort to reach out to groups we don’t usually hear from — families of color, non-English speaking families, and families who are low-income. At the same time, the district conducted an online survey, which captured responses from over 1,200 people — overwhelmingly English-speaking and parents of elementary-age children or younger. It’s hard to completely characterize the responses from the meetings and the survey, but generally most participants spoke in favor of being able to choose a school. The PAC and PPS collaboration resulted in some very thoughtful recommendations, essentially that none of the six options the Board has been considering quite does the trick.
I think the most important thing to take away, however, is that parents are, in the words of PPS-SF Board President Matt Kelemen, “clamoring screaming for quality schools.” In other words, parents know that student assignment, by itself, will not make every school better. Of course, it may make access to our many high-demand schools more fair, and it may also bring resources to some of our under-enrolled schools. And of course, equitable access and resources are very important, but so are strong principal leadership; well-trained, well-supported teachers; and a rich, rigorous curriculum. When will we start talking about those things?
The next part of the evening was devoted to a discussion of new proposals from the staff, options that will be crafted into a final proposal to be presented to the Board next week. Essentially, district staff pulled out Options 3 and 6 from the original proposals the Board has been working with, and modified them to create Options A and B (the options address elementary and middle school enrollment only; the current thinking is that high school enrollment would remain all choice). Under both options, the district would retain sibling preference, and draw new attendance area boundaries for each school (to allow every address in San Francisco to be located within an attendance area for a public school), with a limited number of citywide schools with no attendance area. Students who live in an attendance area and attend Pre-K at their attendance area school would receive preference for their attendance area school. The district would also introduce a new variable — for now dubbed Census Tract Integration Preference (CTIP).
CTIP is basically a way of predicting whether a student is likely to be academically disadvantaged or not. It is derived by averaging the California Standards Test (CST) scores for all students residing in a particular census tract, and comparing that average score to the range of CST scores posted by all San Francisco students. If the average score is in the top 60% of scores, that census tract is assigned CTIP 1; if the average score is in the lower 40% of scores, the census tract is assigned CTIP 2. Students residing in CTIP 1 tracts would receive preference at schools in CTIP 2 tracts; students residing in CTIP 2 tracts would receive preference at schools in CTIP 1 tracts. Census tracts were chosen because they are large enough to have substantial numbers of students living in them, minimizing the effects of random variation; and because they are small enough to capture variations within larger geographical areas (e.g., zip codes).
There have been some questions about why we are using the academic diversity scheme over, say, income diversity. There are, in my opinion, very good reasons for doing this, even though I have a few doubts about how valid, ultimately, the CST is as a stand-in for economic disadvantage and race. The biggest reason to use test scores over income is that they are far more easily verified than an income declaration, if only because verifying a person’s income is much more intrusive than simply looking up the test scores in the district’s computer system. How would we gather and verify information about the income levels of incoming kindergarteners, or students coming from other districts? The CTIP scheme does have the advantage of relying on verifiable data that we already maintain, without relying on a family to produce records of income in order to receive a particular preference.
Essentially, Option A would work like the current system, where families would submit an application listing school choices. After siblings and Pre-K students, CTIP preference would be considered, and after that, local preference (preference to those living in the newly-drawn attendance area of a particular school). Under Option B, local preference would be considered before CTIP but after siblings and Pre-K students.
Though these options are pretty much what I was expecting, I was somewhat underwhelmed after hearing them. For one thing, the PAC and PPS are right: why have we spent a year talking about student assignment when what we really need to be talking about is improving schools? For another, after spending so much time — more than a year, really, more like 20 years — on student assignment, shouldn’t we have come up with something more exciting than local preference and CTIP?
I had other reactions, too — the special education part of the proposal is basically a big placeholder that says, “we’ll eventually get to this, twisting whatever we come up with for general education so we can make it look like we’re being equitable to special education students.” Though I believe it’s meant as an honest attempt at being even-handed, that’s not the right approach. What we need to do is finally acknowledge that special education placements should be driven by the individual needs of the child, and decided by IEP teams at IEP meetings.
I hated the idea that we would move back the date we notify parents of assignments to April or May, because that’s basically a gift to the parochial or private schools — you’re far less likely to attend public school if you don’t get your placement letter until two months after your hefty deposit check has cleared. People who think public school letters should come before or at the same time as private school letters, you need to make your voices heard! Even our Stanford researchers told us back in October that moving the date would make little difference in terms of participation.
But I like the simplicity of both systems, since all we’d need to ask parents to do is provide a (verifiable!) home address and a list of choices. I like that Option B gives parents the predictability many have been asking for, and I think that making parent effort voluntary might ease the burden on parents who simply don’t have the time or the resources to take advantage of a choice system. Option B also has the potential of increasing enrollment at under-enrolled schools, which is a big deal at small schools. (A school with 100 students can’t possibly offer the resources of a school with 400 students, even if we were to double the per student dollars at the smaller school. More students = more money!) But Option A, based on the simulations presented by researchers from Stanford late last month, would probably give students from low CST census tracts a bit more access to high-performing schools and more likelihood of receiving their first choice in a lottery. In the end, I marginally prefer Option B, but there are big tradeoffs with either option.
What happens next? The staff will somehow pull together all of tonight’s feedback into a “framework” that will be presented to the Board on Feb. 9. We’ll discuss a fleshed out version of the framework at a Committee of the Whole on Feb. 17, and vote on a final policy on March 9. Things are going to start moving very fast from here on out, so pay attention!