The story of Kelley Williams-Bolar hit the airwaves last week, and hit home here in San Francisco. Ms. Williams-Bolar is a mother who lives in public housing in a very poor school district, but her father owns a house in a more affluent area just over the district’s boundary. So, Ms. Williams-Bolar did what many low-income parents do when seeking the best education for their children — she used her father’s address and enrolled her children in the more affluent and vastly higher-scoring district next door.
Unfortunately, the district discovered the ploy and decided to make an example out of her. She was prosecuted and sentenced to five years in prison (a sentence that was shortened to 10 days after a national uproar). The case has stirred strong feelings on all sides, and a national discussion about what equity means, or should mean, when it comes to school funding and school quality. Some are calling Ms. Williams-Bolar a modern-day Rosa Parks for the symbolism of a mother breaking the law in order to help her children get a better education.
The case hits home here in San Francisco, because we have been enforcing residency requirements and investigating families who are suspected of living elsewhere. Last spring, 80 students lost seats at Lowell, Sherman and other popular schools after they were found to be using fraudulent addresses. There have been many more cases since then — the number now stands at over 300 with many more pending cases. Just last week I heard that the number of applications to Lowell is down by over 200 from a year ago, and insiders at the district are speculating that the new attention to residency requirements has frightened parents away from chancing a fake or borrowed address .
The district did offer amnesty to families who came forward voluntarily — we allowed students to re-enroll via interdistrict transfer as long as the schools they attend did not have a waiting list at the start of the school year. No interdistrict transfers are allowed for Lowell, under any circumstances. A number of second semester seniors have argued that they cannot complete courses that are required for their college admissions if they are asked to go to different schools — Mission, Burton and John O’Connell are all high schools that are eligible for interdistrict transfer, but the offerings of AP courses at those schools are not the same as what is offered at Washington, Galileo, Lincoln or of course Lowell.
This has put the Board in a quandary — no one wants to penalize children for their parents’ sins — but we have an absolute responsibility to serve San Francisco residents first. It is just fundamentally unfair to allow someone who does not live in San Francisco a seat at a school desired by San Francisco residents. At the same time, community leaders have argued persuasively that family structures are sometimes messy, and a family could actually consider San Francisco home because they spend significant time with relatives or were forced to give up a San Francisco residence due to hard economic realities. For some students, the stability offered by school is the only stability in their lives.
Ms. Williams-Bolar’s case is an extreme one, and I can’t imagine that we would ever prosecute a mother in public housing for wanting to send her child to Lowell. In fact, district staff have bent over backward in trying to help students who lost their places at Lowell, Galileo or other schools to find places through legal interdistrict transfers, even arranging for students to take courses at City College if necessary.
In watching these events unfold, I have certainly learned that these issues are not simple — in enforcing the district policy we have done the right thing, but we have also hurt families and students who are struggling.