Guest post: The Case for School Equality

Yesterday, a person who has commented a few times on the blog left this comment (apologizing in advance for its length).  Under the pseudonym Idealistic Mama, she wrote: “This comment started out as a response to a request on SF K files to make a case for public schools. It turned out as something way too long to post as a comment, though I did email them a copy. After putting so much thought in to it I am genuinely interested in hearing what other parents (and certainly school board members) think. Feel free to do with it what you wish.”  I was struck enough with her comments — and perseverance in writing more than 2,000 words about the assignment system — I asked if I could post them as a rare guest post. She agreed, so, without further ado, here are Idealistic Mama’s comments on the current assignment system, school equity, and the cases for/against neighborhood schools. Enjoy!

Every year a significant number of San Francisco families are denied access to a viable public school option for their kids. In some cases it is the result of sheer misfortune as a result of the lottery system. In other cases it is the “misfortune” of living in an area with an undesirable attendance area school and a preference system that favors you going to that school, not escaping it. In all cases, it is unfair.

Neighborhood School Assignments Will Not Work Unless Disparity Between Schools is Reduced

I disagree that because only 24% of people selected their neighborhood school as their first choice that parents do not want a neighborhood school system.

Just about every parent I know dreams of being able to walk to, or be in close proximity to, their kid’s school…assuming of course its a good school. But, under the new assignment system you still have the same set of desirable and undesirable schools in place. You can’t expect people to automatically want to go to a struggling school simply because it is now their “neighborhood school.” And it is unfair to place the burden of turning that school around solely on the families that live in that attendance area.

Data does not accurately reflect demand

The preliminary data shows that the neighborhood school assignment system did work in neighborhoods where the school is desirable: Clarendon (62 first choice requests from the assignment area), Sherman (51), Miraloma (47) just as examples. Even in desirable neighborhood schools not considered the top 14 most requested schools, the data shows that the number of applicants who requested those schools as a first choice exceeded the capacity of the school: New Traditions, Grattan, Sloat for example. High percentages of offers for these schools went to attendance area applicants, demonstrating that there is demand for quality neighborhood schools, despite the fact that data indicates system wide a low percentage of people listed their attendance area school as a first choice

True demand for neighborhood schools is not accurately quantified in the preliminary data. For example, many parents in the Grattan attendance area who I know listed Rooftop as their first choice. Rooftop is one of the cities top schools and is a K-8 (as opposed to Grattan which is a K-5). Given the close proximity of Rooftop to Cole Valley parents considered it a great “neighborhood school” option (even though it wasn’t their attendance area school and expressed their preference for a K-8. They did so because the new lottery system did not penalize them for the order in which schools were listed. Just because they didn’t list their attendance area school first doesn’t mean they do not desire a quality neighborhood school above all, simply that they shot for the stars and requested a K-8. Thus, one needs to look beyond the first choice listed by applicants in order to assess demand for neighborhood schools.

Furthermore, the data doesn’t reflect true demand in areas such as the Southeastern part of the city which has attendance area schools considered less than desirable by many applicant families. If polled I’m sure many of these families too desire to send their children to quality public schools in close proximity to their house though their attendance area schools do not meet that criteria for them…yet, at least. Demand for neighborhood schools is of course not reflected in their application choices.

The problem of Demand, Disparity and Disenfranchisement

As long as great disparity between the schools in the city remains, the neighborhood school concept will remain controversial and inequitable. Demand for desirable schools will exceed supply. And, as long as demand exceeds supply, we will continue to have families forced out of the system because they are not given a viable public school choice. Thus, it is a large percentage of people most hurt by the system that leave the system and are therefore no longer visible to remind us of the problems with the assignment system and to be involved in the process of changing the system. This disenfranchisement of families most hurt by the system only perpetuates the system.

There is hope in that there have been changes to the student assignment system AND the SF School Board seems receptive to making changes and fine tuning that process to meet the demands of families. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how a neighborhood schools movement can occur in San Francisco when: 1) there is such a disparity between schools in San Francisco that many people do not want to send their children to their attendance area school and 2) those who have desirable attendance area schools can’t even get them because demand exceeds supply.


If neighborhood schools are going to work something must be done to equalize schools. It seems that families, much more than the district, have been the driving force in turning around troubled schools. So, perhaps it is up to families to lead the push in turning around the poor performing schools. That is, schools that your child doesn’t even attend. If the district has done their part to put the staffing resources in place at these schools then (in overly simplified terms) the true disparity in most cases is the lack of PTA involvement and additional funding for programs which are generated through PTA efforts. Many of the desirable schools raise close to 200K a year. They fund art, music, garden, PE and other programs that seem fundamental but are lacking in public schools these days. They organize parents to help in classrooms and around the school. Until parents are willing to share the wealth and volunteer resources of their own PTAs with other struggling schools, the disparity will exist. It is a problem that no one wants their own kid to wind up in a low performing school but, when they escape it through sheer luck, they don’t look back.

What if top performing schools were partnered with low performing school through a sister schools program? For example, active PTAs from desirable schools such as Clarendon, Grattan and New Traditions, could be paired up with low performing schools like Muir to strategize about fundraising, increasing volunteers hours and organizing parents at those schools. Thus, everyone in the system is part of the process of turning around schools, especially families who had the good fortune of getting assigned a choice school.

Demand Exceeds Supply for Desirable Neighborhood Schools

The preliminary data released by the SFUSD indicates that even if you live in an attendance area with a desirable school, it still takes a stroke of good luck in some cases to get in that school. Take the microcosm of Cole Valley as an example of this problem. According to the data, Grattan received first choice applications at 135 % of capacity. This means, given the 66 spots available, 87 people listed Grattan as their first choice school. Thus, there is an entire Kindergarten class – about 21 kids – who want this school and did not receive it. If they are attendance area residents (we can’t tell that from the data at this point but anecdotal evidence on listserves suggests a number of attendance area applicants did not receive their first choice of Grattan) they are also shut out of all schools in the immediate surrounding neighborhoods because those too are desirable neighborhood schools who were also likely unable to accommodate their attendance area applicants – West Portal, Clarendon, New Traditions, Miraloma, etc. They may get a citywide, but those are a longshot given that 66% of applicants received the “high density” tiebreaker.

This year it appears, most of the families shut out of Grattan received Muir as their assignment. Based on history it seems some number of families will automatically go private or leave the city and others will stick around and roll the dice with other rounds in the application process. Not a crucial majority will go for the school they were assigned and attempt to turn it around. (Side note: we have to stop expecting that simply because of the luck of the lottery families should be expected do this. Noone, including those in the attendance area, should have to send their kids to poor performing schools in the district.)

But what can be done immediately (before schools are equalized) to solve the problem of demand? I read somewhere that the goal of the new assignment system is to allow families to attend their neighborhood school, if they want to. But clearly in many attendance areas that simply will not work and parents are left with the same dreaded feeling of uncertainty that they had under the old system. The district and the schools are going to have to be flexible enough to meet the needs of fluctuating demand from attendance area families if they plan to legitimately accommodate them. I realize I’m completely naive about schools, unions, etc, but what if in our Grattan example above, an extra K class was added this year only to meet the first choice needs of the 21 families shut out? One more K teacher, one additional pod on the blacktop, a significant number of families served by the district. Is it possible? I’m not talking about requiring people to attend their neighborhood school, simply being able to meet the fluctuating demand of attendance area families for neighborhood schools.

Create a true Preference System to Close the Gap — The CTIP Preference Advantages Families with Resources in CTIP Areas Above All

So, while simultaneously improving the disparity between schools, and meeting the demand among attendance area applicants for desirable schools, we need to devise a true preference system that targets the populations of students most impacted by the test score disparity gap. The current CTIP preference makes it all too easy for families with resources to game the system – shutting out attendance area applicants from neighborhood schools.

The data indicates that, contrary to predictions, a number of CTIP families flocked to desirable, hard to access (far from CTIP areas) neighborhood schools like Clarendon (30 CTIP), and Sherman (17 CTIP). One could argue, at Clarendon anyway which had the vast majority of offers made to white students, that diversity factors were actually thrown off by this preference. Certainly it worked to shut out neighborhood attendance area families from being able to attend that school (36% of offers went to CTIP families leaving only 10% for neighborhood families).

As long as families can move temporarily to a low test score performing area and be practically guaranteed a spot in one of the top performing schools in the district, they will do so. Think about it, a temporary move – to save a quarter of a million dollars in private school tuition (20K a year for the next six years times two kids) or a move from this beloved city, is totally worth it! Some families did that this year, dozens more are kicking themselves for not having done it and increasing numbers will undoubtedly do it in future years. These are families with advocate parents, resources and the ability to move. These are not families that the CTIP preference system was designated for. Continued use of this system will only encourage gaming of the application process and encourage families with resources to flee CTIP areas – thereby making it even harder to turn those neighborhood schools around.

Perhaps a preference system based on qualification for school lunch programs or other factors could be considered? (Side note: It seems futile to consider a preference program for this population if they have no way to even access schools in other parts of the city. Thus, back to the point above, all families should be willing to give time and money from their own PTA coffers to ensure that programs that serve low performing schools are equalized.)

Okay, that’s my rant. Call me naïve, misguided, whatever — I admittedly am. I have an incoming SFUSD kindergartener and I realize I am new to these issues which have been debated by parents and the school board for years. I’m just writing my thoughts down because this entire process has been so upsetting to participate in. And guess what, we got our first choice school! But, our many many of our good friends and neighbors did not. I’m curious to hear from other parents — what do you think about these or other ideas are out there for addressing problems of the current assignment system?


Idealistic Mama


25 responses to “Guest post: The Case for School Equality

  1. Great story
    I think the elephant in the room is how do you reduce the 25% of the most well healed SF parents who choose Private or Catholic Schools over public and get their cash flowing into PTA’s? and the school district. As long as the perception that your child’s future is determined by a computer program and a ranking system gamed against you, then the money will walk and that has tragic consequences for SFUSD.

  2. I really like the idea of good schools partnering with struggling schools. One of the problems in this City is that people are too politically correct to state a simple truth. Thousands upon thousands of very poor, nonwhite kids have come through SF and made it to UC Berkeley and other great colleges and had great lives. The vast majority are Asian. Amy Chua just got her daughter into both Harvard and Yale.

    The main difference between high and low API scores is parenting. If the parents at a top school could partner with and encourage those at a struggling school to do the things they do, turn off the TV, push studying on weekends, every evening, offer tutoring, the results could be tremendous. This Tiger parent trend is awesome. As more and more parents learn how to be better parents, more and more kids learn how much they need to study, and more parents take the time to teach parents of struggling students how to be better parents and get more hard work out of their kids, we will close the achievement gap and make all schools great.

    It’s really not the schools, the teachers are fairly equal. It’s a culture and attitude. In some schools good students are admired. In some they are mocked. We all want our kids to succeed. More hours studying and more respect for those previously mocked as nerdy is a key factor. Successful parents teaching failing but good-hearted parents who want to succeed as parents is awesome.

  3. Also Wondering

    Idealistic Mamma, I like the way you are thinking. To add a bit of certainty to the system, what do you think about giving all students a seat in their neighborhood school with the option to lottery out to charter, immersion, or city-wide schools in Round 1. In Round 2, any student could try to lottery into any school, neighborhood or otherwise, that had seats available. This would at least provide parents with a base from which to start the process and guarantee neighborhood children a place at their neighborhood school. To fund the school system, do you think we could add a voluntary contribution to SFUSD similar to the voluntary contribution to the arts forms which are included in the property statements. Also, maybe asking people when they enroll in the school if they would like to make a donation to the system with a breakdown of what a donation would do for the school district. For instance, a $200 donation could buy art supplies for a 1st grade class. Both of these types of donations would be tax deductible like a donation to a PTA. Does SFUSD have a foundation to which parents can donate and contribute to all the schools?

  4. @Frank, these are all good questions. The plan for now is to look at all of these “how did the system work” questions once staff has had a chance to do further analysis (probably after the April 18 deadline for the next round).

    @Roberta there are not seats held for hardships, etc. at highly requested schools. There were some seats held for inclusion students who may or may not have enrolled, so some of those seats will be released for the round beginning April 18 (no, I don’t know which seats or how many. Some seats will continue to be held throughout the cycle for inclusion applicants who may be late applicants in later rounds. And I don’t know how many of those will exist either!) My sense from the first look at the numbers is that the inclusion seats may be a seat or two at several schools but that they will not have a significant effect on overall openings.

  5. After ruminating on the district’s preliminary report for a bit, a couple of things come to mind. One is that it would be really interesting to have a pin-point map of applicants who went 0-for-choice (like the Proximity and Choice maps on page 10). My instinct says that there would be a concentration near the central, impacted schools, plus maybe some in the southeast. I don’t imagine that any one in the, say, Francis Scott Key attendance area didn’t get a choice, but it would be nice to see the data instead of hearing the anecdotes.

    Also, I can’t believe how many schools are over capacity for K-5. These are brand new attendance areas, and some schools are over 200% capacity? I mean, Miraloma’s area was planned to be large enough to cover 200% of capacity? Really? The district had all the information it needed on the current 1-5 grades from last year’s K-4 information. Granted, there will be some movement, but 200%? No, that was just badly done. It seems that when the drafted the areas, they didn’t properly take into account the currently enrolled students from these areas. Unacceptably, really. (Grattan and Clarendon are also on that list.)

  6. This question goes direct to the very troubling concern that we, even though it has been an ambition for a great long while, have proof and ongoing longitudinal evidence that there is a serious difference between an equal opportunity for an education, and an equal opportunity for an EQUAL education.

    I used to say that the good thing about the SFUSD assignment process was that, although it was arbitrary and unfair, at least it was arbitrary and unfair to every one. With this post and comments, I may have been off. Gaming the system is a natural side effect of the whole process – as parents we are notorious for at least trying to look out for our own children and doing what it takes to get them the education they need. But my experience – having received none of my top choices in either of the two iterations of the assignments process, and having had to badger the counselors at the SFUSD with weekly in person visits until about mid-to late August before getting in to our neighborhood school – if it’s reflective of the process it takes to get your kid into the closest school, the process is most certainly broken.

    I’m not certain that PTA sharing or partnering will work the way this post suggests as I know that many PTAs are just struggling trying to get any kind of involvement out of it’s membership and just focusing on your own school’s operation is a giant time and money sink as it sits. If I was pushed to partner with another school, I’m not certain I would have the energy for it, nor would I know the community well enough to determine the best way to engage them (just ask leaders of the Second District how hard it is to get system wide participation in any of their events). Parental/Guardian energy is a limited resource, and if you are a single parent, raising two/three kids, where do you find the time to pump into offsetting the poor investments of the SFUSD, particularly if you have to work two jobs just to put food on the table? You are lucky if you have some kind of energy to invest in the PTA functions of your own schools.

    What we need is a complete mind-shift of the entire population that looks at schools not as babysitting functional units for our society, but as investment vehicles for our future. This would require an overhaul of how we finance the whole operation, and a doubling and tripling down on the investments, and a individual, customizable approach to improving all the schools in the entire system and spreading out the wealth unequally – yes, I said unequally – as we known that there is nothing more inherently unfair than the equal treatment of unequals. This means that those schools that are already well off and hitting all the performance measure would get the least amount of resources, and the under performing schools would get all the money and energy that would bring them up. Those high performing schools have a culture of parental involvement that would off set the diminished resources, and the would be better spent as investments in the lower performing schools.

    Moreover, we have to break the shackles of standardization so that we unleash the creativity so that people can experiment within the schools to bring the curriculum in to the new century. The schools today are operating as if it were still 1982, it seems. And in this new Millennium, our children will demand it. When do we see the promise of charter schools realized as it was the original intent for experimentation to happen in them, and then the best practices replicated in the mainstream operation, no? It seems as if the charter school operations get all the resources for inventiveness, but there is no reciprocity where they sink energy into improving the mainline schools at all.

    There are no easy, cheap answers, but Idealistic Mama is right on one point in particular, among many, that the fundamental flaw with the assignment system is that all schools are not equal, and we have a long way to go to make it right. Until every neighborhood school is desirable and parents in the hood fight to attend, we won’t see this arbitrary and unfair system shift.

  7. Michelle Smith

    @Idealistic Mama: I *like* the “limited choice” option.

    It has struck me that one of the serious difficulties is that by and large, our elementary schools are too small. Yes, I know people like small schools because they’re “intimate,” but with only 1 or 2 classes on a grade, things break down quickly for kids at either end of the bell curve. We came from a district (east coast) with a large k-2 school, followed by a large 3-5. (about 200 kids/grade)

    There were some disadvantages — my daughter often had only 1 or 2 kids in her class whom she knew from the year before. BUT they did a great job of managing heterogeneous classrooms — probably because (as Bob Herbert’s NY Times column suggests) no one teacher had to contend with 20 struggling kids at once. (In fairness, our district was pretty homogenous ethnically, but fairly heterogenous SES-wise.)

    As a family new to San Francisco, one of my biggest considerations when looking at a school for my 5th grader was how the heck we were going to get her there. I ruled out lots of “trophy schools” (at least one of which I later found out we probably could have gotten into when we arrived in town) because the logistics of getting her there by public transportation were daunting. What I like about the “group of schools” approach is that it could be based partially on proximity and public transportation options, which looks like some of what they’re talking about doing for MS — Carver and Starr King going to Aptos (and passing MLK and Denman on the way if you look at the map) makes sense from a public transportation point of view (both neighborhoods have relatively easy access to the #23)

    Lots of food for thought.


  8. Idealistic Mama

    Thanks for the clarification on McCoppin. What I meant was under subscribed by people living in that attendance area. I might be wrong about that, but looking at the data it seems like w/ 8% siblings, 0% CTIP1 and only 11% of offers going to attendance area applicants, there was much more room to meet demand of attendance area families in that school, if it existed.

  9. And my thanks to YOU, Idealistic Mama, for your heartfelt engagement on this issue. I don’t have a lot of time at the moment to respond to all the comments, though there are some things I’d like to say — for one thing, you say that McCoppin is undersubscribed — it’s not! Plenty of people want to go there, just not as many middle class white people. Second, you can’t “make all the schools good” (not that your commentary simplified down to this level, but it’s a refrain I hear in many quarters) without engaging with the issue of integration and race. Read Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times from earlier this week – he nailed it!

  10. Idealistic Mama

    First off, thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and heartfelt responses to the post. Clearly it is not for lack of interest, ideas and effort that these difficult issues have not been resolved.

    The comments to the post highlight something for me that I am not sure was entirely clear before and that is how to perhaps target one solution to reconcile two separate, competing interests at play when we talk about improving the school system and the assignment process in San Francisco. The two interests (in completely oversimplified terms) I’m referring to are: 1) how to stop the bleed of the high performing demographic from the system and 2) how to attract the high performing demographic to low performing schools.

    The new assignment system was designed to address this first problem, I think. (i.e. if you increase the probability that residents in neighborhoods with desirable schools get to go to those schools, then that will prevent some number of people from fleeing the system for privates or other districts.) I argue in the original post that the system doesn’t go far enough to create the level of certainty necessary to fully reach this goal because demand exceeds supply, there are no guarantees, and if you are shut out of your attendance area school you are also shut out of other desirable attendance area schools and in turn assigned to an available low performing school. Not the desired result for stopping the bleed. I characterized this problem as one of demand for a quality neighborhood school. But, given Matt’s and Celeste’s comments, what if we characterize this differently as demand for certainty about what schools their child might attend and the quality education at those schools? I believe parents want a school that is nearby (which doesn’t necessarily have to mean their closest school) but perhaps, above all, data suggests they simply want certainty that they will not get a low performing school.

    Many comments make the valid point that in order to improve performance at schools you have to mix in families from different demographics. In this sense a true neighborhood system is not entirely possible for stated reasons. So, how to shuffle the student population in a way that you reconcile these competing interests – on the one hand increasing certainty about the potential schools your child will attend and the quality of education there and, on the other hand, a sufficient mix-up of the demographics to ensure that certain schools wouldn’t be overwhelmed with too high of a percentage of low test score performing students?

    More off the top of my head:

    “Magnet” Programs
    Maybe if low performing schools offered programs that applicants can’t necessarily get anywhere else, programs that will attract the high test score demographic — something like a “magnet” school concept. Comments point out this need is met through immersion programs that are in high demand. (I think this is what happened with Cobb and the Montessori program as well, though this must be done in a way not perceived to ostracize any demographic and should be implemented school-wide). Take, for example, the idea that John Muir could become an elementary music academy. You hire a few additional musical instructors and guarantee a musical curriculum well beyond the one time per week some public schools are lucky enough to offer. I think many parents would be intrigued in Muir.

    A Limited Possibilities Assignment System
    As for the concept of certainty, what if San Francisco had a hybrid assignment system? One where for each address in the district there would be a limited number of schools available to attend. I’m not sure exactly what this would look like but the idea would be that the schools cover a range of options and programs and demographics (so, yes the range would have to span to other parts of the city). Perhaps to continue to use Cole Valley as an example, based on your address you would know that the five schools available to you are: Grattan (attendance area), De Avila (citywide immersion), McCoppin (nearby under subscribed neighborhood school), Milk (appealing social justice mission), and Muir (musical academy). Nearby New Traditions attendance area residents might get to choose from a similar pool of schools including NT, Muir, McCoppin, Peabody and De Avila. Assuming that you could draw these five school attendance area lines in a way that parents would have a range of options in reasonable proximity, there may be an increased level of certainty provided from the finite number of possibilities you know you will be given. Applicants can tour and rate their five choices and the district distributes those applicants in a way that accounts for factors such as equal distribution of the number of free lunch applicants, CTIP1, or whatever indicators could be used to better ensure an equitable distribution of high and low test performing demographics. If you have equalized schools and a finite number of known possibilities, it might go a long way towards providing families in San Francisco with the desired certainty in the process.

    Again, as in the original post, the issues are way oversimplified, I realize. I also realize that many of the comments to the original post go right to the budget problems and that problem is only going to make accomplishing stated goals more difficult. But, it seems, until we can creatively come up with a clear set of goals and a system that is actually designed to meet those goals, we are nowhere. Having just gone through the process I’m not entirely sure what the goal of the new assignment system is and, that bothers me. Is it to allow people to attend a neighborhood school if they want it? If so, it’s not working for people who want that and unfair to people who for obvious reasons don’t. And if the goal is going to further segregate and exacerbate the problem of disparity between schools, are their ways we can meet that goal while simultaneously addressing that problem? The current preference system in place isn’t working.

    It is fascinating to note that districts around the country are wresting with this exact same problem under what I understand is different (though not entirely) assignment system:

    At least we know that’s one less assignment system we need to try out in SF.

  11. Caroline;
    Thanks you for pointing me to The New Day for Learning and the Summer Learning network. I hope that these programs are very successful.

    It is very useful to consider the fact that schools can’t function effectively if they have too high a cohort of high needs students. It makes sense to mix the high needs students with low needs students as much as possible.

    In San Francisco there are effectively two populations of high needs students, Latino and African American. The effectiveness of Spanish Immersion programs in creating classes that mix populations suggests that creating more immersion programs may an effective way to help the Latino high needs population. Indeed, demand for Spanish Immersion is at 147% of capacity. We need to build more immersion programs.

    But the African American population doesn’t have the advantage of language to promote mixing. And year after year of parents voting with their feet tells us that very few middle class residents will take the ‘chance’ of sending their kids to schools with a large percentage of challenged students. It is realistic to think that this pattern will change. So the options seem to be moving the kids from the low performing schools into other schools (CTIP1 zones may accomplish this for some, but without buses it may not be feasible for many families; the middle school feeder pattern also seems designed to achieve this end – at least for a few schools). Or figuring out some way to meet the needs of students facing such tough odds in the schools that they have historically ended up in. Maybe there is a great opportunity with SIG funds (though two years seems too short a time). I just wish that we knew how to use the funds most effectively. Certainly, getting the maximum number of teaching hours and the smallest class sizes possible is important. Lets hope that that is where the district is putting the SIG funds.

  12. This post covers almost everything I have been thinking in the past few days as I read the news articles about people being surprised that more parents did not choose their “neighborhood” school. Thank you so much for posting it. I couldn’t believe nobody was mentioning how obvious it is that only people in the zones for the “best” schools were going to list it as first choice. As a parent with children who will hit the public school system in about 3 years, I am absolutely petrified about going through this process and the likelihood that I will not be able to place my children in a decent school. Paying for private school is not an option. The data can’t possibly capture the number of people in the past and future who end moving away rather than enter the lottery at all, which is something I am seriously considering. This would be the number one reason we would leave this beautiful, beloved city. The system, even with the new lottery rules, creates an unbelievable amount of anxiety and uncertainty for parents about the education they can provide their children, a level that many find untenable before they even enter the lottery – they leave, and are not counted at all in the data as to how many people were satisfied or not with their school assignments.

  13. Thanks for this great post! I agree with many comments which have pointed out that the test scores reflect the students attending a school, not the school itself, and that if one were to switch the student bodies of two schools, the test scores would follow the students.
    Studies show pretty conclusively that the best predictors of standardized test scores are parents’ level of education and income. Unless the tests are reformed and produce data that accurately reflects the level of teaching and learning happening in the school rather than merely reflecting back demographic data, it seems that spreading the students from higher-performing demographic categories around the district more equitably is the only way to raise test scores across the board.
    Here’s the rub: if we adopt “neighborhood schools”, then the schools will be as segregated (racially and socio-economically) as the neighborhoods of our city. It’s beyond the scope of a Board of Educations power (or even any government entity), to forcibly integrate residential neighborhoods, and the segregation we see is an unsurprising artifact of long-standing social norms being played out which we can count on persisting into the foreseeable future and beyond. That means that “desegregating” the schools along the demographic lines that predict standardized test scores (which we use to measure “achievement”), will involve many students not being able to attend their neighborhood schools. It seems reasonable to expect a Board of Education to have authority and obligation to pursue this.
    The district has had more success in distributing students from lower-performing demographic categories to schools around the district than those from higher-performing demographic categories. Unsurprisingly, the problems of having to go to a school across town in the name of distributing students from higher or lower performing demographic backgrounds more equitably among schools seems to be less troubling to families from the lower performing demographic categories than the higher performing categories, as I’m sure is reflected in priorities listed on their school applications.
    I guess my point is that if we truly want to make every neighborhood school a “good” school as measured by achievement on standardized tests, and we are going to achieve this only by changing what’s happening in the schools themselves, then some students will have to attend schools far from their neighborhood, and this will have to include comparable numbers of students from both “higher” and “lower” performing demographic categories.
    The example of the Harlem Children’s Zone given above is an excellent picture of a different (and, in my opinion, better) way to pursue this goal. It involves investing in the community as a whole, not just the school, and creating opportunities for healthcare, jobs, greater safety, and a whole host of other environmental factors that are only indirectly related to the schools themselves, and far outside the scope of a Board of Education’s authority. This kind of investment would require a lot of money; more than could be raised by all the PTA’s in the district. It would require a substantial investment by corporate and government interests that seems unlikely in the current economic and political climate.
    Until then, the Board is doing their best, and will have to advocate for change at a larger level while using their limited scope of authority to make the best of a sad social situation… which at this point means sending a lot of students to schools far from their neighborhood. It would be great if PTA’s could help out in the ways suggested, and I hope that many do, but that’s the kind of thing that can’t be mandated by the Board or any government entity. It would reflect a shift in priorities and decisions that would seem to go against what the preponderance of evidence tells us about basic human nature, and we shouldn’t be surprised when these decisions start out as the exception rather than the rule. Of course, the kind of behavior reflected by these decisions are exactly the kinds of decisions that would have to happen on a large scale to make the awful choices before the Board unnecessary. I hope that many of us will start planting those small seeds of change now and act in ways that bear witness to possibilities our society seems unwilling to accept, while supporting the Board’s current attempts to address inequity in the limited ways they currently have available to them.

  14. This is tangential to Idealistic Mama’s thoughtful post, but is somewhat related to ensuring across the board quality. And it may be controversial to even suggest (ducking and covering now) but it seems like one of the biggest challenges for schools is class size management. In an ideal world, I would try to equalize class size in every grade to 25 to 27, so that you get a consistent number of classes per grade throughout K-5 or K-8. Right now grades K-3 are capped at 20 (or maybe 22 now?) through third grade. Then in 4th and 5th grade when the cap expires, the school has to jam the same number of now larger bodies into fewer classrooms. My oldest daughter’s class bumped from 20 students in 3rd grade to 33 students in fourth grade, and there was not enough room in the classroom for both the bodies, their desks and their stuff (the classroom was clearly designed to hold 25 students.)

    As Lorraine points out, class size in middle schools is at 37 in some schools. And it is troubling that Title I funding is calculated on an all-or-nothing percentage basis rather than looking at the actual number of students a school serves, leading to wildly differing per pupil funding for demographically identical students. I am wondering if that is a district policy that could be revisited, or a federal policy (hopeless.)

    I think bigger class size is not necessarily an issue with an excellent teacher who has some help. I wonder if it’s possible to use fewer credentialed teachers and more teaching assistants (to organize packets, correct homework, and generally assist the teacher) as they do in Catholic schools. This would be particularly effective in middle school, where I can’t even imagine how the teacher keeps up on grading that much work.

    Rachel would know if this would really help at all — it might actually reduce school capacity in some cases. I can see in some schools with 3 kindergartens of 20 (totalling 60K students) would have to be reduced to 2 kindergarens of 25 to 27 (totally 50 to 54 K students.) But the payoff in the upper grades would be tremendous.

    It seems like the budget crisis is going to hit us for real this year, and I think all solutions should be on the table if we are going to get through this, and ensure that all our kids have access to a good quality education.

  15. I think it’s important to note that Muir and the other SIG schools do not reflect the reality of most high-needs schools in SFUSD. Most of those schools are not receiving the (new) fiscal benefits of the SIG program. So it is perhaps not the best example of funding at a high-needs school. Moreover, much of the funding available through SIG or various similar programs is restricted to certain line items that may or may not reflect what a school community wants or needs.

    Also, I question the idea that know-how is what’s lacking in making all PTAs high earners. The grant-writing ability at my school, frankly, has no match in SFUSD. And we’ve been increasingly successful in providing the kind of environment that welcomes parents to volunteer, observe, etc. What we don’t have are the cash and time freedom that come with financial ease.

    More broadly, I don’t think private funding is the way we should want to fund our schools. Not only does it leave out some communities entirely, it makes public schools beholden to private interests. Public schools are a common good; they need common and public funding. I worry that the ability of some communities to provide necessities the state won’t blinds those communities to the reality that the rest of us face.

  16. ideals will get you

    I agree with everything in this post. We did a year of private and got into our neighborhood school (off the wait list) for 1st grade. And its one of the highly sought after schools. I would have gladly taken any of the 7 school’s we listed, all in our area, none the hard sought language programs. We completely lucked out into our neighborhood school and everyday I am amazed.

    I’ve debated not donating to our amazing PTA and donating to another school, the one we were originally assigned to that we ‘lucked’ out of. But I didn’t do it. I gave to my son’s class and school because they are doing an amazing job and what little we can afford only makes their job slightly easier and will not make an impact in the other school. I’ve attempted to raise the issue with the PTA of donating some of our resources to another school, but have been met with NO WAY. In fact a lot of the upper grade parents are pretty bitter about fund raising for our own school since they will be moving on and not reaping the benefits.

    What does our hard earned money buy? Art, Music, reading resource teachers, classroom supplies and field trips. Also its paid for maintenance that the district would leave until the summer. So is that really what makes our school so much more desirable? ITS PATHETIC that every school in the district doesn’t have these programs already.

    The hard question, is all that’s lacking is money? There has to be more to it.

    And maybe we should have an overall score card for every school. Whether the programs come from PTA or the district, how in-equitable is it? Right now its personal opinion, what is the priority? This is really coming to light in the MS feeder pattern and the districts declaration of quality MS for all. What has the district been doing up until now?

    It is a disgrace that not every school in our district isn’t acceptable.

    The worst school is the reflection of our community.

  17. Idealistic Mama, Great post and Caroline, great comments.

    What I would add to that is: what happens to disadvantaged kids in larger schools. For example Apots Middle school gets the lowest per pupil funding of all middle schools – around $3700 per kid, yet there are schools that get $9,000. We lost almost $200,000 in Title I funds this year because our PERCENTAGE of disadvantaged students dropped below the district average of 52% (we have about 51.5%). Yet, we actually have more of these students in NUMBER than we did last year and more in NUMBER than several smaller middle schools combined (I think we have more Latino students than Horace Mann and Everett combined – or the same number. Could be wrong.)

    Despite the threshold and the significant loss of funds that have had a huge negative impact on the school, our Aptos kids that were being served from these funds are still at our school (and this year are more in number) Now, they are in larger classes than they had last year, have fewer resoures (we ran out of paper in October, and less of everything. My daughter’s 6th grade class has 37 kids – including 4 ELL kids that just moved in and an inclusion student.

    Those kids still need help, too, but are, in fact, being treated as though they have all the advantages of my kids. I think there is a tipping point and it has been reached. We need to make sure the money follows the students – not just the school.

  18. Vicky Keston

    Great article! I agree with almost everything, EXCEPT that schools like John Muir have a great deal of money because of being on the No Child Left Behind list.

    While I agree that the CTIP1 category doesn’t equate to underprivileged, if the district could fix the underperforming schools, there would be no incentive to game the system. No child should be asked to attend an underperforming school.

    Lastly, I surely hope that the district will impose a minimum period that the family must live in CTIP1 (i.e. not just the date of the lottery) and check whether the family had two addresses during that time.

  19. It is weird that the proximity demand was so low. It would be interesting to see what that data looks like with the citywide schools taken out (Idealistic Mama’s “Rooftop over Grattan” example). It would also be interesting to see the demand map done on a per-school basis with that data. I would think that all the numbers would go up, but I wonder which would go up the most. (Probably the usual suspects.)

  20. Great article. I also read the thread on SFKFiles.
    I’m from the south east of the city and am one of the fortunate CIPT1 zoned middle class/fairly well off families.

    Because of the new policy though we decided to send our daughter to a neighborhood school, the Daniel Webster GE program. We decided not to play our “golden ticket”. Historically this school has not been selected by the many higher income residents of Potrero Hill. The Spanish Immersion program at the school has become very popular in the neighborhood, but of course this isn’t a neighborhood preference program. Since most of the DW attendance area is not CIPT1, we figured that many neighborhood families would end up getting assigned to the school even if they didn’t request it. We believe we can get a ‘critical mass’ to join the K class this year (we have four families already), especially since the school is on the up and up already thanks to the involvement to date of mainly the immersion program parents.

    I don’t know if we would have committed to this before the change in attendance area policy. The new policy was for me, and others, a driving force to committing to this neighborhood school. Now I see that the numbers reflect that I am an outlier, but I’m confident that more neighborhood families will start looking at DW GE as an option in years to come

    It seems that the only way to make a school attractive to middle class parents is for it to have a significant percentage of middle class families already enrolled. API score is inversely proportional to % of kids on a free school lunch. I think that if you took all the kids at Muir and put them in Clarendon, and switched all the Clarendon kids over to Muir, the test scores would track with the kids, not the schools. Its a chicken/egg situation. If we want to increase the API scores of our local schools, just sending our children to it will do that. The trouble is, no matter how hard it tries, the district can’t force wealthy parents with choices to send their kids to poor performing schools.

    If anyone reading is interested in applying to the Daniel Webster GE program for the next round please email me at

  21. Great comments.

    BP, the project you envision is underway, at least to the maximum degree possible — facilitated by New Day for Learning, a nonprofit headed by Margaret Brodkin. (I work for a different project run by New Day for Learning, the Summer Learning Network.) Hopes are high

    A piece of background that’s helpful to understand is this (it took me years of following these issues to figure out how to explain it): A school that serves a critical mass of disadvantaged, high-need, at-risk students becomes overwhelmed and struggles. These are the schools that are sometimes harshly branded “failing schools” — I appreciate that no one posting here used that term.

    A school that enrolls a percentage of disadvantaged, high-need, at-risk students that falls short of that critical mass can cope. (Just what that percentage is probably varies somewhat depending on characteristics of the school.)

    I think that’s useful to understand when discussing policies like SFUSD enrollment.

    If the student population of John Muir were switched with the student population of Miraloma (to use two non-random examples), the achievement of the students wouldn’t change– it’s that connected with the advantages and challenges each student brings with him or her.

    I hope this is helpful as we work to understand the effects of poverty and related ills on student achievement.

  22. Idealistic Mama, thanks for writing such a thoughtful post. I’m glad that you are thinking of creative ways to spread the wealth (both in terms of $ and energy) among schools. I wish solving the problems of the disparity between schools was a simple as throwing money at the problem. But money may not be enough. For example, Grattan, a K-5 school with a population of 325 students receives about 1.5 million in funding (1.2 million from standard per pupil funding, and 300K from extra state and federal funding) while Muir, a K-5 school with 243 students receives 1.87 million in funding (1.0 million from standard per pupil funding, and 875 K from extra funding). On a per pupil basis that means each Grattan student is getting $4600, while each Muir student is getting about $7700. I don’t think any reasonable person would have an issue with a high needs population school receiving extra funds.

    But the real issue is what is being done with the extra money that schools with a large high needs population get. One high profile program, the Harlem Children’s Zone, seems to be working to break the cycle of generational poverty. But it is costly – $12,500 in state/federal funds per pupil, plus $3,500 in privately raised funds per pupil. The district seems to be trying to incorporate elements of this model – more community outreach and parental education. But I’m guessing that a big element of what works for this model is the after school program – essentially an extended school day. It seems like it would be a win-win to extend the school day (perhaps in partnership with community organizations that could provide other types of enrichment as well) in the most troubled schools. Kids get extra time for learning and parents don’t have to worry about finding after care. Also, if feasible, there should be summer school at these schools (again, in collaboration with community organizations so that it also has fun components for the kids). Kids back track so much over the summer and this has got to be a huge issue with populations of kids in which 70% of students are at basic, below basic, or far below basic in terms of reading and math. And again, this is a win-win for parents, who may not be in a financial situation to pay for summer camps for 10 weeks. I wonder if this would be a good use of the $45 million in SIG funds that the district received. Test it out for a couple of years at a few schools, and see if it works. If it does, then we have a model to build on, and a success story to use to lobby for additional funds to extend the program over time and include other schools.

  23. Thank you Rachel for publishing this article. It’s not perfect, but it’s a really good and thorough one.

    On the last point, there is a suggestion to cap the CTIP spots (like 10% of total seats or 10% of seats minus siblings or whatever could work) and for THOSE applications, run a lottery.

    On the second point, there is an important data missing year after year. That is the demand for spots in local schools on the MORNING of school start – something that apparently is pretty significant in some schools. People showing up on august 15th at the school expecting a spot for their entering Kinder is the most “neighborhood request” and it should be counted in, either by reusing past years numbers, or by finding a way to project the numbers. 5yo don’t just “appear” from nowhere in the city – there has been a census in 2010. Did EPC even request and USE those data pre-lottery to prevent/anticipate/smooth out the results?

  24. Idealistic Mama – I read your post with interest and would welcome the opportunity to talk to you about edMatch, a program started by San Francisco public school parents intended to address the issues you address under “disparity”. Please visit our website ( and send me an email — we public school parents need to connect! thanks – Colby Zintl (

  25. Lauretta Komlos

    I couldn’t agree more with these thoughtful comments. If we had parity in schools, no one would feel disadvantaged in their assignments. Instead, our schools are drastically different. I feel so lucky that my two kids are at a great public school, Fairmount Elementary. I just don’t think it should be a matter of luck. When children’s educations are literally left up to a lottery, we really need to be rethinking the whole system.

    My thoughts run along the lines of questioning why so many families are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on private schools in San Francisco, but get angry when they don’t get assigned the absolute best of the free public schools. The whole system is turned on its head. If the resources being spent on elementary education in San Francisco (public & private combined) were spent more wisely, the entire population, really the entire City would benefit. Educated kids means educated adults, more access to higher education, less truancy, less delinquency, a safer, happier, more equitable City.

    It truly is an irony that this liberal City by the Bay hasn’t figured out what Beverly Hills, or Palo Alto, or other affluent communities know already: Public education, if funded properly, is better and cheaper than private education, and comes with the added benefit of equity across a community. Of course, it does not come with the exclusivity of private school, but I honestly don’t think that SF parents are truly seeking that.

    For our family, I think we are way better off spending our resources assisting our daughters’ public school and saving $ for their future college and other opportunities for learning. We couldn’t be happier. I just wish that everyone in the City had access to our experience.