Student assignment and unintended consequences

Did you know that the district has acknowledged making a mistake in the way it has handled 6th and 9th grade assignments for 2012-13? To catch it, you would have had to be listening very closely last Tuesday evening (June 26) as the Superintendent read his Thoughts for the Evening. Here is an excerpt from Carlos’ prepared remarks on the issue:

I want to share some information about a student assignment practice that occurred this past spring.
For those 5th and 8th grade students already enrolled in SFUSD who didn’t respond by the deadline, we decided to hold off on dropping their assignment offers because historically the great majority of our enrolled students end up enrolling in an SFUSD school. Starting in late May SFUSD stopped holding spaces for those incoming 6th and 9th grade students who had not yet responded and then conducted a wait pool run based on the seats that were opened up.
EPC will also proceed with a wait pool run in late July as previously scheduled. Going forward, staff intends to bring recommendations on how these procedures should be handled to the Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment.

If you are scratching your head after that statement, you are not alone. Here’s the explanation: in May, I received an inquiry from a parent who was mystified why her child had not been assigned to a particular middle school in the second round, because the administrators at that middle school had told her that  there are usually spaces available. When the parent checked with Educational Placement,  she told me, she was informed by an EPC counselor that very few students had been assigned to the school during the May round this year: “[the counselor said] there was ‘no capacity’ at the school because SFUSD ‘did not open up slots or drop families that did not enroll to give others a chance to enroll in their assigned school.'” This parent was understandably upset by the idea that the district, which tells families they must enroll by a certain date or risk losing their assignment offer, was quietly allowing some families an extension.

I was upset at this as well, and asked staff for an explanation. It turns out that in past years, certain 5th and 8th grade students were not dropped if they did not accept their assignment offer by the March deadline. To receive this treatment, those 5th or 8th grade students had to:

  1.  Be currently enrolled in an SFUSD school, AND
  2. Have submittted an application for a 6th or 9th grade seat, AND
  3. Be homeless, a foster child enrolled in special education and/or be a sibling of an older student enrolled at the assigned school, AND
  4. Have received one of their choices, AND
  5. Have been placed at a school where there were fewer requests than seats available in the March round.

Though I was not aware of this practice, it would not have bothered me had I known about it, since it did not affect the vast majority of families and at the same time helped the handful who are either unaware of the requirement to register or are under such stress that it slipped under the radar.

However,  this year, things went a little differently: in what was either a miscommunication, a well-intentioned but ill-advised expansion of past practice, or both, Educational Placement was directed to retain all 5th and 8th grade students who met criteria 1, 2, 3 and 4 but not to worry about #5.

Suddenly,  a practice affecting a small group of targeted students, a footnote in the myriad details of the district’s complex assignment system, became a big deal, because it meant a few hundred seats across the district — at least some of them at very high-demand schools,  were not available for the May round (see data below).  But it’s even bigger than that: first, families who followed the rules were not given access to seats held by families who — for whatever reason — did not follow the same rules. Second, it’s about transparency, about following published policies, and about all participants in the system believing that they will be treated fairly and equally.

In this case, the system did not work transparently, and two sets of rules — one published, one shadowy, were applied to different families. It’s impossible to know who was adversely affected (some people undoubtedly were), and equally impossible to call a do-over and mitigate whatever harm was caused.

After some internal discussion of the implications and unintended consequences of the failure to drop students from high demand schools, EPC removed all students who had not registered from the rolls and did an unscheduled wait pool run in late May; another run will be conducted in late July. Hopefully, many families who were waiting for spots received good news after the unscheduled run, but the person who initially contacted me has not yet received an offer to a school of choice. And, of course, families who had given up and not submitted a wait pool choice after the April run were not entered in the unscheduled run.

I’ve discussed this situation with one or two Board members and with some others who are knowledgeable about the district’s assignment policy. All of us agree that this year’s actions were not at all in line with Board policy. Now, the question becomes: how to make sure this doesn’t happen again?  At the very least, the district should follow its published policies, and the Superintendent should inform the Board and the public if significant changes are made. A few people have suggested a citizen’s oversight committee that would monitor student assignment policy and alert the Board and staff if practice seems to veer significantly away from Board policy. Another suggestion I’ve heard is for the district to contract out the implementation of the policy, so that a third party is responsible, and accountable, for implementing Board policy with fidelity.  I’m intrigued by the idea of the oversight committee, if it could help increase trust in the system through disinterested  monitoring of how things are working.

Overall, though, it’s sad to realize yet again that a system as complex as ours, with as many moving parts, is pretty much certain to have unintendend consequences whenever a change is made — even if that change seems on the surface to be minor.  This episode proves yet again that the district has quite a ways to go before it achieves the Board’s stated goal of real transparency in the handling of student assignment.

The Data
Overall, about 600 incoming 6th graders who did not register in March were not dropped from their assigned schools; about 650 incoming 9th graders were not dropped. The vast majority of these students were assigned to schools with excess capacity, but a few high-demand schools were affected:

Middle schools — 6th grade students not dropped between April 13 and May 30 

  • Aptos — 44 out of 379 assigned in March round
  • Denman — 39 out of 184
  • Everett — 82 out of 155
  • Francisco — 44 out of 147
  • Giannini — 20 out of 390
  • Hoover — 31 out of 265
  • ISA — 21 out of 40
  • MLK — 59 out of 194
  • Lick — 13 out of 96
  • Marina — 63 out of 237
  • Presidio — 22 out of 364
  • Roosevelt — 29 out of 250
  • Visitacion Valley — 127 out of 215

High schools — 9th grade students not dropped between April 13 and May 30:

  • Academy of Arts & Sciences at SOTA — 32 out of 104 assigned in March round
  • Balboa — 47 out of 313
  • Burton — 75 out of 284
  • Galileo — 59 out of 486
  • ISA — 24 out of 92
  • June Jordan — 36 out of 98
  • Lincoln — 58 out of 501
  • Marshall — 54 out of 119
  • Mission — 89 out of 251
  • O’Connell — 90 out of 232
  • Wallenberg — 32 out of 192
  • Washington — 57 out of 529
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11 responses to “Student assignment and unintended consequences

  1. “havent heard much about that. i generally operate on the “no news is good newa” philosopky with respect to student assignment but who knows. Anyway I always took info on KFiles with a huge grain of salt.”

    Yep, only those who were unlucky with the lottery tended to post there, so the information was skewed. But folks that did get lucky with Round 2 did tend to post.

    One interesting observation: I remember 5 years ago folks freaking out on TheSFKfiles because they got assigned to Sunnyside Elementary.

    Yesterday, my wife met a family who were moving to Orinda because they got assigned to Glen Park when what they really wanted was…..
    …Sunnyside Elementary.

    So fashions change.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    I am curious as to whether the Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment was consulted when the district came up with it’s assignment criteria for Transitional Kindergarten assignment.

    The deadline to apply for TK (in it’s latest incarnation – the 3rd such deadline we have had this year, each time with a different SFUSD plan for how to handle things) was June 8th but, to the best of my knowledge, the TK assignment criteria was not made public by the district until June 28th.

    I understand that a policy decision was made to not allow TK at any of the Early Education Centers which shared a location with an Elementary School. Was this also a decision made by the Board? I would be interested in hearing what the rationale was for that if you are able to share? It seems that this policy significantly limited the number of sites the district was able to consider for TK.

    I was also wondering whether the district is planning to publish any numbers relating to TK. Eg, Demand for each location versus available seats. This information is routinely available for the K, 6th and 9th grade applications.

    I would also be interested to know how many applications were received for the original plan, the second plan and the third plan. It might be helpful for the district to see how many children dropped out of the TK program between now and January.

    Thanks for any information you can provide.

  3. @Rachel – It’s ok. We’re going private now.

  4. @iris – the data I posted was as of May 13 so it does not take into account the rn that was conducted in late June. i just posted it to guve people an idea of the scope of the issue.
    @alexis I don’t understand your question. Folks who did not accept their spots were retained in those spots to give them a better chance of receiving a school of choice, rather than being bumped to the back of the line.
    @randy – I’m sorry you were treated that way.
    @bernal Dad – havent heard much about that. i generally operate on the “no news is good newa” philosopky with respect to student assignment but who knows. Anyway I always took info on KFiles with a huge grain of salt.
    @annec the Harvard folks would not have gotten into this level of detail — they primarily offered to write and monitor the assignment algorithm. Anyway, there were a lot of issues there . . .

  5. Is the data listed current after that “secret” first run at the end of May? We are still on one of the waitlists for 9 grade SF HS with a shorter waitlist number. If there are a significant number of more slots opening up at our neighborhood High School we would consider switching waitlists. As that would be our first choice school. Just wondering what the strategy would be now for parents of incoming 6th grader and 9th graders still on waitlists…

  6. I went to EPC in May to get my son assigned to a new elementary school after he spent 9 months of getting bullied. The enrollment counselor would not even give me her name.

  7. The simple follow-up question to ask would be:

    “If the great majority of our enrolled students end up enrolling in an SFUSD school anyway, then what was the rationale to hold off on dropping their assignment offers in the first place?”

  8. Bernal Dad

    Any word on the results of the Kindergarten second round placements?

    Ever since TheSFKFiles blog got trolled into unusability and was closed down, it’s been hard to get an idea how things are working out for those still struggling with the lottery.

  9. Lisa Schiff

    QA and auditing have to be more explicitly implemented as part of the assignment process. This has been true for years–here is a piece I wrote in 2008 calling for more robust quality control of the implementation: http://www.beyondchron.org/news/index.php?itemid=6189. I think these recommendations are just as germane today as they were then.

  10. EPC has long lost my trust. This is just the latest of many errors and creative interpretations of board policies. Thank you for shining light on this latest mistreatment of SF parents through the arrogance and incompetence of the EPC bureaucrats.

  11. Rachel,

    Thanks for listening to parent inquiries, and for following up on it with the district, bringing to light a significant error. I would like to see an independent organization do the data runs, and for the algorithm to be released to be the public. This type of error just adds to general mistrust of the system.

    I still don’t understand why the district didn’t take up the offer of the system designers to monitor it. Surely the privacy concerns could be managed, as other school districts elsewhere have managed them. Is it too late to revisit this decision?

    Anne