Friday, April 24, 2009

Summary of meeting with Orla O'Keefe

I recently met with Orla O'Keeffe, Special Assistant to the Superintendent on Student Assignment, and I gained quite a bit of insight into why proximity is not a priority in the current or future assignment system. I hope to shed some light on this for the rest of you who are interested. This is long but please stick with me.

The student assignment process is driven by SFUSD's strategic plan, as it should be. The 3 major goals are: (1) access and equity – to ensure that every student has access to quality teaching and learning regardless of background, neighborhood and income level; (2) achievement – to ensure that every student graduates from high school ready for college and/or career with the tools necessary to succeed; and (3) accountability – to keep our promises to students and families. The strategic plan attempts to deal with the "achievement gap" – this refers to the issue that within the school district some ethnic groups (mostly White/Asian) are performing better than other groups (mostly African American/Latino/Samoan). The district has identified a correlation between schools that are predominantly African American/Latino/Samoan and a collection of factors that hinder quality education such as high teacher turnover.

Based on the above information, the BOE/district have adopted the following priorities for student assignment:
  1. Provide equitable access to the range of opportunities available to students.
  2. Reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school.
  3. Be more equitable to all students, regardless of family background.
The first and third priorities come straight from the first goal of the strategic plan (access and equity). The goals of the strategic plan say nothing about diversity or racial isolation so the second student assignment priority comes from the assumption that lack of diversity (or racial isolation) is causing the achievement gap and so is driven by the second goal of the strategic plan (achievement). The idea here is to mix some White and Asian kids into the schools with underserved students to help solve the achievement gap. [Personal editorial: while I want my children to go to diverse schools I have to question this approach as a mechanism to solve the achievement gap since it has already been shown that the group of African American/Latino/Samoan kids who are bused across town to non-racially isolated schools have not closed the achievement gap.]

The current assignment plan will draw boundaries for assignment areas based on: diversity (academic/economic/linguistic/racial), geographic barriers, enrollment projections, student density, and school capacity. It is important to note that each assignment area could be comprised of multiple non-contiguous areas and the school(s) for each assignment area could be anywhere in the city. So for example, one assignment area could be sections of the Richmond, Hunter's Point, and the Mission, with an assigned school of Sheridan in Ingleside Heights.

So where does proximity (i.e., neighborhoods, geography, etc.) factor into all of this? The district's current position on proximity for student assignment is, "Proximity is not a priority but should be considered when it does not compromise academic/economic/linguistic/racial diversity." Given the demographics of our city I cannot think of any scenario where proximity won't affect diversity – so I think it is safe to simply summarize the role of proximity in student assignment as: proximity is not a priority. Given the fact that all recent reports on student assignment call for neighborhood schools this may seem baffling (see Civil Grand Jury Report, the Community Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, PAC: SF Board of Education Parent Advisory Council's Summary of Findings, and SERR: Student Enrollment, Recruitment and Retention: Community Conversations about SF Public Schools). You might simply assume that the district is ignoring the obvious message that SF families want some form of neighborhood schools but I think this misses the mark. The reason proximity is not a priority is because according to the district it does not promote the strategic plan. Essentially, the district does not believe that neighborhood schools will provide equitable access or close the achievement gap. Finally, the district also claims that under our choice system the majority of families are not choosing their closest school and this provides evidence that families actually don't want neighborhood assignments.

The Case for Proximity

By not considering proximity the district is actually opposing the strategic goals for equitable access and achievement. In referring to proximity, I am referring to assignments within some reasonable distance (say, 1-2 miles of a family's home). While many would like a straight neighborhood system the district appears to have no intention of taking this path. In this case we at least need a guarantee that families will not be assigned to schools across town that they did not choose. So how does proximity relate to the strategic plan? Assigning families to schools they cannot get to across town violates the goal of equitable access. Under the current system those who receive none of their choices by ethnic group are (information from Civil Grand Jury Report):
  • White: 27%
  • Chinese: 9%
  • Hispanic: 7%
  • African American: 3%
What happens to those families who receive none of their choices? They get assigned to their closest school with openings. A spatial clustering analysis by the district shows that most African American and Hispanic families are clustered in areas near schools that are not over-subscribed. Chinese families are clustered in the Richmond and Sunset (over-subscribed schools), southern San Francisco (under-subscribed schools), and Chinatown (over-subscribed schools). White families are spread throughout the city but are least clustered in areas with under-subscribed schools (south and east parts of the city). The effect of this is that most white and many Chinese families get assigned to schools that are significant distances from their homes since these groups are clustered in areas with over-subscribed schools. For example, this year numerous families in the Sunset were assigned to Jose Ortega and Sheridan while families in the Richmond were assigned to Rosa Parks. It is unrealistic to expect families to travel 4-5 miles (20-30 min. each way) just to get their children to school and these families are often forced to leave the system. All the families I know who were assigned to Jose Ortega or Sheridan are not planning to attend those schools – not because they dislike the schools but because it is not logistically feasible to get to/from school. 

District data supports this: Whites make up 15% of the applicant pool but only 10% of the enrolled pool, while Chinese enrollment drops by 2% from the applicant pool. By not making proximity a priority certain ethnic groups are therefore not only not given equitable access to the range of opportunities but are in fact not given equitable access to any opportunity for public school.

Ignoring proximity also impacts achievement. The district believes that sending White and Asian kids to under-performing schools will help raise these schools up. However, by not considering proximity the result is that White and Asian kids are assigned to schools they will not attend, leaving the school  under-enrolled or filled with families coming into the system late, who are often among the most underserved. Moreover, even if families don't leave the system due to a far-away assignment, they are not likely candidates to be agents of positive change. When parents are involved in schools everyone benefits, and lack of parent involvement is associated with under-performing schools. Parents who unwillingly have to spend two hours in the car every day getting children to/from school are very unlikely to make another trip to volunteer or go to a PTA meeting. Therefore, ignoring proximity and assigning families across town defeats the goal of improving achievement for all.

As a final note, I would like to address the issue of choice versus proximity. Just because families are not choosing their closest or attendance area school does not mean that it is not a priority. Commissioner Mendoza accurately stated the position of many parents at a recent ad hoc meeting on student assignment when she shared her own experience that her family didn't choose their closest school but rather a nearby school with a program they were interested in. To most families proximity being a priority does not mean they have to attend their closest school, but rather a nearby school (within a distance of say 2 miles). It is not surprising that the two most requested schools are in the center of San Francisco, making them proximal for a very large number of families. Also, considering ethnic clusters and the highest-demand schools gives some hints to the importance of proximity. The two largest white clusters are the area north of Golden Gate Park, and the area between Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro down into Noe Valley. Not surprisingly, Claire Lillienthal, Clarendon, and Rooftop all have a concentration of White students higher than the general enrollment. Similarly, Lawton and West Portal, which are in/near a Chinese cluster are heavily enrolled by Chinese students. Clearly, families are choosing their favorite school that is near them. So yes, families like choice, but within a certain distance.

If you've made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I hope this information is helpful for those of you who are concerned about the student assignment process. It seems that to push the district and BOE we need to do so in light of the strategic plan. I hope to see some of you at the Parents for Public School meeting on student assignment tomorrow and the meeting with Commissioner Norton on May 3rd. Email me if you need more information.


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