Naming Race in the School Enrollment Process
Last Monday, I attended an SFUSD Board of Education Ad Hoc Student Assignment Committee Mtg. which is taking on the daunting task of implementing a Board Resolution directing district staff to redesign SFUSD’s Student Assignment System.
I’ll be transparent in stating I have many “feels” about this work, and whether we should be doing it. I didn’t vote for this resolution (I wasn’t on the Board when it was approved. In fact, I stood in agreement with many other parent leaders on parent advisory councils (such as the SPED CAC, AAPAC, and SF Families Union) who have consistently asked the District to focus on investing resources into increasing programs and enrollment in under-enrolled schools.
As you may imagine, there has been decades-long discussion around this topic, which I won’t go into here. If you are interested in viewing Education Placement Center (EPC) staff’s most recent presentation to the Board, you can find the October 21st presentation here. Previous presentations were also shared on September 16, May 13, and March 18. (Corresponding audio recording of meetings is available here.)
The purpose of last Monday’s meeting was to discuss a district definition of “quality schools” called for in the Resolution, which set this whole process in motion and to understand the Commissioner’s priorities on three primary goals outlined in staff’s work: Proximity, Predictability, and Diversity.
We can’t fix it if we don’t talk about it
I found it interesting that in discussing the topic of “school choice,” “quality schools,” and “diversity,” staff seemed to be dancing around the real issues impacting SFUSD’s school enrollment process. Too many families pick the same ten schools, and primarily these choices are made (either intentionally or unintentionally) around the racial demographics of students at the school. I wrote about this observation a while back in a post titled: “Most Requested” or Most White?:
When central office staff talk about why some schools are so highly requested (some are harder to get into than Harvard, while others have a Kindergarten class size of 14), many cite parent concerns around the race and socioeconomic status of the children who go there. Often, the challenges we are discussing aren’t really about “parent choice” or “predictability.” On a deeper level, we are talking about segregation and integration and the ways we been socialized to think about “good” vs. “bad” schools.
To take this even further… this conversation is about the ways we readily acknowledge that racism impacts diversity and school choice patterns while at the same time we avoid naming anti-black racism and white supremacy culture in public meetings and presentations.
I am not saying anything new. If I’m doing anything different, it’s breaking the taboo to speak openly about racism’s impact on public school integration efforts as an elected official at Board Meetings. Moreover, I am asking staff to talk and report about it. I want to change this culture in SFUSD.
Two great resources for framing conversations about integration and segregation in schools
During the committee discussion, I quoted two articles to help frame our discussion around integration and segregation. As I mentioned above, we can’t talk about “school choice” and “diversity” and “high choice schools” or “quality schools” without talking about racism:
Nicole Hannah-Jones: The Coded Ways we Talk about School Preference
New York Times journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones is a product of bussing. She is also a Black parent navigating one of the most highly segregated school districts in the country, New York City. Hanna-Jones has made a whole career out of writing and speaking about race and integration in our education system. In the video clip below, she calls out the complicity of “progressive” white families who employ race-neutral language, e.g. ‘”neighborhood schools” vs. “choice”, to maintain access to predominantly white schools.
In another piece, Conversations Aren’t Enough she states:
“There’s been research and studies that show that white parents say that they want integrated schools or say that the only thing that matters about schools is test scores, but when they’re actually making the selections, the racial makeup of the school, particularly how black a school is, plays a larger role than the test scores or the reputation of the school. I think that is probably the most difficult thing to overcome: … the fear that white parents have of large numbers of black children and the belief that the more black students you have in a school, the less safe that school is and that those students are not, as a whole, as smart or dedicated as their own children.”
Robin DiAngelo: White Fragility’s Role in Maintaining Segregation
And if we are going to talk about white families, we need to consult the work of Robin DiAngelo, an expert on “whiteness.” DiAngelo is the author of a highly celebrated book, White Fragility. (If you haven’t read her work, please run out right away and buy it.) Like Nicole Hanna-Jones, DiAngelo calls out our inability as a culture in naming white supremacy culture and racial privilege. She says that for many white families, just naming race creates feelings of extreme discomfort and defensiveness that in turn have serious consequences. She states that while it may not be conscious, NOT talking about race contributes to what she calls the “sociology of dominance.” Not talking about racial privilege, bias and white supremacy allows inequitable structures to stay in place.
While her work is not relegated to schools, she often cites the ways our education system (and Hollywood) reinforce our beliefs about race. In this interview, What’s My Complicity? Talking White Fragility With Robin DiAngelo, she states:
“We’ve grown up in segregation, we’ve never been taught or shown that to understand, much less have relationships across race, is something valuable. In fact, white people measure the value of our schools and neighborhoods by the absence of people of color.
I know exactly what a “good” school is, and I know what we’re talking about. We all know what we’re talking about when we say “good school” versus “bad school.” We use race to measure those things.”
DiAngelo states, “Niceness is not courageous.” She says we need to reframe our definition of what it means to be racist. We have all been shaped by a racist system — we all participate in maintaining it. If we truly care about racial justice, it is our job is to take action to unpack the ways we “collude” in maintaining the status quo. Each and every one of us.
Families are leading the way
As it turns out, I am not alone in wanting to change this culture of silence around racism’s influence on school enrollment in our district. Many SF families are leading the way:
This presentation was created by AAPAC families, which seems to be continually excluded from discussions about “equity” and “diversity.” Let’s be clear, when we talk about these things, we need to start naming that we are, in large part, talking about Black kids and their presence or absence in schools.
Below is a slide listing recommendations related to African American student enrollment. Note: nowhere does it make a recommendation to redesign the school assignment system. Rather Black families express concern around a lack of specialized programming and experienced teachers at schools traditionally serving Black children, discrimination and “pushout” of Black students across the district, and lack of access to affordable housing.
This presentation was created by Julie Roberts Phung, of SF Families Union, to support a workshop she and I convened as parent leaders many years ago. The workshop was attended by over 50 families to discuss racial segregation in schools. It was very well received and started some essential conversations among families eager to be a part of positive shifts in the “good/bad” school narrative. Framing “school choice” within the history of school integration is important because it makes visible the ways white supremacy is to ensure white families do not have to send their children to schools with Black, Latinx, and Asian children.
Not JUST an EPC issue.
Because segregation and integration are not confined to conversations about “the lottery,” enrollment algorithms, or the school assignment process, I would like to see our District EPC expand it’s thinking to include more community conversations to unpack implicit bias in the enrollment process. I also want to acknowledge this is not their work alone.
We should also be having these conversations at the Board level, and we should be collectively pushing on other department leaders, and community partners to uncover the ways we all uphold and reinforce educational redlining and school segregation in our district. These conversations should include folks like the PTA and PPSSF and Coleman, SFUSD Parent PACs, and student leaders and classroom teachers. As Nicole Hannah-Jones states in her piece:
“The biggest barrier is lack of will. I think what I try to show in my work is, again, you always hear that it’s too hard. Segregation was not easy to create. There was a lot of effort that went into creating segregated schools and neighborhoods and a lot of resources from the federal government, down to the local government, down to the private citizen. But we were willing to do that because all of those resources were being put toward benefiting white students and white families. We are unwilling to put those same resources to making the system more equal, so I think … the biggest barrier is a lack of will, and there’s still a lot of racism and discrimination that we have to overcome.”
Ultimately, I believe we have to take on the issue of racism in school enrollment, or our district will never be successful in closing the achievement gap. We will never graduate students who have a “Global Identity” or who have empathy for students who come from different backgrounds.
Everyone says they care about diversity. Our stated values mean nothing if we are not willing to take action. I will be requesting our district staff do the following:
- Prepare a presentation timeline on segregation in SFUSD, so Commissioners, staff, and community partners have a common reference for all conversations moving forward around cultural representation, diversity, and school choice patterns.
- Present an analysis of school requests disaggregated by race and other demographics. I believe it is time to start publicly naming race as a factor in school choice patterns and assessments of school quality.
- Identify sources of misinformation about public education that reinforce white flight, educational redlining, and false narratives about “good/bad” schools. This analysis should include school rating websites like GreatSchools, Niche, and Yelp, as well as non-profit tutoring and summer programs that serve as recruitment mechanisms for private and charter schools seeking to “diversify” enrollment with high performing students of color.
- Partner with parent leaders and community partners to convene focus groups and community conversations to debunk “good/bad” school narratives. Analyze feedback and develop parent resources (web pages, handouts, videos) to debunk commonly held misperceptions about public schools and to support integration initiatives
- Develop curriculum for 4/5th grade and 7/8th-grade students and staff recommendations to assist students in making more informed middle and high school choices
I look forward to continued dialogue on this. What should EPC, Board of Education Commissioners, parent leaders, and community partners be doing to address integration and segregation in our education system? Share your thoughts below!