K-12 Enrollment Race & Racism

“Most Requested” or Most White?

School tour season is in the air and I’ve been helping prospective families tour my daughters’ school. All these tours has got me thinking about the enrollment process… But before I get going, Friday, January 12, 2018 is the last day to register for SFUSD schools. (Unless your child is applying to Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, or Lowell High School, in which case your deadlines are Wednesday, December 13 and 15th, respectively. 

Musings on SFUSD’s Assignment System

From playgrounds and playgroups to parent listserves, if you’re a parent of a child ages 3-5 years old, you are familiar with one of San Francisco’s favorite past-times– bashing SFUSD’s School Assignment System.

When applying to SFUSD schools, parents can chose from any of the roughly 70 schools in our district and with this choice comes stress. From researching all the options: start times, language programs, school demographics, and enrichment programs, the process can be more than a little overwhelming. And if you’ve made the investment to visit all the potential elementary schools on your list, school tours can feel like a part-time job. AND if you wait till the last minute to turn in your paperwork, standing in line at the Enrollment Placement Center (EPC) is no barrel of laughs, maybe a barrel of monkeys if you have a screaming toddler and wiggly Pre-K child in tow.

For these and other reasons the school enrollment process is regularly labeled as stressful, confusing, and even “byzantine”. (Yes, this SAT word has actually been used many times, in print, to describe our enrollment system… though I think it’s a tad melodramatic, no?)

If you aren’t a parent, you may think I’m exaggerating. As proof, I offer an example straight out of the SF Chronicle which typifies the narrative around the SFUSD School Assignment System:

“Certainly, the numbers are incontestable. Nearly one-third of white, school-age students in San Francisco have opted out and are attending private school. Families routinely cite the byzantine school assignment system as a reason to leave the city and live somewhere where choosing a kindergarten isn’t a full-time job.”

What? White families are fleeing the public education system to go to private schools because of the sign-up process? Dear God…. NOOOOOOOOO!

Some context: The above quote comes from SF Chronicle writer C.W. Nevius, a long-time columnist notorious for his rants against tents for the homeless, rights for the mentally ill, and public nudity. (Duuude! What would San Francisco be without the random sighting of a nude guy wearing only huaraches and a fedora?)

Let’s look at the numbers

All kidding aside, Mr. Neivus’ claims are widely parroted by prospective parents throughout the city. And if you are of childbearing age and attend open-houses, cocktail parties or heck, you breathe, you can attest to the fact that these narratives dominate discussions about SF’s public schools.

So let’s examine, shall we?

First off, the fact that Neivus centers his perspective around the needs of White families only is very interesting. Most folks agree, all our kids, including white ones, do better in ethnically and culturally diverse schools. Nonetheless, using “whiteness” as a measure of school desirability is undoubtedly troubling.

Now, let’s get to the meat of the matter. Neivus says “the numbers” don’t lie. Maybe not, but they don’t exactly prove Mr. Nevius’ assertions. According to a recent SFUSD enrollment report, of all the families applying to kindergarten during the 2015-2016 school year, 87% of them were offered enrollment at one of the schools on their list, while 60% received their first choice!

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: /  That doesn’t seem too bad, does it? I guess it depends on where you land in this whole lottery thing, right? You’re either happy or you’re not. If you’re one of the 13% that didn’t get into one of the schools on your list, it shouldn’t matter that 87% of all the other families got what they wanted, correct? In fact, hearing all your friends talk about how happy they are they got the “perfect” school might make you feel worse, or does it?

Due to this horrible (?) success rate, Neivus states, one third of all white families opt out of the public system altogether. And, some of them are even forced to apply to private schools (which are apparently much easier to get into) or, dare I say… move to the suburbs!

But seriously, let’s look at the facts.

Contrary to Neivus’ claims, Data from the San Francisco Department of Public Health, shows despite changes in the SFUSD enrollment system in 2011, enrollment for White students in SF has remained fairly static for the last 40+ years. In fact, based on the chart below, while the number of white students has declined in our city, the proportion of white public schools students in relation to the overall white student population has actually gone up. Specifically, in 1980, one third of white children attended SF public schools, whereas in 1990 this ratio grew to just under a half.

“Was white enrollment always so low?” you might ask. “What was enrollment like before 1980?” Looking at other data, you can see white enrollment fell dramatically in the 1970’s and has remained fairly stable ever since.

So, if recent tweaks to our school assignment didn’t cause these drastic changes, what did? What happened in the 1970’s to cause the great exodus of White students from our public schools?

Can you say bussing?

In 1971, after an African-American family filed a lawsuit against San Francisco Unified’s racially segregated system, the district engaged in a court-ordered desegregation plan based on ‘bussing’ African American, Latino and Asian students into formerly white schools and vice-versa.  When the plan was first implemented, a full 41% of the White families boycotted. Two years later, SFUSD had lost a third of its White public school students.

In the video below, three San Francisco principals share their thoughts on White Flight and racially isolated schools.

[Read more here.]

Listening to former San Francisco principal Mark Sanchez (in the video), you may be surprised to hear that most Cleveland families din’t actively engage in the “choice” process of going on school tours, researching lottery odds, or attending school enrollment fairs. They just signed up for their neighborhood school and were happy.

This was my experience as well. Though I went to more than enough school tours, I ultimately chose schools that were under the radar. I got my first choice school, and just like that, my girls were enrolled in kindergarten.

So that leads me back to the families who didn’t get ANY of their choices. With roughly 70 schools to choose from, it makes me wonder. Which schools were the “Unlucky 13%” choosing?

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Looking at this enrollment report, the odds do seem dauanting… that is, only if you are interested in the most requested schools. Based on SFUSD enrollment reports for the current 2015-2016 school year, you can see that a child hoping for a coveted spot at Clarendon ES, would be competing with 97 other students!  Comparatively, Harvard has an acceptance rate of 1 to every 17 applicants, not 1 in 97.

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“Most Requested” or Most White?

So how does this relate to White Flight? Well according to a report from Priceonomics, most of San Francisco’s White students are in a small percentage of elementary schools. Here’s what the report concluded:

Half of San Francisco’s elementary schools have a student population that is 13% white or less. A few elementary schools are over 50% white, while a quarter of elementary schools are under 3.3%.

Pull out your reading glasses. Here’s how it breaks down by school. (Legend:  White StudentsLatino Students, Black Students, Asian Students, and Decline to State.)

Looking over the list of “whitest” schools, you will see many of the same names on the “most requested schools” list. If you separated out affluent Asian-American students vs. their lower-income newcomer peers, it looks even more similar to the “most requested” list. For example, #20 Sunset Elementary (a “most requested” school) had roughly 46% Asian and 27% White students in the 2013-2014 school year. Nonetheless, only 33% of students were low-income, and only 23% were English Language learners.

So… let’s go BACK to the SFUSD’s original enrollment numbers again, shall we? Based on this more recent chart below, showing the percentage of White students in our public schools, roughly 28% of San Francisco’s population is White, yet only 13% go to public schools.

Based on my experience and the experience of many school principals like, Mark Sanchez, at racially isolated schools, many Black, Brown and new-immigrant Asian families do not even participate in the “choice” process and are happy with their enrollment experience. So now, I’m beginning to wonder…

Is the narrative about a broken lottery and byzantine enrollment system the REAL reason for White Flight (and many of our segregated schools)? Or is this a problem of too many white (and other affluent) families requesting the same list of schools?

Want to know more about school choice and it’s impact on school segregation? Read these great articles below:

What do you think? Does any of this resonate with you?

Related reads:

14 thoughts on ““Most Requested” or Most White?

  1. Here’s what I noticed, looking at this data. The crash in White public school enrollment starter in 1971 with integration, as you point out. And it’s been an unfailing 50% of White families who avoid public schools ever sense. Regardless of the particular enrollment system, regardless of if there was gifted or not, and regardless of how many enrollment workshops touting public schools were given. PPSSF was founded in 1999, with a race neutral message. In 1999 there were 7,400 white families in public schools. There was a slight drop & then at the end of this chart, a few years ago, 7,400 families. Still 50% of White families opting out. So it makes me wonder if all the hard work we’ve all been putting in to changing this dynamic are pretty wasted unless we face race head on. Seems worth a try & like work we White folks need to take on.

  2. Thank you, Ali, for highlighting the racism underpinning “good” vs. “bad” school assessments. I think racism is part of the bigger problem of rationing K-12 public education. Vying for privilege or preference is the expected, rational outcome when we accept that not everyone is going to get a good education and that high quality education is something individuals secure if they are monied, savvy, especially talented, or win the lottery. It’s no accident that we talk about lottery winners. We know there are losers. That’s part of the design we’ve accepted. Given that, it’s no surprise that structural Racism stacks the deck against Black and Brown students.

    The way I see it, families fall into two main camps – public or private. Public school families are going to send their kids to public schools no matter what. Private school families are shopping among both private schools and public schools. I think (little-r, personal) racism is correlated with being a private school shopper. Private school shoppers aren’t always racists, but most racists are either private school shoppers or wish they could afford to be. (And, yeah, everyone is a little bit racist, but racism and private schools share some foundational elements like exclusion and privilege.) Targeting middle class, white or established Asian families as the key public school outreach audience to be won over from private schools is a flawed strategy. Prioritizing private school families’ needs first reinforces a model that is killing public education. The idea that public schools need to be attractive in the same ways as private schools quickly slips into idea that public schools should be more like private schools because private schools are somehow inherently better than public schools. Private schools can never serve the functions of public education, and don’t attempt to. Similarly, public education can never compete with private schools in terms of exclusivity. It’s the old “business is better than government” view that ignores the value of public goods, costs of externalities, and pretends there are no missing markets. In economic terms, private school families have more elastic demand for public education. It’s classic price discrimination. SFUSD gives discounts to private school shoppers in the form of special programs or disparate resources at elementary sites. The shoppers know this, and have every reason to extract whatever concessions they can from the district. That is exactly what is being said when a parent says, “I believe in public schools but will have to go private if X, Y, or Z” or when a new dire flight to private schools is warned. The problem is that by focusing attention on attracting private school families, SFUSD is using the wrong objective function. The district shouldn’t care about increasing student head count at any cost. The district should care about making high quality education available to everyone.

    On a related note, I’d love to hear ideas of how can we limit the negative side-effects of private school shoppers on SFUSD student assignment system (SAS)? Private school families add noise, inefficiency, and stress to the SAS process. Consider the person who gets their top pick trophy school but only applied to SFUSD as a back up and doesn’t enroll after the acceptance letter comes from a trophy private school (true story). That seat gets assigned in subsequent rounds or waiting lists. Many public school parents might not want to spend more energy and stress on another lottery. Is there a functional way to create a preference for public school families? Could there be a public school tie-breaker? Private colleges cooperate for early action admissions. Private elementary schools cooperate with each other by timing their admissions letters. Is there a way for public schools to coordinate with private schools so that there’s less impact on SAS?

  3. Even though my kids and I are white, I intentionally chose schools with the most Asian-American students. Why? Because their culture – similar to Filipino and Jewish culture – tends to value education, hard-work, and respect for teachers. This is the thing that no one wants to directly address: different cultures place more or less value on schooling and getting an education. Even the best-behaved and motivated kid will not get a decent education if kids in the class are so disruptive that the teacher spends more time getting the class to settle down than actually teaching.

    1. I appreciate your response because it is a great opportunity to discuss a big issue in San Francisco public schools: the model minority myth.

      We need to stop assigning cultural superiority to Asian American cultural groups. Not only because these harmful stereotypes are untrue, but also because they reinforce white supremacy which keeps anti-Black racism firmly in place, while also is hurting Asian American peoples (which are a very diverse group.)

      Here’s a great explanation:
      “While these sorts of comments might seem like compliments or affirmations, they are actually overly simplistic generalizations that reveal the devious and exploitative nature of race and racism in the United States.

      And they all fall under the model minority myth – a stereotype that generalizes Asian Americans by depicting them as the perfect example of an if-they-can-do-it-so-can-you success story.

      This myth is also a political strategy that highlights the success of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian immigrants with a specific professional and educational background. It is a historical and presently used tool designed to protect institutionalized white supremacy and validate anti-black racism.

      For a long time, Asian American activists have worked to debunk the model minority myth by discussing its negative consequences and impacts.”

      Read more here: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/04/dismantle-model-minority-myth/

      My girls go to a mostly Asian American school, and being in the minority (biracial White/Black) has been a great experience for me and my girls because we’ve gotten the opportunity to learn a lot about the beauty and history of Chinese culture. My girls and I have also gained awareness of and empathy for the challenges new immigrant, English Learner and low-income students and families face. We are better for this experience.

      Nonetheless, Chinese American students are inherently no more hard-working than other racial or cultural groups. And Chinese parents don’t “care about education” than the Black, Latino, or White patents I speak with.

      I encourage you to learn more about the model minority myth and to challenge your preconceptions and biases about Black and Latino families. Not only will you open yourself up to learning more about cultural and historical contributions of these families and cultures, you will be modeling anti-racist behavior for your kids.

  4. Does anyone know a site, book, thesis, article, whatever, – where we can compare the percentages of where families with school-age children live, broken down by the same 5 ethnicity categories above, with the school distributions? I am interested in the school proximity to home issue for non-special program schools.

    1. This would be really interested to see. I don’t know of any report, but maybe we could bring this up as a request of study during the district school assignment re-design process meetings

  5. My kid is going to K in August. My main criteria is location – meaning close to home. However 5/7 of the schools that are closest to me are “the most coveted” schools, including Clarendon and West Portal. One of the schools in these 7 is 10-minute walk, but I am shaking in my boots about getting it. It also happens to be one of the most white schools in the city – that’s not my fault (and FYI: I’m not white). Frankly, I am not worried about any school in the city being “too white” – get a grip, we live in a very diverse city! I am not interested in driving across town for an enrichment program because I am a working parent who needs some convenience in the daily commute with 2 kids. I feel pretty annoyed at being told that I am an elitist when all I want is something that doesn’t involve 2 hours of driving on a daily basis.

    1. You may not be white, but I’d probably be right if I assumed you weren’t Black or English Learner latino student. I’ve been working in this district for roughly 20 years and can tell you horror stories about some of the ways “good” school treat Black/latino kids. I live in Russian Hill. What has shocked me most about watching neighboring parents choose schools is how many actually choose by race. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve heard explain that “living in a diverse city” gets them off the hook when it comes to putting their children in schools where they will actually have meaningful friendships with children from different economic and linguistic backgrounds. My family is a mixed race family, so we care about integration and lifting up and learning about marginalized cultures. What message does it send children when so many parents say they “care about integration” but choose segregated schools?

      1. Well, you are quite right. My main criteria are: distance, test scores, and quality of education. Integration and diversity are good, but they are not ahead of daily logistics for my family and having my child be prepared for the future. I am not sure SFUSD is the right place for me as I see that most folks more concerned with diversity than with with reading, writing, and math. Wish I could afford private school; I wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

        1. It’s interesting you care about test scores when private schools don’t participate in standardized testing. That tells me test scores are code for affluence and whiteness. I have friends at local private schools and have also attended the “good” public schools. All schools have good/bad teachers and all schools have discipline issues. Tests don’t tell us anything about overall instruction. (BTW, we picked a local school that’s predominantly low-income, and my girls are reading well beyond their grade level.) What they DO tell us is how affluent the demographics of the school. White and affluent families don’t need test scores for private schools because they already have barriers to keep low-income, students needing special education services, English Learner and children of color out (schools often call these students a “bad fit”). What I’m finding is you experience is not unique. Lots of white and affluent folks SAY they care about diversity and integration, but feel more comfortable with segregation. They have been self-segregating from our school system since the 1970’s and bussing started, and this pattern has remained the same. The only difference between now and then is we have test scores to justify it.

  6. I definitely appreciate the very thorough analysis and data, this is helpful. For my part, I am white. Born that way, no choice in the matter. In any case, according to the stats, I have a 50% chance of getting my daughter into my neighborhood school (Glen Park). For me, like Brisa, location is critical. We are two working parents and have no option to drive our daughter across town in stop and go traffic every day. If the school system had a bus system, I might support a “choice” system, but without busing, I don’t see how it’s fair to force 50% of white families to travel to other neighborhoods for their schooling. I know, it’s not fair to be born a minority either. But still, you should be able to walk to your school. This gets you even more involved in the place and community. Plus it’s so obviously convenient and practical. You will be disappointed to hear that I will send my daughter to private school if I don’t get Glen Park. For me, this would be the obvious choice so we can handle work, commuting, and child pickups. I am not sure what is the better way to encourage diversity and practicality, but it doesn’t seem like the current system is equitable.

    1. I appreciate your candor and for sharing your experience. Every family has to make the best choice for their child, and in some cases, that may not be a public school. My daughters were lucky to attend a neighborhood school for both elementary and middle school (Jean Parker ES, and Francisco ES respectively). While we each have to make our own best decision for our family, it’s also important to interrogate the internal beliefs and societal pressures that might guide those choices. My intention is to help us all be more reflective. At the same time, I also want to elevate the voices of many families who are also absent from these types of conversations. Families living in the Bayview have consistently said they would favor neighborhood schools if they felt those schools had high quality programming. African American Advisory Council parents have repeatedly said they support a transition to a neighborhood system AFTER the district is able to ensure all schools offer the same high quality educational opportunities as some of the high choice schools. Thanks again for sharing your perspectives!

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