San Francisco’s Strange and Wonderful Public Schools

Originally published in the GGMG Magazine, September 2015 issue

It happens all the time. A mom and I bond over our desire to explore this gorgeous, vibrant city with our budding urbanites in tow. I envision the friendship blossoming over the years. Then she says, “We’re looking in the East Bay.”

“Why? Your place is perfect. You love San Francisco!”

“Yeah, but Mabel will be ready for kindergarten soon so . . .”

Or, just as often, a mom brings up the topic of the public school lottery at a GGMG Neighborhood Meetup, fretting over the limited number of “good” schools, the extremely low odds of getting assigned to one of them, and the nightmare that is the lottery. “What if my kid gets the lowest number in the city? Then he’ll be at the very end of every school’s list!” Anxiety spreads through the room like peanut butter on hot toast. I intervene, asking the speaker about her experience with the process. “Oh, Henry’s only three, but I hear . . .”

It’s natural to worry, especially about a system that’s more complex and less predictable than most. Yet much of the discussion among parents of young kids in San Francisco features a dearth of accurate information and an abundance of apprehension. The truth about our public schools may surprise you.

Assessing school quality and character

As a parent setting out to evaluate the 72 public elementary schools in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), several sources of information are available: test scores, lottery demand rankings, school tours, the annual Enrollment Fair, the Enrollment Guide, and word of mouth—which includes websites and blogs, as well as guidance from the nonprofit Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF).

The most quantitative and easily obtained of these are test scores and demand rankings.

The Academic Performance Index (API) attempts to measure schools’ performance using standardized testing. Under the old system, parents could access each school’s raw API, a three-digit number, as well as a statewide rank on a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 correlating to the highest scores. Since the California Department of Education (CDE) is currently revamping the API, the 2012 (statewide rank) and 2013 (raw scores) data are the most recent available at press time.

<NOTE: The raw results of the new test administered last year should become available in the coming months, but they won’t yet be accompanied by a framework for statewide comparison. A brand-new metric, the School Quality Improvement Index, is also scheduled to be released this fall in conjunction with federal funding, giving schools point-based scores in the academic, social-emotional, and culture-climate domains; but it will be entirely untested, pun intended.>

Unfortunately, test scores are not a reliable proxy for school quality. Students grouped as “Socioeconomically Disadvantaged,” “English Learners,” and “Students with Disabilities” tend to score lower. Therefore, a school with a higher percentage of these students will have a lower API, even if it is making tremendous strides educating them. The phenomenon has led many to assert that the numbers say more about incoming students than school quality, and to refer to the stat as the “Affluent Parent Index.”

Plus, all standardized testing fails to capture educational success—actual learning—to some degree. As Albert Einstein said, “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” Michelle Obama adds, “If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here.” In other words, using test scores to evaluate SF public schools currently means using old data that serves as a proxy for a proxy.

That doesn’t mean the numbers are worthless, however. In a school with a statewide rank in the 2012 data of 1, 2, or 3, the majority of students probably still struggle to meet state standards for one reason or another. Conversely, at a school with a rank of 8, 9, or 10, most students—whether because of background or school quality—likely exceed the standards.

Demand rankings should also be used circumspectly. SFUSD releases a list of the top 15 most requested schools in the prior year’s lottery as well as the supporting data, which enables a parent to fairly easily put the remaining schools in order of popularity. Yet factors unrelated to school quality—such as start time, availability of after school care, geographical location, school size, and bussing availability—play into parental preference. Also, demand rank can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy for two reasons. First, parents assume that the most in-demand schools from last year must be the best ones and rank them high on their list of desired schools. Second, many people slap high-demand schools at the end of their list because of a possible lottery advantage. Since the metric is calculated using the total number of requests, the result is a demand-rank that doesn’t accurately reflect either eagerness to enroll or school quality.

Moreover, both sets of numbers are unreliable indicators of personal desirability thanks to differing instructional character. Different parents want different educational environments. Luckily for all of us, SFUSD is incredibly diverse.

Although all public schools use the Common Core State Standards, quite a bit of pedagogical variation remains. There’s SF Public Montessori, and other schools feature project-based learning or have a science focus. I walked into one classroom where the children sat rigidly around a long table, their hands tightly clasped in front of them. A teacher stood at the front of the room and used a wooden pointer to tap an overhead transparency displaying the letter “B.” She stated, “B, B, B says buh.” The children repeated in chorus, “B, B, B says buh.” At another school, instruction seemed predominantly child-led. One school I toured places a premium on discipline, requiring uniformed students to walk in silent, single-file lines down the hallways, while others allow more bodily freedom. Though the maximum number of students per class is set at the state level (22 for kindergarten), schools have two, three, or four classes. A school with 44 kindergarteners will be different than one with 88, in a way that cannot objectively be called good or bad.

I found myself looking for a mid-range school in terms of both size and structure. I wanted an environment where not everyone knew my child’s name, but most recognized her face. I liked seeing kids smiling and skipping through the halls, but didn’t want chaos. An extremely high-demand school with some of the best test scores in the city felt too rigid for me. I valued diversity, rejecting homogeneous schools, whereas others want their children to feel comfortable, surrounded by those of a similar background. A lot of parents prefer language instruction of some sort; we had no interest, which drove us toward the confusingly labeled “General Education” track. <NOTE: SFUSD offers several language pathways, ranging from “Newcomer” instruction for those with very little English through “Biliteracy,” “Immersion,” and “FLES,” the least intensive.> Arts and movement during some part of the day were deal-breakers for me, but a friend couldn’t have cared less. I was ready to rally the troops; others want to know the PTA/PTO is already well-established.

All this is to say, what one parent considers a “good” school can be very different from what her neighbor seeks.

Though the SFUSD website contains quite a bit of qualitative information, tours and the Enrollment Fair are the best way to learn about school culture as well as things like classroom feel, the presence of play structures, the principal, field trips, collaboration with businesses, sports teams, and parent involvement.

Word of mouth can be invaluable if from a primary source, not the rumor mill. The hype schools receive is often both overblown and outdated, as schools change quickly. One source described Miraloma and McKinley as “dumping grounds” just a few years ago; now they’re two of the most in-demand schools in the city. Also, keep in mind that every school will have at least one disgruntled family. One way to get to the bottom of things is to attend a school event open to the public.

Midway through my search, I thought I’d be competing for a handful of slots. Then I toured 16 schools. I found five that had everything we desired within walking distance. An additional five schools would require a longer commute but were still exciting in terms of quality and character. Here’s the part that shocks most people: half of those ten schools sat low enough in the demand ranking that we could safely rely upon getting a seat.

How the lottery works

The SFUSD enrollment lottery is infamous for being confusing, but it’s a quick study.

Parents can apply to as many of SFUSD’s kindergarten programs as they like; that’s 110 options, counting language programs separately. There are “attendance area” (AA) schools for which residing near the school may come into play in the enrollment process, and “city-wide” schools and programs for which it won’t. Each school that is not “city-wide” has an area of neighboring streets delineated on a map, but the school doesn’t always sit right in the geographical center; as a result, your AA elementary school may not be the one closest to you.

Parents submit an application with supporting paperwork (like a birth certificate) that lists the programs they wish to apply to in order of preference. This form effectively functions as a separate application to each program listed. Each program then runs a lottery and randomly assigns each student in its pool of applicants a number. In other words, your child will have a separate lottery number at each school, meaning the common fear of ending up at the end of every school’s list is misplaced.

When there are more applicants than available seats, seats are not filled strictly in lottery order. Each school first pulls out students that have “tie-break” statuses.

Tie-break One: Younger siblings of enrolled students receive seats first. That means if your son was assigned lottery number 11, but a girl assigned number 135 has an older sibling attending your first choice school, she will get a seat first.

Tie-break Two: Students who live in the attendance area of an AA school and are already attending its pre-K or transitional kindergarten program get preference next. A very small number of children qualify for this tie-break.

Tie-break Three: The “Open Enrollment” tie-break enables students who already attend a “low-achieving” school to attempt to transfer into one with a higher API, but it doesn’t apply to kindergarten seats.

Tie-break Four: The “test score area” or “CTIP-1” (Census Tract Integration Preference-First Percentile) category attempts to give disadvantaged students access to the city’s most in-demand schools. Applicants who reside in census tracts (basically chunks of neighborhoods) with the bottom 20 percent of test scores get pulled out next. That means if your son has lottery number 11, but a girl assigned number 135 lives on Treasure Island, she will get a seat first. Since location is an inaccurate proxy for need, some children of means benefit from this preference, especially in rapidly gentrifying areas like the Mission and Bernal. For this and other reasons, the CTIP-1 tie-break is the most controversial part of the lottery process; some recently sought to reorder the tie-breaks, but the Board of Education rejected the proposal.

Tie-break Five: Finally, students who live in the attendance area of an AA school will receive seats.

Only after offering these groups placement will each school tick down its remaining applicants in the order assigned by its lottery. That means your child could draw lottery number 11 at your first choice kindergarten, there could be 66 seats available, and you still might not get a seat in the first round of the lottery. The highest odds of this happening are for applicants living outside the attendance area of a high-demand AA school.

You will always be given your highest ranked choice that is available. If your second, fourth, and tenth choice schools have a seat for your child, you will simply be assigned your second choice school. There is also an automated swap feature meant to optimize the outcome for all families. If your tenth choice school has a seat for your son, and my eighth choice school has a seat for my daughter, but your tenth choice school is my first choice and my eighth choice school is your third choice, the computer will automatically switch our assignments. Because of this “trading up” step, it can be advantageous to list additional schools after your legitimate preferences, and the longer the list the better. If the computer runs through this whole process and a seat is not available at any of your listed programs, your child will be offered a seat at your AA school if any seats remain, or, if they don’t, at the school closest to your street address that has a seat available.

If you’re unhappy with your child’s school assignment, there are subsequent rounds. In the second round, you list only those schools you would prefer to the one your child was first assigned. In the third, fourth, and fifth rounds—known as “waitpool”—you list only one school. The process continues through the first two weeks of school. Then a “no transfer” period is imposed for current SFUSD students with an opportunity to submit a transfer request for January’s spring transfer period. Seats that open up during the fall will be held open at schools with pending transfer requests; when there are no transfer requests, non-SFUSD students, such as kids attending private school or those who have recently moved to town, are eligible to fill open seats.

The city’s two SFUSD charter schools and three state public charters do not participate in the SFUSD lottery; they use a separate application and admissions process.

Your odds and the bird’s eye view

Of the 30-plus families with whom we navigated the enrollment process for our daughter, about 25 got their first choice in the first round. Every single family who stuck with the process eventually obtained a seat in their first choice program. Some put down a private school deposit in order to quell the fear of an unacceptable option come August, ready to walk away from a seemingly big chunk of change knowing that it actually pales in comparison to saving an average of $8,549 per child per year. (One can even recoup a deposit or tuition payment through careful navigation of the contract termination process or by purchasing tuition reimbursement insurance.)

SFUSD statistics support this anecdotal evidence. In last year’s lottery, 70 percent of kindergarten applicants received their first or second choice placement in the first round of the lottery. More than half (60 percent) got assigned to their first choice school right off the bat. These statistics include the younger siblings of already enrolled students, but all families who hang in there through the summer are quite likely to receive the seat they desire most. Rachel Nip of PPS-SF reports, “Last year about 700 kindergarten families received a seat at their waitpool school.”

That means the odds are in your favor. The notion that SFUSD has very few good schools that are impossible to get into is just plain wrong. The more families who trust in this fact and invest in our schools, the more wrong it will be.

When I meet parents who accept this premise but are still frustrated with the complex and time-consuming lottery process and lack of predictability, I try to provide perspective with two points.

First, the biggest time suck is in learning the system. By reading this far, you’ve done that. You don’t need to tour 16 schools. Just pull up the map of schools, consult the “at a glance” chart in the Enrollment Guide, attend the Enrollment Fair, and tour the handful of schools that seem like they might work. Filling out and submitting the actual application takes only an hour or two, and the mechanics of the process are spelled out clearly in the Enrollment Guide (including birthdate eligibility, definition of residency, procedures for twins, and deadlines).

Second, when we lived in Downtown Seattle, our kids were zoned for a school a 25-minute bus ride away from our home. There was no ability to maximize for walkability, to contemplate whether our child would thrive in a larger or smaller school, to seek out a disciplinary ethos that felt right to us. There was no choice at all. Coming from that situation, the opportunity to engage in the SFUSD lottery felt like a blessing.

Choice and uncertainty can be overwhelming, but both breed opportunity. Ignore the hype; quell the panic. Look for the beauty in our big, multicultural, and pedagogically-diverse school system. And then do what’s best.