School Assignments = Complex Math

Heads cocked to the side as the already pensive-looking meeting goers at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting perused the thick handouts that would guide the on-going discussion and within minutes, the redesign of the student assignment process for San Francisco public schools became much more complicated.

As Mission Loc@l reported in September, there were three proposed options to reduce the district’s current system that has ended in more segregated schools. With the help of researchers from Stanford, Duke, Harvard and MIT, the community now has six options to contemplate and preliminary data that measure the efficacy of each.

“Parents should not have to think about how likely their child is to get into a given school,” said researcher Muriel Niederle of the school ranking process that can add an unnecessary level of stress.

Thus the team’s guiding concepts in the system redesign were simplicity and efficiency. All of the assignment systems assume it is in the best interest of parents to rank schools truthfully, and the ideal system yields the highest percentage of parents who get one of their top choices.

The six assignment options are:

  1. Local school assignment to the school nearest to a student’s address unless they submit choices for another city-wide program or school.
  2. Local school assignment unless they submit choices to attend any school in the district.
  3. Assignments to a school in a designated zone depending on where the student lives in a process that maximizes the diversity of every school.
  4. Choice of school with a preference for students who live nearest to the school.
  5. Choice of school with a preference for students who live near or already attend a school with a low Academic Performance Index (API).
  6. Choice of school with a preference for students who live near or already attend a low API school, followed by a preference for those who live nearest to the school.

The research team, which has helped redesign allocation systems for Boston public schools and New York City high schools, used algorithms with the data from last year’s parent rankings for kindergarten schools to do simulations. In much of the resulting data, the numbers were so close that discerning a better option from another seemed impossible.

One simulation did stand out. San Francisco’s current system of parental choice of seven schools with diversity of the school as a factor turned out to be the least predictable when compared to the new options. Under the current system, 72 percent of students would receive their local school or a school they ranked higher. The other options yielded higher percentages with the range peaking at 85 percent.

Of major concern for the board was a graph that showed that about 20 percent of parents fail to submit their school rankings by the first deadline in January. “Although the 20 percent seems small, it might have a bigger impact than you think,” said Commissioner Norman Yee.

He noted that it is probably made up of the target population of black and Latino students that the board is trying to give equitable access to.

Commissioner Sandra Fewer raised the point that the concept of choice itself may be inequitable. “As we’ve increased the amount of choice, people have chosen to self-segregate,” she said.

“Children from wealthy parents always have choice,” remarked Niederle. They can pay for transportation to a school that is farther away, move to a different neighborhood or pay for private school, she said.

As the meeting drew on, those attentive at the start began to slump in their seats. One by one people started disappearing from the room, including board members. Still, the line was long when it came time for public comment at 8:15 p.m.

“None of these results are particularly encouraging or much better than what we have now, so we need to focus on making all the schools quality schools,” said Ruth Grabowski of the Parent Advisory Council.

Longtime Mission resident Anne Maley hoped that the board would focus on predictability because “involvement is an important spark in improving schools,” she said. “How can I improve a school if I don’t know where my kid will attend?”

“I did not feel that these options would be inclusive for all children. I don’t see any racial implications in the data,” said Valerie Higgins, community outreach coordinator for Parents for Public Schools. She was concerned about the 20 percent who don’t make round one selections as well.

“We are going to need more time to reflect on this, it’s a lot,” said Commissioner Jill Wynns. In about a month, the Ad Hoc Committee will reconvene. The researchers’ conclusion of the data and the meeting: The board would have to “use its collective wisdom concerning public education in San Francisco,” not just the numbers.

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