By NOAH BUHAYAR
Before classes started August 29th, the brightly painted halls at Buena Vista Alternative Elementary School were quiet, the classrooms empty and dark. But Jennifer Irvine was there, hoping to find two extra seats in the kindergarten for her twin boys.
“I feel like a salesperson,” said Irvine, an English as a Second Language teacher at San Francisco City College’s Mission Campus, after trying unsuccessfully to finagle spots at the K-5 bilingual school two blocks east of Potrero Avenue on 25th Street.
Stories like Irvine’s have been common the past few weeks, as parents unsatisfied with the public schools to which their children were assigned wait to hear whether spots open in other programs. This year, the wait has been especially tense, complicated by irregularities in the school assignment process and a sharp increase in the number of parents who want to send their kids to public schools.
After decades of declining enrollment, San Francisco Unified School District filled all its kindergartens this fall by the start of classes, August 25th, registering 4,539 students, 222 more than last year.
“Right now there are no openings anywhere in the city,” said Vicki Symonds, a parent network coordinator for San Francisco Parents for Public Schools. “And that’s unheard of.”
Last year at the start of school, she said, there were about a hundred open spots.
In the Mission District, the part of the city with the most number of families, elementary schools are bursting at the seams, with many kindergartens enrolling as many as 22 students per class. That has happened even though some schools, like Buena Vista and Cesar Chavez Elementary, have added extra classes and teachers over the past few years.
Under the state’s class size reduction program, schools have a financial incentive to keep their average class size in kindergarten through third grade at or below 20 students. Admitting more kindergartners one year can make it more difficult to meet these goals in future years, since students tend to enter an elementary school in kindergarten and stay through fifth grade.
Symonds said the growth in enrollment has been fueled by demographic shifts. In 2000, the city’s birthrate began to increase after years of decline. The children born at the beginning of the decade are now reaching school age.
Those factors, compounded by problems with the school assignment process this year, have made the enrollment process particularly trying for some parents.
Lynn Stewart initially wanted her five-year-old son to be in the English-Spanish bilingual kindergarten at Leonard R. Flynn Elementary on Harrison and Cesar Chavez Streets. In March, she was promised a spot by the district through the normal assignment process.
In San Francisco, parents choose where they want to send their kids. If they don’t get into one of their top picks, they can put their name on one school’s waiting list.
But in late July, Stewart — along with 22 other families signed up for bilingual programs at Flynn and Noe Valley’s Alvarado Elementary– received a letter that her spot no longer existed. Her son was reassigned to a new Spanish-English program at Daniel Webster Elementary, a school she had never visited.
“I was devastated,” she said.
At a closed meeting on August 6th, the district offered Stewart and the other families alternatives. Some of the reassignments meant expanding area kindergartens from 20 to 21 or 22 students. Stewart’s son is now enrolled at Flynn, but in an English-only track.
Parents like Jennifer Irvine, who are still waiting for spots to free up, may have to wait some time for an answer. Officials are usually sent out to the schools on the tenth day of classes to count which students have been showing up. Last year, San Francisco public schools enrolled 57,177 students, but by October the official count had dropped by about 2,000.
This year, however, the district has lengthened the amount of time it allows parents to be on the wait list for kindergarten spots. The mistakes at Flynn and Alvarado led Superintendent Carlos Garcia to extend the kindergarten wait pool from the end of September until November 7th, so that parents can take advantage of any spots that open up in October.
“Student enrollment is in flux right now,” explained Mitzi Mock, a spokeswoman for the district, in an e-mail.