The mountains loom large over the San Francisco Board of Education’s attempt to increase diversity in schools across the city and reverse a widening racial disparity in achievement.

While many urban areas have struggled to address segregation and poor test performance among black and Hispanic students from low-income families, San Francisco faces a fairly unique geographical challenge.

“There’s really no way to get across town, because we’ve got these mountains,” said board member Jill Wynns.

Three somewhat ambiguous options were eventually laid out Monday night at the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment meeting including having students either strictly assigned to schools in their area, slightly constraining the current system to reemphasize diversity over choice, or creating three large zones stretching horizontally across the city that students could choose schools from based on which zone they lived in.

The difficulties of traversing the city’s hilly middle were repeatedly brought up at Monday’s meeting to redress a convoluted system on how students are assigned schools.

Under the current system, parents choose seven preferred public schools each time their child enters elementary, middle or high school. Many don’t end up with one of those initial seven and must submit a second list.

But even as this system emphasizes diversity, most schools remain fairly homogenous racially and economically.

“The East-West connect is the only way to fully bridge the diversity gap,” stated Jane Kim, the board’s vice president. “But that would require a huge investment in transportation.”

The presentation by school district staff comprised 70 slides, approaching the issue from many angles and ways of measuring diversity, but without offering concrete solutions.

Despite a lack of enthusiasm for any of the three options, the board remained intent on adhering to a timeline that would have a new school assignment system in place for the 2011 school year.

Community conversation meetings will be pushed back one month and are now set for November 16 and December 7.

“I’m really chagrined that these are the only options we’re considering,” said Commissioner Wynns.

While school board members wrestled with ways to satisfy the community and improve racial disparities in school achievement, parents lined up to voice their chief concern.

“I hope you give high priority to proximity,” said Byron Therber, a father of two elementary students, citing wasted time, a further drain on kids not sleeping enough, and a heavier carbon footprint from transporting children to the classroom each day.

“You should always have a choice for the closest school,” said Debra Wilensky, whose youngest son will be entering high school next year. “Friendships are destroyed when kids have to go across town.”

Board members also sought to simplify a system that causes many parents anxiety and stress.

“We’re in such a muddle,” sighed Adrianne Herbert, who used to work with the student assignment system.

Margaret Wooll, a resident of Noe Valley whose daughter is still in preschool spoke of an exodus among friends with children as they approach school-going age.

“San Francisco is expensive, other places around here are as well,” Wooll mentioned. “But there you won’t have to pay for private school.”

“Diversity would be nice, but ….” Wilensky trailed off, seeming uncertain how to measure her family’s convenience and a more stable community for her children against the school board’s noble goals.

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Born in the central valley of Massachusetts and raised in Tidewater Virginia, Garrett attended public schools before graduating from the University of Virginia. Wandering and working in various national parks, tutoring kids on the playgrounds of Dublin, and teaching English to 3rd graders in China eventually led to some temporary confusion, and a re-settling as a community journalist.

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  1. The only way to increase “diversity” in San Francisco Schools is to close all the eastside schools. Parents won’t ever send there kids to low-performing schools on the eastside (there are exceptions). It has nothing (or little) to do with the topography of the city or Muni. “Dream Schools” failed uniformly. and the Consent Degree was a disaster. Here’s a clue: schools with the word “academic” in their name, should be closed first. “Academic” should be assumed in every school. If you name them such, you’ve already failed.
    San Francisco’s “dirty secret” is the demographic shift in San Francisco. The academic improvement in the schools is confined mostly to certain groups who A. Have cultural and income advantages and B. Have present and involved parents.

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