When Leticia went to fill out the application for the San Franscisco Public School District lottery, she was told to list seven schools, with the one that she most wanted her kindergarten-aged daughter to attend on the top, and the one that she least wanted her daughter to attend on the bottom.

She wrote down just one word and pushed the form back to the clerk. That word was “Moscone.”
The clerk pushed it back. “You need to put down more choices,” the clerk said.
Leticia pushed the form back. “No I don’t,” she said.

Leticia cleans people’s homes for a living. Her mother, and her mother’s mother, cleaned people’s homes for a living. In the small village in Mexico where she’d grown up, there were exactly three professional paths open to women: cleaning houses, making tortillas, doing people’s laundry.

Whatever path her daughter took, Leticia was sure of one thing: it was not going to involve any of those three things. She’d visited schools. She’d taken the workshops offered by her daughter’s Head Start program in how to navigate the city’s public school lottery system. And she had her own theories. “If I wrote down another name, they might have put my daughter in that school instead,” she said. “I knew where I wanted her to go.”

Leticia’s story and the story of many parents who manage to get their children into the high performing Moscone, offers a window into why Mission District parents and children will be protesting Thursday morning.  Here, after Moscone and perhaps Marshall, there are few choices for parents who want to keep their children in high performing schools and stay local.  The two middle schools, Horace Mann and Everett have failed to meet their improvement targets for five years in a row.

Moscone Elementary is unusual, both in the San Francisco Unified School District, and within the state at large. Its test scores are consistently high one of  the highest of any school in its district. Moscone easily overreaches the state’s educational performance targets, despite a student body that is disproportionately poor: nearly 90 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and that the vast majority of its student body is made up of non-native English speakers.

San Francisco’s public school system has been in rough shape ever since 1978, when Proposition 13 capped property taxes across the state and left public education chronically underfunded. Of the 50 states, California now rates 47th in the amount of money that it spends on its students. Moscone gets even less money than average – its scores are so high that it’s actually been locked out of state funding normally set aside for schools with low-income students. And still, it continues to do well. But there’s one catch: Moscone only goes up to the fifth grade.

There is no middle school in the Mission that comes close to matching Moscone’s scores. Which means that Leticia’s daughter, a shy, dreamy child used to attending an orderly, driven school where the principal knows every child by name, will have to ride the bus for an hour out to the Sunset or the Richmond and navigate a school two or three times that size (if she goes to a high-performing school like Presidio, Hoover, Marina, or Roosevelt) or go to a school closer to home with a much more chaotic environment, and lower scores (a teacher pulled Leticia aside and said “Under no circumstances will you send this child to Horace Mann”). Neither option is particularly appealing to the parent of a ten year-old.

One theory of Moscone’s success has to do with its strictness – the parents of prospective students are told not to bother enrolling their children if they can’t get them there by 7:15 in the morning. There’s also the matter of its language immersion programs – Leticia now has two children at Moscone, and they take classes in both Spanish and English. It also seems to attract singularly driven and intellectually curious parents, regardless of educational background. Leticia has never been to a day of high school, but earned her GED in a week after her husband casually suggested that it might be a good idea. “When I came here, I learned to ask questions,” she said. “I was raised to never ask why something is. Asking was seen as a challenge.”

Like a lot of parents, she didn’t realize that there was such an educational gap between the Mission’s elementary and middle schools. If she had known, she says, she would have tried for a high-performing school that goes up til the eighth grade, like Rooftop – schools which are now impossible to get into, because very few spots open up in the higher grades. After several months of visiting schools and getting progressively more and more anxious that she wouldn’t find a school that matched up to Moscone, she did something that she’d never considered before: look at private schools.

It was a disconcerting experience. There were forms, sure, but there were also a lot of recommendation that needed to be extracted from overworked schoolteachers (with attached questionnaires that asked the teachers their opinions of the parents as well as the child), application fees, tax forms, and interviews that seemed to require an entirely new set of cultural skills that went far beyond question-asking.

At one, a private school where 60 percent of the children were going there were paying more than $20,000 a year in tuition, an admissions officer asked her”What do you want from us?” It felt like a trick question. Wasn’t it obvious? She wanted her kid to get in, was what she wanted. But they must know that already. “You have high test scores,” she said, finally. “I want that for my child.” She could tell from the woman’s expression that she’d given the wrong answer.

When she was her daughter’s age, Leticia had aspirations to be a doctor. Then she one of her cousins told her that her uncle, grief-stricken over the death of a child, was going around threatening to kill the town doctor. Which made becoming a doctor seem like a less great idea. The dream now lives on in an ideological form: every time she takes her kids to get medical care, she points out possible occupations. “My son broke his arm, and when we got to the hospital I pointed out the x-ray technician right away, and said “Look! That man is in medicine and doesn’t have to see any blood!”

It remains to see if this campaign will stick. Her son, the youngest, wants to be either a pediatrician, an astronaut, or a popsicle salesman. Her daughter excels at math, but dreams of being an artist. Leticia has informed her, in no uncertain terms, of her disapproval. “I tell her that to be an artist, you have to be rich.” she says, firmly. “She will be a dentist’s assistant.’”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Moscone is a fantastic school, and ALL of its demographic subgroups show very high academic achievement.

    However, you need to look at the demographics when you’re reporting on schools. Moscone Elementary shows 32% Chinese students and 55% Latino students. This is important information because Chinese students, overall on average, tend to be the highest-achieving demographic in SFUSD (this is a national trend, too). Latino students, overall on average, tend to be low achievers — this is what all the discussion of the “achievement gap” is about. By contract to Moscone’s demographics, Cesar Chavez Elementary has 85.9% Latino students and <1% Asian students (all Asian groups combined). Nearby Bryant Elementary has 87.4% Latino students and <1% Asian students (all Asian groups combined).

    This is not to discount Moscone's success, but it's essential information when you're reporting this story.

    Also, be aware that some SFUSD schools that are extremely popular and oversubscribed, including with middle-class families, also show low achievement based on test scores. A good source of guidance is Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco, http://www.ppssf.org.

    I have friends who are educated, activist, involved, white middle-class parents who know the SFUSD system well but who chose Everett for their children, by the way. My family chose another middle school that at the time was scorned and downtrodden, Aptos, and my kids had an incredibly successful middle school experience. (Aptos has since risen rapidly in achievement and prestige.) Judging schools is never as simple as it seems.

  2. To the point raised by concerned, this is real. The SFUSD in its limited wisdom has proposed changing the focus of Moscone School. From what I can tell, there are reasons for this which give me pause. I’m a Mission parent with two kids who are Moscone alumni. If anything, make Moscone a K-8 by acquiring some nearby space at, say, Cesar Chavez school. Nothing against Cesar Chavez Elementary, but expanding the footprint of Moscone would be a much better thing than cutting out the Latino kids who are doing so well there.

  3. It’s disturbing that SFUSD not only hasn’t recognized Moscone’s academic achievement in recent years, but is actually pushing for Moscone to change its existing school model in favor of the latest fad in education: dual immersion (K-5 bilingual). Why dismantle a school that is successfully meeting the needs of its community? What kind of social justice is that?

  4. One correction: San Francisco schools started hurting long before 1978’s Prop 13. The biggest change was that middle class parents, mostly white, left for the suburbs. Why? Because they did not want to participate in the grand busing experiment to integrate schools. Because they did not want to sacrifice their children to shitty schools like Horace Mann. Because the public schools in Marin and San Mateo counties provided better education and safer places for their children.

    You won’t improve San Francisco’s public schools significantly until those middle class children return to the schools. You won’t see a difference until you provide middle class parents of all races a compelling alternative to suburban public schools or private schools.

    But hey, that’s a middle class, tax-payer issue, not a give-away to the homeless, the drug-addicted, the well-connected poverty pimps at “non-profits”, the green-obsessed.