SFUSD enrollment fair, 2014
In happier times: Hundreds of kids flood John O'Connel High in 2014 for an enrollment event. Photo by Andra Cernavskis

Hundreds of parents filtered through John O’Connell High School on a recent Saturday. Many had kids and spouses in tow. Others, mostly mothers, were by themselves. Almost everyone looked a little confused and overwhelmed because it’s that time when parents have to start navigating what school to place their children in next fall.

For some, attending Saturday’s SFUSD enrollment fair was the first major step in what has become a long and complicated process.

“Was it like this when we were kids?,” Fernando Corcuchia, a financial planner, asked his wife, Cheryl Villanueva. The two have lived in the Bay Area their whole lives and now have a five-year-old son who will enter kindergarten next fall. They aren’t set on a public school for their son and are considering private schools as far away as the Peninsula. Many of their friends with kids have already moved there.

The SFUSD’s application period for all grades opened in October and runs until January 16, 2015 when applications for round one are due. The process includes proving residency, providing a list of schools, and submitting immunization records, proof of home address, and other relevant documents to the Educational Placement Center at 555 Franklin Street.  The application must be presented in person.

Over the last three years, interest in Mission schools has increased for both general education and some language pathway programs. While the number of parents putting the four K-5 schools – Bryant, Cesar Chavez, Marshall, and George Moscone –  as their first choice has stayed about the same, the number of people who listed the schools as one of their choices has increased almost across the board. More popular schools do see much higher numbers (Clarendon Alternative Elementary School in Twin Peaks had 1,421 list the school in 2014), but the improvement for Mission schools cannot be denied.

In 2012, 42 people put Bryant on their lists. In 2014, that number jumped to 99. For George Moscone, the number has increased from 118 in 2012 to 164 in 2014. Most of the Spanish language pathway programs (both dual literacy and immersion) kept the same numbers as is the case with Buena Vista Horace Mann’s Spanish immersion program.  Marshall Elementary, however, saw its immersion program go from 180 people listing it in 2012 to 268 listing it in 2014.

For Everett Middle School and Mission High School, the number of parents listing the school as their top choice has increased along with their total numbers. In 2011, Mission High had 45 guardians list the school as their top choice. Four years later, that number was 111. Everett went from 50 in 2012 to 118 in 2014.

Christina Velasco, Bryant Elementary’s principal,  said some parents are thinking a lot more about how to keep their kids in the neighborhoods in which they live.

“This is the first time in six years that I’ve really been hearing people be interested because it’s their neighborhood school,” Velasco said after Lindsay Irving, a parent from Bernal Heights, told her she wanted to tour Bryant because she and her son like to walk everywhere.

Diana Bretzinger, a manager at UCSF Medical Center, said that she has many friends who have taken multiple days off work to do research and attend school tours  to find the best fit for their kids.

“I haven’t done that yet, and I feel behind,” she said.

Linda Samayoa, also at the enrollment fair, said that it was her second year at the fair and  her son isn’t slated to start kindergarten until next year. She spent the year researching and returned to follow-up with schools she had visited since or liked at last year’s fair. She is looking for a school that has a strong PTA, she said.

Many parents were interested in getting their children into immersion programs, such as Chinese Immersion at DeAvila School, but there was some confusion as to the difference between the schools that offer immersion and those that offer dual literacy language pathways like Bryant Elementary and Cesar Chavez Elementary.

Catalina Rico, principal at Cesar Chavez, stood by herself at her school’s table. She said that she spent a lot of time over the course of the day telling parents who wanted their child to learn Spanish that they should place them in an immersion program and not a school like Cesar Chavez.

“I am very honest with parents. My school is 98 percent Latino. Our parents want their kids to learn English while maintaining Spanish,” she said of her school’s language pathways program, which is intended for students who do not speak any English.

Within five minutes, she directed two different sets of parents to the tables’ of schools that have immersion programs including Alvarado Elementary, located in Noe Valley, while other schools sent English Language Learners to her table.

Immersion programs are intended for students who are proficient in English and want to learn another language. Biliteracy pathway programs, like those at Bryant and Cesar Chavez, are for students who need to learn English.

Two schools, Marshall Elementary and Buena Vista Horace Mann (K-8) in the Mission offer full dual language immersion programs in Spanish. None of them offer Cantonese or Mandarin immersion.

For Heather Hsia, a stay-at-home mom who moved to SOMA with her “tech start-up guy” husband in August, the most important factor in choosing a school for their young son is a Mandarin immersion program.

After attending a seminar on immersion programs, she realized how unlikely it will be for her son to get into one of the two schools that have one Mandarin immersion program each. She’s now considering private school.

“Everyone wants to get into immersion,” she said.

Test scores are traditionally a factor in parents’ decisions, but the federal government has allowed California an extra year in adapting to the Common Core standards, so there were no state-wide standardized tests in math and language arts in the 2013-2014 schools year.

In the last year of STAR testing in 2013, the nine public schools in the Mission had mixed results with George Moscone Elementary being the only school to have over 50 percent of its students score proficient or better in both the Math and language arts portions of the former standardized tests.

Chinese Immersion at DeAvila School, a school many parents expressed interest at this year’s fair, had more than 75 percent of its students score proficient or above in both language arts and math in 2013.

While many parents were concerned about language programs, barely anyone interviewed for this article mentioned test scores as a major factor in their decision. Most said that it came down to the school tour and if it felt like the right fit.

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Andra Cernavskis is a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. She is Canadian by birth but grew up in New Jersey and then San Francisco's Miraloma neighborhood. She has also spent time in Toronto, Buffalo, and Montreal. The Mission is one of her favorite neighborhoods, and she is thrilled to be back reporting in San Francisco.

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  1. Thanks for this evocative write up. We were at the fair since we have a have a four year old. We expect he’ll start kindergarten next year at an SF public school – ideally one with Spanish immersion. While the system here can be time consuming to decipher and navigate, we appreciate that it does offer lots of choices.

  2. This author needs to go back to school. “because her and her son like to walk everywhere”, “one of the two schools who have one Mandarin immersion program”, “parents expressed interest at this year’s fare,” beside just general awkwardness. I’m not a grammar cop but really – where is the editor?

  3. Looking at the data points for the growth and all I can hear in my head is “No, no, and fuck this bullshit NO.” While other parents might be okay with jumping through these hoops I am not. I see a broken system that’s horribly inefficient and complicated further with their bullshit lottery system. I’m 100% in favor of ending that and disrupting the fuck out this ridiculousness. This is the one time you’ll hear me say “Let the public schools fail.” – at least here in SF, because I’ve got zero fucks to give to your incompetent system. Currently my kid is in school in Spain because she’s half Spanish and what I see there makes this circus look like a half assed act. I’m tempted to have her stay there and visit instead. That’s how awful this system is.

  4. Parents do not get to pick their kid’s school in SF. Bureaucrats pick which school based on quasi-racial ideological factors. Effectively SF has school bussing although we’re not allowed to call it that.

    Kids should be allowed to go to the closest school to them, but not be forced to if they wish to go elsewhere.