Couldn't we just have a sorting hat for school assignment?
“Not Clarendon, eh?...Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it's all here in your head, and Clarendon will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that, no?"

It’s funny, sometimes, how your perspective changes when you get on in years. As a kid, you laugh at Chip and Dale tormenting Donald Duck. As an adult, however, you wonder why Donald couldn’t just be left alone — all he wanted to do was have a weekend barbecue, dammit. 

Is that too much to ask? CAN’T I HAVE FIVE MINUTES’ PEACE? 

As such, the snitches and butterbeer and whatnot in the Harry Potter world are fine and good for the kids — but when you’re a San Francisco parent, what you really want is that Sorting Hat. 

If only there was some omniscient entity that figured out where your kid should go to school and, just like that, assigned her there. No filling out forms in triplicate. No entering 10, 15, 24 — however many you can stand — schools on those forms, only for all your work to be re-typed into a computer by a School District employee in an obvious duplication of effort. No waiting for hours in a Cadillac-of-DMVs-type room to drop off those forms, because all of this still must be done in person and using paper (in triplicate). No waiting around for a letter to arrive in late March and, potentially, months of re-applying. 

To hell with all that: Just a hat, preferably voiced by an aging Shakespearian actor, that instantly puts your kid in the right school. Is that too much to ask? 

Alas. The prerecorded voice at school district headquarters that summons parents out of the waiting room to drop off their forms (in triplicate) is chipper and British-accented. And that’s as close as you’re gonna get to that Sorting Hat. 

Photo by Ed Bierman via Flickr.

Rarely does one go astray by betting on bitterly ironic outcomes in this city. San Francisco’s attempts to create a dedicated funding stream for public transportation resulted in the evisceration and wholesale pillaging of public transportation finances; San Francisco’s attempts to undo a billion-dollar healthcare loophole in fact incurred billions in additional costs; and, famously, San Francisco’s attempts to desegregate its striated school system actually further entrenched segregation.  

Starting last week, the school district began a series of public meetings aimed at gathering input toward fixing this, and changing its problematic school assignment policy.

God help everyone involved in this process. They will need it. A fair and equitable school assignment system has, in this city, proven to be the impossible dream; if the school district succeeds here everyone should be flown, posthaste, to Jerusalem to negotiate Mideast peace. 

Attempts to fix our school assignment system’s problems have, thus far, served as exemplars of the law of unintended consequences. And, analyzing the tentative fixes on the table now, some degree of consternation is well warranted. 

Our attempts to make things better for this city’s neediest students and families could well make things that much worse. They always seem to. 

Mission High School.

Years ago, when Diane Gray was working for the San Francisco Unified School District and tasked with explaining the enrollment process to incoming parents, she noticed something telling. 

When she worked with poorer parents, many of whom were black and brown, their questions were more quotidian: How do get into my neighborhood school? Where do I drop off my papers? When are they due? 

But at “more upscale preschools” — which skewed more white or Asian — the questions were different. “How do I work the system?” — she recalls that one coming up a lot. “How do I get the schools I want?” 

It’s hard to be brief and on-point in discussing the slings and arrows of San Francisco’s school assignment process because those slings and arrows mirror the city’s own. Our school system is segregated and empowers those with access and privilege because that’s how things are in the city writ large.

As such, the school district’s move to give parents more choice — to give residents in the Mission or Bayview-Hunters Point, where Gray was born and raised, the ability to send their kids to schools in leafier, more affluent parts of town — hasn’t worked out as planned. 

Choice has further enabled parents who are fortunate enough to have choices. If you have the time and flexibility to shlep your kid(s) to the most-desired schools (often tucked away atop hills in parts of the city even natives may never have visited), choice is great. If you don’t have a car; if a school is not near a transit line and there isn’t a devoted school bus; if you have a job where showing up late after dropping off your kids results in penalties or termination — then the district’s offer of broad school choice becomes something of a hollow gesture. 

Even before all of that, better-off parents can take time during the work week to visit prospective schools — and these tours are not necessarily offered in languages other than English. 

“Site visits are essential for families to know what’s available at schools, but they’re not accessible for everyone,” says Board of Education member Gabriela Lopez. “It’s not ideal.” 

In short, the rich tend to get richer; the poor tend to get poorer. They may not teach you that in school, but school teaches you that. 

Marshall Elementary students performing the song El Barco on stage during the school’s 100th anniversary in 2015. Photo by Andrea Valencia.

Giving parents more choice in where they enroll their kids inadvertently led to more segregation. All of the school district’s tentative plans moving forward, then, call for less parent choice. 

One needn’t be Nostradamus to predict this will go over like a lead balloon — and that the public meetings regarding these prospective changes to the school assignment system figure to be fraught. Veteran Board of Education member Rachel Norton says she’s resigned that she can’t make everyone happy. But these plans run the risk of making nobody happy.  

Here they are, in a nutshell: One calls for kids to be auto-enrolled in a designated neighborhood school with limited opportunities to opt out and go elsewhere; the other two call for either small or large “zones” in which kids are geographically limited to a set number of schools and guaranteed entry in at least one of them.

All of these plans would appear to have serious drawbacks — and all of them pit the city’s haves versus its have-nots. Few parents are going to transfer kids out of desirable designated schools in more affluent neighborhoods. And, along similar lines, “zones” sound fine if you’re living in parts of the city where schools are plentiful and well-funded. If you’re living in the city’s underserved outer neighborhoods, however, it’s harder to see how this solves your problems — or doesn’t, in fact, worsen them. 

Even if consensus could be reached that zones are the way to go, can you imagine the process of equitably drawing these zones? Can you imagine the mad crush for the more desirable schools within each zone? Can you imagine how transportation and logistical issues could be handled? (In case you were wondering, the reason some schools start at ridiculous, early hours and others start at 9:30 is that it’s too expensive to run a school bus system at one time and the shifts must be staggered.)

It warrants mentioning that fostering diverse schools isn’t merely a politically correct thing to do — plenty of research indicates it improves outcomes not just for the indigent but middle- and even upper-class students. 

But we are facing a chicken-and-egg problem here. Preventing parents in, say, Bayview from sending their kids hither and yon and instead compelling students to attend the neighborhood’s under-appreciated, under-enrolled schools could well lead to those schools improving. But so would, you know, improving them. And the city’s most put-upon parents may well wonder why the district hasn’t previously put more effort (and money) into first beefing up these schools before mandating this is the place for their kids to go — and hoping success follows. 

All of the proposed fixes to the school assignment process “do not fix the reasons people are not choosing the schools,” sums up Board of Education member Alison Collins. 

The school district is asking a lot of parents when it, in essence, says “Trust us: We’ll get it right this time.” It’s asking a hell of a lot of parents to send their kids now into a situation that may improve in some years’ time. 

In the end, there is no Sorting Hat. And, no, you can’t have five minutes’ peace. 

Photo by Mark Rabine.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. I believe the school district gets the lottery backwards. Every 5 years (or whatever length of time makes sense), all administrators and teachers should be put in a lottery and randomly assigned to schools across the district. This levels the playing field for all schools, and also weaponizes the squeaky-wheel affluent parents for good (nagging anyone and everyone about a poor SFUSD employee rather than that person otherwise sliding by in a disadvantaged school (where parents and resources are already too stretched).

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  2. Hey Carlos, We are in those demographic you described, and we didn’t go straight to Parochial schools. I’ll admit it, as a Latina mom with a Filipino father to my kids, and fourth generation San Franciscan, I don’t trust the public schools with my own kids, so we send our kids to a nearby Catholic School even though we are barely religious. We really wanted to support the public schools, but after one year in a public school emersion program, and our child being so stressed out that we didn’t even recognize our own child anymore, we couldn’t continue. We were lucky the local Catholic school had an opening. The school isn’t perfect, it’s way too expensive for our budget, but our kids feel safe, and we don’t feel like our kids are political pawns anymore. We wanted to public system to work, but for middle class families, there isn’t a lot of willingness to hear our concerns and we didn’t like being accused of racism when we tried to talk about things happening to our kid during the school day. As far as the Spanish taught at the emersion school, well, we have seen better results with an online program.

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    1. I wouldn’t question anyone’s personal experience with a school, but I have to disagree with the slam on SFUSD’s language immersion programs. It’s something SFUSD does really well.

      My kids, now in their 20s, weren’t in a language immersion program, and they (and I) regret that. But a number of their friends were, and all those young adults who are from English-speaking homes are fluent or at least conversant (if they haven’t used it steadily) in the second language. Some are in careers based on the second language — one is an immigration lawyer; some are teachers.

      I’ve literally never known or heard of anyone becoming fluent in a language through an online program — sure, it might help a bit, but there’s no comparison to a two-way language immersion program, starting at an early age.

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    2. The families I mentioned have multiple children.
      And yes, it’s hard on them financially but having local multi-generational support (grandparents and such), they’re able to get by.

      I actually hung out with the teachers and middle school kids on a field day.
      The experience was a bit odd.

      Children (of all different demographics except very few African Americans) were well mannered, polite, exuberant, engaged and well spoken.

      Contrast that to my public middle school experience of bully rule, fist fights, very large classrooms and a general sense of fear and gloom. And you’re right – I recall being very stressed out. One ends up with a general FU attitude to survive.

      My comments not to be construed as any negative implication on black kids.
      We’re such a segregated city that being born black is tantamount to having 2 strikes against you from the get go.
      As preposterous and unrealistic as this idea is – I’d like to see the very best public schools and support programs in California located smack dab in the middle of The Bayview – for Bayview residents.
      Least this preposterously wealthy city can do to try and make amends.
      And if you have to ask “amends for what?” then you ain’t got no black friends.

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  3. White people with the means – straight to private school.

    Anecdotally – close friends with kids – at least one parent born in SF:

    1) Both Hispanic (they’re brown) – straight to SF parochial school (Catholic)
    One parent is a middle school teacher with some time spent within SFUSD
    Quit SFUSD after a short period – too cuckoo bananas – now teaches at SF parochial school

    2) Filipino (quite brown) – straight to parochial – zero consideration for SFUSD

    Solution to the educational system in San Francisco:
    Eat the cookie and learn how to cross yourself in the right order.

    For black students/parents stuck in a never ending poverty cycle within the confines of our concentration camps:
    Don’t worry, be happy and have a nice day – we’re gonna build new barracks for y’all!

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  4. Key question — did the students who used CTIP preferences, or the prior “diversity index”, to get into better performing schools outside their neighborhood actually do better? I’ve never seen any reports on this.

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  5. School choice desegregates schools only when: 1) all parents can and are required to participate in the process in an equally informed way; 2) all children can access free, direct transit to and from their chosen schools — transit that takes nearly the same time as being driven by private car. Until SFUSD (and SF voters and politicians) mandates that students get that fast and free transit, and that every parent has access to equal amounts of information about each school, school choice will further segregate our schools. The current system favors parents with time and resources to research and personally visit multiple schools prior to enrollment choices. The current system strongly favors students who have parents or nannies to drive them across town. Change those constraints in a variety of creative ways that rely on more funds and tech to distribute knowledge of the schools’ strengths and weaknesses, and you will create a justice-based system, not one that perpetuates inequality. To give just one example: each principle and a set of faculty should create an internet available video on their school’s offerings, culture, etc. Appended to that—school test scores history and pta and anonymous testimonials from parents and students. Personal tours could become a thing of the past, as would personal delivery of children via private car drop offs. The current system nurtures inequality.

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  6. I, too, am an SFUSD veteran parent. And I think Caroline makes some excellent points. I’d like to make another.

    To me, it feels like you’ve neglected an opportunity to point out one of the main drivers of segregation: white parents who will go out of their way to ensure that their child attends a predominantly white school.

    Schools are segregated because white people want them that way. It’s the responsibility of white parents to desegregate our public schools. Not the school system.

    There are lots of excellent insights from Nikole Hannah-Jones on this:

    My son attends a school that receives Title I funding, and where 95% of the students are not white. It’s a block from my home. We *love* our school, the teachers, and the principal. And what all the wealthy white parents who live on my block have told me to my face is that they do NOT want their children going to my son’s school because they don’t want their white children to be some of the “only” white children there. So they go private/charter/Clarendon it.

    Any story about San Francisco’s school assignment system is incomplete without any mention of the responsibility of white parents in creating the racially segregated school system that we have now. I want to second Caroline’s suggestion of a more in-depth follow-up commentary.

    There is more to this story.

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    1. With all due respect to you and Caroline, it was made pretty clear in the story that there’s a lengthy story of past and present racism — and the whole premise of the column was that school choice has led to re-entrenched segregation. How much clearer does it need to be? Did anyone miss that point?

      Your statement that the school system bears no responsibility in enacting the school system’s goals is very hard to take with a straight face.



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      1. In reviewing the comments on Twitter I think if you’d specifically *named* anti-black racism on the part of white parents your article would have gone over much better with some of us.

        You’d have upset a different segment of the population, though.

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  7. As a veteran SFUSD parent who worked a lot as a volunteer with the assignment process (on committees, through Parents for Public Schools and the SFPTA, as a parent peer counselor) during those years, I always have to ask people who think it’s simple: HOW? How would you do it?

    And what diverse high-poverty district anywhere in the nation or the world HAS created a fair, equitable assignment process that ensures low-income kids aren’t stuck in schools that are overwhelmed by a critical mass of high-need, challenged students?

    This statement raises some questions: “Preventing parents in, say, Bayview from sending their kids hither and yon and instead compelling students to attend the neighborhood’s underappreciated, under-enrolled schools could well lead to those schools improving. But so would, you know, improving them.”

    1. That WAS the situation decades ago when the NAACP first sued the school district over inequitable schools, so is it in touch with history and reality to claim this would improve the schools? 2. This commentary and others saying the same thing always note that families in the Bayview are largely NOT sending their kids out of the neighborhood despite the opportunity to do so, so does this commentary contradict itself? 3. Give those realities, what’s the basis for the notion that preventing families in low-income neighborhoods from choosing schools in other neighborhoods would improve the schools in low-income neighborhoods? 4. Exactly how would you just improve the schools, with specifics?

    What’s the basis for indicating that the district hasn’t put effort and money into improving high-poverty schools? In the 16 years I was an SFUSD parent, I was aware of many programs that put effort and money into high-poverty schools. The needs of such schools are significant and challenging, in San Francisco as everywhere else. Are you aware of what the district does and has done, and what else would you suggest?

    One of the points of SFUSD’s history of struggling to give preference to low-income families in the assignment process is to offer those in greatest need access to the district’s higher-functioning schools. Does it seem understandable that the district wouldn’t want to remove that opportunity?

    I might suggest a more in-depth follow-up commentary addressing all these issues.

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