Update: In a meeting on Thursday, Superintendent Matt Wayne said that Harvey Milk’s second Kindergarten class will be reinstated, so long as enough parents accept spots to fill both classes. Multiple parents at the meeting confirmed that Wayne said that down ballot choices, not just first choices, would be taken into account when assigning children to the school.

This week, parents across the city will be agonizing over which public schools they should apply to, ahead of this Friday’s deadline.

Each family can pick dozens of schools, ranking their most to least favorite. Then, they cross their fingers and hope that the district’s convoluted lottery process will grant them a top choice. But unbeknown to most, their decisions have ramifications beyond their own kids, and could even mean the difference between schools thriving or facing the long-term threat of closure.

The Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy is an elementary school in the heart of the Castro. During the pandemic, the number of students enrolling in its lower grades dropped significantly, but staff held out hope that the numbers would bounce back. A recent renovation gave the school a brand-new library and upgraded facilities and, before the 2022–23 school year began, some 246 parents listed Milk as one of their kindergarten choices, according to school district data.

But before the year began, the school district informed Milk that one of its two kindergarten classes would have to close. As part of the district’s extensive plan to cut costs, Milk’s 44 available seats were halved.

The reasons given were twofold. One: Enrollment the previous year was low. Two: In 2022, despite hundreds listing Milk as a choice for their kindergarten, only 16 listed it as their first choice.

Many parents, teachers, and other education staff at the school are frustrated that the school district only appears to be counting first choices when figuring out predicted enrollment. Doing so, they argue, means smaller schools are likely to miss out. They also warn that cutting kindergarten classes will have dire implications for schools with few seats, as low enrollment will likely ripple up the grades, ultimately threatening to make the school too small to operate.

Milk is not the only school to see kindergarten classes cut back significantly. In an effort to bring down its $125 million operating deficit, last year the school district began deciding classroom capacity centrally rather than allowing schools to define seats themselves.

Let’s take a look at where it made cuts.

Kindergartens saw the most aggressive cuts in 2022–23, according to school district data.

In at least 21 schools, kindergarten seats were cut by 15 percent or more.

The district says these schools were chosen due to low enrollment and too few parents requesting them as a first choice.

Most of the kindergartens that were cut had relatively few parents requesting each available seat.

In that sense, Harvey Milk is an outlier. Some 246 people put the school down as one of their choices, but half of its seats were still cut.

The rationale for this was that, even though lots of parents put down the school as one of their choices, not enough put it down as their first choice.

Milk was one of at least three schools that had their kindergarten classes cut from two to just one.

On the flip side, Transitional kindergartens saw a big boost to their seats.

This was done to comply with a new state law, which requires that every 4-year-old must be eligible for a spot by 2025–26.

6th grade and 9th grade classes saw comparatively little change this year.

But some worry that cutting back on kindergarten spots will have a knock-on effect on higher grades in years to come.

“It feels like it is a slow way of closing our school,” said Vashti Ferguson, Milk’s remaining kindergarten teacher. Fewer students means less government funding and fewer parents who could help with private fundraising, she said. With fewer funds, the school may find it harder to attract more parents.

“It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Ferguson.

Teachers in higher grades may well lose their jobs, she added, when not enough students filter up from kindergarten to fill their classes.

In mid-January, the school district’s Interim Chief Financial Officer, Anne Marie Gordon, gave a presentation to parents and teachers at Milk about why their kindergarten class closed.

Gordon said that the school district was following the direction of fiscal expert Elliott Duchon, who was appointed by the state in 2021 to help bring down the district’s deficit. His advice was to raise each grade’s enrollment up to at least 90 percent. That meant closing some classes so that fewer empty seats remained.

And from a birds-eye view of the district, the changes are working as intended. According to an SFUSD statement, classes were 89 percent filled this school year, compared to 82 percent in 2021–22. This means resources are being used more efficiently. The statement adds that “in a year where school districts across the country faced teacher shortages, some of the hard decisions to reduce classrooms meant there were fewer classroom vacancies in SFUSD than there otherwise would have been.”

This is against the backdrop of diminishing enrollment across California. The number of students signing up to attend public schools in the state dipped almost 7 percent during the pandemic. According to Gordon, that decline is likely to continue for several years in San Francisco, so tough choices need to be made around which classrooms remain open.

But this, several parents argued, was missing the point.

“If we have one kindergarten, that means we have one first grade next year,” said one parent during the meeting with Milk. “It’s leading to, I’m going to say something dire, the death of our school.”

“One classroom per year is unsustainable,” said Joanna Lin, a Mission resident and the parent of a Milk kindergartener. “It sets the path for failure.”

“The school district could have instituted a minimum of two classes per grade, but it didn’t,” said Lin. She added that closing a kindergarten class at a larger school would still be hard, but would not pose the same risk to the school. Even if schools needed to be closed or consolidated, she said, that should be decided through conversation, rather than by allowing a school’s numbers to drop until it cannot support itself.

Visitacion Valley’s El Dorado Elementary School and Bayview’s George Washington Carver Elementary also both appear to have been cut from two kindergarten classes to one this year. Rosa Parks Elementary, in the Fillmore, went from two general education kindergarten classes to one, but retained other streams. Representatives for these schools were not immediately available for comment.

“Being a one-classroom-per-grade school is not a closure sentence,” said Gordon during the January meeting with Milk. “That was never the rationale.”

Gordon also defended using parents’ first choices in the lottery as a measure to estimate future enrollment, another point of contention.

“Just assigning 44 students” who did not pick Milk as their first choice “does not result in another classroom worth of students accepting and enrolling at Milk,” Gordon said. She added that acceptances at schools fall off dramatically after first choices, which makes predicting enrollment from secondary choices difficult. Parents who are assigned schools that are not their first choice often appeal to get placed elsewhere.

Still, only 57 percent of children were placed in their first-choice schools this year, making first choices an imperfect way of figuring out who will end up where as well.

Sarah Kern, who has been the school librarian for 12 years and had two children go through the school, said that relying primarily on first choices ignored the way that many parents interact with the lottery.

“When I was filling out the choices, I did what everyone else was told to do: List the most popular schools first,” said Kern. Bigger and better-known schools often attract more first choices, with smaller neighborhood schools coming lower down the list.

When asked for clarification on why only first choices were counted, district spokesperson Laura Dudnick wrote over email that “we count student applications only once for enrollment projections because they can only enroll in one school.”

“It is important to note that we are not making significant changes to the number of seats and classrooms in entry grades for next year,” added Dudnick. The school district is intending to make a shallower cut in the coming year, with 550 spots cut from elementary schools and 140 added to middle schools.

But while cuts are ongoing, it is unlikely that any closed classes will make a comeback. According to Gordon, the most likely route by which Milk’s second kindergarten class would return is if 44 parents listed the school as its first choice. That is not impossible; 36 parents put the school’s kindergarten class in first place in 2020, and 47 did the same in 2018. But given the lower figures over the past couple of years, it is not expected.

More immediately, parents and teachers are intending to protest the class cuts next Wednesday, in what they have characterized as an existential struggle for the school’s future.

“Our staff is more like a family than a group of people that work together,” said Kern. “At this point we are feeling like our family is being torn apart.”

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DATA REPORTER. Will was born in the UK and studied English at Oxford University. After a few years in publishing, he absconded to the USA where he studied data journalism in New York. Will has strong views on healthcare, the environment, and the Oxford comma.

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  1. Speaking as someone who has both devoted 20 years as an educator with SFUSD and also a parent of children who
    have attended our public schools preK through high school, I can honestly say the grass is not always greener in the so-called “desirable” schools. I’ve noticed a trend. When a public school has the “popular” status, it also ironically has the power to attract some of the most demanding and entitled adults, who are running on the vicious hamster wheel of one of the most expensive cities on the planet. With our oldest kid, our family had definitely experienced the phenomenon of attending a “popular” public school (pre-K parents literally congratulating us for “winning” the lottery!) whose vibe was completely off and occasionally even hostile because of the this trend. Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy was not a school I had heard much about or researched a great deal. After experiencing being a new parent in SF, I had always been disgusted by the aggressive & competitive vying for the “best of everything” vibe of SF, beginning with preschool. All I had to go on was the fact that I knew, respected and loved a few staffers I had crossed paths with professionally. Our child and our family quickly fell completely in love with this school and it’s incredible staff. HMCRA is an important and unique community school in that it completely lives up to the values of social justice and equity that we should all want our children to understand and model in the world. It is bitter irony that SFUSD touts these very same values on their website, yet WERE seemingly completely poised to send HMCRA down a path of closure. The good news is that with much love and advocacy, HMCRA will begin the 2023/2024 school year will TWO kindergarten classes. You, dear reader, can apply too!!!! Come be a part of Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy. You will not regret. Our child is moving on, we are so sad to leave, and have recently toured many middle schools. Our kid included Lick and Everett in their top 3 choices. Know why? Because HMCRA alumni came to a Q&A to talk to the 5th graders about their middle school experiences. And guess what? Those experiences were positive. Our children’s public schools CAN thrive (Everett included!!) when we make it priority to support them. I only wish the district would do the same instead of pouring it’s money into central admin, extraordinary amounts paid to consulting firms and a STILL faulty payroll system.

  2. Sorry if I missed it, but it seems that a significant reason for ranking Milk lower in the lottery was not in the story: Everett Middle School. McKinley also saw an exodus over the past year, because of the poop-storms at Everett during the last school year. If Milk were not a feeder school for Everett, there is a lot that would make it more attractive to parents.

  3. Please update this article before the lottery closes! There will be no cap on kindergarten students at Milk if enough people put it as #1. Hurry! An article about the death of the school will turn people off! The lottery ends tomorrow!

  4. SFUSD is reopening Harvey Milk’s second kindergarten class next year! During a community meeting with Superintendent Wayne, Milk families and staff were told that we will NOT be capped at one kinder class for 23-24. Based on our school’s advocacy and the fact that EPC has already received twice as many applications as last year that list Milk as its #1 choice, the district is listening to family demand and reinstating our second kinder class.

    We are super happy that our wonderful school – with our brand new building and civil rights curriculum – will continue to grow and thrive!

  5. After a meeting with Superintendent Wayne this morning, so happy to report that Harvey Milk will have placements available for a 2nd kinder class for the 23-24 school year! They heard the voices of SF Families. We all know enrollment is down across SFUSD, but HMCRA is a high choice for more than enough families to fill the Kinder spots. It’s so important to show families that SFUSD is honoring their needs if they hope to raise overall enrollment. I am glad more families will be able to join the amazing Harvey Milk community!

  6. SFUSD is in the process of changing the elementary school assignment process. Though it has now been delayed until either the 2025–2026 or 2026-2027 school year (depending on which paragraph of the webpage you read and believe – https://www.sfusd.edu/schools/enroll/student-assignment-policy/student-assignment-changes ) , one of the key aspects of the new plan is to reduce travel times for families getting kids to and from school.

    Many families decide to drive their kids to schools across the city, rather than walk to their neighborhood school. Proximity to home and to one’s community/neighborhood doesn’t matter to the car-driving set. You can see it on the list of schools they come up with: they’ll select schools scattered about the city that are miles from home and miles from each other, rather than send their kids to the nearby school that isn’t on the list they read about on a blog post telling them which schools are “good” and which are “bad.”

    As we were making preparations for kindergarten, a neighbor with a child the same age as ours said there were no schools anywhere nearby, within walking distance of home. The closest SUFSD elementary school to the neighbor’s home is five not-too-hilly blocks away (the Chronicle has called it a “diamond in the rough” because more white kids go there now); the second closest is eight blocks away. When reminded of that, her response was in effect those two schools don’t exist. We chose the school that was eight blocks away from them (six from us). Eleven years later, and going on five years after my child graduated, I am still there because that neighborhood school is just that important – and fantastically fun.

    This is how segregation happens. Those with flexible white collar office jobs and a car (and a private parking space) are able to drive across the city so their kids don’t have to go to school with the wrong crowd. (The little humans that former school board commissioner Ann Hsu called “the riff raff”). Families with greater financial and time constraints who still drive across town have bought the gimmick and swallowed the pill.

    I don’t know which neighborhood’s Harvey Milk’s student body looks lives in. Nor do I support school closures. I would guess that some of Milk’s students are neighborhood kids, while others are driven (or even Muni-ed) across town to get to school. There might also be Castro/Eureka Valley neighborhood kids who are driven to a non-neighborhood school because of the gay thing. When the name was changed from Douglas to Harvey Milk (circa 40 years ago – I don’t recall exactly), plenty of neighborhood parents at the time had a homophobic shit fit about sending their kids to a “gay” school (because gay is like cooties – or worse. Hello, Ron DeSantis). Some mature adults went so far as to call the name change racist because Douglas (one S) Elementary School was named after Fredrick Douglass (two S’s) – as if the segregationist school board from the Barbary Coast days of San Francisco would have honored an escaped slave who became a fierce abolitionist.

    Rather than investing time and energy in a neighborhood school, which would stabilize and improve all schools, many families stab the nearest school in the back as they hope to flee to any one of ten “good” schools on the “A list” and then insist they love their neighborhood because it is conveniently situated, diverse, eclectic and “real.” I’ll say it again: This is how segregation happens. They’ll buy from local farms to save the planet, but they won’t make the same commitment to the public part of public schools.

  7. Fewer students + less money = fewer classes and fewer schools.

    You can find parents outraged about literally anything. That doesn’t affect the equation above.

  8. You might want to point out this is bad advice:

    “When I was filling out the choices, I did what everyone else was told to do – list the most popular schools first,” said Kern.

    For optimal results, you should list schools in the order you prefer them.

  9. Everyone in this area puts Clarendon as #1 because it’s worth a shot. And then you send your kid to Milk. The administrators are using THEIR own garbage lottery to doom the school. I hate this school district so much. And yes I put Milk as #1. I had actually moved my kid out of Milk because of THIS newspaper’s reporting on Everett, the middle school feeder for Milk. The articles were scary and did the trick. I got scared. I’m switching both kids back because I miss Milk. I hope that this article doesn’t cause even more people to write Milk off as dead. Any thoughts, Mission Local?

    1. Really though- have you actually been to Everett Middle School? I would never send a kid there. I’d homeschool them first. It really is that bad and anyone who tells you otherwise probably does not sent their own kid there.

      1. Hi – I DO send my kid there, and she loves it, is getting a solid education, and I’m proud to have an Everett Owl in my house.

    2. Just send them to private school like I did.

      The “best” SFUSD school is worse than the worst private school.

        1. Or for Lick Wilmerding, $54,800 plus a facility fee. Aaaack! Lots of us are actually having good experiences with public school….My 7th grader learned Spanish in his immersion SFUSD elementary school and is more engaged and challenged than ever at his middle school, also SFUSD, which has a really positive culture. Crossing fingers for Lowell for high school!