School Assignment Changes Leave Parents on Edge

Mayra Martinez

With the highest percentage of school-aged children in the city, the Ingleside and Excelsior neighborhoods have much at stake as the San Francisco Unified School District tinkers this week with rules that determine which kids go to which schools.

The biggest uproar comes from the changes affecting elementary and middle school students - the first such changes in nearly a decade. Most children would go to their local schools, scrapping a system that gives top priority to students that add diversity.

“Our community is scared,” said Rocio Soto de Mobley who, as a parent liaison for El Dorado Elementary School, has spoken with many confused parents during the past few months. “They don’t want to lose control of where their kids go to school.”

Forty-one percent of the schools are characterized as “low-performing” by the district. With more state budget cuts lurking, many parents fear the quality of education at some schools could fall even further.

Surveys presented to the board last month show that parents’ top priorities were the quality of teachers, principals and curriculum. The parents had an average income below $50,000 and lived in Visitation Valley, the Mission, Inner Sunset and the Excelsior. Their children mostly attend low-performing elementary schools.

The “contradictions of the current condition of schools” and what parents desire left many parents struggling, said Carla Cuevas of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.

“I didn’t want my kids to go to their local school because our neighborhood is not what we wish we had,” said Juan Sandoval, who lives close to the Daly City line. His son is a student at Aptos Middle School. “I escaped from all of that, and I want him to go to college. I want him to be an engineer.”

A mother of two pre-K kids, Christina Wang Longtiran researched the schools and found few that she considered very good. “If we stay in San Francisco, we would go private,” said Longtiran, who lives in the Ingleside.

Varying Rules
The proposed rules, which would take effect this fall, vary for elementary, middle and high school students. They would exclude all K-8 and citywide schools.

The new school assignment plan stemmed from dissatisfaction with the system that uses a diversity index in calculating school preference.

“We asked, ‘How can we create a school like a community center?’,” said Principal Han Phung of James Denman Middle School in the Excelsior. “It is not possible if children do not live near schools.”

One goal of the proposal was to send the message to parents that schools are valued equally. Another was to encourage parents to enroll their kids in schools where they added to the overall diversity as schools improved, according to SFUSD staff member Orla O’Keefe.

“The essential ingredients of quality schools are students and parents. We can create quality schools in every neighborhood,” O’Keefe said when she presented the latest revised proposal to the board on March 25.

Equality Factor
Some parents of kids already attending their local school favor local assignment as such an indicator of equality.

“There should be equality for all schools. There should be no discrimination.” parent Maria Campos said in Spanish as she walked home on Ocean Avenue with a fellow parent from Aptos Middle School and their combined five children.

“There is more of a community between us,” said her friend, Veronica Villasenor. “We feel safer knowing that if the kids have to walk home by themselves, they don’t have to go far.”

Bigger Questions
Many parents and some board members feel that the problems in the public school system extend far beyond which school students attend.

Board president Jane Kim and member Jill Wynns indicated most board members still want a system that offers priority to kids from the poorest neighborhoods.

“If what they’re trying to do is close the opportunity achievement gap, then they need to realize that it is way more than a student assignment problem,” said Lori Fetzer, whose child goes to Fairmont Elementary in Glen Park. “It’s a community problem.”

One important question that hasn’t been answered is what to do with the under-enrolled schools in the Mission and Bayview neighborhoods.“How do we get kids to go there?,” asked board member Normal Yee.