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As Parents Get More Choice, S.F. Schools Resegregate
San Francisco faces a challenge: promoting educational options without undermining classroom diversity
Each January, parents across San Francisco rank their preferences for public schools. By June, most get their children into their first choices, and almost three-quarters get one of their choices.
A majority of families may be satisfied with the outcome, but the student assignment system is failing to meet its No. 1 goal, which the San Francisco Unified School District has struggled to achieve since the 1960s: classroom diversity.
Since 2010, the year before the current policy went into effect, the number of San Francisco’s 115 public schools dominated by one race has climbed significantly. Six in 10 have simple majorities of one racial group. In almost one-fourth, 60 percent or more of the students belong to one racial group, which administrators say makes them “racially isolated.” That described 28 schools in 2013–2014, up from 23 in 2010–2011, according to the district.
But the San Francisco Public Press has found the problem may be even more stark: If Asian and Filipino students are counted together — the standard used by the Census — together the number of racially isolated schools in the last school year rose to 39.
The drive toward racial isolation in the district parallels a larger trend in the city: With many wealthier families opting for private alternatives, the public school system is becoming racially and economically isolated from the city as a whole.
Why does it matter whether schools are diverse? One reason is academic performance. Recent studies from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, show that many students do much better on tests when placed in integrated classrooms, and that all kids are much less likely to grow up with racial stereotypes and prejudices. Far from being opposed to each other, excellence and diversity go hand in hand.
How did this resegregation of schools happen in a city where almost everyone from district leaders to parents supports the ideal of diversity?
Dramatic income inequality, shifting demographics, rising housing costs and the proliferation of language programs are fueling the trend. But the biggest culprit, say outside researchers and local education leaders, is the feature that defines the student assignment system: school choice.
The district provides parents with a dizzying amount of information about the schools. The application process requires time, language skills and access to technology — advantages that often come with education and financial resources. “Choice is inherently inequitable,” San Francisco Board of Education member Sandra Fewer said at a December meeting on student assignment. “If you don’t have resources, you don’t have choice.”
Orla O’Keeffe, the district’s policy director, said affluent, educated parents compete for the small number of seats at the highest-performing schools. Children from poor and working-class families, disproportionately black and Latino, often end up in underperforming schools.
The district currently has few tools to address the problem. “If you’ve got racially isolated choice patterns, then your capacity to create diversity using a choice mechanism is constrained,” O’Keeffe said. “There’s none of that in our system. It’s all about what families want.”
The choice system tries to make the schools diverse by giving more preference to students who live in neighborhoods with low average test scores, a proxy for measuring poverty. But some Board of Education members are acknowledging that mechanisms intended to promote diversity are flawed.
“The story of our efforts at student assignment is the story of unintended consequences,” said Rachel Norton, a board member since 2009. “In some ways, it’s a perfect mismatch of intent and results.”
Norton, Fewer and other education leaders are pressing for major changes to help re-integrate schools. One idea is to use language tracks to attract white and middle-income families to racially isolated schools, from both district and private schools.
Such changes could shape the city for decades to come, affecting its culture, income distribution and real estate patterns. But if parents have inadvertently helped to resegregate the schools by seeking the best opportunities for their own children, it may take individual and collective efforts by those same parents to create the diverse public schools many of them say they want.
Why are schools so segregated?
Money is the key factor. Parents are asked to navigate a system that is essentially a competitive marketplace, where affluence confers advantages.
Consider Carrie and Scott Tanabe. Carrie is a family therapist for the district; Scott is a planner with a technology company. Like many parents, they started researching kindergartens last October, nearly a year before their daughter would start school, starting online and then continuing with school tours and conversations with other parents.
The application the Tanabes submitted on Jan. 16 allowed them to rank all 72 elementary schools, including charters, if they chose to. From there, a computer algorithm will try to slot their daughter into their first choice, Grattan Elementary, near their Cole Valley home. Because Grattan usually has far more applicants than slots — 1,202 applicants for 67 kindergarten seats in 2013 — the Tanabes will face a series of tiebreakers under San Francisco’s school assignment system.
The system, often erroneously called a “lottery” because it contains an element of randomness, is in fact a carefully constructed and complicated set of rules that give preference to children who:
- Have siblings already at the school
- Enrolled in an attendance-area pre-kindergarten
- Come from a neighborhood where the average test scores are low or
- Live in the school’s attendance area.
The Tanabes’ daughter satisfies only one tie-breaker, living in the school’s attendance area, and that may not be enough to keep her from being bumped down the ranked list they submitted, until she finally hits one where there is room. By law, the family’s Chinese-Japanese-Jewish heritage cannot be considered by the district in the assignment process.
The period from January to June, when the final notifications go out for those still on waiting lists, is one of high anxiety for many parents. Perhaps even more so for those who have done enough research about each of the schools to feel strongly about their options.
“I knew that the chances of getting into the school you wanted weren’t very good,” Carrie Tanabe said in her living room. “There were some parents we knew who developed these very elaborate spreadsheets, and put so much thought and time and energy into preparing to apply. I thought they were kind of crazy, honestly.”
“We have a spreadsheet,” interjected Scott, as their youngest daughter wiggled in his arms.
“But we didn’t make it,” she replied with a note of defensiveness. “We got it from another parent.”
The five-tab sheet includes test scores and information on enrichment activities, languages and afterschool programs for all elementaries. Shared over email through an informal network of affluent, educated San Francisco parents, the spreadsheet illustrates the advantage the Tanabes have in a competitive marketplace, one that Scott recognizes.
“We have options,” he said. “We can send our kids to private schools. We can travel across town. Not every parent can.” (For more on how transportation shapes school choice, see "Transportation Challenges Complicate School Choice for S.F. Students.")
May the best parents win
A San Francisco woman whom we will call Adalina Hernandez is one of those parents without many options. An undocumented immigrant who asked that her real name not be used, she does not own a computer or even have an email address. She arrived in the Mission District from Mexico in 2004 and is still learning English.
The older of her two sons attends third grade at Bryant Elementary in the Mission, which is almost 90 percent Latino, and she aims to send her four-year-old there next year. At school, her son qualifies for free lunch, a statistic used by researchers and administrators to measure poverty.
For her, choosing a school was simple: “I went in person to the school district, and they told me that Bryant was my neighborhood school,” she said.
A cousin already attended the school, but what Hernandez liked most was that many of the families at Bryant were also Mexican immigrants. She could communicate and feel part of a community. Test scores were not important, she said, adding that in any case she did not know what they meant or how to investigate them.
Bryant is in fact one of the district’s worst-performing schools, in part because so many students are learning English or come from extreme poverty.
Parents face many of the same linguistic and cultural barriers as their children. Despite having been through the process once before, Hernandez said many aspects of her younger son’s application to go there next year confused her. She was unsure if she should give the application to the school or the district office. She did not know whether he needed a placement test.
Other Latino immigrants interviewed on Mission playgrounds shared Hernandez’s confusion about the process, as well as her preference for proximity to home and a community of Spanish speakers. Yet they also said biculturalism was a major educational goal for their children.
“My kids learn more here than in Mexico,” said Olga Ramirez, whose son and daughter attend Redding Elementary in Nob Hill. In San Francisco schools they can learn both English and Spanish, and encounter different kinds of people. Both women see the schools as a way out of isolation by race, language and social class.
Reducing isolation is a goal shared by Carrie Tanabe, who said she moved to San Francisco from Marin for the city’s diversity. “I want our kids to be exposed to a lot of different cultures and ethnicities,” she said. “So when I go to a school and I look at a classroom, I look to see how diverse it is.”
Hernandez, Ramirez and the Tanabes want many of the same things for their children, but their different approaches reveal how some families end up at the district’s most disadvantaged schools while others end up at the best. The stakes are highest for kindergarten applications, because each elementary school feeds into a middle school, which will in turn feed into a high school.
But many black and Latino families do not even participate in the first round of applications, said the school district’s O’Keeffe. Twenty-one percent of African-Americans and 15 percent of Latinos submit their applications late or not at all, compared with 4 percent of whites and 3 percent of Chinese-Americans.
“The irony is that a system that has very complicated, precise rules, that encourages you to go out and see and evaluate a bunch of schools, obviously benefits the most advantaged families,” said board member Norton. “But many of the most advantaged parents think they’re disadvantaged by that system!”
Schools diverge from neighborhoods
The Hernandez and Tanabe families are actually unusual in that they are aiming for their attendance-area schools. Last year, only 21 percent of families put their attendance-area school as their first choice, and district data show that most students leave their neighborhoods when they go to school. As a result, few schools look demographically like the surrounding neighborhoods.
For example, almost half of students at Alvarado Elementary in Noe Valley live below the poverty line, while the median household income in the neighborhood is $115,700 — 53 percent above the city median. Only one-tenth of Noe Valley residents were Latino in the latest census, but last year 43 percent of Alvarado’s students were Latino.
This pattern holds throughout the district: Poor students of color are embedded in many high-income, high-cost neighborhoods where residents are either childless or send their children to private schools. Though San Francisco has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and one of the highest income levels, 58 percent of its public school students are poor. And almost all the poor children are Asian, Latino or black.
Though the number of racially isolated schools jumped by 22 percent over three years, according to a district study, to date none are more than 60 percent white. Yet in a broader sense, white children are the most isolated in the city.
Whites are 42 percent of the city’s overall population, 33 percent of the children but only 12 percent of public school students. Why aren’t more white children in public school? Again, money appears to be the key factor: The average white San Franciscan makes three times more money than the average black resident. Whites on average also make 66 percent more money than Latinos, and 44 percent more than Asians. Possibly as a result of this wealth, white children are much more likely to be enrolled in private schools than other racial groups.
Since the new assignment system went into effect, the white children who do attend public schools have started to concentrate in just a few. In the 2009–10 school year, there were no schools in which whites were the simple majority. By last year, there were five, including Grattan. Meanwhile, at half of elementary schools, the white student population is now at or below 10 percent. At one-quarter of elementaries, the student population is 2 percent white (or less) — making them “apartheid schools,” according to some researchers.
Costs of racial isolation
Can’t schools just be great regardless of who attends them? In general, no.
In 2009, San Francisco Unified asked Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford University to study the academic effects of racial isolation. She found that black and Latino students did better at diverse schools than they did at ones where their race was in the majority. And black and Latino students at racially isolated high schools were 11 percent less likely to graduate than their counterparts at diverse schools, even after controlling for other factors such as poverty. (She did not study white children.)
Darling-Hammond also found that the achievement gap between different racial groups was widening, and subsequent developments have confirmed her insight. From 2010 to 2013, according to district reports, the number of racially isolated schools that have performed at the bottom third of standardized tests rose by 56 percent.
One possible reason: San Francisco schools with a majority of Asians, Latinos or blacks are far more likely to have inexperienced teachers compared with similar schools across California, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education. The data also show that teachers in the city’s racially isolated schools are among the lowest paid in the state.
Not all racially isolated schools underperform. KIPP Bayview Academy, a charter middle school, outperforms the other predominantly black schools, making it one of a handful of outliers. In addition, almost all of those dominated by Asian students test in the upper third — the inverse of the picture at black- and Latino-dominated schools.
In San Francisco, “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves,” said Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studied parent choices for the district in 2010.
But a San Francisco Public Press analysis of school district statistics found that achievement correlates with income, not race. On average, Asians at racially isolated schools are more affluent than blacks and Latinos. Class seems to matter for all groups. Poor Asians struggle almost as much on standardized tests as do other impoverished students.
Asian students may also fare better at diverse schools. At the city’s most diverse high school, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, the academic performance index (which rates schools on a scale of 200 to 1,000) for Asian students is almost 900. But at the two high schools where the Asian population is highest, Galileo and George Washington, they score closer to 800.
UC Berkeley economist Rucker C. Johnson analyzed the life trajectories of 8,258 children born between 1945 and 1970 to understand the long-term nationwide effects of racial segregation. He found that minority children who attended segregated schools were not as likely to graduate from high school or go to college. As grown-ups, they also were more likely to be poor or go to jail. Importantly, whites showed no measurable disadvantages after attending integrated schools.
But all students had one thing in common in Johnson’s study: Attending a segregated school made it more likely that they would live in a segregated neighborhood when they grew up. And their own children were more likely to attend segregated schools — thus perpetuating a cycle of social isolation.
Part of a national trend
San Francisco hardly exists in a vacuum.
Last year marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended government-sponsored segregation in America. But in the last two decades, judges from here to New York have ended court-enforced integration, and the schools have resegregated to levels not seen since the 1970s. Nationwide, the achievement gap between black and white students has widened.
Beyond academics, the growing racial division of American children could have profound consequences for the whole society.
“A segregated society is not a sustainable society,” said Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a UC Berkeley psychologist who studies prejudice and achievement. “We are a multicultural nation, and there is no way in which we can have a nondiverse workforce in which people don’t know how to function or talk with people from other groups. That is a skill, just like any other skill that requires learning, exposure, social interaction.”
Mendoza-Denton’s recent work has found that minority students with cross-race friendships are more confident in the face of rejection, which may be a byproduct of having to negotiate many kinds of people. This principle also applies to white students who grow up to be much less stressed during interactions with people of different races.
And they also seem to be less racist, he said: “The research very clearly shows that when people are exposed to diverse people at early age they show less bias in adulthood.”
In interviews for this story, members of the Board of Education agreed with Mendoza-Denton’s argument that diversity was good for everyone. That understanding has motivated their search for solutions that promote classroom diversity.
Jill Wynns, the longest-serving board member, argued that the biggest driver of racial isolation was the pattern of language-immersion and bilingual programs, offered at three-quarters of the racially isolated schools.
But Wynns said that the district could actually use these programs as tools for increasing racial diversity at schools. She pointed to Starr King Elementary as an example. The school, which sits across the street from a public housing project in Potrero Hill, was historically African-American. But today, its Mandarin language immersion program draws educated Chinese and white families from around the city, making it the district’s most racially balanced school, according to a Public Press analysis.
The Mandarin and general education programs “are racially pretty separate,” said Olivia Boler, who sent her two children there for the language program. She is Chinese-American and lives in Noe Valley. Even so, connections among the groups can emerge, Boler said: “It takes a while for the kids to start mingling as friends, and it does take effort on the part of parents in scheduling play dates and other activities.”
Wynns said that strategically placed language programs could attract diverse families. “We could do it if we had the will.”
She has pressed this idea at the Board of Education, which is also considering changing the hierarchy of its school-assignment tiebreakers to emphasize neighborhood even more. But district projections show that the changes would actually increase racial polarization. In recent meetings, the board has been unable to coalesce around one course of action, beset by legal constraints and contradictory goals.
Several board members are sharply critical of the degree of choice offered to parents, most vocally Fewer. But eliminating choice is not on the agenda, with Norton saying that the backlash from parents would be too strong.
Other policy choices, such as explicitly considering race as a factor in student assignment, are now illegal (see timeline, page B4).
As the district’s leadership debates options for diversifying schools, nonprofit organizations are trying to fill the information gap in ethnic communities by getting more families to take advantage of the choices afforded to them.
As a fifth-grade teacher at the Willie L. Brown Jr. Academy, which closed in 2011, Masharika Maddison “saw some inequities in how information was being distributed.” In response, she organized an enrollment fair for parents in Bayview-Hunters Point.
She is now director of Parents for Public Schools, which organizes 115 workshops a year in English, Spanish and Chinese to help families navigate the district’s choice-based system. Their work is supported by philanthropy, not by the district.
“A lot of people in the African-American community think that you just show up on the day school starts with your child,” Maddison said. “Others don’t know it’s a choice district. But when you break those numbers down, you are talking about less than 200 families who are not enrolling on time. So the magnitude of the problem is such that it is easily solvable, if we rethink how we communicate with these families.”
Reversing white flight
The effort to diversify schools is closely tied to the choices that white families make. Some parents and educators, including Norton, see it as a public-relations problem, at least in part. They say improving the district’s image could lure whites away from the private schools, and entice them consider a broader array of public schools.
“I think one key strategy for addressing segregation in public schools is to educate all parents, including white parents, about the many excellent public schools to be found across San Francisco,” said Hunter Cutting, author of “Talking the Walk: A Communications Guide for Racial Justice.”
Cutting’s own children, who are white, attend Mission High School, which by his measure is “92 percent kids of color.” White parents — especially newcomers to the city — need to hear more “positive, inspirational” stories about the public schools, he said.
It is a point echoed by many teachers.
“I have never been in a space more diverse than my classroom at Balboa High School,” said Christopher Henderson Pepper, who teaches health to 9th-graders there. “That diversity can be a great advantage if you design lessons that ask students to really work together and learn from one another. It truly changes people.”
Indeed, the district contains many success stories, some initiated by affluent parents empowered by the district’s adoption of school choice. However, not all of these stories are unambiguously positive.
Fifteen years ago, Grattan was one of the unpopular schools. Wynns said that started to change when 10 Cole Valley families, mostly white, approached the district with a request. They wanted to go to the school together — if the district approved them as a group. It was a novel solution to the problem of being the first white family to cross the color line: They joined hands and crossed together.
This sparked a turnaround that ultimately made Grattan one of the district’s most desirable schools, but also one of the most white and affluent.
Wynns and Norton lamented that the change probably went too far. Grattan, once a case study in diversification, in some ways illustrates how divided the district has become. “We’re a victim of our own success,” Norton said.
As the Public Press reported in the winter 2014 print edition cover story, “Public Schools, Private Money,” parent donations were able to insulate the school from five years of budget cuts. From 2002 to 2012, the budgets of parent-teacher associations at elementary schools jumped by 800 percent. But parents at just 10 out of 71 of the schools were able to raise half of the total raised during that decade. Much of it went to teachers, classroom aides and essential programs like libraries. At a time when many schools were laying off staff, the top fundraising schools were hiring, and thus (without necessarily realizing it) widening the economically and racially defined differences among the schools.
The example of Grattan reveals both the promise and the limitations of parent choices. Those choices can pave the way for racially integrated schools, but the evidence suggests they can also cumulatively hurt disadvantaged families and society as a whole. That’s where public policy comes in, educators contend.
“The narrative of two San Franciscos is valid,” Norton said. “The schools tend to the extremes, instead of being balanced. Political differences arise when we ask how we make our schools attractive to the San Franciscan with choices, while still providing a great education for the least advantaged children.”
She said the planned August reopening of Willie L. Brown Jr. in Bayview to an increasingly Asian neighborhood whose schools are predominantly black offers the district an opportunity to experiment with diversity through incentives, not strictures.
“It’s state of the art, it’s beautiful,” Norton said. “And we know this school is going to fail if we can’t open it as an integrated school.”
Stanford sociologist Prudence Carter was deeply involved in shaping San Francisco’s present student assignment system in 2010. She argued that families should take a chance on schools like Willie Brown, if they want to make San Francisco a more equitable place. That means embracing a larger vision of social change.
The problem so far, she said, has been that San Franciscans “are not thinking about the larger project of American democracy and being representative of the beautiful diversity of this country.
“That means you have to think grander, and beyond your own self-interest,” Carter said. “So long as we live in an individualistic and self-interested country, we’re going to probably continue to have this problem.”
This story was published in the winter 2015 print edition of the Public Press. For the full report rolling out online through early February, see sfpublicpress.org/schooldiversity. To read the 2014 report on the effects of parent fundraising and (follow-up coverage), see sfpublicpress.org/publicschools.
Scott and Carrie Tanabe tour the Chinese Immersion School at De Avila in the Haight. But they hope to get their daughters, ages 3 and 5, into their neighborhood school, Grattan Elementary. Photo by Anna Vignet / San Francisco Public Press
About the Author
Jeremy Adam Smith has led two reporting projects for the Public Press that won excellence in explanatory journalism awards from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, on the Treasure Island redevelopment and on the impact of parent fundraising on public schools. He also writes about behavioral science for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. He is the author or coeditor of four books, most recently “Are We Born Racist?” and “Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood.” In 2010-2011, Jeremy was a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University. You can follow him on Twitter.