As Parents Get More Choice, S.F. Schools Resegregate

Jeremy Adam Smith, San Francisco Public Press, February 2, 2015

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.

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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.

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{snip} 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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