Equity & Diversity

San Francisco Assignment Rules Anger Parents

By David J. Hoff — June 04, 2003 4 min read
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San Francisco’s 2-year-old method of diversifying its schools’ enrollments has led to a spring full of contentious meetings, regular protests, and even physical threats to the district superintendent.

Parents, most of them from the city’s sizable population of Chinese immigrants, have expressed their unhappiness with a so-called diversity index— the formula for assigning students to the 116 district schools—because, they say, too often it forces their children to attend school across town.

Even though the index is designed to be race-neutral, the parents say it has the practical effect of denying Asian-American students access to schools in their neighborhoods.

“They don’t have to go across the city to make a mix of diversity, because San Francisco is already a [diverse] city,” argued John Zhao, a Chinese immigrant.

But school officials say the diversity measures are necessary to ensure the 60,000-student district complies with court- ordered desegregation decrees. The student-assignment system has been successful because 86 percent of students were placed in one of the five schools they selected, according to Lorna M. Ho, a spokeswoman for city schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

Of the 10,000 students placed in kindergarten, 6th grade, or 9th grade for the fall, “only 100 or so are not happy with their placement,” Ms. Ho said last week.

But those who are unhappy are making their feelings known in loud and even raucous ways.

At public meetings, parents against the diversity index have jeered as students and other parents tried to speak. They also have disrupted school board deliberations at public hearings with chants, leading school board members to adjourn rather than to shout over them, Ms. Ho and other witnesses said.

The acrimony boiled over on May 12, when Ms. Ackerman held an impromptu meeting with protesters after they arrived at her office and demanded to see her. When the superintendent tried to leave, protesters blocked her path to the door, and some of them tugged on her clothing, Ms. Ho said. Staff members eventually escorted the superintendent out a side door.

Mr. Zhao, the leader of the protests, acknowledged that the meeting was heated and that parents were shouting at the superintendent and her staff. But he said no one touched Ms. Ackerman or threatened her. Parents were outraged when a staff member called the parents “a bunch of liars,” Mr. Zhao said.

The round of protests has centered on assignments to San Francisco’s 14 public high schools. More than 3,000 students applied for slots in Abraham Lincoln and George Washington high schools. The schools have high scores on state tests and Advanced Placement exams, and strong records of placing students in the highly competitive University of California system.

Capacity Questions

The diversity index considers a variety of factors—such as family income, mother’s educational background, and English proficiency—when placing a student in a school. To comply with a 1999 settlement in a federal lawsuit alleging the district’s previous, race-based formula discriminated against Asian-Americans, the index ignores race and ethnicity. (“San Francisco Desegregation Decree to End,” Feb. 24, 1999.)

But Mr. Zhao said that the index has had the effect of moving Asian-American students who live near Lincoln and Washington away from those schools. His daughter has been assigned to Phillip and Sala Burton Academic Alternative High School, about six miles away from her family’s home.

“The only avenue we have is to unite and fight together,” Mr. Zhao said.

But supporters of the index say that it has been successful in diversifying schools and giving most parents what they want.

The index gives preference to those who live near the schools. About 77 percent of rising 9th graders at Lincoln and Washington high schools are from the neighborhoods surrounding them, Ms. Ho said.

The problem with high school assignments is that the district simply doesn’t have enough room in the most popular high schools to satisfy the demand for them, according to Hydra Mendoza, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools, the local chapter of a national advocacy group.

Ms. Mendoza said: “The bottom line is capacity. You have 3,000 students applying for 600 spots.”

The biggest challenge for the district is to provide alternatives to Lincoln and Washington high schools and to ensure all schools offer the same first-rate academic programs those schools do, Ms. Ho said.

“Our goal is to improve every school so whatever school you get, you’ll get a great education,” she said.

District officials are planning to fine-tune the diversity index for the 2004-05 school year, Ms. Ho said. The district already arranges for siblings to attend the same schools, but is starting to consider ways to place K-6 children in schools near their siblings who are in middle and high schools.

“We’re looking forward to working with a task force to try to improve it,” Ms. Ho said.

But the district will remain legally obligated to diversify its schools in a race-neutral way, she added.

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