Ask any parent of a teenager who was notified of what public or private high school in San Francisco offered them a spot last month about the application process. You’ll hear “stressful,” “overwhelming,” and “time consuming” in response. As with elementary and middle school, families can apply to any of the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) fifteen public or thirteen private high schools. But choice doesn’t mean everyone gets what they want.
Students who want to attend a public high school must go through SFUSD’s Educational Placement Center‘s (EPC) assignment system. Families fill out an application form listing the campus they’d like their child to attend in order of preference, which must be submitted in person to the EPC by mid-January. Pupils are placed in re openings. If there are more requests for a school than available seats – always the case for the most desirable schools – the student assignment system is triggered.
The top five most requested schools last year were Lincoln, Washington, Balboa, Galileo and Wallenberg. Lincoln, the most requested campus, had seven applicants per available ninth grade seat. To determine who gets them, the system sort wishes using a hierarchical series of tiebreakers. First priority is given to children with siblings attending their desired school. Students residing in CTIP1 census tracts – City pockets with consistently low test scores, most of which are located in Southside neighborhoods – receive second priority. From there, the remaining slots are filled by a random lottery.
Tiebreakers don’t apply to Lowell High School, where admission is based on academic criteria, or the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, which has an audition process.
In the 2014-2015 assignment run, 62 percent of ninth grade applicants received their first choice, 84 percent got one of their top three, and 13 percent didn’t get any of their choices. Students who aren’t assigned to one of their selections are offered a spot at the high school closest to where they live that has openings. There are five placement rounds; families who are unsatisfied with their first round assignment can participate in the second round, where they have the option of listing as many schools as they want. If they’re still unhappy after their second round assignment, they can join a school’s wait pool for the remaining rounds with the hope that a seat will open.
The student assignment policy, which SFUSD adopted in 2011, was created to make parent choice a top priority and give all youth access to the best public schools. To take full advantage of the system, families need to commit a substantial amount of time researching schools to decide which best fit their needs.
Julie Jackson, a Hill resident whose son, Jasper, just went through the process, estimates that she spent nearly 40 hours researching, touring schools and attending open houses. “Not only is it really time consuming for parents, but it would be really hard for a single parent,” Jackson said. She and her husband, Brian Liles, have their own business, located in Dogpatch, which afforded them the flexibility for such a significant time commitment.
Jackson said she doesn’t know how someone without the time and resources can take advantage of the system. “We were willing and able to invest the time, because we are fortunate enough to do so, but I can see a lot of families not being able to do that, so how would they know if that’s the right school for their kid?” she said.
SFUSD’s application period begins at the end of October, with an enrollment fair and the publication of an annual guide, which contains school profiles and enrollment process details. Families have until January 16th to submit their application for the first placement round. The guide encourages families to go on school tours, but November and December tour slots for the most popular schools are often full even before the October enrollment fair. The Jackson-Liles knew they wanted to tour several schools, and didn’t wait until October to schedule them, but not everyone is as proactive.
Many schools fill up during the first placement round, so families who don’t submit their application by the January 16th enrollment deadline won’t have the same chance to get into highly requested schools as those who do.
“I feel that access is still a big issue, and there is definitely a gap in the accessibility of information,” said Rachel Nip, manager of the enrollment program for the nonprofit Parents for Public Schools (PPS). She gives presentations at schools and public libraries to help educate parents on how the assignment system works. “The idea of choice is good; the negative part that we are trying to fill is that the information is not always readily available to all groups.”
PPS offers enrollment workshops in English, Spanish and Chinese languages to help families navigate the system. It has plans to build an information hub to assist parents in the future. “The information is out there; families don’t always hear about it and when they do, it’s quite overwhelming. It’s a multiple step system and it becomes hard for some families to keep track of,” she said.
According to Tia Winn, a former Hill resident who now lives in Golden Gate Heights, the hardest part of the process is the uncertainty. Her daughter, Olivia, will start high school next year. Even though Lincoln is visible from their home she’d only be admitted there by chance. Unlike elementary school, there’s no attendance area preference for students applying to high school. Since Olivia doesn’t satisfy either tiebreaker, her placement is be decided by the lottery. “The uncertainty is definitely anxiety provoking,” Winn said. Last month Olivia was offered a spot at Lowell, which she accepted.
Even with a high probability of landing a top three school choice, uncertainty prompts some families to consider private alternatives. Winn said a lot of her friends are applying to private and parochial schools, but if they knew their kid was going to a particular high school almost all of them would stay in the public school system. “We are there because we believe in public schools and we believe in the mission, but that uncertainty makes it very difficult,” she said.
View publisher Steven Moss’ daughter, Sara, is deciding between two private schools, Drew and Jewish Community High School. His family didn’t think the City’s public schools were the best fit for their daughter, who attended Alvarado Elementary School for her early grades. “Whether public or private,” Moss said “the system is a cross between the Hunger Games and Divergent. What 13-year old wants to be judged? Why put this kind of pressure on our children?”
Jackson is happy with the education her two kids have received at Leonard Flynn Elementary and James Lick Middle School. Despite their preference for public schools, Jasper applied to two private high schools. Jackson has no issue with parents sending their kids to private schools, though she hopes they give public schools a sincere look before making that decision. “Sometimes I don’t think that happens. People rely on anecdotal stories they hear that are not always true,” she said.
“Don’t be biased towards a school until you go there; keep an open mind,” Jasper added. Last month Jasper received an enrollment offer to Lincoln, his first choice.
According to U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011-2013 American Community Survey, San Francisco has the highest proportion of high school students in private schools of any county in the state. At 22.2 percent, it’s more than double the statewide – 7.7 percent – and national – 9.3 percent – rate.
The primary goal of the student assignment system is to achieve school diversity, which has been historically challenging for the district. In 2014, in four of the district’s fifteen public high schools more than 60 percent of the student body was from a single racial group. The district’s board of education considers these schools “racially isolated.” In 2011 – the year the new assignment policy went into effect – only one high school, Galileo, was racially isolated.
According to Darlene Lim, SFUSD EPC’s executive director, there are lots of factors outside the assignment system impacting diversity. “Segregated neighborhoods and parent choice patterns have not changed much from year to year, which has an impact on how students land in schools,” Lim said.
The student assignment policy was designed to be flexible; to be monitored and adjusted if its objectives aren’t being met. “The district and board are conducting analysis to see if the goals of the assignment system are being met as they were drafted. They are looking deeply into that data right now and determining whether or not they want to change some of our preferences, or modify attendance areas and going through program placement scenarios to see if they are offered in the right areas. “Lim said.