Thursday, March 24, 2011


a post for the gallery
March 18th was an itchy day for San Francisco parents. It was the day the school assignment letters were mailed out. Geekydaddy and I had filled out our form a month before, and we made an important decision. I explained the school assignment policy in a previous post (if you are suffering from insomnia do got and read it now, it will knock you right out), but in a nutshell priority for a school, in the event it was over requested, goes to siblings, then those living a predesignated "low test score area", then those living in the neighborhood of the school, then everyone else. By virtue of our address, which is close to a large housing project, we had one of these low test score area "golden tickets" but we decided not to use it.

I call it a golden ticket because every year 50% of applicants to San Francisco elementary schools list the same 14 schools. There are 70 schools to choose from. We rant and moan about the system, but the problem is one of supply and demand. There are only about 14 schools that most middle class parents even consider applying for, the ones with the top API scores, and not everyone who wants them can get into them. The problem is how to make the rest of the schools attractive to people like us. It isn't location, there is an elementary school located smack in the middle of our very desirable neighbourhood, but it has never attracted the people who live here. Middle class families like schools that have a reasonable representation of people like us. Since API score correlates directly with socioecomic status, and with the educational level of the parents, the best way to get a schools API score up is to get middle class families to attend. It is a chicken egg kind of situation. Turnarounds have happened at several schools in the city already though, so we are confident that it can be done with our school.

With this in mind, we picked one of our local schools. This school is already on the up and up, though it came from a pretty low starting point and is a long way from making into the haloed 14. It has two tracks, a regular English speaking one, referred to as "General Education". and a Spanish Immersion program. 

The immersion program means that the day is taught 90% in Spanish in Kindergarten, with English being introduced more and more as the students approach 5th grade. The class is made up of a mixture of native Spanish, bilingual and native English speaking children. The Spanish speaking kids get the opportunity to learn in their own language, gaining a broader education than if they had to get fully fluent in English first, and the English speaking kids become bilingual in Spanish, with the many benefits that offers. The immersion programs are popular with the middle class, and the addition of one to this school has dramatically increased the proportion of highly educated families enrolled there. A school that had no PTA four years ago now has a very strong one.

We decided that the Spanish program wasn't for us, but we wanted our daughter to attend the local school. The general education program has historically been shunned by the higher income and paler skinned portion of our neighborhood. We decided to change that this year.  We like the teachers and the school principal, and we love the community spirit of the school. We believe that our daughter will do well there, and also that by sending her there we are doing good by our community. We committed to sending Geekygirl, and a few like minded neighbors joined us.

When we opened the letter we saw that we had indeed been offered our place at the school.

A neighbour, also in the low test score zone, got a coveted place at Clarendon Elementary. Clarendon is the cream of San Francisco elementary schools, with a PTA budget of $400,000 a year and is invariably the most desired school in the city. This year it got 1797 requests for its 80 spots. When I heard this I considered whether I had any regrets. Maybe we too could have got into Clarendon. 

I can't find a grain of regret anywhere, though. I'm excited that our daughter will be going to a school in her community. A place she is already familiar with since we often attend fundraisers there. A place where she will be in school with kids who she has known since she was a baby, and where she will mix with children of different races and backgrounds. I know that Geekydaddy and I will be digging into our pockets and into our time to support the school. But I can't think of anything I would rather do with either money or time than to work together with other parents to improve the educational opportunities for all our children.

And I can't believe that we have a daughter old enough to start Kindergarten!

This is supposed to be a picture post, so here is a scene from the brand new mural on the wall of the school. Isn't it lovely?

If you want more information about San Francisco schools check out school board member Rachel Norton's blog

And for an interesting article about race, socioeconomics and test scores check out Bob Herbert's Editorial in yesterdays NYT