From the Mommy Files:
Over the weekend, our family went to dinner at some friends who live a few blocks from us on the Mission District-Noe Valley border. They wanted to show us their new kitchen countertops.
As my girlfriend Jamie (who requested that I change her name for this article) toured me through her small condo, she told me about additional renovations she and her husband plan to make. "We need to get this done in two years," she said, "before we put our place on the market and leave the city."
Yes, in two years Jamie's son will be 4-years-old and she hopes to settle into a house in the suburbs before he starts kindergarten. Why?
"I can't deal with the San Francisco public school lottery system," Jamie says. "There's too much uncertainty and it sounds too stressful."
Yes, you probably already know that if you want to send your child to a public school in San Francisco you have to play 'The Lottery'--though the San Francisco Unified School District prefers to call it a choice system because any student can apply to any school in the district.
Parents pick seven schools where they'd be happy sending their child and then turn their list into the district. Sounds simple, right?
Well, there's a catch. Around 80 percent of all families get one of their seven choices--a significant portion of those are awarded spots because they already have a sibling at the school. In other words, not everyone wins the lottery and many families end up on wait lists at their favorite schools or they opt for private or leave the city all together.
Why this chaotic mess? Rather than assigning kids to the schools closest to their homes, the district is trying to achieve a blend of students of different backgrounds throughout the city. In theory, it's a smart idea.
But my friend Jamie would rather move to the East Bay than go through this system.
Jamie knows the public schools in San Francisco are good--her husband went to Lawton, after all. She knows about the dedicated parents around the city who are working their butts off to improve their children's schools. She knows about Leonard Flynn, the lovely school a few blocks from her house with a diverse population and a Spanish immersion program. And she knows that if she moves back to Danville where she grew up, her family isn't going to get the same experience. She also knows--because I am always reminding her and I'm a huge advocate for public schools--that I love the S.F. public school where my 6-year-old daughter attends a Mandarin immersion kindergarten.
But Jamie also knows what I went through to get into that school. She's aware of how much time I took off from work to tour schools and develop my list of seven favorites. She listened to me cry when my daughter didn't get into any of them. She heard about all the fights I had with my husband when we were trying to decide whether or not to accept a spot offered by a private school. For two years, she dealt with my panic-stricken state as I made my kindergarten search for my daughter the focus of my life. (You can read about my travails in a recent article in San Francisco magazine.)
I tell Jamie that it was worth it and while I struggled, I also learned a lot and grew as a person. I tell her that the experience helped define my family's values as my husband and I realized that it's important to us that our daughter attend a school with children from varied backgrounds.
Jamie doesn't buy it. "I'm not doing it," she often tells me. "I know that it will make me crazy."
This is one of the problems with San Francisco's infamous Student Assignment System. It scares away people like Jamie. It makes them run for the East Bay Hills. It's not the only problem--and certainly not the biggest one. There are others--such as the fact that some of the schools aren't diverse. But for me, a neurotic Noe Valley mom, it's the problem that I hear about most. I have already lost many city friends to the lottery system--and maybe that's why I so badly want Jamie to stay.
Today, I'm going to be a guest on a segment on KQED radio's Forum show focusing on the Student Assignment System--tune in at 9 a.m. While I struggled with the lottery, I think going through it was worth it and I'm hoping I can encourage discouraged parents to charge on because there's almost always a happy ending. I'm also looking forward to hearing Jane Kim, vice president of the Board of Education, and Orla O'Keeffe, special assistant to the superintendent, talk about the upcoming Student Assignment System redesign.
What are my thoughts on the redesign? In short, I don't think the district should revert to neighborhood schools; we should avoid racial isolation. I believe that the intentions of the current system--to create diverse schools and close the achievement gap--are right-on and those should be maintained. Also the data shows that the majority of parents want some choice in the matter. But I'm hoping the district can make some tweaks that will make the process easier, less stressful, less time-intensive, and get people like Jamie to stay.