Friday, December 2, 2011

School Beat: High Schools – the Last Stop in School Searches



San Francisco voters were generous once again and passed Proposition A, the last in a trio of facilities bond measures to repair and refurbish our city’s public school buildings. Those among us who are touring schools as part of the student assignment process have had ample opportunity to view both the benefits of the previous two bond measures and the need for this last round. If only all school improvement efforts were as tractable as physical plant upgrades, we would be in great shape, but of course this isn’t so.

My family is currently looking at high schools for next year, so we are in our last-ever engagement with San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) school assignment system. This system has been the focus of much debate and angst over the years, no less so these days after being recently revised to more strongly weight a child’s home address, while at the same time attempting to prioritize choices for children likely to be experiencing educational disadvantages.

Because of past lawsuits, legally binding agreements, and a moral imperative to provide equal access to educational opportunities, SFUSD has not had a “simple” neighborhood assignment policy for years. Apparently voters understand the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in, as evidenced by the Proposition H advisory measure failing to pass.

Still, the very fact that such an advisory measure was on the ballot highlights how student assignment captures the majority of attention regarding school issues. But the problem with focusing so much energy on this one aspect of the school system is that it can only go so far in addressing a more fundamental issue – the inequalities in schools across our city and what we must do together to strengthen all of our schools. A positive attribute of our school system is that, within quite a burdensome set of financial and policy constraints, schools have developed in unique ways. Various types of programs and approaches are found from school to school; sizes are different; communities are different. These differences can present meaningful, distinct options for families.

The flip side of course, is that our schools are not individuating from a shared strong, baseline foundation. Disparities persist and because they are based in a multitude of factors, they are hard to tackle. One approach that was supposed to address resource inequities was the Weighted Student Formula (WSF), but this has not completely panned out. In this model, resources follow a student. If a student falls into certain categories that have specific funding associated with that category – say a student who is an English Language Learner – those monies go with that student, wherever they are, regardless of school. That works to a certain degree, but students don’t receive education like they do servings of food. Portions of education can’t be easily meted out on a student by student basis.

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