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A Dream Deferred:

How San Francisco schools leave behind the most vulnerable students

Choice without opportunity

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The San Francisco Unified School District’s choice system aims to offer access to good schools for all students. But for low-income African American and Latino families, few of the choices are good.

For more than 35 years, San Francisco has been working to figure out a system to desegregate public schools.

Those efforts have been motivated by legal actions, political pressure, and good intentions.

But despite the decades of work, the “choice” system is not solving the problem it is designed to solve. In fact, it may be making the problem worse.

Efforts to fix segregation and isolation in San Francisco date back to 1978 when the NAACP sued the city, resulting in a series of settlements and consent decrees and plans.12 The current student assignment system, which dates to 2011, was a new attempt to fix a longstanding problem: balancing racial and economic isolation with most families’ preference to attend a school near where they live.

Do Latino and African American Students Benefit From School Choice in San Francisco?

Right now, in San Francisco, the majority of African American and Latino students have few quality public school options – period. This is true whether they attend a school in the Mission, Bayview, or Tenderloin neighborhoods, or if they attend a school in a more affluent area across town.

In order to understand opportunities for disadvantaged families within San Francisco’s choice system, we looked at public data from the California Department of Education.

Parent Profile

Norma and Faustino Valenzuela

Norma and her husband, Faustino Valenzuela, have been raising their three children in the Bayview neighborhood since moving here from Mexico 20 years ago…

This information is easy to access on, a website that provides school quality data for parents. GreatSchools includes data on academics, college-readiness, teachers, access to advanced courses, attendance, discipline and more – all broken out by student subgroup. GreatSchools’ “Test Scores” rating rolls up student scores on state English, math, and science exams.

The interactive section below provides a better look into the quality of schools across the city. The five maps show school performance scores for each student racial group at the school, as well as all students together.

Explore the data: San Francisco African American and Latino Students’ School Options are limited in San Francisco

These maps paint a clear picture: schools with better academic outcomes for students are located in San Francisco’s higher-income neighborhoods, far from where the majority of low-income African American and Latino families live. But the story does not end there. If an African American or Latino family navigates the choice system to send their child to what appears to be a higher-quality school across town, they still may not get the education they are seeking. Schools with high overall test scores for most of their students are frequently achieving much lower results for their African American and Latino students.

African American students fare the worst in San Francisco. Only one school, Lowell High School, achieves a strong GreatSchools rating of more than 8 out of 10 for African American students. That’s the only green dot on the African American students’ map. And this school exclusively enrolls students who already have high grades and pass a test to get into the school.

Latino students’ options across the city are also limited, with many schools who have a green (or “good”) rating for all students combined dropping to orange (“average“) and red (“poor”) ratings for Latinos within the same school.

Academic results for African American students in particular are much worse in San Francisco than in many other parts of the state. In the recent study “Searching for Opportunity: Examining Racial Gaps in Access to Quality Schools in California and a List of Spotlight Schools,” GreatSchools found that over 41 schools in California achieved great results for African American students—showing that it is possible for this student population to achieve at high levels. But not one of these high-achieving schools is located in San Francisco.

While low-income families struggle to find secure, high-quality schools for their children, San Francisco’s wealthy families have abandoned the public schools at a higher rate than anywhere else in California.13 In San Francisco, about one in four students enroll in private schools, according to the district’s most recent enrollment analysis from 2014.14 This rate is significantly higher than the California state average of about one in 10 students. SFUSD found that higher-income families and White families are far more likely to enroll their children in private school. White children represent 29% of the under-18 population in San Francisco15, but only 14% of students in district schools.16 That’s an expensive choice in a city where private school tuition costs, on average, more than $26,000 per year.

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The 2011 plan didn’t fix the problem. In fact, it made school segregation worse.

The plan allows families to choose any public school in the district, if the school has space, but creates preferences.

For example, San Francisco’s choice system tries to make schools more diverse by giving preference to students who live in areas of the city where student test performance is lower than average.

Despite these good intentions, it’s not working. Choice systems tend to benefit affluent and resource-rich parents who can navigate complicated options and applications, generally live closer to good options, and can find transportation for more distant choices.

Working class and resource-poor families are at a marked disadvantage in comparison, and often end up at low-performing schools. This results in more segregated schools.

When this plan was rolled out, the district laid out key objectives. The first was to “reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same school.”

“The concern is that the city is becoming a model of 19th century England, where the upper class attends well-appointed private schools and the lower class is stuck in racially unbalanced public schools.” – C.W. Nevius,

“School-choice system flunks the test,” San Francisco Chronicle, 201618

But according to the district’s own data, since 2011, the number of “racially isolated” SFUSD schools –– those where at least 60% of students are of a single race –– grew from 24 to 30.17

It’s worth taking a look at the system from the point of view of a low-income family living in the southeast section of the city.

The problems start with a complicated application process. Families with few resources are asked to take on a five-page application document, and to consider points such as, “If your child speaks a language other than English and lists a dual language pathway or bi-literacy as one of her/his choices, she/he may be assessed for her/his current language skills. The language assessments evaluate a child’s proficiency in the pathway language (if assessment is available).”

Those two sentences are not easy to understand. And that doesn’t even include all the work parents need to do to figure out which schools should be their top choices.

Even when families manage to navigate the school choice system and determine the best options for their children, they face another challenge: actually securing a spot at one of those schools. In 2015, SFUSD published a list of the 15 most-requested schools among kindergarten applicants.19 Every one of them had at least 16 applicants per seat available.

Simple geography poses another barrier. Most schools with high overall student performance are on San Francisco’s west side, far away from the city’s most historically underserved communities.

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That’s a big hurdle even for students old enough to travel by themselves (a recent article that described the story of a ninth-grader is a case in point: his six-mile commute to school takes at least 75 minutes in each direction with two bus transfers)20.

Lowell High School, the city’s test-in school, only magnifies the problem. For example, African American and Latino students make up 34% of the district. But at Lowell, they represent only 13% of the student body.

There are a number of schools in San Francisco with huge achievement gaps between different student subgroups – more than 40 percentage points (see Figure 9). Some of these schools have very high performance overall, but are actually underperforming the district average for low-income Latino and African American students.

At the end of the day, for all its good intentions, San Francisco’s choice system hasn’t solved the problem it was designed to address –– access to a strong education for low-income African American and Latino students. Desegregation is a worthy goal, but one that is achieved on a much longer timeline than the current students in SFUSD schools can afford to wait.

But the biggest problem with the choice system is more basic: even when low-income African American and Latino students manage to enroll in schools with high overall performance, those schools often don’t serve them well either.

The fact is that most of San Francisco’s schools aren’t delivering for underserved students, including many schools with high results for White and Asian students.

As a result, San Francisco offers a system of choice that functions quite well for one group: the wealthy. Families with plenty of money can look for a spot in a nearby school that is high-performing for White and Asian students. If they don’t find one or don’t get lucky in the school lottery, they can choose an expensive private school. For low-income families of color, that choice doesn’t exist.

Figure 9A

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Figure 9B

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Figure 10A

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Figure 10B

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12Tucker, J. (2010, February 9). Revamp simplifies S.F. school choice. SF Gate. Retrieved from article/Revamp-simplifies-S-F-school-choice-3200054.php

13, 14San Francisco Unified School District. (2015, November 23). Demographic Analyses and Enrollment Forecasts for the San Francisco Unified School District. Prepared by Lapkoff & Gobalet Demographic Research, Inc. Retrieved October 12, 2017, from

15U.S. Census Bureau. (2015). 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Children Characteristics. Retrieved from the American Fact Finder on October 7, 2017

16California Department of Education, Data Reporting Office. (2016). 2015-16 Enrollment by Ethnicity and Grade. Retrieved from DataQuest on October 7, 2017

17San Francisco Unified School District. (2015, April 8). School Assignment, 4th Annual Report: 2014-15 School Year. Retrieved September 15, 2017 from

18Nevius, C. (n.d.). Turning around a struggling school. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from

19San Francisco Unified School District. (2015, March 16). Highlights March 13, 2015 Assignment Run, 2015-2016 School Year. Retrieved on September 15, 2017, from march_enrollment_highlights.pdf

20Robinson, R. (2015, January 29). Transportation Challenges Complicate School Choice for S.F. Students. San Francisco Public Press. Retrieved from

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