A Dream Deferred:

How San Francisco schools leave behind the most vulnerable students

Jessica Fontenot

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One goal of San Francisco’s school choice system is to open up options for all families regardless of where they live. However, it can be difficult to get into many of the most popular and high-performing schools in the first place, and it often means a long commute across town and being one of very few students of color.

“We’ve got a right to a better education. We have a right to be here. Why can’t schools in our neighborhoods get that same support, energy, and community?” — Jessica Fontenot

“If I had a choice, I’d rather [my kids] go to school right here in our community,” said Jessica Fontenot, who lives in San Francisco with her three school-age children.

But when her daughter was about to enter kindergarten, she didn’t like the performance of nearby schools. John Muir Elementary is rated a two on GreatSchools (out of a possible 10) and has just 35% of all students proficient in math.21 Rosa Parks Elementary has higher ratings, but low proficiency rates for African American students.22

She applied through the district’s school choice lottery, but didn’t get any of her choices.

“I wanted my daughter, Shuri, to go to a better school, so I filed a grievance,” she said. “I fought for her to get into Rooftop School in the Twin Peaks area, because they had a good reputation and it was a better option. Since I couldn’t afford a private school, I went that route.”

Jessica ended up getting her daughter into Rooftop, which is among the top 15 most requested elementary schools in San Francisco Unified as measured by requests for kindergarten seats.23 In fall 2017, it had 22 applicants for every open kindergarten seat.24 Jessica liked that it had the feel of a small school and was willing to rush back and forth from work each day to get her kids to and from school. Many working families can’t pull off transportation across town –– either because of inflexible work hours, not having a car, or because their children are too young to take public transportation.

“The teachers there are great…they’re really supportive,” she said. “They have an open door policy. I can contact them anytime, and my daughter can be an advocate for herself, because she has a positive relationship with her teacher.”

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing.

“In the beginning it wasn’t so good,” she said. “The school is predominantly White, and each year my daughter would be one of [only a few] African American students of 22 or so kids in her class. So while it was a better school, it wasn’t a better school for us. After [a racially insensitive incident] involving a teacher, I had to reach out to the superintendent. The teacher apologized, and now there are a couple of African American teachers at the school.”

“I have to deal with the social-emotional part a lot,” she said. “My kids ask why they have to go to school with all White kids. I tell them to focus on their education.

I want them to be well-rounded, but I have concerns about them being one of just a few Black kids. My biggest concern is bullying. Two kids approached my daughter and asked her if she and her friends wanted watermelon. The principal set an example and suspended them.”

Like many high-performing San Francisco schools, Rooftop doesn’t deliver the same results for all students.25 While 70% of White students and 72% of Asian students are proficient in math, only 13% of African American students at the school are at grade level in math.

Not feeling totally welcome at first, Jessica decided to be proactive. She and a few other parents got together and formed the African American Parents Advisory Council (AAPAC). Since then, things have improved. The school has also become more diverse, with students being bussed in from the Bayview.

“We started a group so our culture could be recognized and so we could get more support for our children and to build community,” Fontenot said. “We meet every month. We have some events coming up in Black History Month. And, we have family night where all families are invited to come.”

“I’m proud to say that I’ve been a part of making the school better,” Jessica said. “We’ve got a right to a better education. We have a right to be here. Why can’t schools in our neighborhoods get that same support, energy, and community?”

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