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A Dream Deferred:

How San Francisco schools leave behind the most vulnerable students

Good Ideals, Bad Outcomes

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San Francisco sees itself as a caring and progressive place. But that optimistic vision is badly out of sync with reality: San Francisco Unified is one of the worst districts in the state for low-income African American and Latino students.

San Francisco prides itself on being one of the most welcoming communities in America. For generations, San Francisco has been a place where people who were excluded elsewhere could find a home, where those who are struggling could find support, and where diversity thrived.

It’s a place that believes in taking care of its own and providing opportunity to all.

But a striking fact challenges those ideals: San Francisco has become one of the worst places in California for low-income African American and Latino families to send their children to public school.

If we don’t fix this, there are real questions about whether African American and Latino families will be able to thrive here.

In this section, we look at the academic performance of San Francisco’s students to understand how the city serves its White, Asian, African American and Latino students. We also compare student outcomes in San Francisco with those in districts that have a similar size and demographics and look at trends over multiple years.

We end the section by exploring the experiences of two different San Francisco families: one immigrant family who fought low expectations at their children’s schools and another who decided to change schools because their child was falling behind.

Parent Profile

Pastor Mervin Redmond

“We’ve lost a significant number of congregants because of housing prices,” said Mervin Redmond, Pastor of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, who was born and raised in San Francisco…

For all of San Francisco’s advantages, it’s low on the list for the quality of opportunity in its public schools. The city sees itself as leading the country on everything from the innovative talent of its businesses to the quality of its leading restaurants. It also sees itself as a leader in progressive and equitable ideals.

However, when it comes to equity in education, San Francisco is far behind.

In 2016-17, almost eight out of 10 White students from non-low-income families were on grade level in math and English – but just one out of 10 low-income African American or Latino students. In the same year, only 10% of the city’s low-income African American students were meeting standards in math.

In researching this report, we asked: how well is San Francisco Unified educating low-income African American and Latino students in comparison to similar California districts? We looked at districts that are both similar in enrollment size to SFUSD and which serve a similar percentage of low-income, Latino and African American students.

The answer: San Francisco is near the bottom for low-income African American and low-income Latino students (see Figures 2 and 3 below).

SFUSD is not only near the bottom of comparable school districts, but all districts statewide.

To take one example, 44% of low-income African American students in Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County are on grade level in English, compared to just 14% in SFUSD. In Clovis Unified School District in the Central Valley and in Long Beach Unified in southern California, low-income Latino students are proficient in both English and math at about two times the rate of SFUSD.

SFUSD is not only near the bottom of comparable school districts, but all districts statewide. In 2016-17, 96% of all California school districts serving African American students had better results for low-income African Americans than SFUSD in English. 79% had better results in math.

This has been the trend for six years under both California’s previous state standards test and the new tests aligned to the Common Core with results for African American students worsening, not improving. Compared to similar districts and to all districts statewide, San Francisco has continued to be in the bottom 20% in English and in math. (See the Appendix for English and math results for both low-income African American and Latino students.)

The Education Trust-West found similar results year after year from 2010 to 2013.4 They graded more than 100 districts on test scores, growth, closing achievement gaps, and preparing students for college. They found that SFUSD ranks the lowest out of all 129 large, unified school districts in the state in closing the achievement gap between African American students and their White peers. SFUSD ranks the second lowest — 143rd out of 144 districts –– for closing the gap for Latino students. On an A through F grading scale, Education Trust-West gave SFUSD an F for their efforts in closing achievement gaps for these groups of students in 2013.

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These findings show why San Francisco needs urgent change. African American and Latino students are learning less than their peers elsewhere. And within the city, achievement gaps between these groups and others are strikingly wide (see Figure 4 below).

Indeed, San Francisco’s African American and Latino students are struggling by more than one measure. In 2015-16, 71% of African American students in SFUSD graduated in four years compared to 95% of Asian students and 84% of White students.5 A city report found that the African American population is shrinking everywhere except the city’s jails: African Americans make up only 5% of the city’s population, but 53% of the city’s inmates.6

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The city’s most underserved students are not just stuck at low-performing schools. They also are not getting experienced teachers. In 2011, one of four teachers in San Francisco’s highest poverty schools was in their first year of teaching. That’s five to 10 times higher than comparable districts, per data from the U.S. Department of Education.7

In addition, teacher turnover is high in many areas serving underserved students in SFUSD. For example, students attending schools in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco –– an area serving a large population of low-income African American students –– were about twice as likely to experience high teacher turnover in 2014-15 compared to the district as a whole.8 Such teacher turnover impacts student performance, and schools in Bayview have some of the worst student proficiency rates in the district. While about half of SFUSD students overall are meeting state standards, 17% of students in district schools in the Bayview are meeting standards in English, and just 14% are meeting standards in math.9

For San Francisco to continue to offer a home to its African American and Latino working-class residents, it will have to offer them a better education.

“Opportunity for all” is a laudable goal for our city. But as it stands, it’s a hope, not a reality. The good news is, in a city with an extraordinary capacity for innovation, we can change things. We can make this hope a reality.

A look at charter schools

There are major achievement gaps in San Francisco public schools of all types – both district and charter schools. However, the majority of charter schools have notably better academic results for low-income Latino and low-income African American students. Many of these schools are providing better options to families who don’t have many.

There are currently more than 3,700 students enrolled in 10 independent charter schools in San Francisco. About half of these charter schools serve primarily low-income students. Seven out of the 10 schools serve a higher percentage of low-income Latino and African American students than the district.10

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This report’s findings on the performance of San Francisco’s charter schools align with the findings of a 2015 national study of urban charter school performance by Stanford’s Center for Research of Educational Outcomes (CREDO), one of the most in-depth studies of charter schools to date.11 Researchers compared academic records of charter school students across 21 states and Washington D.C. with traditional public school students’ records, based on similarity in performance and demographic characteristics. Looking at a six-year period, they found that while, on average, urban charter schools don’t outperform district schools, they have much better results for many disadvantaged subgroups of students.

The CREDO study found that urban charter school students gained the equivalent of 40 days of additional learning per year in math, and the equivalent of 28 additional days of learning per year in reading, compared to their counterparts at traditional district schools.

4The Education Trust–West. (n.d.). California District Report Card. Retrieved February 21, 2017, from

5California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System. (n.d.). Cohort Outcome Data for the Class
of 2015-16. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from

6Sabatini, J. (2017, July 5). SF’s unprecedented look at jail population quantifies racial disparity and mental health needs. S.F. Examiner. Retrieved on September 15, 2017 from

7Educator Equity Profile [PDF]. (2011-12). U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved September 6, 2017, from

8Committee of the Whole Bayview Update[PDF]. (2016, December 6). San Francisco : San Francisco Unified School District. Retrieved on July 14, 2017

9Based on 2016-17 CAASPP scores. Includes Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, Marshall High, Bret Harte Elementary, Malcolm X Academy, Drew College Preparatory Academy and Carver Elementary. Excludes the two independent charter schools in the region: KIPP Bayview Academy and KIPP San Francisco College Preparatory.

10There are 10 direct-funded charter schools in San Francisco with CAASPP scores for low-income Latino and low-income African American students. There are additional charters in the district; but they are either locally funded by the district or do not have available test scores. Enrollment data used for this analysis is 2015-16 socioeconomically disadvantaged enrollment disaggregated by race which is not publicly available for the 2016-17 school year. See methodology for more details.

11CREDO’s analysis of the San Francisco Bay Area includes San Francisco and Oakland. San Jose was analyzed separately in a study on the South Bay. 15&cds=38684780000000&RC=District&SubGroup=Ethnic%2FRacial

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Lewis Stringer

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