The Resegregation of San Francisco's Public Schools
From left, Dina Bakour and Said Nuseiben talk with a representative of Alice Fong Yu Alternative School as Nuseiben's daughter. Kindah Nuseibeh, examines pamphlets while Brendan VanderMei, center, and Lily Tung Crystal, right, chat at the SFUSD school enrollment fair at John O'Connell High School Oct. 25, 2014, in San Francisco, Calif. (Leah Millis/San Francisco Chronicle)
Tables representing each of San Francisco’s public schools stretched throughout John O’Connell High School in the Mission one morning last fall. Thousands of parents quizzed principals and teachers to determine where their children should go to school.
This was the school district’s annual Public School Enrollment Fair. Despite the heaving crowds, Mark Sanchez was downright lonely.
Every year, the tables for the city’s 106 public schools are arranged alphabetically. And every year Sanchez, principal of the mostly Latino Cleveland Elementary, sits for hours with hardly anybody approaching him. To his left, white and Asian parents swarm the table for the coveted Clarendon Elementary, a school that is harder to get into than Harvard.
“Every year, it’s the same thing. Every year,” Sanchez said. “Our teachers are just as good as Clarendon’s. ... I call it the un-fair.”
The two schools’ tables demonstrate an alarming fact about the district as a whole: Now that parents have more say in their children’s education than they have in decades, San Francisco’s public schools are increasingly segregated. A months-long Chronicle review found that the district, which for decades has tried to ensure that homogeneous neighborhoods don’t lead to homogeneous schools, is failing to create schools that are racially mixed.
Like most public school districts around the country, San Francisco Unified has shifted away from a student assignment system that tries to ensure racially mixed schools and toward one that lets parents choose where to send their children.
But in one of the nation’s most liberal cities, where people say they prize diversity, parents mostly choose schools where the other children look like their own. That has led to one-third of the district’s elementary schools becoming racially isolated, composed of at least 60 percent students of one race.
But perhaps the biggest surprise is that most people in this progressive bastion — district officials, principals and parents — seem resigned to resegregation as the new reality.
The public schools and the nerve-wracking lottery system — in which parents list their preferred schools in order and computer-generated assignments are mailed two months later — are often blamed for helping to drive families out of San Francisco. Just 13.4 percent of the city’s residents are younger than 18, the smallest percentage of any major city in the country. And San Francisco’s wealth and longtime Catholic tradition mean that about 30 percent of children who do live in the city attend private and parochial schools.
Diversity and integration are rarely cited as top factors in choosing a public school. Instead, district surveys of parents show the safety of a school’s neighborhood, the quality of its staff and its reputation are paramount.
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed segregated public schools, saying separate was inherently unequal. But many children in San Francisco’s public schools are once again being educated separately — though not because of any official decree. The question is whether they’re being educated equally.
A look inside Cleveland and Clarendon — 4 miles, yet a world, apart — shows the schools have some important qualities in common: mostly happy parents and children, good teachers, strong principals and a focus on academic achievement.
But there are also many stark differences.
Poverty and Language
Cleveland’s students are almost entirely poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, Latino and learning English. They mostly live in the school’s Excelsior neighborhood. Few of their parents went to college, and they mostly work in blue-collar jobs or stay home to raise their children. They are unable to contribute much money to their children’s education.
Clarendon’s students are far more likely to be white or Asian, and far less likely to be poor or learning English. They come from around the city, and many of their parents drive them miles to the school on the west side of Twin Peaks. The parents are mostly professionals, and they raise $400,000 a year to supplement their children’s already premier education.
The Academic Performance Index is no longer used by the state to signify school achievement, but many parents still use it to determine which schools are best. In 2013, Clarendon scored 956 on a scale of 1 to 1,000, with 800 considered excellent. Cleveland reached 708.
School board member Rachel Norton said this kind of division makes her “incredibly sad,” but that it’s the natural result of parental choice.
“I don’t know how as a policymaker to encourage people to make different choices,” she said. “That is what is going to have to happen.”
Sanchez doesn’t bother scheduling tours of Cleveland Elementary anymore. Like his table at the annual enrollment fair, nobody ever comes. But with 360 students, his school is full of families who want to be there.
Eighty-three percent of those students are Latino, and there is a smattering of Asian and black students, and two white children. Ninety-five percent of Cleveland’s students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Seventy-three percent of Cleveland’s students are learning English.
Almost every Cleveland parent The Chronicle asked said he or she requested Cleveland because it’s close to home. Many said they didn’t bother touring other schools, attending the enrollment fair or giving much thought to the annual lottery.
Sanchez said the lack of diversity at Cleveland actually makes his job easier.
“The more homogenous your population is, the easier it is to run it — the expectations of the families are very similar,” he said, noting there aren’t many discipline problems at his school.
That’s a far different attitude than the one Sanchez had 10 years ago as a leftie firebrand on the school board. At the time, the seven members were grappling with how to remake the student assignment system, and Sanchez wanted to use race as a tiebreaker when two students were vying for the same spot and to give public housing residents priority.
He didn’t succeed — and he has long abandoned that fight.
“I’ve raised the white flag, so to speak,” he said. “There’s a patina of people wanting diversity, but when the rubber hits the road, they’re going to make the best decisions for their family. I don’t think most families actually want it.”
Sanchez’s thinking is now fairly common among San Francisco school officials, who know the district began hemorrhaging students when it required them to mix with children of other races.
In the late 1960s, there were more than 90,000 students in San Francisco public schools. In 1969, a black father named David Johnson sued the district for creating a racially segregated system in which black students totaled more than 65 percent at 20 elementary schools and nearly the entire enrollment at 10 of those. Back then, 24.4 percent of city residents were younger than 18 — nearly twice the percentage now.
A federal judge ordered desegregation, and in 1971 San Francisco put children on buses that crisscrossed the city so they could be in multiracial schools.
The plan almost immediately ended racial isolation — but it also helped drive families out of the district and into the suburbs or into private schools. Many Chinese families resisted integration, boycotting district public schools and creating their own private “freedom schools” for their children instead.
From the 1960s to 1983, the school district enrollment had plunged by 32,000 students.
Vying factions of parents filed lawsuits, and the district tried several different school assignment methods. A federal judge oversaw those efforts from 1983 to 2005, but eventually gave up and called the district’s attempts at diversification a failure. This handed control of the assignment system back to the school district.
The current system, which gives some priority to students if they live near a school, started in 2011. The result: 61 percent got their top choice for this fall’s enrollment, and 85 percent got one of the choices on their list. Last year, those figures were 59 and 82 percent, respectively.
There are now 53,700 students enrolled in the city’s public schools, not including the 3,300 enrolled in charter schools — the figure has held fairly steady for the past few years after decades of dropping enrollment.
But the schools are — once again — segregating.
A Top Draw
Clarendon Elementary is considered such a must-see by San Francisco families that it runs nine tours, and online reservations are required. About 100 parents — nearly all white and Asian — join each tour.
In December, Jocelyn Porquez was already touring schools with her bubbly daughter, Fiona, despite the 2-year-old having just started preschool.
“I don’t know if we’re very early or just doing our research,” Porquez said. “With your first kid, you have no idea. ... I want her to thrive.”
Clarendon has 569 students split into two programs: the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program and Second Community, which offers Italian-language instruction.
Clarendon is more diverse than Cleveland: 31 percent of students are white, 33 percent are Asian, 11 percent are Latino and 6 percent are black. It’s also much wealthier than most San Francisco public schools: A fifth of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and just 16 percent are learning English.
By comparison, San Francisco itself is 41 percent white, 34 percent Asian, 15 percent Latino and 6 percent black, according to the U.S. Census. About 13 percent of San Franciscans live in poverty.
Clarendon’s principal, Peter Van Court, said he loves the school-tour season and encourages all families who visit to apply despite the incredibly long odds.
“People do get in,” he said. “We’ve got a whole school full of people who got in.”
In the school lottery for the 2015-16 academic year, Clarendon was by far the most requested elementary school — 1,575 families listed it on their applications. Once siblings were placed — they get priority and filled nearly two-thirds of kindergarten seats — there were just 16 openings and 97 families vying for each of those, according to the district.
At Harvard, 17 high school seniors apply for each available seat.
“Is it worth the hype? I think so,” Van Court said. “Every school that has a school culture that supports teachers and students is worth talking about. We just happen to be at the front of it.”
Interestingly, the demographics of Clarendon haven’t changed much since the district’s shift toward neighborhood schools. Cleveland, however, has become even more racially isolated. In 2011, Latinos made up 77 percent of the school, whereas they make up 86 percent now. Back in 1999, they made up 50 percent of Cleveland.
In the lottery, parents with students entering kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades can tour schools throughout the fall and winter and submit a list of schools in order of preference. Assignments are sent in March, and families can keep trying in four subsequent rounds.
The district has found that white and Asian families are more likely to participate in the lottery’s first round than Latino and African-American families, meaning the latter are more likely to be assigned to the less popular schools that have available seats.
Every morning at Cleveland starts the same way. The students gather on the blacktop beneath murals of Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall and Dolores Huerta.
Sanchez or another staff member calls into a microphone, “Where are you going one day?”
“College!” the kids shout back before scurrying off to their classrooms.
Every Tuesday morning, there is another playground routine: About 80 Cleveland moms form a line to pick up free food from the San Francisco Food Bank. A loud and brash mother, Ana Hodgson, oversees the food distribution.
She takes charge in just about any Cleveland meeting — such as one in March to plan the fifth-grade graduation ceremony. About 20 Latina mothers told the school’s family liaison, a district official assigned to Cleveland to work with families, what they want at the ceremony.
Hodgson did almost all of the talking — and soon, the family liaison was persuaded to find a caterer, gifts for the teachers, caps and gowns, a photographer, balloons, an inspirational speaker, decorations and diplomas.
Hodgson said she learned to speak up through training at Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit that encourages parents and students to become school leaders.
“They teach us how to speak up, go to the district and talk,” she said. “We have to if we want to know what’s going on.”
But that wasn’t Hodgson’s attitude when she was looking for a kindergarten for her son, Roy, who’s now in fifth grade. She didn’t bother touring schools or devising a strategy for the lottery. Her nieces and nephews, whom she helped raise in exchange for housing from her sisters, had all gone to Cleveland, so Roy did, too.
“This is my neighborhood,” she said, shrugging. “This is the school my family goes to.”
But now that Hodgson has found her voice, she’s done with the public schools. Roy is participating in Smart, a private program that recruits academically promising low-income fourth-graders for intensive summer programs and helps them apply to private middle and high schools. The goal is to get them into college.
Roy will finish fifth grade at Cleveland at the end of May and has been admitted to the San Francisco School, a private middle school, with a scholarship.
Hodgson said she’s glad Roy’s world will soon expand. She said she’s told him he can go to any high school, any college and enter any career he wants to.
“I told him if he goes to the moon, I’ll go with him,” she said.
At Clarendon on a February morning, students in the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program were celebrating the spring festival known as Setsubun. It’s about cleansing evil from the past year to welcome in the new year.
A group of Japanese mothers prepared little paper cups filled with roasted soybeans — called fortune beans — to toss at a couple of fathers wearing Oni masks and pretending to be monsters.
Rei Kobayashi-McGrath, the program coordinator, instructed the children to go easy on the dads. The beans were to be tossed gently, not hurled at their faces.
“Do we want to hurt them?” she asked the children sitting rapt on the blacktop.
“No!” they responded before tossing the beans as parents filmed the festivities on their smartphones.
In a flash, the Japanese mothers were sweeping up the tossed beans. They then went to work in Clarendon’s large storage room, giggling and chatting in Japanese as they made cucumber sushi rolls for every student.
Mai Miyaoka was one of the mothers. Her son, Heiichiro, attends second grade at Clarendon, but only after a lot of stress. He was first assigned to Cesar Chavez Elementary in the Mission, which Miyaoka diplomatically called “a nice school,” but too far from her home near Clarendon.
Miyaoka, who moved from Japan four years ago so her husband could work as a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology at UCSF, persevered through four more lottery rounds before scoring a spot at Clarendon three days before school started.
“I couldn’t understand the system so I talked with counselors at SFUSD, and they were very helpful for me,” she said, adding she’s thankful the sibling preference means her preschooler and baby will get in, too.
She spends a lot of her free time at the school volunteering, an expectation that other parents set at the start of the school tours.
“Everybody works together — it’s very active,” Miyaoka said of Clarendon parents.
Cleveland receives $360,000 more than Clarendon from the state each year — $1,000 per student — because its students are so poor and so many of them don’t speak English. The idea is to direct more resources to the neediest schools, but Clarendon more than offsets that through avid parent fundraising and donations from the Japanese and Italian consulates.
Sanchez uses the extra state money for basic support, including separate Spanish and English literacy coaches, a technology teacher, tablet computers and laptops. He said he gets an adequate amount to run Cleveland, though he’d appreciate more funding for supplies and a poster-making machine.
At wealthier schools, those simple requests would be easily met by the Parent Teacher Association, but it doesn’t work that way at Cleveland. The school’s PTA has only 15 members and meets erratically. Maria Gonzalez has a kindergartner at the school and is PTA president. She’s trying to raise more money than last year’s $5,000 — about $14 per child — through a candy drive, a household-goods catalog drive and a spring carnival.
She said she knows it’s not much, but that’s the way it is for Cleveland families. Her husband cooks in a restaurant, and she works as an in-home health aide for her elderly, wheelchair-bound mother.
“For us, anything we raise is good,” she said, adding she’d like to buy more art supplies and that poster machine Sanchez wants.
At Clarendon, the parent groups raise about $400,000 — around $680 per child — each year through fundraisers, including the annual live auctions for each program.
The Japanese program’s auction costs $50 a ticket, and the catalog featured 699 donated prizes including summer camps, yoga classes and ballroom dancing lessons. The Second Community auction featured Champagne, an oyster bar, live jazz and top hats, feather boas and a few pearl necklaces for sale.
Together, the programs’ fundraising pays for enrichment programs, including taiko drumming, computer science and Italian classes.
Clarendon Principal Van Court agrees with Sanchez on what’s most important: that every school provides a good education for every student and that families are happy with the experience. Whether that is at a wealthy, fairly diverse school like Clarendon or a poor, racially isolated school like Cleveland isn’t as important, he said.
“If the school reflects the community, it’s not necessarily a problem,” he said. “It’s absolutely about every student being successful at every school.”
Sanchez and Van Court are not alone. Even the African-American community, the force behind the historical desegregation efforts, has fallen silent.
“We really don’t have any public demand for this,” state Board of Education President Mike Kirst said about desegregation. “The courts, of course, have largely retreated in this area. And I feel no bottom-up demand for this.”
But just because everybody’s OK with the status quo doesn’t mean it’s right, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
With a few exceptions, schools with low-income students who are predominantly Latino or African-American do poorly academically. Typically, those schools have the highest teacher turnover and the lowest rates of parental involvement. (Cleveland somewhat breaks that general rule since it has a fairly stable teaching staff and its teachers have an average of nine years of experience, a year more than the average at Clarendon.)
But as courts around the country have ruled against mandated desegregation plans that take race into account, districts have largely given up. This has been exacerbated by dwindling funds to pay for the buses that take students to different neighborhoods.
“Desegregation didn’t fail,” Orfield said. “There’s a lot of evidence to show that, on average, it improved conditions for students of color, did not harm students who are white and improved race relations. What’s happened is that people have given up in many places because barriers to doing it have been raised, and the help to do it has been eliminated.”
“It’s very sad,” he said. “We have never had separate but equal schools in any city on any scale in U.S. history.”
Bucking the Pattern
Some San Francisco families are quietly but determinedly bucking the pattern of choosing schools where the children look like their own. On a February afternoon at Clarendon, children were playing on the yard, but one girl was more interested in the stranger with a reporter’s notebook.
“Hello!” she said, thrusting her hand out. “I’m Zhariyah Aiyana Lynda Shepard-Dorsey and I am 5, and it is very nice to meet you.”
The precocious little African-American girl lives in Bayview-Hunters Point and her mother, Keana Shepard-Gardner, 24, listed only Clarendon when she applied to kindergarten last year.
“I went on Google and put in ‘best schools in San Francisco’ and this one just kept popping up,” she said matter-of-factly.
She hadn’t toured it and didn’t know anything about the preference for students living in low-performing census tracts, although that’s clearly how she scored a spot.
Shepard-Gardner and her daughter live with Gardner’s mother across the street from the Hunters View public housing projects in Hunters Point. Shepard-Gardner, her mother or a friend often drive Zhariyah to or from school, but sometimes they get there on a Muni bus ride, with Zhariyah sometimes falling asleep on the 45-minute trip.
Single mother Shepard-Gardner’s life is especially busy with raising her daughter, attending City College and working for a catering company. But the long haul to Clarendon is worth it, she said.
“She’s only been here since August, and she already speaks Japanese!” Shepard-Gardner exclaimed. “She practices on the bus. That’s pretty awesome.”
To prove it, Zhariyah counted to 26 in Japanese. “That was counting in ones,” she explained, having just counted to 110 by tens in English.
Group of Two
If Zhariyah Shepard-Dorsey is swimming against the tide at Clarendon, Dexter Dryg is definitely doing so at Cleveland.
The 6-year-old is one of two white children in the school. His mother, Jennifer, works as the director of creative services at Sephora cosmetics, and his father, Jason, works at an Internet radio station and as an artist. They bought their first home in the Excelsior three years ago and soon, it was time for the school lottery.
Jennifer Dryg said she heard a lot about it from her friends.
“They were all like really getting wrapped up in it. ‘We’ve got to tour as many schools as possible! We’ve got to get our child into Clarendon!’ ” she recalled. “The pressure is so intense.”
The Drygs entered the lottery and received one of their lower choices, Cleveland. They had toured it and liked Sanchez, the school’s pristine condition and that it was two blocks from home.
They were less wild about the lack of diversity and a strong PTA. Jason said they waffled between accepting the assignment or going through more rounds in hopes of scoring another school.
“We decided if we weren’t part of the solution, we’ll just continue to be part of the problem,” he said.
Every morning, Dexter and his dad walk to school. Recently, Jason Dryg started a before-school Drawing Club in the cafeteria and provides the pencils, pens and paper for the dozen kids who join in. They’re all Latino except for Dexter.
Jennifer Dryg laughed that when Dexter is at a party or restaurant, he’ll sometimes exclaim, “Look, another blond kid!” He gets along well with his classmates, but hasn’t formed strong enough friendships for out-of-school playdates, she said.
Jason Dryg attended a PTA meeting, but felt bad that an interpreter had to be there for his sake and said “there was a lot of eye-rolling” from other parents.
But still, they’re glad to be at Cleveland.
“Our ideal world would be that all kids go to their neighborhood school, and all schools have the same opportunity for kids to learn,” Jennifer Dryg said. “Families are just trying to do the best for their kids.”
San Francisco Chronicle staff writers Jill Tucker and Greta Kaul contributed to this story.
Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @hknightsf