What Can San Francisco Learn About School Diversity From Other Cities?
Monroe Elementary School students play on a world map in the school playground during recess in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. (Scott Strazzante/San Francisco Chronicle)
There are ways to diversify schools — and other American cities have found those ways.
But in San Francisco, one of the most diverse cities in the country, a third of elementary schools are segregated, with at least 60 percent of students from the same race. It’s the byproduct of housing patterns and a student assignment system that emphasizes parental choice.
Of the city’s 72 elementary schools, 24 have an enrollment that’s at least 60 percent of one race or ethnicity: 10 schools are predominantly Asian, two mostly African-American and 12 Latino. That degree of segregation is a problem, according to academic experts, and decades of data from local, state and federal research.
“Racially isolated schools often have fewer effective teachers, higher teacher turnover rates, less rigorous curricular resources (e.g., college preparatory courses), and inferior facilities and other educational resources,” concluded a memo issued by the federal Justice and Education departments in 2011 regarding racial isolation in schools and legal issues related to desegregation.
Court-ordered desegregation efforts in the 1960s and 1970s were successful at reducing segregation in schools, said Sarah Reber, an associate professor of public policy at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, who has studied desegregation successes and failures.
But across the country, as in San Francisco, court decisions have made it difficult for school districts to force desegregation. Consequently, many desegregation plans have fallen away in favor of choice-based programs — such as magnet schools and language programs — designed to attract students from diverse backgrounds.
In San Francisco, the school board has relied on a school assignment system to try to diversify schools. First preference is given to younger siblings of children enrolled in a school, second to families living in census tracts where students score lowest on standardized tests and third to students living in the neighborhood.
But it hasn’t worked.
“What we see is when we have choice, people self-segregate by race,” school board member Sandra Fewer said.
Yet school board members unanimously said they don’t want to give up on desegregating schools. Examples of desegregation efforts across the country — including magnet schools and creative school boundaries and assignment systems — suggest they don’t have to.
Impact of Choice
In San Francisco’s Excelsior neighborhood, parental choice at one school shows how choice can lead to diversity in a school’s makeup.
Monroe Elementary is one of the most diverse — half Hispanic, a third Asian, 7 percent white and 3 percent black.
The school has a Spanish-immersion program that draws both Spanish- and English-speaking families, a Chinese bilingual program for students who want to maintain the language while learning English, and a traditional general education program — programs placed at the school years ago to address the language needs of students in the surrounding community.
While the district didn’t set out to create a diverse school, the three programs lure a wide range of families from the neighborhood and from across the city. With 500 students with parents who speak three different languages, it’s a juggling act, but worthwhile, Monroe Principal José Montaño said.
“It’s a tall order to have all this in one school,” he said. “But language pathways make a huge impact in a school’s racial makeup. ... Language is a big part of race.”
In the Monroe library, “Goodnight Moon 1, 2, 3” is displayed next to the book “Te lo regalo!” while “The Three Little Tamales” is displayed alongside “My Friend Jamal,” with two smiling boys on the cover, one black and one white. Books in Chinese are on a nearby shelf.
In one third-grade Chinese bilingual classroom, the students are all Asian. Next door, the Spanish-immersion third-graders are mostly a mix of Latino and white. Just down the stairs, in the general education third-grade classroom, Asian, white, Latino and black faces glance up when a visitor walks in the door.
While 80 percent of the students are from low-income families and two-thirds of them are English learners, the school overall exceeded the state’s benchmark of 800 points on the 1,000-point Academic Performance Index, based primarily on standardized tests. But more importantly, students across all subgroups exceeded the district average for each category. That means Asian, white and Latino students, English learners and poor students all posted higher test scores than their peers across San Francisco schools. Subgroup test scores were not available for African-American students because the number tested at Monroe was too small.
There is no magic fix to segregation, Montaño said. What’s happening at Monroe is a good start, he said, but just a start.
“On paper, we look pretty diverse,” Montaño said.
The playground, however, offered another picture. At recess, the Latino children play soccer. The Asian youngsters play basketball. A group of white girls huddle on a bench.
“You can’t force them to hang out,” Montaño said. “You can’t force them to like each other.”
San Francisco has other magnet programs that lure families to a school or a neighborhood they might not otherwise consider. In many cases, including the placement of language programs at Monroe, diversity was an unintentional positive result rather than a deliberate attempt to reduce segregation by district officials.
Before adding a Mandarin-immersion program at Starr King Elementary in 2006, the school, located next to a public housing project on Potrero Hill, was predominantly black and Latino and under-enrolled in the school’s traditional general education program. With the Chinese-language program in place, the school has doubled enrollment and is more diverse: 27 percent Asian, 19 percent white, 18 percent Latino and 17 percent African-American.
With so many empty classrooms, it was in danger of being closed, said board member Shamann Walton. It is now full and has become the most diverse school in the city.
“A quality program did make that school change,” he said. “Just imagine if we did some of the same things with schools in the Bayview.”
Several districts across the country have taken the idea a step further, using a regional approach to magnet programs to make schools more diverse across city and suburban lines.
Schools in the St. Louis area are among them. There, 4,500 students from the city, where students are predominantly African-American, take buses into the suburbs for school in a voluntary transfer program. A much smaller number of students, 130, bus from the suburbs to 24 specialty magnet schools in the city.
Since the racial makeup of suburban schools varies, the program’s results are not uniform. Enrollment in Rockwood School District, in St. Louis’ western suburbs, for example, is now about 10 percent African-American, compared with the 2 percent that might have been enrolled without the voluntary transfer program, said David Glaser, the chief executive officer of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., which oversees the desegregation program.
“It’s substantially more integrated. Is it as diverse as the overall population in the world? In some districts, it is and in some districts, not as much,” Glaser said.
After a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling in 1996, Hartford created a system that allows students in the city and the outlying suburbs to transfer to one another’s schools. The students are lured to schools far from home, thanks to a big state investment in regional, high-quality, subject-specific magnet schools.
One of them, the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, was rated the 15th-best high school in the country last year by U.S. News and World Report. Other magnet schools specialize in early reading, science and technology, environmentalism, performing arts, journalism and medicine. Seats are awarded through a lottery system, and some busing is provided.
In 2013, the state reported that half of Hartford students were attending integrated schools, meaning less than three-quarters of a school’s population are minorities.
In Berkeley, the district takes another approach. In response to the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which prohibits public institutions from considering race in education and hiring decisions, Berkeley Unified now divides the city into three broad attendance zones. Within those, the city is further divvied up into areas of four to eight blocks apiece, each of which is given a diversity rating depending on its racial makeup, income and education levels. The diversity scores range from 1 (more disadvantaged) to 3 (more advantaged).
Families can choose which elementary school to send their child to as long as each school’s percentage of category 1, 2 and 3 students is close to those percentages for the whole attendance zone. If a school’s diversity mix is askew, open seats are given to students who would help achieve balance.
The district’s 11 elementary schools are diverse, closely mirroring the district’s overall racial demographics. None of them has 50 percent or more of any one race.
For decades in San Francisco, education officials have relied almost exclusively on the student assignment system in one way or another to diversify schools, but success stories like Monroe and Starr King show that it needs a closer look at alternatives, school board members said.
Bolder Action Urged
The district needs to be bolder, they said, noting they need to take a harder look at putting programs in schools — language programs, music programs, art programs — to draw families to segregated or unpopular schools.
The board has also considered giving “golden tickets” to entice families to choose certain schools — perhaps first choice in enrollment at city high schools, which they offered as an enrollment incentive at the new Willie Brown Middle School in the city’s less popular Bayview neighborhood.
“I am interested in us looking more to those strategies,” board member Jill Wynns said.
A school in Lower Pacific Heights is already on the school board’s radar as a possible option for a new magnet program.
Cobb Elementary now occupies a newly renovated building painted a deep schoolhouse red with bright white window frames. The school is 63 percent black and Latino and severely under-enrolled with 180 students. There is room for up to 170 more, despite its centralized location.
Superintendent Richard Carranza said the school could accommodate a new program to diversify and increase enrollment. One suggestion is to relocate Clarendon Elementary’s Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program to Cobb, which would also increase the number of neighborhood seats at Clarendon, which are in high demand.
Clarendon families in the Japanese program are already pushing back.
“I think we’re satisfied with the idea that some schools are not that attractive for some people,” said school board member Matt Haney. “It’s a huge disparity in our district, and the choice patterns are often by race. We don’t make efforts to try to disrupt that in ways that are positive choices that people might make.”
Jill Tucker, Heather Knight and Greta Kaul are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. E-mail: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @jilltucker, @hknightsf, @gretakaul