Elizabeth Weise

What can parents and communities do to create socioeconomically integrated schools?

Is SFUSD adding or losing students? The number are confusing

So on Thursday I went to post an article about school choice and how that’s playing out in Chicago on my blog and got something of a shock. There had been 677 visitors that day.

What, I thought, had happened? I hadn’t posted anything new for a few days.

Twitter happened. Someone picked up my essay on the public/private issue in SFUSD and it went viral (okay, in a very small way for Twitter but a big way for me.)

I’ve gotten some interesting messages from those tweets, which I’ll address.

But first, new information.

Yet another private school will be opening in San Francisco. This one will be Trinity School for Girls (the name’s still under discussion.) It will be a girls’ version of Cathedral School for Boys, the school attached to the Episcopal church here in town. However it won’t be primarily for Episcopalians, it will be open to everyone.

Having parity for girls seems only fair. We’re Episcopalians and it was troubling to find that there’s a fine Episcopal school in town but our children couldn’t attend it as they were the wrong sex.

But it’s still one more private school, which will eventually take another 300 or so students out of the public schools when it gets up and running beginning in 2016 or so.

Which raises a question that’s been puzzling me. I need to find someone who could do some serious number searching and crunching because I’m having some cognitive dissonance around several things I believe to be true but which can’t all be true at the same time.

I’m told by reliable sources that the percentage of students in San Francisco who attend private schools has remained quite constant over the last 30 or so years, between 25 and 30%.

The question that raises is this: How can there be 13 new private schools in town since 2009 and the percentage of kids in public school hasn’t changed? How is it possible that these schools can find students, when the percentage of students in private schools stays static?

The current list, by the way, includes:

Alt School

Alta Vista


Golden Bridges School

La Scuola

LePort School

Live Oak (opened previously, now plans to double enrollment)

Marin Prep

Presidio Knolls

Proof School (2015)

San Francisco Schoolhouse

Stratford School

Trinity School for Girls (2016)


There are several possibilities:

1) These schools are failing/will fail because there aren’t enough students to fill them.

2) These schools are cannibalizing the other private schools, which are losing students to them.

3) The number of school-aged children in San Francisco is rising, so while the relatively proportions are the same, the absolute numbers of kids in private school is increasing

4) Something I’m missing.


The second thing I wanted to address is some tweets/emails I got about a common perception that the real issue is that there “isn’t enough space in SF public schools” as one Twitterer put it.

I would contest that statement. When people say that, they generally mean there isn’t enough room in the schools they want to send their kids to, which is also sometimes that there isn’t enough room in their (high-achieving) neighborhood public school.

Their high-achieving neighborhood public school is usually (but not always) high-achieving because it’s in a neighborhood with lots of middle and upper middle class families, or at least one where they send their kids.

The thing is, with 62% of SFUSD’s students eligible for free lunch, and knowing that low socioeconomic status correlates with (though is of course not determinative of) achievement, there simply can’t be a majority of schools in SFUSD that are majority-middle class. There just aren’t enough middle and upper-middle class families in the system to make that possible.

(As an aside, San Francisco’s schools have much better tests scores than their socio-economics would predict because we have such a high percentage of Chinese immigrant students who tend to do much better in school that American-born students with the same incomes statistically do.)

So it’s not that SFUSD doesn’t have enough room, it’s that SFUSD doesn’t have enough middle and upper middle class students to attract more middle and upper class students. And the numbers as they currently stand make it impossible. If 62% of kids are poor, how can you have all SFUSD schools behave like schools full of middle class families?

There are two things to do. One is to create amazing schools where kids thrive even if their families lack resources. Which I would say SFUSD has really focused on and put a ton of resources and thought into, all to the good.

The other is to change the percentages and bring more middle and upper middle class families into the district. (And I say middle and upper middle class for a reason. Although housing prices make even high-earners feel poor in San Francisco, from a cultural perspective we’re not just talking about the middle class. We need to name it, that San Francisco has a large and growing upper middle class, and we will create a horribly bifurcated city if it becomes baked-in that they must always send their kids to private schools.)

Both would have the effect of making more schools that everyone wants to send their kids to.

At the other end, when I talk to folks at Parents for Public Schools, they say that anecdotally it feels as if many more people are choosing public schools than did ten or 15 years ago. The list of schools that are considered good or acceptable has grown by leaps and bounds. Even in the last ten years that I’ve been paying attention, schools that no one would ever have chosen are now eagerly sought after by many families I know: Glen Park, Sunnyside, Miraloma, Starr King, Jose Ortega. None were on the radar when we had kids in kindergarten.

And yet if the percentage going private hasn’t changed, what’s going on?

And even if it isn’t changing, for some arcane reason I’m totally missing, we STILL need to lower the number of families choosing private schools. When a significant proportion of families don’t have skin in the public schools, they don’t’ care about them. Their kids don’t interact with children who are wildly different from them. They don’t see the non-sanitized world. It’s a bad thing for society, for the kids and for our city.

But you can’t ask people to sacrifice their children’s education. They won’t do it, they’re not doing it (that 27% number again) and it seems as if more of them won’t in the future.

So we need to get SFUSD working to attract back those families, or not lose them in the first place. Which it’s doing, but not enough. And boy the rhetoric sure isn’t inductive to bringing those families in. You have to parse, hard, to even see that you’re wanted.

And touring high schools and having the head of a math department at a popular public school tell me “We don’t do advanced math, it’s not what our students need, that’s not what we focus on,” didn’t help matters any. It became a school we crossed off our list. At the same time that ALL SFUSD schools are supposed to work for ALL students (at least that’s what SFUSD says.)






Written by Elizabeth Weise

November 14, 2014 at 2:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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