San Francisco School Enrollment: Get in Line or Get Left Behind

San Francisco School Enrollment: Get in Line or Get Left Behind

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Editor's Note: It’s the time of year when so many young people are going back to school. For parents and teens in San Francisco this time can be especially stressful. This week on YO!Radio we talked to both parents and students about the struggles of getting into the perfect high school in order to attain the education they need in order to succeed in life. Malcolm Marshall is the producer of YO!Radio. Donny Lumpkins is a senior producer. Photos by David Gaitsgory.

SAN FRANCISCO -- It’s the time of year when people are going back to school, and for parents and children in San Francisco, this time can be especially stressful. The way the system works is the enrollment office picks a school for your child based on a number of criteria; the board tries to keep schools diverse. If you’re unhappy about where your kids are placed, you can challenge it and try to get them re-enrolled in another school.

I was at the San Francisco enrollment office during one of the hottest days of the year. Sitting in two identical rooms were parents and kids waiting to be seen. Parents anxiously went over paperwork until their numbers were called. Children zoomed in and out of the rooms and up and down the hallways, completely uninterested in what the grown-ups were doing.

Nahun Perez, 17, from Honduras, was attending high school but had to switch schools. After trying and trying, he finally thinks things may be looking up. I found him standing near a wall, looking kind of confused and tired.

“I want to get into Mission High,” said Perez. He previously attended Metro, but when the school relocated it was hard for him to get there.

“I've been [to the school district office] three or four times already because they don't have [any] more spaces in schools, and the other schools I wanted to go to were full. So this is my fourth time here trying to get into a high school that actually has spaces in it.”

Perez said his brother, who graduated from Mission High, talked to the principal on his behalf. He hopes this could be the edge that gets him into Mission.

Some people think kids should just go to school in the neighborhood where they live. But for low-income families, the schools in their communities aren’t any good. Some schools in bad neighborhoods face under-enrollment because parents pull their kids out or get them transferred. One man, who asked to remain anonymous, was there with his young daughter and wife.

"My kid was actually at Garfield Elementary and I moved her to Yick Wo, and I want her to go back to Garfield because I’m not as happy with Yick Wo.”

He said he thinks kids should go to schools in their communities, which I’m sure is easy for him to say because he lives in Russian Hill.

“I think the kids should go to school in their neighborhoods. Of course, there should be some exceptions. You don't want all the bad kids in one school and good kids in one school. We have to be fair. That’s what our country is all about."

I ran into Ruby, who declined to give her last name, walking into of one of the waiting rooms. To be honest, she looked a bit out of place. Most of the parents waiting were older minorities but Ruby—young, white and tattooed—looked like someone you would be more accustomed to seeing riding a bike through the city streets or sipping PBRs at the park with her friends.

Ruby, who works for the Catholic Charities in San Francisco, was trying to get two young children who were in temporary custody into school. But that’s no easy task.

“Uh… waiting,” she laughed. “It’s a long wait.”

“I’m here as a case manager,” she said, “assisting a family who otherwise would probably have left by now.”

She was trying to get the kids into Francisco Middle School and Tenderloin Elementary so they could take a school bus from Treasure Island where they live.

“I hope they get more enrichment, other than just passing a test, you know. Field trips and arts and music, I mean, that’s like a thing of the past. Remember back when we were kids and there were music programs in school? We just hardly hear [about] that any more.”

Gentle Blithe, the communications director for the school district, was called down after I stormed the enrollment office. I asked her about her day-to-day work at the office and what some of people’s most frequently asked questions were.

“We get a lot of questions about how the assignment system works, because the district has been in the process of redesigning the assignment system for years.”

Blithe says different ethnic groups tend to have certain schools they want their kids to go to.

“How do we make sure students are not racially isolated at schools?

That’s one of the goals of the new assignment system. One of the challenges is, families really want choice, so we give them a choice. They can choose from any school in the city, but different families choose partly along racial lines. That doesn’t support our de-segregation goals.”

Mrs. Lee, who asked that her first name not be used, got to the waiting room a little late and quickly noticed it was going to be no walk in the park. She was trying to transfer her grandchild to a new school. “Well, so far it’s not to easy. It’s a long line. It’s a long wait,” she said. “Most schools are filled up right now so we don’t know if we’ll get him where we want him to be. We may be stuck with him in a school that we’re not happy with. And if you don’t send him to the school, they’ll send the district attorney after you.”

Mrs. Lee wants to get her grandson into Martin Luther King Middle School. Right now he goes to Everett. She says she wants him to be in a smaller school that’s a little more laid back.

After waiting for about 40 minuets, she showed me her number. She was number 54 and they were only on 24. I asked what she hoped to get out of the school where she wanted to send her grandson.

“I’m looking for a safe environment,” she said. “Honestly, it’s not a safe environment at all schools. Academics is important, but I believe that it’s important to feel safe, that your son or daughter is going to come back in one piece and you won’t get a phone call. So to me, safety becomes first, academics become second.”