Why do we have this d@mned school lottery anyway!?

Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Opinion, Parenting | 2 comments

Why do we have this d@mned school lottery anyway!?
My four year old loves when we read this page of 'Separate is Never Equal'. He recognizes the Golden Gate Bridge and loves hearing about how people from all kinds of backgrounds including Asian people & Jewish people - like his family members - supported Sylvia in making segregation illegal in California.

My four year old loves when we read this page of ‘Separate is Never Equal’. He recognizes the Golden Gate Bridge and loves hearing about how people from all kinds of backgrounds including Asian people & Jewish people – like his family members – supported Sylvia in making segregation illegal in California.

This week of school assignments, I noticed a family hanging out in the park with children my age, and struck up a conversation. It turns out they are homeless. The five year old daughter who chased my son around (that’s his favorite game too!) got into John Muir, where there is a great principal & staff, in my humble opinion. The twelve year old daughter is sharp as a tack and charming; she loves reading magical comic books with dragons and fairies. She is enrolled in middle school, but she’s been missing days. She hasn’t had clean clothes, and has to leave at 7 and take two busses to get to school, which would send me and many of my parent friends into frustrated tears. It means that she can’t shower at the church, since showers aren’t allowed until 8. Like any teen, she really hates that her face is breaking out. The family only has the clothes on their back and in a small suitcase that they pull everywhere with them, since there’s no storage for them at the shelter.

Meeting this family really put the school assignment process into perspective for me. I was cranky that there were no transitional kindergartens in my neighborhood and I would have to go across town — but for the low, low price of free — I would do things that a few years ago I would have thought impossible. I saw a lot of my friends react really emotionally when they didn’t get a school on their list in the first round. Almost 90% of families got a school on their list – but the 10-15% who didn’t reacted a lot more loudly. Personally, when I found out that the school we wanted didn’t have aftercare, I went straight into my momma/parent bear “don’t mess with my child –I’ll cut you!” reptilian brain. These reactions aren’t pretty, and they’re not coming from the part of our brain that makes rational decisions. Meeting this homeless family helped me get some perspective, and once I calmed down a bit, I wanted to dig in to learn a little history about why we have a lottery.

The lottery isn’t set up to make parents miserable. The lottery is set up because our schools are separate and unequal, and we have a history of segregation in our city (and our nation). Consider this:

America’s schools today are more segregated than in 1968.

California has the highest level of segregation for Latinos.(1)

A brief history of segregation in San Francisco:
San Francisco is at the center of the fight against segregation in California, and there is a hundred plus year history of organized Chinese, Japanese, Latino and African American families leading this fight. I live in a house built in 1888. Until a Chinese family in 1884 won a lawsuit, there was no guarantee of a public education in California for Chinese children. In 1906 the school board had to be brought to DC by President Roosevelt before they would admit a Japanese child.(2) In exchange, they demanded a concession limiting Asian immigration to the US. Policies like this and the cost of travel created the Asian model minority myth. Only middle class and wealthy families from Asia could afford or were allowed to migrate for most of the 1900s (until we opened our doors to refugees much later in the century).

Our family reads a great kid’s book, “Separate Is Never Equal” that chronicles Sylvia Mendez and her family’s lawsuit.(3) That decision made segregation illegal in California in 1947 in a San Francisco courtroom, seven years before Brown vs. Board of Education.  My kid’s grandparents were alive when segregation was legal. Still, in 1971 (our lifetime), San Franciscan African American families had to file a lawsuit to desegregate California’s schools. Our district was under a Federal desegregation order until 2005 (our middle schooler’s lifetime).

Nationwide, for a while, schools became more integrated in the 80s, when many of us parents went to school. Our children’s schools are more segregated than our schools, and about as segregated as our parent’s schools. This happened as a result of attacks on the gains of the Civil Rights Era, including Supreme Court decisions in 1990 and 2007 that undermined integration policies. In San Francisco, a lawsuit ironically brought by a few Chinese families who wanted to go to Lowell ended desegregation strategies that were much more effective than our current lottery.

The only tools left now are voluntary and neighborhood based strategies, like setting up language immersion programs that make schools more attractive, or giving some limited preference to poor neighborhoods. The lottery is our city’s current best effort to help our children go to school together, get to know each other, get great educations, and be prepared for the world. This is important.

What happens when we have segregated schools?
Segregation is really damaging. “The consensus of nearly 60 years of social science research on the harm caused by school segregation is that racially and socioeconomically isolated schools are strongly related to an array of factors that limit educational opportunities and outcomes. These factors include less experienced and less qualified teachers, high teacher turnover, less successful peer groups, and inadequate facilities and learning materials. One recent longitudinal study showed that having a strong teacher in the elementary grades had a long-lasting, positive impact on students’ lives, including lower teen pregnancy rates, a higher level of college attendance, and higher earnings.”(4)

Segregation is immoral, and a really bad idea. The success of Black and Latino kids are key to my family’s success. Diverse teams where people of color and women have equal power perform better. Diversity and excellence aren’t competing goals, they actually go hand in hand. In the debate today about Starbuck’s controversial #racetogether effort, business experts are pointing out that with shifting demographics, companies that ‘get diversity right’ will have a competitive advantage in their market. California’s demographics today match America’s projected demographics in 2042 when whites will no longer be in the majority. If our children go to school together today, they will have a unique competitive advantage in developing the skills that will help them thrive anywhere in America or the world, as well as giving them a leg up on becoming good human beings.

So where does that leave us?
If by us, you mean middle class families, mostly white and Asian (like mine) it turns out that many of us are leaving the public school system. Huge percentages of families in San Francisco and other cities like New York are leaving public schools and resegregating them on their way out the door. Take a listen to the ‘This American Life’ episode “Three Miles” if you want to hear the impact segregation has on students, and the talent we lose as a result. (Update 2015, listen to The Problem We All Live With episode, which focuses directly on segregation in our schools and is powerful).

For any given family, I respect your right to make the right decision for your child. As one of the PPSSF staff said at the school workshop I attended, “If you’re considering private school, that doesn’t make you the enemy.”(5)

But, for my friends and loved ones, the same ones who loved sharing the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. with our families, and who marveled at the bravery of Ruby Bridges, I want you to know the whole picture, so that you can make an educated decision about what is really best for your kid, and for all our kids. You don’t have to stand in front of firehoses to do this generation’s work for desegregation. You might just need to take a deep breath, work through a slightly challenging process, and take your child to school a little farther than you might want to.

How do we stand for integration now?
So what does all this mean for us? The history of segregation, the advantages of integration, the inconvenience of the lottery? For me, this means I’ll be going through Round 2 of the selection process with you – the school we got into doesn’t have aftercare, which is a deal breaker for us. (Check out the Parents For Public Schools website if you need help with this: www.ppssf.org) It means I’ve been thinking about the family I met at the park and imagining her as a part of my family. Personally, I’ve asked the neighborhood and some friends to help her with items that she requested, and it’s really beautiful to see them respond. As I go through my day, I’m buying vitamins for my daughter, so I picked up an extra bottle for her son. In the same way, at the system level I think about how policies impact our family, and how they impact hers, side by side.

If you avoid the neighborhood or school that you were assigned in the first round, I’d gently challenge you to go take a look with an open mind. Imagine it’s a visit to family, even if you think you would never send your child there. Consider what it would be like to go there. Is the school gorgeous, like the new Willie Brown school in the Bayview that has a cool new makerspace? Are there programs your child would love? Great. The commute might be a little inconvenient, but it’s a bit like buying fair trade coffee, or organic locally grown kale. You might have to go out of your way for it, or pay a little more, but it’s a part of being the change you want to see in the world.

What if the school not come up to your high expectations? Think about that for a second, what does that mean?

What does it mean that there are schools in the city that serve kids, but that don’t have the qualified teachers, the facilities, and the programs that others do? Our city and our country is so wealthy. Why should there be any school in this city that you wouldn’t feel good about your child attending?

But I’m not going to settle for less for my children!
I’m not asking you to accept less for your child, momma bear. I’m asking you to advocate for your child, school and family, and bring along other families. Tithe your outrage a little bit. Think of how much we could change if every parent who was upset at their school assignment contributed just a little bit to supporting every San Francisco school and demanding greatness.

If you have the time and ability to be involved at school, you are a key part of its success. Thank you! If you notice that differentiation isn’t happening in a classroom for your gifted kid, it’s probably not happening for that English language learner, or that kid with a disability either. When you speak up, speak up for all the kids. When you’re raising money for your school, or advocating for better food/transportation/safety, think about how we can share these resources across schools.

I want you to know you’ll be ok.
Take a moment to to ground yourself in gratitude. Move into your more evolved brain by realizing that we have options. There are 5 rounds that let us move to a public school that we like better. We’re not looking for food and shelter every day, so we can probably carve out some time to navigate that. We’ll very likely get a public school we like through the existing system if we move through the process.

Here are my problems, as a middle class white parent: I have a choice between paying more to keep my child in a convenient preschool for another year (instead of going to TK), or going through a bureaucratic process that is a little uncertain and stressful and irritating. I might have to wake up earlier and drive across town. I’ve heard frustrated parents blurt out: “I’ll just stay in preschool for another year, pay ($10-30K) for private school, move to Mountainview, or send my child to school in Marin on a bus every morning!” Be grateful for those options. We will be ok. My problems are not big problems. They are literally #FirstWorldProblems.

The problems this homeless family is facing are so much bigger and much higher stakes. Every day is a frustrating trip through a bureaucratic social service and shelter system, full of uncertainty about safety, whether or not they will get the clothes, housing and food that they need. A very smart 12 year old is missing school right now, though she’s trying to commute across the city on two busses at 7am each morning. What is she not learning today? Will she be one of our dropout statistics?

The kids who might not be ok are going to racially isolated schools, where the impacts of segregation are not abstract. Every morning they walk into a school whose needs are larger than their budget. SFUSD’s graduation rate has been rising, but only 65% of African American and 68% of Latino students graduate – compared to 81% overall. Just 28% of African American students and 36% of Latinos graduate with the right classes to start college.(6) Statistically, students at a racially isolated school are more likely have less experienced teachers. They are isolated from networks where opportunities are shared (that coding, or gardening, or art program you are looking forward to bringing to your school). They may have inadequate facilities and learning materials. If you went to that school, I know you wouldn’t stand for that, you would demand better.

In complaining about not ‘winning the lottery’ we are missing the point. We currently have a clunky system that seeks to desegregate our schools (‘cause we all “technically” agree that segregation is bad), while also giving parents the ability to choose a high quality school for their child. When middle class families pull out, the system gets worse–we are effectively a part of the problem. WE (middle class and affluent parents) are a big part of actively making our schools “good” or “bad” based on our involvement. When enough involved (and affluent) parents participate we see diversity and high quality instruction. It’s time for us to decide to be the diversity.

We care about integration and a high quality public system for ALL children in abstract, but if we opt out and disconnect when it becomes inconvenient, we become just like many white families in the North who “felt bad” about Jim Crow laws but only pointed fingers at the South and did nothing about racism in their own backyard. It takes all of us to make lasting change – white, Asian and middle class families have to support the leaders from communities of color who marched in the streets and who filed those lawsuits. It’s not enough to be horrified about segregation at dinner parties, we have to actually do the work of making our way through a clunky process, considering schools and neighborhoods that we might be biased against, and maybe driving our children across town.

We’ll be ok — the bigger question is, will we be on the right side of history?

If you liked this piece, check out the next in the series: “But would you send your kids there?

Julie Roberts-Phung is a longtime community organizer, a fan of STEAM education, and a career and leadership coach. She has two multiracial kids ages 1.5 and 4.5 who are Vietnamese and White (Irish and Russian). They are exhausting, they are at maximum cuteness, and raising them to be good human beings challenges me daily to deepen the way I work for a more just world in both my personal and professional lives. If you’re interested in exploring coaching with Julie, you can learn more here: http://empowertogetherconsulting.com/about/


(1) The northeast is the most segregated region, southern schools are actually the least segregated for Black students.  Brown at 60 Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future by Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg, with Jongyeon Ee and John Kuscera. May 15, 2014. Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/brown-at-60-great-progress-a-long-retreat-and-an-uncertain-future/Brown-at-60-051814.pdf

(2) Most of the history sited here comes from a great piece called: SEGREGATING CALIFORNIA’S FUTURE. Inequality and Its Alternative 60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education. Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee May 2014. Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/segregating-california2019

(3)  Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh. 2014. Abrams Books for Young Readers.

(4) Segregating California’s Future. Inequality and Its Alternative. 60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education. Gary Orfield and Jongyeon Ee May 2014. Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles. Retrieved from: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/segregating-california2019s-future-inequality-and-its-alternative-60-years-after-brown-v.-board-of-education/orfield-ee-segregating-california-future-brown-at.pdf

Citations from that paper inlude:  R. Chetty, J. N. Friedman, and J. E. Rockoff, The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood, NBER working paper no. 17699. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2011. Retrieved from http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/value_added.pdf.  C. Clotfelter, H. Ladd, and J. Vigdor, “Who Teaches Whom? Race and the Distribution of Novice Teachers,” Economics of Education Review 24, no. 4 (2005): 377-392;S. Rivkin, E. Hanushek, and J. Kain, “Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement,” Econometrica, vol. 73, issue 2, (2005), pp. 417-458. Also see, for example, H. Lankford, S. Loeb, and J. Wyckoff, “Teacher Sorting and the Plight of Urban Schools: A Descriptive Analysis.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 24, no. 1 (2002): 37-62; S. Watson, Recruiting and Retaining Teachers: Keys to Improving the Philadelphia Public Schools. Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 2001. In addition, one research study found that, in California schools, the percentage of unqualified teachers is 6.75 times higher in high-minority schools (more than 90 percent minority) than in low-minority schools (less than 30 percent minority). See L. Darling-Hammond, “Apartheid in American Education: How Opportunity Is Rationed to Children of Color in the United States.”  In T. Johnson, J. E. Boyden, and W. J. Pittz, eds., Racial Profiling and Punishment in U.S. Public Schools. Oakland, CA: Applied Research Center, 2001, pp. 39-44.

(5) PPSSF does great workshops for parents about the enrollment process, as well as school leadership and budgets. If you haven’t already, you’ve got to check them out here: www.ppssf.org

(6) Dropout on the Decline. SFUSD press release. April 28, 2014 (San Francisco). Retrieved from: http://www.sfusd.edu/en/news/current-news/2014-news-archive/04/san-franciscos-cohort-data-moves-in-the-right-direction.html


  1. Julie – Thank you so much for this excellent post. Be the change you want to see! Good luck in your kinder search and thanks again for taking the time write this.


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