SAN FRANCISCO – Parents are waiting anxiously by their mailboxes this week to learn where their children will go to school under the city's latest experiment in desegregation, which uses a complex formula based not on race but on a series of socieoeconomic factors.
For the first time, school district officials are using a "diversity index" that doesn't directly include race or ethnicity to decide who will attend the coveted schools, and who gets assigned to more troubled campuses.
Parents had to submit their applications by Feb. 1; letters notifying parents which campus their child has been accepted at are just now being sent out.
Anthony Anderson, director of the district's educational placement center, said the reforms are designed to encourage equal access to education for the district's 60,000 students. Getting disadvantaged students into better-off campuses is exactly what the district wants.
"It's those students that add to the diversity," Anderson said.
Another major change coming this fall is that parents, teachers and school principals — not district officials — will decide how to spend each school's budget — a change expected to be approved Monday night by the city's school board.
Several years in the making, the diversity index is the city's latest response to a federal order throwing out the desegregation plan that had governed school admissions from 1983-1999. That plan limited each school to no more than 45 percent of any one racial or ethnic group.
"When you're trying to just balance a school, race shouldn't be the reason you go to a school," said Hydra Mendoza, the director of Parents for Public Schools, a grass roots group that has endorsed the change.
Smaller cities have tried similar efforts to replace race with socioeconomic factors as they struggle to maintain diversity in public schools. Cambridge, Mass., which voluntarily desegregated its schools in 1980, imposed a similar concept this year, the "Controlled Choice Plan," which assigns students to schools based on their parents' income instead of the child's race.
La Crosse, Wis., was one of the first school districts to attempt such an economic desegregation plan, in 1992. Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C., also have adopted similar plans.
In San Francisco, the old desegregation method put mixed-race couples in a particular bind: they agonized as they tried to decide whether identifying their children as black, white, Latino or Asian would improve their chances of getting a coveted spot in one of the most sought-after schools.
"You were getting families who felt like just because you had a certain ethnic background, you were entitled to go to certain schools," Mendoza said.
The "diversity index" ranks each student according to six factors that attempt to determine whether a child is disadvantaged: whether he or she qualifies for free lunches, welfare or public housing; did not attend preschool; has a mother who did not attend college; doesn't speak English well; previously attended a low-performing school; or lives in a home where English is not the predominant language.
Starting with this fall's classes, new students living in a coveted school's attendance area will get in as long as they contribute to a school's socioeconomic diversity. The goal: a mix of advantaged and disadvantaged students.
It's a goal that the district has failed to meet for decades. While some schools have strong reputations, others have become dumping grounds for the poorest, most needy or most troublesome students. The district recently decided to close one such school, McAteer High, rather than spend any more money trying to improve it.
"We're now looking at making sure every high school gets its fair share of all students, and students with special needs in particular," district superintendent Arlene Ackerman said last week as she discussed the closure.
"Special needs" students, however, can mean more money for a school's tight budget, as can English language learners and children from low-income families. That money — along with a pool of state money for schools whose students perform poorly on standardized tests — can add up to a significant cash infusion for many schools.
In the past, district officials decided school budgets. Starting this fall, onsite councils of parents, teachers and principals will control school funds under another key reform. Ackerman implemented similar budget reforms when she ran public schools in Washington, D.C. and Seattle.
The diversity index represents a second try by the district to resolve a federal suit brought by Chinese-American families upset that a quota barred their high-performing children from getting into the city's highly competitive Lowell High School.
The suit brought an end to the 15-year-old desegregation policy, but the diversity index won't be applied to Lowell, which bases its admissions on academic performance. Since the suit, Lowell has seen an Asian influx — the ethnic Chinese population grew to 53 percent last fall.