Advocating for Equity in Separate and Unequal Schools

This coming September 24, 2016 we are organizing an event to bring together family advocates like you from schools across the district. All of our children lose out when we have separate and unequal schools – kids of color more than White and more affluent kids, but we all lose.

At this meeting we will learn from each other about the conditions in our schools, how to be effective advocates for equity and create the schools our children deserve, and we will connect together to be a stronger voice on district wide issues.

Organizations which support families like Coleman Advocates, Our Family Coalition (LGBTQ families) and Legal Services will be there to share information about rights and resources for families. Finally, we’ll be inviting you to join workgroups to get to work creating the meaningfully integrated, equitable schools our kids deserve, where they can play and learn together.

To make the biggest impact, bring a group of families from your school!

Please join us September 24th from 2-4 PM at 251 18th Ave, SF, CA 94117. RSVP here so we have a good count for food, translation and childcare.


Advocating for Equity in Separate and Unequal Schools

SF Families Union Meeting
September 24th 2016

2:00-4:00 PM
251 18th Ave, SF, CA 94117 (in Richmond)
Childcare and snacks provided, please RSVP to reserve your spot.

Click to RSVP


Invite your friends!

Click the image below to download flyers and share with your friends. The more families come, the more power we have to create positive change in SF schools!

Sept 24 SFFU Flyer

Posted in Uncategorized

My impressions of Cobb (Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School)


A volunteer day at Cobb’s garden.

Our guest blogger Laura Lifland (super mom and emerging writer) was taken aback at the responses from friends when she told them her child had been assigned to Cobb in the first round of the SFUSD lottery this year. Dismayed that people were willing to share negative viewpoints on a school they had never visited nor taken the time to learn about, Laura decided to visit the school herself. Her impressions of the school highlight what we miss when we rule out a beautiful school in a great neighborhood with a talented, caring teachers based on test scores alone, or worse, racial and socio-economic demographics and vague, baseless impressions from people who know nothing of the school.

I arrived at Cobb for their scheduled Thursday morning 9am tour, and was fortunate enough to get to spend an hour one-on-one with the principal, Chad Slife (“Mr Slife”, as the students call him fondly). This is his first year at Cobb. Previously, he was Assistant Principal at Gateway Middle School (a charter school), which he helped launch. During his time at Gateway, the school grew from 100 6th graders at inception, to full capacity of 312 6-8th graders last year (with a wait list of 400 for 100 spots!). Before Gateway, he was a teacher at Claire Lillienthal.

Cobb is one of the smallest schools in SFUSD, with 140 students currently enrolled, including preK. This allows for very small class sizes (current K has 14 children). That said, they have capacity for more enrollment and would love to add more students.

Cobb is in a great location (at California and Divis) with a large outdoor playspace and brightly lit, spacious rooms. There was a feeling of warmth and engagement throughout the school. They were having a “publishing party”, with a focus on “persuasion”. We ran into the literacy coach who excitedly told us about a persuasive piece that one of the students had written about one of the current candidates in the US presidential race, as well as another on the case for non-violence. I was also able to witness collaboration between classes (5th graders helping K students with reading/writing projects). Kids said enthusiastic hellos to Mr Slife when we went into a classroom or crossed paths with them in the hallways.

Average tenure of teachers at Cobb is currently 8 years. I met many of the staff during my walk around and was uniformly impressed with their warmth and professionalism. As many of you know, my child defies all traditional gender norms, and my number one qualification for the K he eventually attends is that the staff be aware and supportive on the topic of gender identity. I found Mr Slife, and all of the staff I spoke to, fully fluent on children’s gender development and other matters of diversity and inclusion.

The school has undergone a massive integration of arts into the curriculum. Children have 2-3hours of arts per week, fostered by partnerships with the SF Opera, Ballet and Symphony, as well as with an SFUSD VAPA teacher who comes into the school, and a teacher from the Nagata Dance Company in Japantown.

The school is also slotted to participate in a World Language Pilot (see article in SF Examiner). Every student would get 30 minutes of instruction in Mandarin, 3x week. At the moment, Cobb and one other school have been identified as pilots for this program, which would eventually roll out to other schools.

They are working with Coast 2 Coast Coaching for lunch recess this spring. They hope to have Playworks on site next school year with a full-time coach to support all recesses with safe and fair play.

Speaking of recess, K-2 have morning, lunch and afternoon recess. Grades 3-5 have morning and lunchtime recess. Younger kids are encouraged to take “brain breaks” by moving (Mr Slife used the example of 3rd graders doing a conga line from one activity to the next, or having dance it out moments during the day).

The school provides full-time aftercare through the YMCA at no cost. Regular school hours are from 8:40-2:40pm, and aftercare is from2:40-6pm.

The school does require uniforms (blue pants or skirt, blue or white shirt) for all students, with the exception of PreK. The uniform policy is intended as a socio-economic support in the community. I confirmed that my child would be able to, without hesitation, wear a skirt or pants. Kids looked relaxed and comfortable in their attire, and other than the uniformity of color, their clothes looked of their own choosing in style, cut, layers.

Academically, the school (as with all of SFUSD) adheres to the Common Core.

The school practices RTI (Response To Intervention) for both academics and behavior. This means the first tier, which includes everyone, receives a certain degree of intervention, followed by a second tier – a select group – receiving another level of intervention, followed by the third tier – individuals – receiving personalized intervention.

In terms of discipline, the school (like many SFUSD schools), engages in Restorative Practices. In addition, students are awarded “Golden Tickets” for acts that reflect the school’s commitment to Be Safe, Be Respectful, and Be Responsible. Prizes are given out at the individual, class and school level once a certain # of Golden Tickets are collected. Class prizes include popsicle parties; school prizes include dance parties.

There is an active parent organization at the school and a school site council. Most families come out for events that engage and showcase their kids (performances, Back to School night). There are small-scale fundraisers.

In terms of resources, the school has:
1 full time social worker
1 full time instructional coach
1 full time literacy coach
1 full time elementary advisor (supports attendance)
1 full time RSP (supports Special Ed)
1 half-time family liaison
1 half-time school nurse (who trains all of the other nurses in SFUSD)
1 librarian, 2 days/week
1 Phys Ed specialist, 2 days/week

3 VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) teachers on campus one-day-a-week each.

Volunteers further support the school, including:
San Francisco Education Fund
Experience Corps (retired adults who want to give back to the community)
Tzuichi, a Buddhist Foundation that provides supports for families in need
High school volunteers from Gateway, Drew, Towne who help with reading, recess, etc

Did you tour a great public school that people need to know about? Tell us all about it in the comments, and/or email

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Congratulations Carver ES Families!

The SF Families Union members met Carver Families during the Feb. 13th SF Families event at Cobb ES where we spoke about the experience of Black families. What came up was surprising… there two schools in our district without proper doors and walls for instruction. Both of these schools are in the Bay View, a San Francisco neighborhood housing predominantly low-income families of color.

Working in support of the amazing family leadership there, SF Families Union amplified the message that parents, grandparents, students and staff had been saying all for a long time… “Students and teachers need proper classrooms to quality teaching and learning!… We need doors and walls at our school!”

Members of the SF Families Union met with Carver family representatives and staff. We met with local officials (Malia Cohen, SF Supervisor, District 10) and on her recommendation, created petitions. Carver families circulated paper petitions and SF Families Union members posted petitions online and via social media. Together, we were able to gather over 300+ petitions which Carver families presented to the SFUSD School Board last Tuesday!

Watch their amazing testimony at the recent Board of Education meeting last Tuesday, March 22, 2016 at this link.


Thank you Carver families for being such an inspiration for other SF Families. Carver ES is a AMAZING school with AMAZING teachers, kids and families. You deserve to have a school that reflects the GREATNESS of your community!

To support Carver families, call Donna Smith, Carver Parent Liaison at 415-330-1540 or contact the SF Families Union at: sanfranciscofamiliesunion AT

Congratulations! You’ve won a commitment that Carver classrooms will get walls and doors, and ventilation to create a healthy and safe learning environment! You’re our s/heros!

At the March 22nd Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Richard Carranza promised the Carver community: “Your voices have been heard… It’s going to be close to $1 million. Work is already starting… We are going to update the community as to a timeline of when the construction will start… We’re not waiting for another bond issue. We’re rearranging bond monies to be able to make this happen immediately.”
You’re winning, and the SF Families Union is thankful for your leadership and inspiration.


  • Thank you for signing petitions (over 300), writing letters, and making beautiful posters.
  • Thank you for coming out to the Board of Education once again, late on a school night. Thank you to the elementary students and families who stayed up past 9:30 pm to speak up for your school!
  • Thank you for sharing your anger and hurt.
  • Thank you for your grace and composure, for waiting patiently while boring adults do hours of boring meeting stuff before asking for classroom doors and walls, “pretty please.”
  • Thank you for sharing your confidence in your students and your expectation that they will thrive.
  • Thank you for sharing your school pride.
  • Thank you for showing how to come together and put children’s safety and learning first.
  • Thank you for showing SFUSD what the “community” in “learning community” really means!

Keep up the great work! The SF Families Union is behind you 100%. We will work with you to keep the pressure on until Carver families open new doors to classrooms with proper walls and ventilation. Thank for inspiring us with your leadership and action!

With joy and admiration,
The SF Families Union


Posted in Action, Uncategorized Tagged with: ,

Help make all our schools (Black) Family Friendly – Feb 13 @ 2:00pm!

Hi everyone!

We’ve been hearing some interesting observations about the experience of Black families in SF schools, and have decided to make this the focus of our upcoming meeting. For example, Davonna commented that, as a Black mom, she would never send her child some of SFUSD’s most requested schools. Julia shared her tip on finding a welcoming school: “Ask the principal about race, and in 15 seconds you’ll know school leadership is good on race or not.”  Ali, a mixed-race mom, was surprised to learn that many Black families at her school transferred from high-choice schools because they experienced negative experiences around race. As we move through this year’s enrollment frenzy, let’s continue the year-round work of building meaningfully integrated inclusive school communities by asking:Are our schools welcoming and effective for Black families?

We all have a role in making our schools more Black Family Friendly, join us at our upcoming San Francisco Families Union meeting:

“How (Black) Family Friendly is Your School?”
February 13th 2016, 2-4 pm
William Cobb Elementary (2725 California St).
RSVP here!

What we’ll be talking about:

This interactive event will center on Black family experiences in SFUSD, and draw on the diversity of ALL our Black families in SF, including: immigrant, mixed-race, LGBTQ families, middle class families, families who need services, all of the above, and more!  We’ll be identifying common themes among Black families and across SFUSD school sites, so we can ensure all Black students are fully seen and supported in our schools.

We will learn what SFUSD schools are doing well to engage Black families and ensure Black students are getting what they need.  We will also discover what is *not* working. Together, we will create recommended practices and examples to take back to our schools. We also plan to advocate in our schools and at the district level so that some of the recommendations that come out of this meeting can become district-wide expectations.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Invite Black families. Add this meeting invite to your school newsletter and share it widely. If you’re not Black, this is a great way to start a new conversation with Black families in your community. For example, you can hand someone a flyer and say (not all in one breath!) “I’m a part of this group, and it’s got me realizing I don’t really know what kind of experience you’re having at our school. Would you be interested in joining Black families on February 13th to talk about what our school does well or needs to do better?” This might feel awkward, it will probably go fine, it might not, but it’s important to start this kind of conversation and continue it, learning as you go. Use this flyer and encourage them to RSVP here.
  • Come to the meeting. Families who are not Black are encouraged to join and discover strategies that support Black families and benefit all our children.
  • Do the work at your school. When you see things that are wrong, speak up and engage. If you’re not Black, seek out Black perspectives in your school. Ali created these great simple tools to get us all started:

We’re looking forward to seeing you on February 13th at 2:00pm to work together to make all our schools great!

Posted in Uncategorized

Segregation and The Best San Francisco Schools You’ve Never Heard Of.

(This article was originally posted by on December 30, 2015. Click here to see more content on parenting, race, and education.) 

tl/dr: Join the San Francisco Families’ Union January 9th at the African American Art and Culture Center in an exploration of segregation and what a good school actually looks like. 

4.11.15-CobbWorkday_IMG_0826I had tears in my eyes while touring a public school in my neighborhood recently. I was standing in the corner of a gym, trying not to distract the kids from their work. They couldn’t have really cared less about me though, they were focused on their teacher with every fiber of their being, bodies buzzing with energy and hovering in place in a surprising show of control for 5 year olds. The teacher was talking with them in a powerful voice, soothing, curious, calling out instructions that had the learning so embedded in them that kids may or may not have even known they were learning through the play. “Hmmm, Janie,* Jaquan, what is the pattern? Who will I call on next?” Kids looked around the room, found a friend with another ‘J’ name, and pointed excitedly. “Yes, José! José, it’s your turn.” José ran around his friends, making looping figure 8s as fast as he could, without touching anyone. The teacher encouraged him, “I like how Jose is moving carefully, and how he is focused, and he is not touching his friends.” They moved on to doing a math dance where they shook their hands and feet to numbers, as the family liaison whispered to me that the older kids integrated dance with other subjects like social studies. I teared up as I left the room, knowing that my 5 year old, energetic, and know-it-all son would love to come to school.

I saw a lot that I loved at this school. The classes were smaller than normal: 14-17 instead of the usual 22. Small class sizes are a key factor that research shows leads to improved learning, and a mom I met at the enrollment fair said it was one of her favorite things about the school. “It’s easy to work with the teacher, to know how your children are doing & ask the them to give more challenging work if needed” she said.

When I met the Principal, he told me about an Opera partnership – 4th and 5th graders are writing and will perform their own arias! I saw a beautiful large library and computer room. I flipped through the notes of the School Site Council posted outside the office and saw a photo of a lovely active group of parent leaders who are working on a world language pilot. If approved, it would bring in 30 minutes of Mandarin a day to the school. One class was a mix of two grades, where it’s easy for children to get more challenging work when they are ready. The school community is great too – some family leaders are grandparents who went to the school themselves, saw their children through, and are now watching their grandchildren thrive there.

Here’s the kicker – this school is walking distance from my house, and I’d be guaranteed to get a seat. Did I just find the best San Francisco school lottery hack that no one tells you about? I’ll let you in on the secret of which school this is in a minute, but first, we need to scale back and look at some of the system dynamics that shape our decisions.

Here’s the amazing thing. No one I know has toured this school. Thanks to segregation in pre-school (2), many of our kid friends in the neighborhood are White and Asian, like my family. About 48% of the kids at the school I toured are Black, another 14% are Latino and 75% of the kids who go to the school are socioeconomically disadvantaged. Only 6 & 9% are White and Asian, respectively.

Parents are busy, so we use shortcuts to help us make sense of the 110+ school choices we have in our city.Unfortunately, the most common shortcuts we use feed into patterns of segregation and make us miss really great schools that might be the best option for our kids.

Diverse schools are one of the best strategies for closing the achievement gap, but they also provide benefits to White students. This article points out that White students in diverse schools become better at critical thinking, problem solving and working with diverse teams. They don’t have lower test scores. If you want your child to learn how to be creative and innovative & ready to lead in a global economy, you might be better off enrolling them in a public school where they are in the numeric minority than signing up for the latest ‘innovative-maker-charter-school’ fad. The recent “This American Life (TAL) podcast, ‘The Problem We All Live With’” highlighted the benefits of integrated schools, and the high level of segregation in American schools right now. It’s a must listen.

The metrics we are using to sort schools are also the wrong ones to measure actual learning.

First we rely on test scores. There’s been nation wide skepticism about the increase in testing and the high stakes ways that standardized test have been used. While testing can provide useful metrics to educators, it’s a terrible metric for picking a school.(3) I love data driven decision making as much as the next gal, but I am skeptical about how all the standardized tests are measuring learning. Do they measure critical thinking? Creativity? Or just rote memorization? As parents we suspect we are over testing our kids and taking the learning out of schools when we focus on teaching to tests, but we still look at test scores and eliminate schools on that measure alone.

Research tells us that test scores are highly correlated with socioeconomic status. They tell us so much more about the parents than they do about the child.  Your child sitting next to a child without the same opportunities doesn’t make your kid score worse on a test or learn any less. One of the most telling moments in the TAL podcast was when they announced that they would include the test scores of the mostly Black kids bussed into the mostly White school. There was an audible outcry. Did the school suddenly get worse because the average scores went down? Nope, but as parents we are attached to a false sense of security we get from ‘good test scores.’

More importantly, learning is by definition a measure of change over time. Test scores for a school are one snapshot and the data is aggregated (it tells you about the whole school, not your child). In many schools with low test scores, children will catch up several years at a time in one year. At the same time, in a school with high test scores, children may only advance one year at a time. There is actually more learning happening in the school with low test scores, but you don’t see that in the number.

The other measure that parents use are the recommendations of other parents like us. While well intentioned, this leaves a lot of room for bias & systemic racism. Our neighborhoods and social networks are segregated, so we’re most likely to end up with other families like us. This is part of why changing the enrollment system to prioritize neighborhood schools will not desegregate our schools, and also part of why the current lottery system alone is also not integrating more than a handful of schools.

Parents are more likely to tour schools where the kids look similar to their kids. For those who love data visualization and data models, check out this cute site that uses Thomas Schelling’s Dynamic Models of Segregation to point out how even small preferences can lead to segregation. There has been a lot in the news about implicit bias including this story about how Google is trying to address it. Even the most well meaning families are likely to be unconsciously biased to assume that schools that mostly serve White kids are better. These biases rarely go away, a first step to neutralizing them is being aware of them and acting to counter them. System approaches are most effective in changing patterns based on implicit bias.

At the end of the day, parents are busy people, and we’re going to take shortcuts. The shortcuts we take feed into systemic patterns of segregation, they are a part of the systemic racism that is all around us. Racism lies to us, it is a shortcut that leads good people to make poor decisions for our own and other children.Does that mean that me and my neighbors are racist people? No more than anyone else in America today.

A grim meeting in my neighborhood in 1906

A grim meeting in my neighborhood in 1906

Unlike the San Franciscans that tried to keep Chinese students out of their schools in 1800s or those who tried to exclude the Japanese from public schools 1906, or many of the 40% of families who boycotted busing to integrate SF schools in the 1970s we’re probably not intentional segregationists.  This is just the sneaky way that silent, systemic racism works in 2015, without most of us even noticing.

Now that we know, what will we do about it?

American schools are as segregated as they were in 1968. Our shortcuts are increasing segregation, and unless we do something intentionally different, unless we start talking about schools and school enrollment while talking about race and looking at systemic racism, we will continue to replicate the segregation in our cities.

If nothing changes, we’re going to share our spreadsheet with our friends, who are most often like us, and we’re usually going to cluster. We see this in the sudden popularity of ‘hidden gems’ that get ‘discovered’ and where the demographics flip in a few years, sometimes to the dismay of the White and more established Asian families who started the trend. We use test scores and the recommendations of parents like us, or worse yet, combine the two by checking GreatSchools. Regardless of their intent, the impact of sites like that on integration is probably about as effective as Bull Connor blocking the door to the schoolhouse. Combined with real estate sites they result in modern day redlining. These sites basically rely on test scores and parent recommendations to give your school a number and a color. Despite my best intentions, even I feel myself clench up when I look at the schools in my neighborhood and see them rated Green, Orange or Red. Not red!? It almost makes me doubt my own eyes.

What I saw with my own eyes at Cobb lets me know that my children would get an excellent education there. When I toured John Muir I saw excellence too. They also had smaller than normal class sizes,(1) and I saw engaged students and teachers hard at work making learning fun. In four different classrooms I saw four different dynamic teaching styles at play. In one room, kids were dancing along with mnemonic devices that would help them learn how to spell. In another room, the walls plastered with books, the teacher used a puppet to hold the attention of giggling children. They chewed imaginary bubble gum together and then used their fingers to slowly pull gummy words out of their mouths, listening to all the sounds so they could spell them.

A Beacon Center summer circle at John Muir Elementary.

A Beacon Center summer circle at John Muir Elementary.

John Muir’s experienced teachers have all (or almost all) had training in differentiation, the strategy of tuning into individual student’s needs in a classroom and tailoring the work you ask them to do so that students with different needs get what they need in the same classroom.(4) This strategy also usually dovetails with project based learning strategies where children learn subjects creatively and more realistically in the context of a real world project. I have a hunch based on my experience & conversations with educators that many teachers in high-needs schools actually have more tools in their toolbox to support learning. In one room, differentiation looked like small tables of five children grouped around one adult and reading quietly. The family liaison whispered to me that on one side, the child was reading at a 4th grade level (in a 1st grade classroom) while the child on the other side needed extra help, and children in between ranged in their needs. At John Muir, they made a huge investment in technology a few years ago, which means they have more than the average school. 4th and 5th graders are coding, which would fit well with our family’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) focus. I could picture my husband and his tech buddies doing fun projects with kids at the school.

We will need policy changes to truly integrate our schools, but in my gentrifying neighborhood parents could actually integrate our schools with our choices alone – maybe this is possible in your neighborhood too.

One school in our neighborhood with a language program is secretly one of the most meaningfully integrated schools in the city – Rosa Parks. It’s not happening more widely though. First, half of White families in San Francisco send their children to private schools. Of the four truly public schools (5) in my neighborhood, New Traditions is one of the top five Whitest schools in the city with 52% White students (41% low income). The first school I toured is William Cobb, and the final school is John Muir, which is 51% Latino and 31% Black – with only 4% White students. Most of the families like me plan to go to New Traditions and haven’t toured John Muir or William Cobb. A lot of our friends from diverse backgrounds go to Rosa Parks and we figured we would too, until I realized that we would be playing into the same patterns of segregation. In our neighborhood, if White and more established Asian families join school communities like William Cobb and John Muir, our children could benefit from being in school where most of the children are not like them, and get a great education.

As we are looking at schools, there are a lot of questions that are coming up that I’m trying to find answers to. If the metrics we are using are the wrong ones, what should we be looking at? What would it really be like for my kids to go to a school where most of the kids are different than us – mostly Black and Latino or newcomer Asian families? Will my kid be challenged? Will they be safe? Would there be trade offs? How do I join a school community, and not gentrify it? I know that there will be real challenges in schools like these – it’s not all rainbows and light. There are a lot of needs and where there are different cultures and assumptions there will be also conflicts. We might face staff turnover and someone will probably throw a chair at some point in our schooling. I know that we will face challenges and conflicts at any school we go to – they might just look a little different here.

I have some sense of the answers to these questions based on my experience going to “the bad school” To learn more, about what this will look like in San Francisco and how it connects to national trends I’ve also started to interview other parents and do research on these issues. I’ll be exploring these questions over the next few months in this blog, and with my friends in the San Francisco Families’ Union.  We’re hosting a conversation January 9th

Click here to RSVP for the SF Families Union meeting January 9th.

Click here to RSVP for the SF Families Union meeting January 9th.

to hear from education experts, parents and educators about what they look for in schools and how they think about meaningful school integration. School applications are due January 15th, and if I decide to apply for William Cobb or John Muir, my search is done, I don’t have to worry about the lottery at all, I’m basically guaranteed a seat (there is low enrollment, because as you know by now – systemic racism lies to us). If there are schools in your neighborhood that you’ve ruled out and haven’t toured yet, you still have time. In the 5 rounds that you can go through during the school application process, you can add those schools to your list easily.

We haven’t filled out our application yet – we have a few more schools to tour. Right now we’re leaning towards John Muir or William Cobb. We’re also trying to find out where the Vietnamese language pathway will be set up (my children speak Vietnamese with their dad) – probably in a school similar to Muir or Cobb. At those two schools, I know my children will get a great education, they will have small class sizes, they will learn creative thinking and problem solving, how to work effectively in diverse teams, get enrichment, have great teachers, and we can walk or quickly bus to school.

Like many of my friends, I listened to the This American Life podcast about segregated schools and was struck deeply. I’ve been really thoughtful about what this will mean for our family, talking with other friends and my children’s teachers. My son’s current TK teacher (who is amazing and learned how to teach at William Cobb) said “I think your son would benefit from a school with all kinds of kids.” Research shows that she’s right, and yet there are very few schools where this is possible in even in our diverse city. I’ve realized that if we want the benefits of diverse schools for our children, we — especially White and more established Asian families, will need to help create them, by sending our children to schools where we add to the diversity.

What can you do now?

  • RSVP for the San Francisco Families’ Union conversation about segregation and what to look for in schools January 9th.
  • Call to schedule a tour at William Cobb (415-749-3505) or John Muir (415-241-6335).
  • Tour all the schools in your neighborhood & choose one where your family would add to the diversity of the school.
  • If you must, put the highly sought after and less diverse schools at the top of your list, but put schools where you would add to the diversity on your list too. Let the lottery decide for you.
  • Tour whatever school you are assigned, regardless where it is.
  • Change the way we talk about the lottery at parties and playdates. Let go of the fear – we’ve got great public schools to choose from. Shift the question from “What schools are you looking at?” To “What are you looking for when you tour schools?” Enjoy the process of exploring our city through our public schools.  Mention this article to families and ask them if there are schools close to them that they didn’t even consider that might actually be really good.
  • Join Parents For Public Schools SF, attend one of their enrollment workshops and join their list serve. They can connect you to other parents who are at the schools you are considering.
  • Share this article and the SF Public Press series on segregation in our schools:


(1) San Francisco public schools have smaller class sizes than many schools in surrounding districts and many private schools, thanks to the local union bargaining for smaller class sizes that benefit both kids and educators.

(2) This is a story for another time, but partly because of our patchwork system of funding early childhood education, preschool is incredibly segregated around the nation and in San Francisco. There are high quality (teachers with high certifications, a lot of support and oversight from funders) subsidized preschools where most of the Black, Latino and new Asian immigrant kids in our neighborhood go to school. In our neighborhood there are a mix of private preschools, full of loving teachers, some of whom are also highly certified. White and more established Asian families are the overwhelming majority at these schools.

(3) The current test scores have to be taken with an additional huge grain of salt — this is the first year of a new test, so we are still calibrating it to see if it is valid. Test results from past years measure something totally different. We’re making the standards harder, more complex and focused on learning and critical thinking than regurgitating a small set of facts, so we expect that as we raise the standards, kids in school now will score lower at first.

(4) For more information about differentiation in San Francisco check out this post from SF Public School Mom Ali Collins:

(5) There are two charter schools in my neighborhood too. I am not including them since though charter schools use public money, they act as private schools. They don’t have the same level of accountability, and there has been a lot of research lately that shows they do not consistently outperform public schools. They are full of nice people working hard for kids, but at the system level, they are a part of the privatization of our public school system. In terms of segregation, nationwide, charter schools are more segregated than public schools. Various policies and their business models result in charters who either tend to cater to either urban, Black and Latino students or more middle class, more often White and more established Asian families. This pattern holds true in my neighborhood, where one charter school is almost 50% White (making it one of the Whitest schools in the city – despite being across the street from apartments where lots of kids of color live) and only 27% low income kids. The other (a middle school) is 80% Black and Latino and 80% low income. Charter schools do not serve all our kids, many don’t have the same level of resources for kids with disabilities and there have been national scandals about ‘push out’ lists where charters were trying to get rid of certain kids, so not only do comparisons of public and charter schools not show apples to apples, they are not serving all of our kids. The suspension rate for the charter school in our neighborhood that mostly enrolls kids of color is at least twice the district’s rate.

Julie Roberts-Phung is a longtime community organizer, a fan of STEAM education, and a career and leadership coach. I have two multiracial kids ages 2 and 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 me, you can learn more here:


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The new segregation: How can we have racial harmony when our kids go to separate schools?

(This article was originally posted on Click here to see more content on parenting, race, and education.)

Years after Brown vs. Board of Education, are schools remain as segregated as ever.

It’s time to talk about integrating our schools. How can we have racial harmony when most of our kids go to racially-isolated schools?

This is especially disheartening when we look at racial segregation in ethnically diverse cities like San Francisco which has the third highest percentage of students in private schools nationally, and the highest rate in California. (These schools are predominantly White and Asian and full of middle-upper income kids.)

Parents talk a lot about “school choice” these days. I have come to understand that in many cases this translates to the choice to self-segregate. If White folks (and affluent Asians) truly value diversity, and want to teach their children to value kids from ALL backgrounds, they need to stop investing in “separate and unequal” schooling systems like charters, private and tracked “gifted” programs.

We Create Schools in Our Own Image

As parents we have to stop blaming “the district” or “failing schools” or “the lottery” and start taking responsibility for creating the change we’d like to see in our schools.

As another San Francisco parent, Julie Phung, writes:

“Parents are busy, so we use shortcuts to help us make sense of the 110+ school choices we have in our city. Unfortunately, the most common shortcuts we use feed into patterns of segregation and make us miss really great schools that might be the best option for our kids.”

[Read the whole post: “Segregation and the Best San Francisco Schools You’ve Never Heard Of”]

Many parents unwittingly perpetuate segregation in our schools. We do this in many ways. We look for schools with other parents that “look like us” and our kids. We choose schools based on GreatSchools ratings (read: test scores), we choose schools based on recommendations from our existing social networks. Thus, affluent parents end up choosing schools with children of affluent parents. Spanish-speaking parents choose schools full of Spanish-speaking students. Second and third generation Asian-American families choose schools with second and third-generation Asian-American families.

It makes sense that we seek comfort in numbers. But is it really good for our kids? Is it good for our society as a whole?

I and many other families I’ve talked to don’t think so.

As researchers like Angelo Ancheta from Harvard’s Civil Rights project have found, this doesn’t just hurt Black and Brown students:

“We often forget that white students attend some of the most segregated schools in the country, and while those students often have great educational advantages, they are also deprived of the personal contact and learning that come with attending racially integrated schools,”

As a college educated, mixed-race parent (who identifies Black) in a largely low-income Chinese-speaking school, I have felt blessed that being a part of our school has allowed my family to expand its experience beyond our cultural comfort zone. My girls and I have learned a lot about Chinese culture. We’ve also gained an understanding of the challenges many low-income and immigrant families face. For example: Attending a parent meeting held primarily in Chinese, and where interpretation is FOR ME in English, has given me empathy for the heroic effort of families attending school meeting held mainly in English. This experience has made me more proactive about removing language barriers for Spanish and Chinese-speaking families at school events.

Direct experience is not something you can come by just through reading diverse books. And you can’t instill the value of celebrating cultural differences, while at the same time only encouraging friendships with kids and parents who look like you.

Additionally, as members of an underrepresented racial group at our school (White and Black) I feel we’ve made great contributions to our community as well. Black families have started a small affinity group at our school. We are helping to create an even more inclusive school by asking questions and challenging the predominantly Asian-American culture there to more visibly celebrate and support African-American families and other underrepresented groups.

Nonetheless, the “answers” to achieving truly diverse and integrated schools are not simple. What works in one context may not work in another. Change at our school has not occurred immediately, rather it has been a process over time. It’s not always a comfortable process either. As arguments on parent email groups and list serves will confirm: we all want to feel welcome; we all like feeling like a part of a community. But how we invite involvement and create community happens very differently in different cultural groups.

Segregation and SF Public School Enrollment: What’s a family to do?

To that end, I’ll be exploring these questions over the next few months in this blog, and with my friends in the San Francisco Families’ Union. You can join us in the conversation as well at in upcoming event this Saturday, January 9th at 2:00 pm. (Download and share the flyer!)

Click the image to download a Pdf flyer to keep and share!

We would love for you to join the conversation. Come out on Saturday, January 9th to hear from education experts, parents and educators about what they look for in schools and how they think about meaningful school integration.

You Don’t Have to Freak Out!

I wrote a piece a while back for pre-k families called “Don’t Freak Out! Your Child Will Get Into a GREAT Public School!” It has gotten a lot of traffic since I posted it almost 6 years ago. Which shows there are a LOT of anxious parents out there looking for reassurance in a system that constantly tells families to be scared about our “failing” public schools.

In reality, my experience and the experience of thousands of SF public school parents has been overwhelmingly positive. In all the time since I posted this piece, the only families I have ever heard about who ended up unhappy with enrollment options were those who limited their acceptable choices to a small group of high-choice schools. Schools like: Clarendon, Claire Lillienthal, Sherman, Grattan, etc.

With over 70 elementary schools, there are a LOT more than 7 “good” elementary schools in our district.

SFUSD school applications are due January 15th, 2015. If you are like me and choose to apply to a few excellent schools in your neighborhood that is not “high choice” your search is done. You won’t have to worry about the lottery or having a private or charter school “back up”. You will be practically guaranteed a seat in a great public school!

If there are schools in your neighborhood that you’ve ruled out and haven’t toured yet, you still have time. In the fie rounds that you can go through during the school application process, you can add those schools to your list as well.

Join the Conversation

Don’t just add schools to your list, join the conversation! Start your year off right and come out this Saturday, January 9th if you are…

  • Tired of listening to the depressing (and untrue!) narrative of “only a few good schools”.
  • Interested in being a part of a larger community of parents, guardians and caregivers of all races who care about integration and raising kids who are culturally aware and equity centered.
  • Searching for ways to “join and not gentrify” a great public school in your neighborhood.
  • Curious to hear from other parents and educators who have great stories to share about the amazing work going on in some of our often over-looked neighborhood schools.

Please share this post with other families who may be interested and I look forward to meeting you there!

What do you think? Does any of this make sense to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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