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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