This weekend families in San Francisco will begin receiving school enrollment notifications for the 2011-2012 school year. We went through this stressful time about nine years ago with our first child as we entered the public school system and are now going through it again as the same child enters the high school process. For those awaiting the letters and emails, this is a pretty stressful time, so I just lift up prayers of perspective and peace for students, families and school communities during this time.
Just a bit of background for those not from San Francisco. Over the years San Francisco has had a city-wide system where people submit a list of preferred schools and are admitted through a lottery system. Charter schools operate in a similar way and independent schools have a variety of application and financial aid systems. There are constantly changes to the system, some of which I think have been good and others not so much, but what you need to know is that this is not a place where, on the first day of school, you just walk down to your neighborhood school.
Yes . . . many of you are saying, “Back in my day, we just went to the school closest to us . . . and we liked it!” While I certainly feel this way sometimes, my wife and I have chosen to raise our kids in an urban context where there is simply a different system that has to address a diversity that simply does not exist anywhere else in this exact form. What I consider entitled suburban values such as this do not work here if we hope to have any chance and building a diverse and thriving educational experience.
So we wade in, figure it out and try to make good choices for our children. In all honesty, I think the San Francisco Unified School System gets a bad rap. For despite budget issues, a uniquely diverse community and people who do not see the importance of public education, SFUSD does a fantastic job. I may not always agree with what they do or what the Board of Education decides, but, as I have said before, a healthy public education system vital to a healthy society. So in the midst of the maelstrom of criticism that will begin this weekend, I want to offer three points of affirmation for SFUSD. Yes, you can find exceptions to each of these, but I challenge you to, as you levy critique, to also acknowledge the ways in which SFUSD helps our children thrive.
DIVERSITY OF CHOICE – As went through the search for a high school for Eldest, we explored a variety of options: private, charter, traditional public and alternative public. While I get why it would be easier if there were no choice and everyone just attended the same school, I deeply appreciate that, even within a public setting there is a wide variety of styles, foci and sizes. From charters like City Arts and Tech, to alternative schools like The Ruth Asawa School of the Arts to traditional schools like Balboa, my daughter felt like she would both be challenged as well as nurtured in a variety of settings. This kind of diversity allows students and parents to chose the setting where the child will have the best chance to thrive. Add in the private schools like The Bay School, The Urban School and Lick-Wilmerding and our plate is overflowing with options.
OVERALL EXCELLENCE – Yes, there are some schools that are struggling to raise test scores and have issues that are detrimental to building a good learning environment, but as I have spoken with friends, lead school tours and interacted with young people and teachers throughout the city, we are doing pretty well. The caliber of person that is being raised and nurtured in San Francisco is commendable. The teachers who have committed their lives and energy to our children is herculean to say the least. This is not just about academics and scores, but about a willingness to see and live in the world in a different way, and this is the primary reason that we have chosen to raise and school our kids in the city.
SAN FRANCISCO VALUES – Whenever I hear people use “San Francisco values” as a pejorative, I laugh. You see, even though I am “conservative” in the context of San Francisco elections – mostly because I own property and do not want anarchy – the our city’s values around environmental issues, family structures, ethnic diversity and well . . . the kick-ass food compel me to embrace this bubble in which I live. Usually proud and often smug, raising our kids in this environment is an intentional decision to ground them with a worldview that we think is positive, progressive and good for the world. As we have experienced education here, SFUSD has played a central role in maintaining a consistency between our city values and our educational ones. Sure, we do not always live up to the liberal and open values that we may espouse and we have some serious work to do around class, but you know what, at least we are trying . . .
So there you have it, some positive vibes to add to what will surely be a cacophony of voices that will soon be flooding the social networking airwaves.