The Dangers of “Choice” and De Facto Segregation in SFUSD

Ms. Phan
8 min readOct 22, 2020

This week in US History, we’ve moved onto the Civil Rights Movement after a few weeks of covering Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era during our #BlackLivesMatter unit. Students have read Saidiya Hartman and Ida B Wells; they’ve analyzed primary sources on the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. We briefly discussed voting rights as an aim of the Civil Rights Movement, including voter suppression and the how self-seeking feminism meant Black women were not guaranteed the right to vote with the 19th Amendment and how that played out in the 50s and 60s, but the bulk of our conversation so far has been about school segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson, the notion of ‘separate but equal’, Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall) and schools as a battleground for civil rights.

I think what useful to both me and the students was clarifying that the Civil Rights Movement sought to end “de jure” segregation, but we still grapple with “de facto” segregation today. I’m grateful my juniors took Ethnic Studies two years ago because it was easy to connect the dots to hegemony.

From our discussion today, de facto segregation in San Francisco looks like this, and it has everything to do with the notion of ‘choice’:

San Francisco Schools At Large

Even though 45% of San Francisco’s population is white, only 15% of the public school population is white. Students were quick to name private schools in the city that they coded to be predominantly white, such as St. Ignatius, Riordan, Lick-Wilmerding, Sacred Heart, etc. Tuition at schools like these run about $22,000 a year and some schools run all the way up to $45,000 a year.

One could say that it is a choice to send your children to private school, but I don’t know how much choice there is for San Francisco’s families when low-income for a family of four is defined by HUD as about $120,000. These people are then choosing to remove their child and their funding from the public school system, and to put their children in predominantly white institutions while living in one of the most racially diverse cities in the country.

Within the public schools of San Francisco Unified, only two schools are coded to be excellent and elite, the magnet schools: Lowell High School, the academic magnet, and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, the arts magnet. White students are overrepresented at both schools, with Lowell’s white population around 18% and RASotA’s at 42%. I will keep saying this, but both schools have had their own means in the past of generating millions of additional funding for their programs: Lowell through their many AP offerings (I counted 55 here but I’ve heard it runs up to 130), and RASotA through alumni donations and their PTA. Schools in SFUSD that offer AP courses and exams receive additional money per exam and course, and so Lowell High School can far outpace AP funds generated than even the next comprehensive schools in the district. Until 2018, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts was able to generate millions through a nonprofit (I have been corrected in a prior piece that they no longer do so, so I’d like to be clear here that this is no longer the practice. [As if that mitigates years of advantages over other public high schools in the district.])

And of course the rationale here is that well, families choose to nurture their child’s talent or commitment to competition and hard work, and have their child apply there. But again I’m sure many families would love to have the choice to spend money to nurture a child’s talent in the classical arts or to be able to provide safety, security, and support for their child to put consistent effort into school from year to year without being inhibited by trauma or poverty. (But I do have some deep concerns about what it means when children are told to start working hard as early as the third grade because they need to get into high school.)

Comprehensive high schools with large Asian populations are then considered respectable to middling (Galileo, Lincoln, Washington, Burton), and schools with formerly larger Black and Brown populations the next tier (Balboa, Mission) and small schools that have focal populations like newcomer immigrants are considered the worst of the main set (June Jordan, SFI, O’Connell, Thurgood Marshall, Academy).

Of course at the bottom are the alternative schools (Downtown, Ida B. Wells, Independence), and to no one’s surprise these are significantly Blacker than the others. The Blacker the school, the lower the esteem, the more violent is it perceived to be, the more likely it is called “ghetto,” etc. We kind of know how this goes now.

These reputations then shape and impact the entire ecosystem, as parents do not want to send their kids to “bad” middle schools or “bad” elementary schools, and segregation permeates the entire school district. Then there’s very justified antagonism for the lottery system, which is meant to generate equity across school sites, but that just makes families resent the notion of diversity all the more as they feel helpless in face of the clear inequity of schools across the district.

De Facto Segregation Within a School

But de facto segregation doesn’t end there. Within each school, Advanced Placement and/or Honors classes are also offered to give students “choice” and “rigor.” So students are encouraged to take AP classes and orient their lives around standardized, monetized tests (an AP test is about $90 to take, and the school district does the kids a solid with waivers to make it only $5 but then you have to think about how many tests a child may take in order to be seen as ‘competitive,’ especially if they’re trying to work against high school stigma or lack of reputation for college admissions.) The macro-dynamics of segregation re-emerge at every school, with AP classes being overwhelmingly white and Asian, and Black and Brown students increasingly excluded.

In my student teaching year, I had the opportunity to teach both AP Language and Composition and 9th grade Ethnic Studies. My AP Lang class had 42 students, about half of the entire junior class, because we are a small school and this was the only way we could provide AP to all the students who elected to be in the class. For months as a student teacher I sat in the back on counters with two or three students because we didn’t have enough chairs. But I loved all of them, learned a lot from my students and my cooperating teacher, and we went through a lot of fun and rigorous curriculum: I taught Beyonce’s Lemonade with essays by bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Janet Mock; students read Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, James Baldwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Grace Lee Boggs, David Henry Hwang, etc.

But something felt strange to me early on in my teaching, despite my excitement to bring texts around Black feminism in our first unit of the year… it took a moment to finally name that despite offering up Black women’s intellect to forty-two students, there were two Black boys, and there was not a single young Black woman taking the class. When I finally took over the class solo-teaching, I mentioned to the students at some point how strange that was, and asked them how we could possibly feel like this was a socially just class if we learned about Black women but did not include the intellect of their Black peers in the physical class itself. The students shuffled uncomfortably in their seats, and there seemed to be no clear answer.

They chose AP, they told me, because they wanted to pushed academically and because they wanted to just be around kids who “also took their education seriously.” With further prompting, I often heard coded language or not so coded language that amounted to

“It’s not fair I have to be stuck with the ghetto kids,”

“There are just some kids who don’t care about school and they bring the whole class down,”

“If those other students don’t want to learn, that’s fine, but why do I have to be punished?”

And the reality of antiblackness in that classroom, those kinds of statements broke my heart.

After that student-teaching year, I have been teaching the non-AP humanities classes at my site. I have still had sections upwards of 35–40 students from year to year, and on top of that I now have way more students with Special Education plans. What I didn’t know as a student-teacher for AP was that the vast majority of students with IEPs ‘choose’ not to take AP. The year after, I found myself suddenly with huge classes and SpEd students comprising anywhere from 25–45% of some of my classes, and the counselors cannot do much to change the situation due to the scheduling constraints that AP classes put on the master schedule. My classes, sure enough, had higher percentages of Black students. To no one’s surprise, I definitely struggled with classroom management and require a lot of wait time to situate everyone’s multifaceted needs to learn.

But I have never met a student who didn’t want to learn. I have fought tooth and nail every year to make sure my students understand that, and that they don’t internalize the notion that some children are “bad”. I have struggled to make sure we all understand that we are all collectively responsible for each other, and if someone is being loud or disruptive, perhaps there is something worth disrupting in our current dynamic. (I have found that ‘promoting’ those students to my TA and letting them teach the class has profoundly flipped the dynamic, and is very much worth the time.) I try to integrate Black studies into my curriculum as much as possible, and you have to understand how powerful it is when Black children in the room claim expertise and connection on a topic that relates to them, the same power that comes from any student when their experience is valued with culturally responsive pedagogy. When students with depression can speak expertly on mental health, when Latinx students are teaching their peers Spanish slang, when everyone in the room geeks out together over a new K-pop song.

I think we deprive students of tremendous opportunity when we accept de facto segregation as it exists in San Francisco. How do you offer a child a Black Studies curriculum and expect them to humanize Black people when you won’t even let Black children be their peers?

I believe in choice just as much as anyone when it comes to school. But I don’t believe that it’s about choosing to check boxes for academic rigor defined by grades or standardized tests. I don’t believe it’s choosing to just shrug and say there’s nothing else you can do for a good education but accept that your child will just attend a segregated school.

I want my students to choose curiosity when they encounter someone very different from them, and compassion when someone in their classroom is expressing anger or pain. I want my students choose patience when they have finished an assignment early, and turn to their group mates to support their learning too. Rather than believing that a peer wants to “bring everyone down,” I want my students to be curious about what they could learn if they just meet that peer wherever they may be.

So I also want San Francisco to choose racial and class integration. I want families and educators to understand that at some point, because de jure segregation was banned due to the accomplishments of the Civil Rights era, we have to be honest that now we are choosing segregation all over again. At some point, we have to stop hiding behind excuses of merit, talent, and “wanting what’s best for my child.” We have to choose to say that what’s best for my child is that they develop the capacity for self-directed learning, a deep sense of compassion, and a curiosity for whoever is in the room with them.

May we choose wisely.