Bus to Nowhere

Why San Francisco's Byzantine school desegregation program systematically fails the children it was designed to help

There are more children than classrooms in those communities, and schools in Chinatown and the Mission hit their "caps" of Chinese and Latino students quickly; all the rest must go elsewhere.

The massive shuffling of students across the breadth and length of San Francisco might be defensible if it produced both racial and educational results. But the educational results of two decades of school Mixmastering here are most negative for the very minority groups desegregation was designed to rescue.

The most shameful sin of the San Francisco Unified School District is its overwhelming failure to educate African-American children -- despite two decades of court monitoring, tons of money, and piles of plans. In San Francisco, African-American children have been given priority in enrollment and special transportation to other schools. They have seen schools built, renovated, and reconstituted for their benefit.

Yet African-American children here remain the lowest-achieving among English-speaking students, scoring as much as 30 percent below their peers on academic tests. And the African-American kids are not catching up. Their academic scores show significantly less progress from grade to grade than those of other students.

Latino students, the second-largest ethnic group in the district, are the second-lowest-achieving population in the district. Latino students who speak limited English score lower than any other group, regardless of language, on standardized tests.

Students who fall into the "other non-white" category and speak limited English, primarily the growing population of Southeast Asian immigrants, are not far ahead of the Latino and African-American kids.

In San Francisco, the remedies, plans, court mandates, laws, and funding formulas -- all of the tentacles of public policy that are supposed to help disadvantaged children from ethnic minority groups -- remain tangled in a dysfunctional knot.

Busing and other attempts to respond to the desegregation decree have all but dismantled neighborhoods, creating a cruel Catch-22 situation.

It is poor children who are in most severe need of community support at school. They are the ones who have survival issues to deal with before they even get to the classroom. They are the ones who most need contact with responsible adults.

But in many cases, their schools are not connected to their communities, to their parents, or anything else in their lives, because inadequate funding and crazy responses to a 14-year-old federal court decree forbid any such connection.

Poor parents often cannot participate in their children's schools because those schools are across town. And for the same reasons, their children often are separated from the extra attention -- the social, after-school, and preschool programs -- needed to help them succeed academically.

If it has failed to improve the education opportunities of children, the court-mandated desegregation plan of 1983 has achieved a certain type of equality. It has managed to anger and alienate parents of every ethnic group in the city.

Feeling the pressure of that anger, the school district has attempted in recent years to decrease the amount of school busing by reconfiguring attendance zones surrounding neighborhood schools. The district also opened a few new neighborhood schools in places where they could draw diverse groups of children and fit the desegregation decree without significant busing.

These steps have stopped or reduced busing at 27 schools. But there won't be any more new neighborhood schools for a while. The school district is out of space and money.

"I dream of the day when all children can go to school in their neighborhoods, and they will be ethnically balanced," says the Educational Placement Office's Wells.

She's not likely to stop dreaming, or be out of a job, anytime soon.

Cesar Chavez Elementary School stands out from the heart of the Mission District because of the brightly colored mural that adorns its exterior. The school stands out from the rest of the school district because of its absurd combination of programs.

At Chavez Elementary, the legal system and ethnic politics have combined to create a situation that can only be described as schizophrenic.

Because of space limitations and the ethnic caps contained in the desegregation consent decree, many Latino children who live near Chavez Elementary are bused to school in other parts of the city. Meanwhile, to satisfy the caps, children are bused to Chavez from Chinatown and other parts of the city.

Once students from the neighborhood and elsewhere arrive at school, they are divided into several distinct programs: Chinese bilingual; Spanish bilingual; an Afrocentric track created in response to parent demand; deaf education; and a multicultural regime for all the children who don't fit into one of the others.

In other words, children are bused to Chavez Elementary to satisfy the racial dictates of a court decree -- and then, for academic reasons, they spend most of their days in classrooms with other children of their own ethnic groups.

Chavez Elementary has a Healthy Start Program and makes other efforts to provide the community benefits of neighborhood schools.

Still, Chavez Principal Pilar Mejia says, it's hard to get parents involved in the school when they don't live nearby. And the families of many of the school's students have no historical, geographi-cal, or logical connection whatsoever to Cesar Chavez Elementary School.

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