UC Berkeley-Led Team Joins Effort to Create More Diverse Enrollment in San Francisco Schools

Niloufar Salehi

Niloufar Salehi is an assistant professor in Berkeley’s School of Information and a human-computer interaction researcher who uses mixed methods to study and design socio-technical systems.

catherine albiston

Catherine Albiston, the Jackson H. Ralston Professor of Law at Berkeley Law, faculty director of the Center for the Study of Law and Society and a professor of sociology, researches the relationship between law and social change. 

Afshin Nikzad

Afshin Nikzad is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Southern California with experience in assignment algorithms and school choice mechanisms.

October 27, 2021

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $750,000 grant to UC Berkeley professors Niloufar Salehi and Catherine Albiston and University of Southern California professor Afshin Nikzad to support efforts by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) to implement a new elementary school zone-based student assignment policy.

The Berkeley team will partner with SFUSD on an iterative, human-centered design process to understand families’ needs for student assignment through interviews and analysis of existing data. Using these findings, the team will develop and conduct a community engagement process to involve families directly in the design of elementary zones.

The new work is meant to help address unintended impacts from the current assignment policy. Starting in 2011, SFUSD introduced a policy allowing families to apply to any of the elementary schools in the city of San Francisco. By giving parents more school choices, the SFUSD policy was intended to reverse the trend of racial isolation and provide equitable access to educational opportunities. But despite the theory that more choice would result in less racial isolation in schools, the district’s schools are more segregated with unconstrained choice than they were 30 years ago.

In December 2020, the San Francisco Board of Education approved a newzone-based student assignment policy that will transition SFUSD’s elementary student assignment system from district-wide choice to assignment within zones, beginning with kindergartners in the 2024-25 school year. The goals of the new zone-based policy are to: create diverse elementary schools; offer a high degree of predictability for families; and create strong community connections to local schools.

“An important factor for designing a system like this is to have multiple disciplines in the room,” said Salehi, who was already working with SFUSD to determine why the previous effort hasn’t had the desired impact. “The process of how a decision is made is as important as the outcome. Everyone involved or affected by the system should feel that the decisions are legitimate and comprehensible.”

Salehi is an assistant professor in Berkeley’s School of Information and a human-computer interaction researcher who uses mixed methods to study and design socio-technical systems. Catherine Albiston, the Jackson H. Ralston Professor of Law at Berkeley Law, faculty director of the Center for the Study of Law and Society and a professor of sociology, researches the relationship between law and social change. Afshin Nikzad is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Southern California with experience in assignment algorithms and school choice mechanisms.

Joseph Monardo, who earned his master’s in public policy from Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, is SFUSD’s technical project manager for the implementation of the new zone based elementary student assignment policy.

“It’s really exciting to see how these researchers are contributing,” said Monardo, who focused on education policy at Berkeley. “The Berkeley group is an excellent resource, providing advice and supporting our commitment to engage and inform the community at every step of the process.”

Monardo said that a choice-based student assignment system can only create diverse enrollments if the applicant pools are diverse, and under SFUSD’s current policy most schools have segregated applicant pools. Although parents are theoretically able to choose any school in the district that works best for them, some families face barriers — like not having access to reliable transportation or not having flexible work schedules — that prevent them from having meaningful access to the full range of options, or even from submitting applications in the first place. The current system, which gives incoming kindergarten families 73 school options, also contributes to feelings of stress, confusion and unpredictability for some families. Better communication with families about their needs and desires, as well as about school options, is essential when using choice as a strategy to create more diverse schools and why support from the UC Berkeley research team is so invaluable.  

Albiston praised SFUSD for reaching out to outside researchers to help address the problem. “Kudos to the district for learning from the first time through,” Albiston said. “This is a very important issue and the district is working with researchers to identify evidence-based solutions to improve the process.”

“We are developing a process to facilitate conversations among parents and the district to ensure parents’ voices are heard in developing and implementing the assignment process,” Albiston said. “How decisions are made matters for people’s sense of fairness and justice, and understanding how parents think about school assignment is part of that process.”

SFUSD is currently gathering community input on these changes.  Learn  more at http://sfusd.edu/studentassignment