There are several reasons the system has not worked as intended. One is a lack of transportation. Fewer than 4,000 of the district’s 54,000 students ride a bus to school. The city’s busing program was reduced in 2010, during the last recession, and has not been restored.
Shurrin Zeng, vice chairwoman of the district’s English Learners Advisory Committee, said location had been the No. 1 factor in her decision to enroll her 10-year-old daughter in the school closest to their home, which is overwhelmingly Hispanic and Asian, and largely low-income. She is not completely happy with the school, but choice, she said, was not meaningful without “more convenient transportation” to ensure access.
And some parents may not have heard about better, far-flung schools. Not everyone has the time to navigate the complex process of researching, touring and ranking campuses. Families who want a different school from the one they are given can try their luck in three more lottery rounds, filing paperwork and managing waiting lists even past the start of the school year, in some cases.
School tours typically take place between 8 and 10 a.m. — prime commuting and work hours — and some of the most desired schools require parents to sign up weeks in advance.
At Rooftop Elementary in the Twin Peaks neighborhood — Mr. Canas and Ms. Ramirez’s first choice for Cinthya — a tour in December was dominated by professional-class parents with flexible schedules. They took in breathtaking views of the San Francisco Bay and strolled past a climbing wall and gardening plots. Jonathan and Sofia Perel, an IT director and a consultant to nonprofits, said they had visited 18 schools.
In contrast, Kenika Eison, a medical assistant, had to show up at schools unannounced during off hours, hoping a principal would come out to talk to her. She ended up enrolling her son Aaden in a charter school close to the clinic where she works, partly because of the school’s good reputation, but also because she would not need to arrange child care in the mornings.