Oakland’s public school choice system, which allows families to view the city’s approximately 120 schools and choose the one they think is best for their children, is intended to level the playing field. From being restricted to the nearest school, which may have fewer resources or not meet their child’s needs, families in low-income neighborhoods may have access to the same public schools as wealthier families.

But new research from UC Berkeley computer scientists examining Oakland’s Unified School District system questions whether this is really happening. And it raises tough questions about how the current approach might entrench inequalities instead of fighting them.

Researchers Samantha Robertson, Tonya Nguyen and Niloufar Salehi set out to study the resources that OUSD provides to families to evaluate schools. school cards showing which programs exist in which schools, and the data dashboards detailing metrics like graduation rates and standardized test scores — to see how they could be improved, especially for low-income families of color in Oakland. They concluded that schools and districts should invest more in employees who understand the needs of families and have in-depth knowledge of Oakland schools, and who can help parents and caregivers choose the best school for them.

“There is a lot of effort in academia and also in school districts to provide better websites that give people more information about different schools, but what we have found is that for many of people, these were just unusable and useless,” Salehi said. . “Finding people who knew their situation and who they could trust was actually what helped them find a decent school that worked in their situation.”

Researchers interviewed 10 low-income parents and parents of color in Oakland and asked them what they wanted in a school, how they found information about the schools, and their experiences during the application and enrollment process. . They also interviewed four “parent advocates” – staff from OUSD or local community organizations who help families evaluate schools – about their work, the challenges they face, and how the process of registration could be improved for the families they work with.

Choosing a school in Oakland takes time and resources

The first hurdle some families face is learning that the choice system even exists.

“Do they know they have to apply for the schools? Because a lot of people don’t, especially if you recently came from another country or from a district that had no choice,” said Robertson, who also studied the registration system at San Francisco Unified. “It’s reasonable to assume that you can walk to school near you and just take your kids.”

Once they know they have a choice, families are faced with an overwhelming number of additional options. There are 51 elementary schools in OUSD alone. During the registration process, families are encouraged to use the “school searchwhere they can see a map of OUSD schools and individual school pages listing school programs and student performance data. Families can rank up to six schools anywhere in the district, and enrollment is decided based on priorities such as whether the family lives in the school’s neighborhood or has a sibling at school. school.

This process is based on the assumption that parents have the time and resources to research and choose a school, the researchers pointed out. Parents are also encouraged to make school visits, further excluding those with strict working hours or needing childcare.

Nate Dunstan works with newcomers to OUSD who have recently immigrated to the United States, including unaccompanied minors and families fleeing violence and war in their home countries, primarily from Central America.

For many families Dunstan works with, living in a large urban area can be overwhelming, especially if they come from rural Central America. Their top priority is often just a nearby school, and it’s a plus if the school has a bilingual program or a community of other parents and school staff who speak their native language, Dunstan said.

But finding a school for their children is usually not the only concern of these families, and Dunstan can also help connect them with other social services, like Medi-Cal, immigration lawyers and bus tickets. .

“We try to immediately establish trust with the families. The first thing we do is provide a backpack with school supplies and offer connections to resources,” Dunstan told The Oaklandside. “Our challenge is figuring out the logistics with someone who has just arrived. Looking at the map and understanding how they are going to get through town can be really overwhelming.

Robertson, Nguyen and Salehi recommended that districts invest in more people like Dunstan who are more attuned to the specific needs of families.

Balancing academics, culture and convenience

The registration process also makes assumptions about the information most valuable to Oakland families. The researchers noted that this can leave an information gap between what low-income families and families of color are looking for and the information the district provides about schools.

Standardized test scores or absenteeism rates say little about whether the school is a welcoming environment for students of color. A black mother who was interviewed for the newspaper said she was looking for a school where her child would not be the only black student.

“I also wanted a school where there would be some socio-economic diversity and where I was going to fit in with the parents,” she told researchers. “Because for black kids there’s so much literature, there may be a school that’s a good school, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best school for my child.”

And judging a school based on certain metrics could mask other factors. For example, a school may not have impressive overall test scores but do a good job of helping students who are falling behind catch up. The researchers noted that families often make compromises when selecting a school and consider more than academics.

One of those trade-offs is transportation, especially in families with children in more than one school.

Keta Brown, another parent advocate who was interviewed, helps parents navigate the school enrollment process at The Oakland Reacha parent advocacy organization.

“I’ve had parents whose children became their first choice; they felt like they got the golden ticket,” Brown told The Oaklandside. “But at the last minute they pulled out and said, ‘There’s no way I can do this and make sure my kid comes and goes and doesn’t have this as a worry. “

Brown added that schools could make the enrollment process easier by providing information about all public schools on one platform. Last year, the OUSD School Board passed an Enrollment Stabilization Plan, which invested more resources in the enrollment office and revamped OUSD enrollment materials to exclude schools at charter.

Shanthi Gonzales, who resigned from the Oakland School Board earlier this year, argued last year that the OUSD should not provide information about charter schools to prospective families, such as on district maps. or its enrollment platform, as charter schools compete with district schools for enrollment. Prior to this year, families could explore public schools and access applications for OUSD and charter schools through a single enrollment platform. But this year, there are two separate sites, adding to the burden placed on families by research schools.

“Our families will choose what works for them. So do what works best for families,” Brown said. “Don’t take away options or ways to make decisions easier for families.”

Brown also mentioned that the school choice system does not lead to more resources at each school, but encourages families to compete for a few spots at a few schools. Instead of tinkering with the school choice system, district and charter school officials should work together to figure out how to improve all schools, Brown said.

“People shouldn’t have to sign up to get into the best school,” she said. “It should be that I walk by because this school is five blocks from me and I know my baby is going to be educated there and thrive.”

The research paper acknowledged that online registration documents have benefits, such as allowing parents to apply and register at schools from a mobile phone. But ultimately, they concluded, access to information does not make schools more equal or solve school segregation. Robertson, Nguyen and Salehi suggested that districts invest more in parent advocates because they are also the ones who work outside of the school system to push for more resources for schools, which can lead to more equality. .

“I feel like this is one of those cases where you have good intentions and algorithms that should theoretically provide more fairness and more equal access for everyone in the city,” said Salehi. “But when you look at it in practice, in many places it’s just the opposite, or it hasn’t helped as much as people hoped.”