A Visualization for Parents Navigating the SF Public Elementary School Admissions Process



As any parent in San Francisco knows all too well, enrolling your would-be kindergartener in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) system is a daunting process. The challenges include countless tours that often “sell out” and each last an hour or more. These tours culminate in showing up at the SFUSD office for an in-person paper application process that has taken at times over 3 hours to complete and makes the DMV look like a well-oiled machine by comparison. Parents largely suffer this time-consuming process out of love for their child but it is harder to imagine a more frustrating and anxiety ridden process to have your child attend kindergarten.

The single largest source of parental anxiety related to this activity is the amount of random chance in the process.  While we won’t review the lottery process in all its glorious detail, the process boils down to this: Each parent applies and ranks a large number of SFUSD kindergartens, each with an abysmally low probability, and hopes that one or more coins comes up heads. The highest-ranked winning pick (if a winning event actually occurs) is awarded to the kindergartener. Again, the process is more complicated than we have described and includes complex tie-break systems, as well as language categories bucketing, but ranking and low probability coin flipping is an essential feature of the process.

The information provided by the SFUSD is neither user friendly nor capable of easy digestion to help parents make informed decisions. In response to this, second year Analytics Assistant Professor Yannet Interian created the visualization tool  using leaflet, a java script library for interactive maps, to help parents navigate the complex application process by providing a brief but informative snapshot of each of the 72 schools in the system.

“I have a 2-year old and I thought about what information I would want to help navigate the complex application process. Putting all the relevant data together in a clear and easy to read format can help parents figure out how to rank schools more efficiently,” said Professor Interian.

She sorted through some of the information available about each school to identify the schools in high demand but also highlight how difficult and challenging it is to attend the best schools in San Francisco. After choosing a few set parameters such as number of applications, number of available seats and California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) scores, they developed a simple visualization system to understand the landscape of elementary schools plotted directly onto a city map of San Francisco. Professor Interian teamed up with software engineer Morgan Whitmont to build the first version of this prototype site.

While many “metrics” of school quality exists, Professor Interian developed a simple localized SF ranking using CAASPP Math and English scores, with the formula included in the visualizaiton. While more comprehensive measures of the health of a school than these two exist, for this first go around Interian and Whitmont created a data visualization tool that provides a partial — but important — overall picture of each school. One of the most important but depressing figures easily found by scrolling over each school is the percentage of applications that were accepted. For example, at Grattan Elementary, 1446 applicants vied for 65 open seats in kindergarten which is reported as 4.5%.  Sadly, the actual probability of applying and getting into Grattan for many parents is vastly lower once you factor in the tie-breaking system and it is likely sub 1% in the last round of the tie break.

Interian and Whitmont look forward to receiving feedback from SF parents on how to improve the visualization so that it becomes an essential tool in understanding the elementary school landscape. They have plans to incorporate diversity statistics as well as other metrics of the health of the school in future versions. In addition they would like to further separate and add to the visualization the different language tracks at the schools that have them.  For now, Interian and Whitmont hope the visualization allows parents to move forward armed with the information needed to make an informed, (slightly more) confident decision about their children’s education.

Faculty Spotlight: Amy Gilgan

Amy Gilgan works with students and faculty as a Gleeson Library reference librarian and education liaison. During our conversation, we discussed the issues she’s passionate about and how research shapes her teaching and activism.

Amy Gilgan


How did you end up at the University of San Francisco?

Initially, my background was in archives. I became interested in preserving queer culture while volunteering at GLBT Historical Society. As an archives intern, I processed collections on AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct action AIDS advocacy organization, and my internship lead to a grant funded position at the UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Archives where I helped process the Kem Lee photograph collection. When the project concluded, I accepted a position as a librarian at an arts college in San Francisco. I did a lot of instruction there and discovered I have a passion for it. I also worked for a short period of time at City College of San Francisco as a reference librarian. When I was hired at USF as a reference and instructional librarian, I was excited to grow my teaching skills in an environment committed to social justice.

How did you first become interested in research?

I have always had an interest in science, art, and activism. Library science allows me to research across disciplines. I was drawn to the way librarians empower folks to learn about the world around them. Here at USF, I work primarily with students and faculty in the School of Education. It’s really rewarding to provide research support for folks invested in social change.

How did you first become interested in activism?

I grew up in a white working class community, and discovering the punk subculture was my gateway to activism. The subculture connected me to human rights organizations and the movement against neoliberal capitalism. Currently, I’m very interested in housing rights. I didn’t have a lot of resources growing up working class, but I never had to worry about not having a home. Moving to the Bay Area in 2003 really radicalized me around housing. I became more active around housing in 2008, when Proposition 98 threatened to overturn rent control in the state of California. Through political organizing, I learned a lot about the history of displacement in San Francisco. This isn’t a new narrative; working class communities of color have been facing displacement in the Bay Area for decades.

How does that play into your role here at USF?

One of the nice things about USF is the “Change the World from Here” emphasis on social justice. I really appreciate the opportunities to weave in my passion for community activism into the work that I do. In addition to supporting the research of faculty and students, I have created social justice resource guides to support the annual Critical Diversity Studies Forum and the Office of Diversity Engagement and Community Outreach. I strive to not only connect students to information but also grassroots community organizations.

What is your role with the School of Education?

As the liaison to the School of Education (SOE), I make sure that students and faculty have access to the resources they need for their research. I also provide library research instruction for classes, particularly when the students are working on literature reviews. If students or faculty need additional help, I meet one-on-one to help them formulate search strategies and use citation management tools, like Zotero or RefWorks. I learn so much about teaching and facilitation from activist educators.

What other projects have you learned a lot from working on them?

For four years, I taught a section of the Information Literacy Class for the Muscat Scholars Program, an immersion program for first generation college students. As an instructional librarian, I often do single class sessions where I see the students for 1-2 hours. With Muscat Scholars, I got to work with the students for two weeks. I love learning about their experiences and interests, and the students have taught me a lot about resilience and hope.

It sounds like you inhabit a lot of roles here at USF—you help with research, you’re teaching, you’re also active in the community. How do you define your role or do you define it all?

As a librarian, my primary focus us to help folks connect to resources. I strive to help students not only learn about social justice issues but also connect to community organizations engaged in the struggle.

How do these roles play into Open Access and educating faculty and students about resources?

When faculty publish in a proprietary journal, their work is often placed behind a paywall that not everyone can afford to access. Open access publishing can provide a way for faculty to build their professional portfolio while making their research freely available to a much broader audience. I encourage faculty to work with Charlotte Roh, our scholarly communications librarian, to explore open access options.

I work with a lot of teachers K-12 teachers in the School of Education. Some of the schools they work for cannot afford subscriptions to scholarly databases. There is so much information that their students can’t afford to access. It’s a big issue.

How do you bring your own personal research into those interactions when teaching?

I am very open about my housing rights activism. I talk about my own biases and how they can affect my ability to find and evaluate information. I also give personal examples of times when my assumptions lead me to believe misinformation. I want students to realize that critical thinking will not only help you write a better research paper but also help you when strategizing for social change.

Tips for Creating a Semester Plan for Faculty Success in Writing and Research

At the CRASE Plan Your Semester workshop, 17 faculty and staff, including several new faculty members, worked on developing a semester-long plan. Below, Professor Christine Yeh summarizes key steps in creating a Semester Plan using materials developed by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD).

plan your semester

When creating a concrete Semester Plan, the main challenges academics often face include: (1) unstructured time, (2) varied and time consuming commitments, (3) prioritizing, and (4) underestimating the time required for research and writing. Due to these challenges, writing time often gets pushed aside and replaced by smaller but time-consuming tasks such as email requests, committee responsibilities, administrative reports, and student issues. Because we perceive having free time to write, we often allow these duties to take over in the hope of finding time elsewhere in our busy schedules, but it is important to prioritize our scholarship and personal goals.

To make a successful Semester Plan, know what you need and what you need to accomplish. Create a realistic plan to meet all of your needs including personal and professional goals, and build in support, structure, and accountability.

Five steps can help you create and implement a strategic Semester Plan:

  1. Identify your personal and professional goals
  2. Map out the steps and work to accomplish your specific goals
  3. Introduce your projects to your semester calendar and schedule them in
  4. Build in the support and accountability for completing these goals
  5. Work the Semester Plan

Identify Your Goals

People often start the process by identifying their goals and then stop, but it’s important to remember that according to NCFDD, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” When you start to put together a Semester Plan, identify both research/writing goals and personal goals. During the workshop, participants identified three research/writing goals and three personal goals to get the process started.

Once you’ve identified your goals, the next step is to make them SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic, and Time-framed. By reframing goals as SMART goals, they become more concrete and realistic. An example of a personal goal would be to spend time outside, but once transformed as a SMART goal, it may look more like mountain biking once a week on Saturdays from 9-11 am or to try a new 3-hour hike on the first Saturday morning of each month.

Map out the steps and work to accomplish your goal

Working with the SMART goals, you can now write out the steps required to make each goal happen. For example, when developing a book proposal, you may need to draft different sections, create a table of contents, and select a publisher. Break down your goals to individual to-do tasks that you can schedule into your calendar.

Introduce your projects to your semester calendar

Now that you have the steps to accomplish each goal, it’s time to start scheduling them into your calendar. We recommend opening Google Calendar, or the system that works for you, and add each item into your calendar. It’s important to accurately estimate how much time the task will take. Scheduling tasks into your calendar will help you see how busy you are with other commitments such as mid-term grading and travel plans, and you can adjust your timeframe to match the semester.

Build in Support and Accountability

The next step is to make sure you have the support and accountability to make sure you get your tasks completed. Some ideas for support include making plans to write on-site, online writing groups, accountability group check-ins, or a writing buddy/coach.

Work the Plan

Once your strategic plan is complete, schedule a meeting with a mentor, writing friend, or accountability group and share your goals. As you work through your Semester Plan, some tasks may take more time than you estimated, but you can always adjust your timeframe. Understanding how long tasks will take will help when you plan future semesters.

Faculty colleagues who successfully completed their semester plans shared some helpful tips. These include the following:

  1. After entering writing tasks and goals into your calendar, color code them based on the type of writing project.
  2. Assign specific times to each goal so you can best estimate how much time to spend on them.
  3. Share your priority goals with collaborators so they are also on board with your time frame and deadlines.

It is important to be able to adapt and change your Semester Plan should you finish your goals early (or late). The plan is there for structure, accountability, and clarity about your goals, but it is also important to be flexible as you navigate the academic context. Personally, I look at my goals weekly to add and change things as they come up. I also create a plan for each semester to ensure I am prioritizing the important goals in my life.