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Back-to-school report card: Most marks slip as San Francisco students head into a new year

Interior of Lowell High School on January 12, 2022. Camille Cohen/The Standard

It’s the first day of school. In just a few hours, thousands of students and hundreds more teachers and administrators will stream onto San Francisco campuses for a new academic year. 

But data shows San Francisco’s schools, teachers and students continue to struggle in the aftermath of the pandemic—even as Wednesday marks the second year of completely in-person learning. 

The Standard compiled a district-wide report card to show how San Francisco’s schools are holding up against ongoing pandemic-born problems. Focusing on student performance, these charts trace everything from attendance to math proficiency and school culture. And though SFUSD faces a host of challenges, the analysis finds a few signs for optimism.

A Nationwide Crisis

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is not an outlier when it comes to pandemic-era struggles. Public schools across the country reported increased student behavioral issues, rising absenteeism and difficulties during the last school year finding substitutes and full-time teachers. 

The findings paint a dire picture for the coming year: 87% of public schools showed that the pandemic had negatively affected students’ socio-emotional development. About two-thirds of public schools reported that the pandemic was to blame for students being behind grade level. 

And a whopping 99% of public schools reported that they struggled to find teachers during the 2021-22 school year—a problem that has persisted into the 2022-23 academic calendar, especially in elementary schools and special education programs. 

San Francisco Schools at a Glance

Teacher shortages, increased absenteeism and behavioral problems are issues that also plague SF schools. As teachers prepare their classrooms for the influx of returning students on Wednesday, for example, SFUSD reported a total of 60 teacher vacancies, up from 40 at the start of the last school year.  

By zeroing in on student achievement, the district aims to understand how its nearly 49,000 kids might continue to struggle with pandemic-related disruptions to their education. The Standard combined data from SFUSD’s annual Student Performance Analysis and the California Department of Education to give an overview of trends related to academic achievement, grade-level readiness, student behavior, absenteeism and enrollment.

As the only public school district in the city, SFUSD expects to welcome approximately 48,284 students this academic year. This figure reflects a 7.9% drop in student enrollment from 2018 to 2022, mirroring statewide and national downward enrollment trends. 

San Francisco lost nearly 5,000 students over the last four years, according to data from the California Department of Education. Even though the district experienced a slight increase in the number of students in 2019-20, those numbers plummeted in the following years, particularly in SF’s charter schools. 

Downward trends in enrollment might reflect the perception that San Francisco is a difficult place to raise kids, especially in early childhood. Census reports show that the number of children under 5 dropped by 9% during the first year of the pandemic, and the city witnessed an overall 7% decline in children aged 0 to 19 between April 2020 and July 2021. 

When compared to other California school districts, San Francisco’s pandemic enrollment decline is slightly less pronounced. The city’s charter schools, however, experienced the steepest drop in enrollment compared to other major school districts in the state: Alameda and Los Angeles school districts both reported an overall decline in enrollment higher than 9% between 2018 and 2022. 

An enrollment decline means more than just smaller class sizes and empty seats. Fewer students could mean less money for SF’s schools, which currently receive about $10,000 per student per year from the state. 

The SF Board of Education already plans to reduce funding for operating programs (like custodial and technology services) and administrative support to combat this lost revenue. 

Student Profile

As total enrollment declined in SFUSD, demographics by race and ethnicity decreased at a proportional rate. 

For students in certain programs—such as English learners, foster youth, homeless students and students with disabilities—enrollment numbers significantly changed during the pandemic, according to the California Department of Education. 

The state reported an 18% drop in English learners and a 12% decrease in foster youth from 2018 to 2021. On the other hand, the number of homeless youth is increasing in SFUSD, up nearly 13% from 2018. The district also seems to serve more students with disabilities than before, reporting a near 10% increase. 

Attendance and Absenteeism

One of the biggest challenges facing SFUSD is the skyrocketing rate of absenteeism reported across the district, and across demographics. 

Chronic absenteeism, defined as students with less than 90% average attendance, practically doubled in SFUSD during the pandemic: 28.4% of students were chronically absent last year, compared to just 14.6% of students in the 2020-21 school year. 

Overall attendance in SFUSD is down as well, with the district-wide 90.9% average attendance for 2021-22 nearing the threshold for consideration as “chronically absent.” 

Students in every racial and ethnic demographic experienced higher rates of chronic absenteeism, though the issue plagued some student groups more than others. African American students continued to report the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, increasing from about 38% in 2019 to 63% in 2022. This largely follows years-long trends that report disproportionately high rates of absenteeism in certain marginalized groups. 

By grade, elementary school students in grades kindergarten to first grade, as well as high school seniors, seem to have suffered most from chronic absenteeism after last year. 

By program, foster youth and homeless students show the highest rates of absenteeism, at 64% and 47% respectively. These numbers largely match up to pre-pandemic estimates, which showed foster youth and homeless students at highest risk of missing school. 

Grade-Level Readiness

SFUSD’s yearly Performance Analysis also shows that trends in certain school and grade readiness indicators, as well as in academic performance, have changed during the pandemic. 

Looking forward to the 2022-23 school year, SFUSD data indicates that students might not be as prepared for kindergarten and high school as in years past. 

The district conducts a kindergarten readiness indicator test each year, measuring preschool students’ literacy skills, socio-emotional learning, wellness and numeracy. Though the test was not administered in the 2020-21 school year, comparing data from 2018-19 to the past year shows a sobering decline in kindergarten readiness. 

Overall, SFUSD finds 58% of 2021-22 preschool students ready for kindergarten. In 2018, that number hovered at 64%. 

When broken down by ethnicity and program, students from all groups showed a decline in kindergarten readiness during the pandemic. 

Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino students showed the lowest kindergarten readiness rates, with both groups scoring less than 50% in the last academic year. 

Preliminary data for the 2021-22 school year (released in June) shows a similarly steep drop-off in high school readiness across the district: less than half of the district’s eighth graders show readiness for high school. This measure is based on metrics from graduating eighth graders, including their attendance, GPA and number of suspensions. 

High school readiness seems to have stayed consistent early on in the pandemic, but the district attributes the steep overall decline in 2021-22 to a commensurate drop in attendance rates. 

When separated by race and ethnicity, high school readiness by group tends to reflect the same trends as kindergarten readiness: African American students show the lowest rates of high school readiness, hovering at 15% last year, compared to the district’s highest reported readiness rate in multi-racial students (about 48%). 

The district has not reported college and career readiness measures since the 2019-20 school year. 

Academic Achievement

When it comes to student performance and academic achievement, there is some cause for cautious optimism—especially when considering the district’s performance in proficiency tests and when comparing yearly spring semester grades. 

Overall, the percentage of middle and high school students with an ‘A’ in English, Language Arts, Mathematics and Social Science all increased from 2019-20 to 2021-22. For Black middle schoolers, the number of kids with an ‘A’ in math and science increased by about 4%.

Test scores also show some pandemic-era gains. In spring 2022, the district reported 58% reading proficiency in third through 10th grades, which marked an increase from pre-pandemic rates. Math testing also showed promising results, with 71% of students showing math proficiency, compared to 70% in 2018.  

Reading proficiency was one of the few metrics in which students across racial and ethnic groups scored consistently—or even increased their proficiency rates—throughout the pandemic. Pacific Islander students showed a sharp increase in reading proficiency, reporting 48% above proficient in 2022, compared to 28% in 2018.  

Discrepancies remained among racial and ethnic groups, however, as overall proficiency rates and spring semester grades differed by group.

African American students continued to show lower reading inventory proficiency (28%), while white students reported the highest proficiency at 85% in 2022. Gains in GPA and spring semester grades also happened at more modest rates for African American students, compared to overall group metrics. 

Yet, data and trends about test scores might change as the district shifts its testing requirements. The district notes that it administered various proficiency inventories from 2018 to 2022, which each used different content coverage, test formats and scoring. In future years, SFUSD will prioritize using the Smarter Balanced Assessment test (SBAC) to measure reading, English/language arts and math proficiency.

Student Behavior and Well-being

Test scores, grades and attendance rates only form one part of the district’s view of student performance. SFUSD tracks student well-being by looking at behavioral performance (suspensions and expulsions), and it conducts yearly Culture/Climate and Social Emotional Learning surveys that explain how students, staff and parents or guardians view their schools.  

And if there’s a second bright spot on SF schools’ report card, this is it.

When it comes to behavioral measures, SF is not suspending students at an increased rate, unlike national reports of increased behavioral issues and punitive measures. Suspensions per 100 students actually decreased during the pandemic, falling from 1.39 in 2019-20 to 1.07 in 2021-22. 

Much like other performance measures, suspensions appear at a higher rate for students with marginalized identities. However, overall suspensions for almost all groups decreased during the pandemic. 

African American students habitually experience the highest rates of suspension, though the number of suspended students in this group dipped slightly from 261 in 2019 to 212 in 2022. 

When it comes to school culture and climate, the district’s favorability rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels, with no significant differences across student groups. The district survey looks at three measures: climate of support for academic learning, sense of belonging and safety.

For all measures, favorability increased during the 2020-21 school year, but returned to pre-pandemic rates in 2021-22. 

This trend was especially true for safety: students expressed feeling much safer during the 2020-21 academic year, compared to the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years. 

The spike in safety favorability was especially pronounced for students of color. Only 55% of African American students, for example, reported favorable feelings of safety before the pandemic, and in the 2021-22 school year. But in the mostly-remote 2020-21 school year, that number jumped up to 70%. 

This suggests that students welcomed some aspects of remote education, especially when at-home learning prevented school-related Covid exposures, potential for gun violence on campus, bullying or other dangers plaguing schools today. 

But the slight increase from 2019-20 levels for climate of support for learning, sense of belonging and safety on campus show that maybe—just maybe—students were a bit more appreciative of their on-campus learning compared to pre-pandemic sentiments.

Forecast for the Future 

As kids across SF head into schools and hit the books, administrators are keeping an eye on what’s next for the district.

With official 2022-23 enrollment figures expected to drop in October, SFUSD predicts enrollment will continue to trend downward well into 2024. Recent data from the city’s Board of Education projects that the district will lose about 1,000 students every year through 2024, estimating a student population of about 46,738 in two years.  

Nonetheless, SFUSD is reporting a slight increase in new enrollment applications from the previous year. Nearly 14,200 students applied for placement in SF schools this year, compared to about 13,900 in 2021-22. 

And even though the district expects to receive more than $20 million in financial support from the state, the forecast suggests SFUSD’s challenges will likely outlive the Covid pandemic.