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Long School Commutes Anger S.F. Asians

Education: Many students travel across town to promote integration. A legislator has seized on the issue.

July 15, 2002|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Les Ho is 13 now, old enough to know that he had plenty of reasons to fail. Instead, the boy who grew up speaking Chinese, the son of a single, immigrant father, mastered the routine of public education, often slogging through three hours of homework a night. He will begin high school this fall with a tidy transcript of A's and Bs and aspirations of becoming a doctor.

Then he will begin a new routine.

Denied admission to one of the city's best schools, just blocks from his home on the west side of San Francisco, Les will rise early. He'll dash off, catch the N Bus, then the 28, then the 30--an hour's commute to an inferior school across town where he's been enrolled by a computer.

He is the future, many Asian Americans fear, of public education in San Francisco. Often by design, but this spring because of a computer glitch too, the city school district is sending scores of students away from their schools of choice and across town to campuses that they deem inferior.

The shift has rekindled charges that Asian Americans, the majority group at many top schools, are forced to shoulder the weight of integrating and strengthening the city's troubled public schools. Asian Americans have renewed charges that they are victims of their own academic success.

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Proposal Raises Fears

And now a self-styled firebrand on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has supercharged the debate by raising the possibility of splitting the city school district in half. The proposal has set the city abuzz with fears that Supervisor Leland Yee and his supporters are attempting to create two separate and unequal school districts--in loose terms, one for Asians and whites, the other for blacks and Latinos.

Yee, a shoot-from-the-lip child psychologist who emigrated from China at age 3, says he's merely trying to reduce red tape and make one of the largest school districts in California more responsive to parents and children.

Suddenly, though, this Democrat and child of '60s protest is fending off charges that his district breakup proposal may cripple the long struggle to integrate schools.

"This would mean disaster for just about everybody," said Michael Harris, assistant director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, a nonprofit law firm that has operated in the Bay Area for 30 years. "It just strikes me as being extraordinarily unfair."

Yee insists that he's simply trying to represent the interests of his constituents in a middle- and upper-middle-class district on the west side of San Francisco. The region, near Golden Gate Park, is known as the Sunset and is populated largely by Asian American families.

San Francisco educators, he said, don't like to be second-guessed--and have made him the target of unfair criticism since this spring, when he first hinted at the possibility of splitting up the school district.

"It's the institution," Yee said of the school system, sounding more like the UC Berkeley student he once was than the vote-hungry politician he's accused of becoming. "Whenever there is any attack on that institution, they get their dander up, and they will distort and do what they need to do to protect themselves."

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Yee has tapped into a deep bed of resentment among Asian Americans in the fierce debate over how to properly shepherd one of the state's most diverse school districts.

In March, a computer program apparently botched its enrollment program, sending hundreds of children either to the wrong school or to no school at all. Many Asian American parents remain convinced that their children made up the bulk of those affected by the glitch.

To Asians and Pacific Islanders, who make up 35% of San Francisco and 50% of the school district, it was a slap in the face. Reaction to the glitch rapidly ballooned into full-fledged panic.

One mother told community leader Jane Kwong that she was considering committing suicide--thereby cashing in on a life insurance policy that could go toward private school tuition for her child, who didn't get into his neighborhood school.

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Parents Are Suspicious

Many Asian American parents believe the school district is shuffling their children around to boost test scores at bad schools and make the district eligible for more grant money. School administrators deny that.

"This system punishes people who work hard, and they don't realize how many real lives are being affected," Kwong said.

Yee quickly stepped into the fray. He has asked the city attorney's office to study the legal possibilities of not only splitting the school district in half, but of allowing the city to take over the school system.

Yee says nothing less than the survival of the public education system is at stake.

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