Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Playing the Lottery

So I’ve got a new obsession in my life. And let me tell you, I’m not the kind of woman who needs a new obsession. Some women like a new obsession they can really sink their teeth into: a new job, a new boyfriend, those extra 10 pounds, the perfect organic heirloom tomato, the elementary school’s dingy playground equipment, a coworker’s slacker ways. ... These are all appropriate obsessions. These are obsessions you choose, even when you don’t know you’re choosing them. (“When did I start cruising farmer’s markets every Saturday morning looking for the perfect hybrid tomato seeds?”)

But some obsessions are not chosen, but thrust upon you. And I’m walking around nursing some low-level resentment these days because I’ve become obsessed with San Francisco elementary schools.

San Francisco does not have neighborhood public schools, but has implemented the lottery system, where a prospective student can attend any school in the city, regardless of where the child lives. The child’s parents submit a list of seven schools they like to the district and then sit around crossing their fingers hoping to get one on their list.

“87 percent of parents are assigned one of their choices for their kid!” the district trumpets, but that’s a load of hooey because that lovely figure includes siblings of current students, who get preferential status. The real percentage for non-sibling applicants is likely much lower.

Then there’s the problem of choosing what schools to list in the first place. San Francisco’s schools are wildly unequal in terms of educational quality and safety (surprise, surprise). So you have to figure out where the good schools are so you can write them on your list.

Fine, you think. I’ll ask around about the best schools and write them down. But the well-known quality schools are wildly popular, with zillions of parents listing them, so your kid’s odds of being assigned one are quite low. So you’re encouraged to sally forth and find “hidden gems,” public schools that are good enough so you can send your kid there, but obscure enough so you’re kid has a chance.

I’m sure you’ve seen the problem here. How in God’s name do you find the hidden gems? Well, you tour. You tour every freakin’ school in your chosen neighborhoods, you tour until you puke, you tour until the very phrase “test scores” causes a PTSD reaction that involves excessive drooling and a fear of chalk. You tour, your write down that list of seven schools and still your child might be assigned to some grim, understaffed school across the city.

So you need a backup. This backup is called “private school.” Now there’s a huge debate raging in this city about public vs. private, that the parents who send their kids to private school are cowardly sellouts indifferent to America’s future. Parents who truly love their country, the common reasoning goes, find a marginal school and pour hundreds of man-hours and resources into making it better.

More power to them, I say. May their tribe increase.

I, on the other hand, am the morally bankrupt slacker who just wants her son in a decent school that won’t require two buses and a train to get there. Public, private, parochial — they are all ways to do this. So we’re looking at public and privates. Actually, Ron is looking at public and I am doing the private schools. Thank God we can split it up. I don’t know how some mothers do this single-handed, although many do.

So now my new obsession are private and parochial elementary schools in San Francisco. I’ve got a spreadsheet, a file drawer and an Internet connection, so I’m ready. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Seven Circles of Infrastructure

Tuesday was a long day. I'd arranged to arrive at Benny's preschool at 7:45 a.m. so I could dash over to a morning business event. Instead, the morning skittered out of control and I ended up dashing to the bus stop an hour later, red-faced and cursing the stupid shoes I have to wear with my best suit.

My lack of time management may actually have been a subconscious attempt at sabotage, since the morning event was an Infrastructure Business Forum. Two months ago I edited a newspaper section on Bay Area infrastructure and I'm still coping with the trauma. Ron and I were moving to a new apartment at the same time, and I found myself reading Dante's "Inferno," perhaps hoping to find a circle for newspaper executives who think an exhaustive, comprehensive special publication on infrastructure sounds like a kicky idea.

Instead, Dante muddled my thinking further and I started imagining the Circles of Hell for Infrastructure. The Editor becomes lost in a Wood of Typos and finds her way blocked by monsters representing Deadlines, Budgets and Photo Assignments. Virgil the poet (who never had to worry about inch counts) leads her to the right path to the surface, but first she must pass through the Seven Circles of Infrastructure.

The descent begins with the Dreaded Circle of the Overview, where sinners throw completely unrelated ideas into a giant cookpot. But the ideas never jell into a coherent discussion and the sinners must stir and stir and stir …

There is also the Circle of Pointless Graphics, where sinners must compare apples and oranges and bond measure allocations and throw in a few pie charts. Then we have the Circle of High-Speed Rail, where sinners must sit through endless planning meetings, and the Circle of Transit, where sinners must take the 43 bus around and around and around …

Of course, we can’t miss the Circle of Rail, where the sinners (mostly railroad executives) are tied to the tracks and lectured about the need for port-railroad cooperation. Or the Circle of Airports, which is well named, for sinners must circle endlessly and eat stale peanuts while airport officials argue about seawalls.

And finally, the Editor reaches the end of the section with the Circle of Water, where Satan himself sits encased in the ice of a frozen Hetch Hetchy water system in dire need of seismic retrofitting.

With such lurid images in my mind (and now, Dear Reader, in yours), it’s no wonder I didn’t want to relive the infrastructure section at the event. But I arrived at the perfect time — late — which meant I missed most of the presenters and didn’t have to hear any more about high-speed rail.