Research Internship, Summer 2018

Worked with SFUSD to understand problems faced by parents while applying and enrolling to public schools



Project Overview

Students in San Francisco are assigned to public schools through an assignment algorithm. This system was put in place to enrich the ethnic diversity of students across schools.  A consequence of this system is that many families are dissatisfied with the schools assigned to the children. Families either switch to private schools or go through multiple rounds at SFUSD


  1. To understand the problems parents faced while applying and enrolling into public schools

  2. To develop short- and long-term solutions to resolve the problems so faced

Phase I: Secondary Research & initial findings | 3 weeks

To gain a better understanding of the system, I conducted the following steps:

  • Reviewed enrollment guides and materials used by parents for the application process

  • Conducted 6 stakeholder interviews. This included interviewing staff members who interacted with parents on an everyday basis.

The stakeholder interviews conducted helped bring out the diverse range of issues that parents face along with a rough idea of the frequency with which each of these problems occur. Understanding the perspective of the staff was crucial to shaping questions for interviews with parents

Figure: Putting down the main questions I wanted to answer helped bring out the questions to ask stakeholders

Figure: Putting down the main questions I wanted to answer helped bring out the questions to ask stakeholders

Using these interviews I was able to develop a journey map that represented the various steps parents took and the emotions they felt during this process. This helped me and my team understand potential areas that we could work on.

Figure: Enrollment Process from the view of the parent

Figure: Enrollment Process from the view of the parent


  1. The application for a new school year is due in January, a whole 8 months ahead. This meant parents had to research their school choices well in advance

  2. The early process was due to multiple rounds that families went through if they did not get a school of their choice

  3. There were many places where parents were unsure what to do next

  4. Parents got their school assignments in March, after submitting their application. The wait period of 2 months was stressful for some parents


Phase II: Interviewing Parents & Organizations, Synthesis | 3 weeks

The results of phase I helped for the interview guide for the Phase II, by highlighting areas where parents faced trouble and understanding all the materials parents were given during the application process.

For Phase II, I interviewed families who were currently going through the enrollment process for their child/children as well as a non-profit organization that helped parents with the process.
These were their characteristics.

Figure: Personas with characteristics and their functions

Figure: Personas with characteristics and their functions


Over the next 3 weeks, I conducted semi-structured interviews with families and the Program Manager at the People for Public School organization. 8 out of the 9 families I spoke to had come into the Education Placement Center to request for reassignment. 1 family was a referral by a colleague


Since it was July, the families spoken to were in the 4th phase of enrollment. I realized that a  bias could emerge as a result, as the families would be in a particular mindset while coming into the EPC for their requests. Calling this out while presenting my findings, helped the stakeholders keep this in mind while considering the insights that came up. The interviews explored the experiences families had with the overall process, probing into the areas where they had difficulties.


After each set of interviews, Susan (my manager) and identified common concepts from each interview and grouped them together into insights. We then doubled back to the interviews with the staff members that interacted with parents, and coded their interviews, and added them to the group of insights we gained from parents.


The results were insight statements that broadly encompassed the views of families, Parents for public schools and counselors. These insights were presented to members from Education Placement Center, Research & Planning and Communication Departments within the SFUSD to work together to come up with recommendations to solve the problems identified.

Here are 4 of the 12 insight statements:

  1. Families have a hard time listing their school choices and identifying what their preferences were. Some parents listed 55 schools while others listed 2.

  2. No two application looked the same as each family had different preferences. Based on the background of the parents, their needs could vary from finding a school that is the best fit for their child to finding a school with timings and transportation convenient to their schedule.

  3. Parents don’t trust the system to fairly consider their choices. They think it’s a “broken system” where the computer algorithm impersonally assigns students and doesn’t consider their real needs..

  4. Some parents think the process is completely random, i.e. a true lottery. This leads them to feel they have no control over their child’s future.

Phase III: Conducting workshops | 4 weeks

The final phase of the project involved brainstorming solutions for the various problems identified by the insights in the previous step. My manager and I decided to conduct the workshop across multiple departments to get them involved and interested in solving these problems. While Susan, my manager identified the departments and members, I planned the structure of the workshop and activities.

Together, we conducted a two-part workshop as depicted here:

Figure: Process for the two part workshop

Figure: Process for the two part workshop

Results of Phase III :

The result of the workshop was four projects that were assigned to different departments along with ownership from each department regarding financial and operational responsibilities.

The broad range of  projects was as follows:

  1. Redesigning the enrollment form, so parents can list more number of choices (the increase was from 7-15). The participants believed this would help parents look beyond the popular schools. (It was implemented immediately for the upcoming enrollment phase)

  2. Create short explainer videos for the enrollment process that divides the whole thing into three phases - Discover, Apply and Enroll

  3. Explain the consequences of choosing a low number of schools and partner with CBOs (Community Based Organizations) to share this info with under-served families

  4. Re-thinking of the word “lottery” and how it is used in the current system

Final Deliverables

The project started with ambiguity but resulted in multiple tangible things:

  1. Three full projects that could potentially help families understand the assignment process.

  2. 2-3 immediate solutions that were implemented immediately.

The project also resulted in a few intangible aspects that might add much value:

  1. The possibility of solving problems that seem large through iteration and design thinking.

  2. Enthusiasm to go beyond one’s routine tasks to drive innovation within SFUSD. Many staff members of SFUSD were extremely excited to participate in the workshop and contribute more.

Key Learnings

  1. Review of Interview Guide. Having discussions about the details of the interview with my team helped improve the quality of interview questions and also led to a more focused interview.

  2. Recruit Early. Once I identified the stakeholders, it was important to start recruiting as a continuous process. Participants tended to drop out, and it is always good to have 2-3 more participants more than the initial number.

  3. Pilot Interviews. Conducting sample rounds with someone - such as a sample interview - helped me identify ways in which my interview guide and approach could be improved.

  4. Talk to multiple departments.  In a large organization like SFUSD,  there tends to be a different perspective through every department. Talking to more departments helped to look at the problem in a different light.


My team comprised of Susan (Marketing Specialist) and I and we reported to Rosina Tong, Executive Director of the Education Placement Center. Susan’s enthusiasm and positivity at every challenge helped push the project a long way. Notably, she taught me how to conduct and organize Design Thinking workshops, which played a significant role in this project. Rosina’s support helped us coordinate with other departments and also bring out tangible results. I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked with two wonderful individuals, and I am very excited about the work we will continue to do together.