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Lean Leaders: Improving student enrollment for SFUSD families

Updated: Feb 6

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is the system for public schools in San Francisco comprised of 13 early education schools, 72 elementary schools (including eight K-8 schools), 13 middle schools, and 14 high schools. In order to promote diverse learning environments, SFUSD utilizes a Student Assignment Policy, where families and students can apply to a list of SFUSD schools ranked by their preferred choices. School choices are then matched based on available seats, and when the number of applications exceeds the number of available seats, tiebreakers, random assignments, waitlists, or assignments to schools with available seats closest to the student's home are implemented.

The Educational Placement Center (EPC) for SFUSD is a team of 25 people who help make this process happen. They're the Enrollment Counselors, Intake, Data Entry, and Data Management & Analysis personnel that keep the machine running - processing over 20,000 applications a year! Through the process, these folks are helping families in-person, via telephone, and over emails, advising and answering families' questions and performing assessments to help connect them to the right schools. Seems simple, right?

Wrong! The entire enrollment cycle for each upcoming school year spans a total of 10 months! Over those 10 months, there are three rounds of applications - the Main Round (October to Early April), Round 2 (April to June), and the final round or Summer enrollment period (July through the first day of school mid-August). While all rounds present themselves with unique challenges, there is currently a bottleneck in the process between March and May during Round 2, "The Waitlist Period", where there is a lack of effective ways to solve problems for families who aren't happy with their Main Round school assignments. To add to that frustration, families may experience long wait lines, busy phone lines, and lots of actions and counseling when trying to engage with the EPC that may not always provide a clear path to a solution that they feel confident in. This inefficiency creates frustration and distrust among participating families, which ultimately negatively impacts the experience they have with the EPC and SFUSD overall...

As an integral part of Lean Leaders (LL), trainees learn by doing, applying their skills and learnings immediately to a real-life improvement project in their work. These cohort members learn to manage change and unpack their processes, gathering input from stakeholders early to help them see tangible results at the end of their training.

Joseph Monardo, Director of the Educational Placement Center, attended PPI's Lean Leaders training in the Spring of 2023. As someone motivated to help the families of SFUSD and the EPC to have a better experience, Joseph wanted to make a change in this process for the better. Joseph was encouraged and backed by his project sponsor and manager to participate, and was most interested in having a dedicated space for structured learning around process improvement and change management.

This wasn't a new project for Joseph and his team to undertake - they had already somewhat analyzed the process for potential improvement, and had some existing ideas for proposed solutions. They were, however, stuck with how to show this process problems to others, and though they had some ideas for improvement - were these the right improvements to make? Joseph was also questioning the best approach to take in order to build consensus with his stakeholders around potential changes.

Through his analysis of Round 2 applications, he found that families who didn't get matched with their preferences often times end up repeating actions and re-requesting schools they've already requested. Re-applying for the same preferences during this round wouldn't change a family's chances of getting into the school they already applied for, though there was a false sense of hope that it would, resulting in duplicative rounds of denials and frustrations. What that ends up meaning is:

  • From a user's perspective:

Months of waiting time without clear transparency to process status, without transparency to where the families fall on the waitlist, and without certainty on getting a preferred school option from their list

  • From EPC's perspective:

Hundreds of duplicate applications that need to be processed, doubling the work to review/analyze/take action where it has already happened for the first application, taking up large portions of additional staff time

LL Valuable Lesson #1: Joseph approached Lean Leaders with a relatively clear idea for a different way the entire process could work, after months of collaboration with his team and analysis of the impact of the current process and overarching issues. However a huge value from what he experienced through Lean Leaders was getting a clearer picture on what is currently happening: what the detailed process is, and where the problems are showing up in specific places or instances in the process.

"The headline problems are good to get everyone to understand the importance of change, but the ability to drill really specifically about which parts of our process can we change in order to improve a problem we are feeling - that discipline is something that I really took from Lean Leaders." - Joseph Monardo

LL Valuable Lesson #2: Another valuable piece from this training for Joseph: a change of this magnitude, which required really strong buy-in and commitment from the entire Enrollment Center team and the collective San Francisco education community, required that he couldn't just jump to a solution immediately. He instead found that the path forward would need to involve a lot more discussion with a broader group of stakeholders than he had been previously engaging with.

According to Joseph, Lean Leaders helped him work towards specific proposed solutions for things he could put into action, which were different than those he had coming into the training. The tools and practices that he learned through Lean Leaders provided him the ability to uncover a broader pool of solutions and possibilities.

For example, one of the problems Joseph identified through the Lean Leaders process was families feeling that they were missing information. Uncovering this particular obstacle allowed Joseph and his team to implement making information around the wait pool (how it worked and where you might be in the queue) readily available to those families. A simple solution and one that the team already had the ability to access since the data already existed. It was just never before provided directly to the families.

We always had access to this information, we had just never packaged it in the right way.

Before, families would receive a notification that they had applied to a specific school, were placed in the wait pool, and were now in a waiting period to see if a seat opened up. Those families would then follow up in whatever form they could get into contact with the EPC, asking where they were on the list to only then be informed that they couldn't be told where they were on the list. Families would also ask, "How many people do you think will get into this school?", trying to assess their chances of getting a seat. Again they would to be told, "We don't know." Imagine how frustrating? It's no surprise that families would try to rig the system with the only chance they thought they had - by applying over and over.

The solution: the same notification of placement on the waitlist now includes their exact number on the waitlist, along with an estimate of how many folks get a seat off the waitlist based on the last two years' worth of data. This solution provides families the ability to better assess the probability of these options, and, should they seek it, more direct counseling on viable solutions for school choices if their preferred choice is a likely non-option.

A quick but effective solution to a specific problem!

Starting again from the headline of "Families feel a lot of confusion and mistrust from this situation and long process", the team was able to pull out that families are more specifically missing information that helps them understand where things are going to land for them and provide a solution to help address this. This was something Joseph realized he could impact directly and quickly.

LL Valuable Lesson #3: Another stand-out takeaway from his Lean Leaders journey, according to Joseph, was challenging himself to not arrive at a solution on his own, but instead identifying that conversations were needed with the enrollment center team as a whole, and community engagement was critical to the success of change to the process. The EPC team is now planning opportunities for community engagement with the public that will involve workshops and partnerships with community organizations. Their goals are to bring in more voices about how families are experiencing the current applications process, and gather feedback on potential proposed changes.

While the tangible changes to the wait pool are not directly impactful to the metrics Joseph was tracking in his A3, the team was already able to see immediate benefit in implementing those solutions:

  1. Greater transparency to families on the wait pool

  2. Less duplicative questions leading to frustration, and

  3. More valuable interactions between the EPC and families where families could reach out for counseling opportunities for other valuable options within SFUSD based on the information they now have available.

Families have already reached out more eager and willing to talk about different options than what they were hoping for, and wanting to focus more on the possibilities of where their student can go rather than being stuck on where they can't.

The idea of sharing more information with families to help them contextualize where they are on the waitlist process gives families information that's really important to them, and helps them make decisions about their student's school enrollment. Us telling a family where they are on the list isn't changing anything about where they are. Now, we're doing more of a service to families by giving this information on the front end as opposed to asking them to wait patiently for three weeks without notice of what they can expect.

LL Valuable Lessons # 4 & 5: The importance of structure and recurring practice are two themes Joseph has carried forward with him after Lean Leaders. According to Joseph, the A3 is an example of structure that is really specific and consolidated, and creates value by giving a user a clear way to prioritize what's needed. Tied with the physical A3 is the idea that doing the A3 approach is a part of practice and is not just an individual project. It's a structure that can be used on a recurring basis for a team and in a variety of settings. Focusing on value and the idea that a process should be creating value for specific users is another form of structure, which gives users a way to focus in on what's really important. For Joseph, that concept is very tied to the work the EPC does in getting families school assignments that works for them in a timely manner with minimal confusion.

In addressing Change Management, ending the training with a teaching and practice of the Switch Framework from the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, resonated with Joseph, as his team had already begun reading this book to understand how to apply it to their practices. This provided a direct opportunity to check his learning and practice of the framework in the in-tact learning session with the other cohort members.


As a Spring 2023 Lean Leader, Joseph offers this advice to future Lean Leaders trainees:

Be thoughtful & invested upfront on the project you choose

For Joseph, coming into the training with a general idea on his project, but something he had already been thinking about a ton, helped his commitment to the project.

Be flexible and willing to explore in order to approach it differently - even if it's something you've already done a ton of thinking about, the training allows you the opportunity to do so in new and different ways to work towards a range of solutions.


Interested in taking your problem-solving and change management skills to the next level?

Reserve your spot now!

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