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School Matching for Racial Equity: Irene Lo (MS&E) presents models that address persistent segregation within SFUSD

Faculty Seminar Series: Using AI to Improve Diversity & Equity in School Choice

The impactful work of Irene Lo, pictured right, Assistant Professor in Management Science & Engineering (MS&E), tackles continued and heightened racial and socioeconomic segregation in K-12 education. Last month, as part of CCSRE's Faculty Seminar Series (FSS), Lo demonstrated how she and research partner Itai Ashlagi, Associate Professor (MS&E), employed AI optimization and economics research to redesign a school selection process by which elementary school children in San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) are assigned to public schools.

As Lo explained SFUSD’s challenges, she projected a striking pair of maps: on the left, a redlining map of San Francisco from 1937 documenting racist efforts to maintain segregation via inequitable home financing; on the right, a map of the same area documenting free and reduced-price meal eligibility from 2020. The obvious similarities between the two maps offered a stark visual of San Francisco’s continued segregation. In fact, Lo offered evidence that San Francisco has become increasingly segregated over the past two decades despite the overall diversity of the school district. 

Lo’s team’s challenge was to design a matching system that ensured student diversity without sacrificing predictability (parents’ capacity to anticipate where their student will attend school) or proximity (the distance between school location and a matching student’s home). The solution Lo’s team proposed was a hybrid model they called “controlled choice,” in which families’ school choice was restricted to geographic zones to ensure predictability and proximity. In addition, a set number of seats at every school was reserved for students from historically underserved communities. The system featured an equity tiebreaker that gave students from historically disadvantaged communities their first choice of school in case of a tie.

Underscoring the importance of Lo’s work, Assistant Professor Francis Pearman (Graduate School of Education), who introduced Lo’s talk, emphasized how students’ educational opportunities are spatializedgeographical location is largely correlated with a student’s resources and opportunities.

"School districts grapple with all sorts of inequalities that show up at their schoolhouse doors. Many of these inequalities are rooted, in one way or another, in residential segregation and the fact that certain district schools are saddled with serving disproportionate shares of high-need students. Consequently, a lot of school districts are asking themselves how to promote school-based integration—no small task in the current legal and political climate. Professor Lo has embarked on one of the more innovative lines of inquiry on this issue, developing a set of tools that enable districts to maximize integration while retaining strategic goals around issues of proximity, school choice, and ease of use," Pearman said.

Lo’s controlled choice model remains sensitive to students’ need to remain local while simultaneously combatting the geographic constraints that often consign students in under-resourced neighborhoods to under-resourced schools.

Lo’s application of her research on matching to benefit a new generation of Bay Area school-aged children has the capacity to create more diverse and equitable public schools in San Francisco and may be a very useful model for other school districts struggling to reverse long-standing patterns of racial segregation.

Professor Lo’s research is supported in part by a grant from CCSRE’s Race & Justice Research Initiative. These grants are awarded to Stanford faculty who bridge research and application by partnering with programs and institutions beyond the university.

CCSRE’s faculty seminars began as a quarterly series twenty-five years ago to showcase and support scholars whose work furthers racial equity and to provide a space for faculty to share their work with a cross-disciplinary campus community committed to racial equity.

“The Faculty Seminar Series (FSS) features accomplished scholars who deepen our understanding of the complexities of race and ethnicity and offer alternative perspectives in the mobilization of this scholarship,” CCSRE’s Director of Research Alfredo Artiles (GSE) said. He added, “These seminars enable us to celebrate excellence in the production of knowledge about race and ethnicity that is produced at Stanford and beyond. We welcome faculty and student participation in these events throughout the year.” 

Join us for our next FSS featuring Catherine Ramírez, Chair of Latin American and Latino Studies at UCSC, who will present her discipline-traversing book Assimilation: An Alternative History in conversation with Tomás Jiménez (Soc) on Thursday, October 28, at 12pm PDT. RSVP to join in-person or REGISTER to join us via zoom.