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Navigating the system: San Francisco

Live in San Francisco? We did the homework to help you find the very best school for your child.

By Heather World

San Franciscans are proud of their lovely city – its windswept peaks, distinctive neighborhoods, and multicultural flavor — but there’s one thing that parents here often gripe about: how complex and baffling it can be to land a good school for your child.

The city is peppered with public, private, and a small number of charter schools. Some families are strong advocates of traditional public education and would never consider a private or charter school, while others with the money, or access to scholarship funds, go private all the way. But many families end up trying out an assortment of different options — public, private, and charter — to find the best fit for their child.

Given the complexity of the system, the number of choices, and the widespread grumbling, it may come as a surprise to learn that — in the end — many San Francisco families end up satisfied, if not delighted, with their child’s school.

Public schools

There are 112 public schools in San Francisco. Of these, 74 are elementaries. And they vary in quality — a lot. Each year, parents enter the dreaded school lottery, hoping to get lucky.

San Francisco dad Dale Hill approached the lottery armed with information. The father of twins, Hill estimates that he and his wife spent 50 hours touring schools, talking to other parents, attending school fairs, and comparing school statistics. In the end, he listed 13 schools for each child. Although they could have indicated their children were twins, the couple decided not to,hoping to improve the odds of getting one good assignment. The result? One child got the Hill’s top pick and the other child got nothing on their list.

Welcome to the San Francisco Unified School District’s (SFUSD) enrollment process. It’s fraught with confusion and frequent disappointment – that’s the bad news. The good news is that SFUSD boasts many quality schools – and, given some resourcefulness and a bit of good luck, you’ll eventually find one for your child.

To get started, narrow your search. GreatSchools can help with its school-specific ratings and parent reviews, and district report cards (called “Schools Accountability Report Card”) which detail demographic and testing data. (Go here to get started searching for San Francisco schools.

SFUSD’s website also links to each school’s Schools Accountability Report Card, the SARC’s one-page version (called “Highlights”), and the Balanced Score Card, which includes the principal’s goals and challenges at the school.

Parents for Public Schools San Francisco also has a wealth of information on its website, and offers year-round workshops, as well as advice and connections to “parent ambassadors” who can give you details about schools that interest you. The organization’s listserve is a quick way to get lots of information about individual schools; it will also keep you abreast of upcoming enrollment events. The PPS-SF site also links to the district’s data about which schools are in highest demand: not surprisingly, schools with high test scores typically have many applicants vying for each seat. That’s why it’s important to look for “hidden gems” — schools that, for example, have rising test scores, lots of federal and state funding, and an active PTA.

“There are many public schools across San Francisco with wonderful assets that people aren't talking about or aware of,” says Carol Lei, a program manager for Parents for Public Schools San Francisco.

Close to home

Check out the schools in your neighborhood first — not just for convenience, but because your “attendance area” is likely to be a factor in the school your child is assigned. Every address in the city has an “attendance area” school (see SFUSD for maps with boundaries), which means your child has some priority for being placed at your attendance area school. Some boundaries seem illogical — those living across the street to the north of Alvarado Elementary School are not in its attendance area, for example — so double-check to find yours.

Don’t forget to look into some of the city’s less traditional public school options. For example, San Francisco has one public Montessori school which will include grades preK — 6 by 2014, and one project-based school, SF Community Alternative School, and a number of schools that offer different types of language programs— including immersion programs for English speakers who want to learn another language, and programs available only to non-native English speakers. (For more information, see the district’s detailed description and who is eligible.

Immersion language programs merit special mention because they are so popular. In an immersion kindergarten classroom, 80 to 90 percent of the day is taught in the target language of that school. This percentage gradually declines to half the day by fourth grade. In theory, all children are biliterate by the end of eighth grade if they enroll in an immersion track through middle school. San Francisco offers immersion programs for elementary and grades K-8 in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Korean. Two high schools offer Cantonese immersion programs.

Applications, deadlines, and other details

Once you have a list of public schools, schedule tours so you can see each school for yourself. For many popular schools, tour slots for November fill as early as the end of September. PPS-SF lists tour dates, but it is usually best to confirm by calling the school yourself. Some schools require you to register for a tour, usually online.

Applications are due at the end of January, and placement offers are mailed mid-March. Each year the deadlines change, so check the San Francisco Unified School District website for exact dates. An early application receives no preference, but woe to those who turn it in late: your child will not be part of the first run of assignments, and after the first run most of the popular schools are already filled.

You can find all the required forms here. You must submit the application to the Educational Placement Center at 555 Franklin Street. Bring a parent/guardian photo ID, the applicant's proof of birth, and two proofs of home address. District officials are sticklers about what constitutes acceptable proof of address, so check here to make sure you’re prepared.  

And the winner is…

While the public school application is straightforward, the assignment process is not. Because there are not enough high-performing schools in the district, those that are have far higher demand than capacity. For these schools, the district prioritizes applications from students with siblings already at the school, students who live in the school’s attendance area, and students who live in parts of the city with the lowest average test scores. The rest of the placements are determined by lottery.

If you do not get one of your choices, you will be offered your attendance area school if it has openings. If it doesn't, you will be offered the school closest to your home with openings.

The district boasts that about 60 percent of families received their first choice for the 2013 school year, but that happy number includes siblings who are all but guaranteed their first choice, as long as an older sibling will still be attending the school when they start.

In March, after assignment letters are mailed, many parents are disappointed by the news they receive, which often means assignment to a school they didn’t request. In some cases, parents check out their assigned school and are pleased by what they learn.

Heather World is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Comments from readers

"We live in San Franciso but do an interdistrict transfer and I take them to an excellent school where they are doing great. I was so glad to hear that we were able to take the kids to another district. Nearly impossible to get into a good school in San Francisco."