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.

Not-so-happy endings

Many aren’t so lucky. Sheila Nickolopolous was surprised she didn’t get any of the 15 schools she included on her list, but she gamely considered the school assignment she received. “I didn’t know anything about the school, so I looked up the information,” she said. She learned she was assigned the third lowest performing school in the city. “Then we just went into panic mode.”

Two weeks and several deep breaths later, Nickolopolous and her husband are reviewing their options. They are looking at a parochial school and, like so many parents before them, considering moving to a place with less expensive housing and higher performing schools.

But they are not giving up yet. Families who don’t like their school assignment get the opportunity to appeal and reapply for the school or schools they want. Nickolopolous applied again, this time putting down 20 options.

Families who are satisfied with their child’s assigned school must enroll at that school by a mid-April deadline. If you would not remotely consider sending your child to the assigned school, you need not register (but if you don’t register, you’ll lose the spot). You will not be penalized (or receive preference) for enrolling at the assigned school. Either way, you can enter the second round of placements, once again listing as many schools as you want.

If you still don’t get a school you want in the second round, you can select one school and join its wait pool for subsequent rounds. The fifth round is known as the “10-day count,” and it takes place after the new school year begins in August. This is also known as “gutting it out,” since for students (and their parents) it can be agonizing to wait until after school has begun to find out which school they will be attending. While waiting, some parents enroll their child in a parochial or private school and hope that a spot will open up at their dream school. It’s often worth the wait — and the stress – because a few spots usually become available at the very last minute — or well into the school year.

The Hill family accepted their first-choice placement for one twin and entered the other into the lottery again. This time the family will get sibling preference, but there are fewer seats available. Either way, the family has no plans to abandon the system. A now-seasoned SFUSD applicant, Hill knows Round I is just the beginning of the process. (Find out more about the school assignment process here.

Before elementary school

California introduced a new Transitional Kindergarten public school program in 2012 when the state bumped up the age of kindergarten eligibility by three months. It’s open to students who turn five between October 2nd and December 2nd. The free state-funded program is set to continue indefinitely and is offered at a handful of sites across the city. Find out more details here

The district also runs infant, toddler, and preschool programs for children as young as six months old. Here is a list of schools offering pre-K programs.There are a set number of slots set aside for children receiving subsidized care and for those paying tuition. Although all children are cared for together, fees and registration depend on whether the applicant is receiving subsidized care or paying tuition. Find more information here

Middle and high schools

In 2011, SFUSD implemented a new middle school feeder system, so students at each of San Francisco’s elementary schools will begin feeding to a specific middle school. As of 2017, fifth-graders will be automatically enrolled at their feeder middle school. (Families can apply to attend a different middle school if they aren’t satisfied with their feeder.) Until 2017, families will still go through the lottery process.

According to SFUSD, the new feeder program was introduced to create continuity and ease the transition from elementary to middle school. It also represents an effort to balance middle school enrollment, because some of the city’s middle schools are under-enrolled and others have waiting lists.

It’s no surprise that enrollment at San Francisco middle schools is so uneven, since the quality of these schools is all over the map, from popular Presidio Middle School (Greatschools Rating 9)  to Denman (GS Rating 3). Hoover, another popular middle school, offers a wide range of electives and extracurricular activities, and has a top flight music program. 

San Francisco School Board member Rachel Norton believes that the new feeder system will improve the quality of all middle schools. But she says she’s heard complaints from a number of parents whose feeder middle school doesn’t offer honors classes. (About half of the city’s middle schools offer them, half do not.) In recent years, SFUSD has begun emphasizing “differentiated instruction” — when students of mixed abilities are all placed in the same classroom, and teachers adapt instruction to each student’s ability — versus honors classes in middle and high school. This shift is based on evidence of inequities in the way kids are tracked to honors versus non-honors classes.

“I have mixed feelings about both approaches,” says Norton. “The numbers tell us that most of the time tracking has more to do with race and class than actual ability. At the same time, differentiated learning sounds great, but can be hard to do. For example, in math it can be really hard to teach kids who are at completely different levels, and to give all of them what they need in terms of instruction.”

The district has not eliminated honors classes and currently has no intention of doing so, according to Norton. “Conversations are going on at the district and at individual schools, but it doesn’t make sense to make a policy change before we understand these issues better. The question is: What is the best way to make sure that all kids are getting what they need — including economically disadvantaged kids, and kids for whom English is a second language? At the same time, high achievers need support, too. They need to be challenged.”

Find out more about the middle school feeder system and check out Parents for Public School’s middle school comparison chart to find out about honors classes, electives, school stats, and more.

Deja vu all over again

Applying to high school in San Francisco can feel like déjà vu all over again, since there are not enough slots at the city’s most popular high schools, and the process is often discouraging for parent and child alike.

Students must pass a test to qualify for Lowell High School, which was ranked 43rd in US News and World Report’s 2013 list of the nation’s best high schools. Lowell is large — over 3,000 students — and offers a broad range of classes, including six languages and many AP and Honors-level courses, a respected music program, some of the city’s best sports teams, and a rich variety of after-school clubs and programs.

For admission to Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA), students must go through a grueling and highly competitive audition process for spots in the various arts specialties, including creative writing, dance, media, music, and visual arts, and there are far fewer spots than there are qualified applicants.

At the Galileo Academy of Science and Technology, students can pursue career pathways in a variety of specialties, including biotech, environmental sciences, and hospitality and tourism.

Balboa High School also has a pathways program for juniors and seniors. Students can choose pathways that focus on law, media, computer science, leadership, or environmental sciences. Balboa is an example of a turnaround story with a happy ending: a decade ago it was a place many families steered clear of because it was both underperforming and riven by gang violence. Now Balboa is one of the most sought-after schools in the city.

Lowell and SOTA have their own application processes; the other high schools require only one application. Find more high school information here.

Charter schools

Public charter schools are another option for San Francisco families, although the total number of charter schools in the city is small — only 10 total. These schools are part of SFUSD, but you must apply to them separately.

Some charter schools were started by families looking for a particular curriculum, such as the K-8 Creative Arts Charter School. Others are part of larger, national organizations, such as the two KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools located in the Bayview and the Western Addition neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Gateway High School is a well-regarded college preparatory school, and it takes its mission seriously. Students receive college guidance right from the start — beginning on the first day of school, when every ninth grader goes on a college tour. Gateway recently opened a middle school on a separate but nearby campus.

San Francisco Flex Academy, another public charter high school, allows kids to learn online and independently, but also provides on-site instruction and tutoring support — an emerging type of school known as a hybrid. Charter schools have their own application requirements and deadlines, so check out their individual websites to find out more. Find out more about charter schools at the California Charter School Association

Private and parochial schools

San Francisco parents who elect to opt out of the public school system have 90 private and parochial schools to choose from, including exclusive single-sex K-8 schools like The Hamlin School, and Cathedral School for Boys, to competitive high schools like University High School, and Lick- Wilmerding. Many of San Francisco’s Catholic schools are well-regarded too, including St. Ignatius College Preparatory School, which is known for its rigorous academic and sports programs.Middle and high school-age kids who have trouble with traditional school environments can learn independently at Fusion Academy, where learning is individualized and schedules are flexible. Find out more about San Francisco private schools.

Be sure to check out GreatSchools’ ratings and parent reviews to learn more about San Francisco’s public, private, parochial, and charter schools.

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