Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Let's talk strategy

So here's the deal
My husband, Ryan, and I have two kids—both currently in preschool. We need to find our daughter, Alice, a kindergarten for the 2008–09 school year. In two years we hope to send our son, Sam, to the same school. We're looking at both public and private schools. Our total income is low and we own a condo, which means hefty mortgage payments. We can't afford to pay full tuition for both children to attend a private school. I've done some research on financial aid at private schools, and our family would likely qualify for a small amount help (if we get into the school).

Our plan
My husband and I decided that I will be in charge of the search. I'll tour 15 to 20 public schools and then rank my top seven. Ryan will visit the top three to offer feedback, and together we'll decide on—or fight over—our first choice.

As for private schools, I actually toured a few last year and I fell in love with one, Marin Country Day School. I will revisit MCDS and also go to Live Oak, Synergy, and San Francisco Day School. I hope to narrow down that list and apply to only two private schools so I can put a lot of energy into those two—i.e., attend all the functions and write thoughtful essays for the applications. I will apply for financial aid.

I may visit some parochial schools; I'm still figuring out which ones. I hope to tour a few public schools in Marin and the East Bay because I think it will help me evaluate the public schools in San Francisco.

San Francisco Public School strategy
San Francisco Unified School District consists of a whopping 80 kindergartens. Only a really neurotic parent—definitely not me—would visit them all. So how will I develop a list of schools to tour? I’m considering many factors:

Language immersion Habla Espanol? Ideally, I'd like a Spanish immersion program and I'm also considering Chinese. I figure this is something that's unique to the city. You can't get it in the suburbs and I believe in exposing my children to other cultures.

Size of student body I'm hoping for a small school—no more than three kindergarten classes. My daughter picked up one of my many inconvenient phobias—fear of large groups.

Location I'm going to start by looking at schools that are within 15 minutes of my home in upper Noe Valley—but I may branch out.

Start times Some schools start at 7:50 a.m. and others start at 9:30 a.m. Start times don’t matter to me; I'm an early riser. But if you like to sleep in, this is something to consider.

After-school program I work and so this is a definite must-have.

Test scores Honestly, I’m suspicious of public school with superhigh test scores—I figure it means either they're teaching to the test or the school lacks diversity. What I want is a school with solid test scores.

List of public schools I hope to tour
Alice Fong Yu
Buena Vista
Leonard R. Flynn
West Portal

Are there others schools I should add to this list? Let me know. Thanks!


  1. You should look at McKinley and New Traditions, too. Both fit your distance requirements and are small schools, but neither offers language immersion.

  2. I have a friend that really likes commodore sloat as well. Lots of space to run around because they didn't put up 'bungalows' on their yards. And its just an easy trip down Portola from the Noe Valley area

  3. We're looking predominantly at Spanish Immersion. I visited Monroe (Chinese Bilingual and Spanish Imersion) this week and that seemed to have some good qualities, but I did prefer Buena Vista. Also, I will be looking at Paul Revere next week.

    I like your reviews, way more organized than mine.

    I have set up a site to try and catch a variety of parent reviews of school tours and have linked back to your reviews.

    Good luck


  4. If you're looking for Spanish Immersion, you should also check out Marshall - a great school community there. Also, Paul Revere (also with Spanish Immersion) has a superstar principal - one of the top in the district - who is making amazing things happen there. Get in on the ground floor of something amazing there.

  5. Can I ask you how you have time for all of these tours if you work? I also work and am having a great amount of trouble missing so many mornings. Tuesday morning I have a standing obligation at work so cannot tour those days EVER.

    Even the school search process seems biased against working parents. I'm glad you are doing this, because I depend on people like you who are generous with sharing information.


  6. My advice/ criteria for picking a school

    Take a deep breath...

    Having been through the gauntlet--I suggest tackling this like a job--which is what it is in this bloody city at this particular time in America. Plan to look at anywhere from 5-15 schools, that's about 1-2 a week. I would look at those close to you, those you've heard good things about even those (private/ Catholic) you aren't interested in/ can't afford--just to get the lay of the land. Schools change year to year and so your impressions are important too (albeit a snapshot in time). Some schools have been great in the past and when I visited I was totally
    unimpressed. Talk to as many parents of older kids, kids like yours, similar temperament, style/ background and on and on. I know we all have differing philosophies and priorities, but most of all think about your own child. If I was looking for Nikolai instead of Sasha I might have made a different decision. Hope this is helpful.

    Some top criteria I used in no particular order:

    Location--how does this affect our family? Can we walk, will my
    partner be able to help with drop off/ pick up. Parking , area, safety,weather, etc.

    Engagement of kids as observed on the tour. There were schools that
    came highly touted where I found the kids to be bored and teachers
    uninspiring and vice verse. For what it's worth I found the kids superengaged at SF Community School in our neighborhood.

    Community (you spend a LOT of time with these people and kids) Start-time--we decided 7:50 would just be too hard on us and thwart
    proper breakfast time--the 'big' meal for my boys. That also means
    a long after care day.

    After-school availability and quality --if you might need it
    (even in 3 years), some public schools bus kids to another location--that was not an option for us for our 5 year old.



    Scores--although I think that is a bunch of hogwash with the whole ridiculous no-child left behind crap-- but it also may be
    reflection of the student body.

    Time/ energy commitment as parents vs. what you can and want to do
    Facility (although often the kids don't care) but play structure,
    classrooms, bathrooms, outdoor space, proximity to park etc.

    Engagement of other parents

    Principal (can make or break a school) & teachers, talk to all the teachers you know

    Talk to kids at school

    Research on line, maybe go on tours together to share notes

    Take notes--pros and cons

    Maybe y'all want to set up a system together to share notes

    Finally, it's so hard, because when we looked Niko was a newborn
    and I was sleep deprived and had just moved. Douglas only visited a few which I thought was a shame but it's hard to fit all of these in--pick the top few for both partners to go together. If you had a particularly good or bad impression of a school, go back a second time as it might have just
    been the day.

    Last but not least--although, arguably, one of the biggest
    decisions as a parent you will probably make--kids are resilient and so many kids across the world just go to the school down the street so... try not to
    get too worked up --it's hard I know, believe me.

  7. Creative Arts Charter School (public K-8) -- terrific small school with separate lottery (don't include in your list of 7 on the main lottery selections).

    Definitely should get a look from all looking at schools in this range.

    I was very impressed but small numbers mean it's pure luck if you get a spot (like many of the other great SFUSD options.)