Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Public school enrollment 101

No clue how the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) enrollment process works? Heard horror stories about parents quitting their jobs to homeschool their children who didn't get into an SF kindergarten? Friends in the suburbs asking you to explain why you don't know where your child is going to kindergarten next year? This post is for you.

SFUSD uses a "school choice" system. That means families may apply to any school in the district regardless of where they live. A family in Noe Valley can apply to a school in the Outer Richmond or in Pacific Heights or in Noe Valley. Freedom of choice doesn't sound so bad, but there's a catch.

Just because you want to go to a school doesn't mean that you automatically get to drop your little spawn off there on the first day of kindergarten. Actually, a lottery system assigns you to your school. Here's how it works:

The district consists of some 80 schools. Parents pick seven schools where they'd be happy sending their child. Usually, they come up with their list of seven by visiting schools on organized tours. Parents actually fill out a form, ranking their choices in order of preference. They turn in their forms by January 11—and hope for the best. On March 7, they receive a letter with a school assignment. If they're dissatisfied with their assignment, they can go through a waiting list process.

Sound insane? Actually, the odds of getting one of the seven schools are quite good: for the 2007-08 school year, 87 percent of families who applied on time received a school of their choice, and 67 percent got into their first choice. The district tries to accommodate a family's preferences or at least to get them into schools close to their homes. Those who aren't lucky the first time around usually get in through waiting lists.

Why do you have to play the lottery to send a child to school in San Francisco? Diversity. SFUSD uses what it calls a diversity index lottery system to achieve a blend of students of different backgrounds throughout the district. The index isn't based on race but rather parents' academic achievement, family income, and English proficiency. The diversity index kicks in only when there are more applicants than spots. So for example, there were 855 total requests for Rooftop (one of the more popular schools) last year but only a few dozen available spots.

For more information on the process, visit the San Francisco Parents for Public Schools Web site.

For those who have been through the process, please post your stories in comments.


  1. What a great idea! As a grand parent of a 4 year old about to enter "the system" I will be reading your blog on a regular basis--you hear so many different opinions from so many different people you never know who to believe--I think each person taints their comments with their own situation and often puts down other schools and the whole public system to reinforce their decission to put their children in a private school--who knows, maybe the public school system isn't that bad after all--my own daughter is a product of the public school system and she graduated from Cal--go figure--anyway, I look forward to your "trip" through the system

  2. The "67% of applicants get their first choice" SFUSD propaganda:

    Despite what you read on the SFUSD and PPS websites about "chances you will receive a school of your choice" -- roughly 47%, NOT 67% of the applicants "get their first choice", if the applicants do not have an older sibling in the school and are not seeking a special education placement.

    So the numbers given out, while not exactly false, do not give applicants a realistic picture of their "chances". Less than half (47%) is a whole lot worse than two-thirds (67%).

    Then factor in the likelihood of getting into the most coveted schools, many of which you list as wanting to tour -- you probably have a less than 5% chance of getting into Alice Fong Yu, West Portal, Clarendon, Rooftop, Lillienthal and that 5% is BEFORE even factoring in any diversity index stuff.

    Anyway -- the numbers you mention in your blog are deceptive, yet people go on touting them.

  3. Just returning from Kindergarten night hosted at Miraloma Elementary. Some of the information sounds a bit conflicting- we are encouraged to put down your 'top seven choices', to ensure you get a school of your choosing. Honestly I do not think even my fourth or fifth 'choice' would be a 'school of my choosing'. If I went to a cafe , perused the menu and then placed an order I would be very disappointed to hear that the chef would like me to add more 'choices for an entree'.Maybe I am just a finicky eater...

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  5. Its me again. I think in SF we are simultaneously blessed and cursed. Blessed because we have so many choices(cursed for the same reason?) but then also perhaps teased because not all of those choices are tangible. Its difficult enough to choose a school. The pressure is unsurmountable at times, it could very well shape your child into the person he/she will become. If only it were as simple as buying a pair of shoes, in a way it is similar. However it would be shoes that must be worn day after day. With this metaphor in mind it helps me narrow down schools: what 'shoes' would best suit my son's interests? What shoes will give him the structure and support he needs while also allowing him room for creativity and growth? And then just when I think I might narrow down the selection, the thought occurs that he also has a sister, and what are the chances that she will want to wear his converse...

  6. To anonymous #1:
    Even if 47% of NEW applicants get their FIRST choice, those are pretty good odds!
    (I recall my friend's child being one of 7 - the other 8 were siblings - selected among 350 applicants at one of the popular independent private schools.)

    Most importantly, there are way more terrific choices in public elementary than just a few years ago. Just check it out. Just talk to the parents that are there.

    I wish I had the data that's available now so that I would have made more informed choices - I also wanted to have 7 choices (we only had 5 back when I went through!)

  7. Yes, well, you think 47% sounds pretty good, but again, that number is also deceptive, because you don't have a 47% chance of getting into ANY school, the 47% is OVERALL ...

    but people keep falling for the propaganda ...

    47% OVERALL. NOT at each school. Yes, there are great schools out there that are not on the coveted list ...


    if you put down Alice Fong Yu, West Portal, Alamo, Rooftop, Clarendon, Lillienthal, and a few others as your first choice -- you have perhaps a 5% chance of getting into those schools ... and that 5% is BEFORE even factoring in any diversity index stuff.

  8. Sharing some history. When we first applied to SFUSD schools, it was in the days before Parents for Public Schools came along and started changing the public perception. In our day, the universal word among the middle class was: "There are only five good schools in SFUSD, and if you don't get one of them, you have to go private." SFUSD and the notion of marketing were not even on the same planet, so there was no effort to change that perception.

    So, we fixated on one school we thought was the ONLY school -- Lakeshore, which at that time was on the "only five good schools" list. There were only four spots for choices on the form back then, and we wrote "Lakeshore" in all of them. And we did get our child in, under the appeals process, which at that time was basically corrupt in that assertiveness, persistence and persuasiveness, including simply schmoozing the head of the SFUSD Educational Placement Center, would do the trick.

    Then over the years I got involved in many activities with other parents around the district, including the SFPTA board, and met many parents with kids in schools that I would never have considered originally because they weren't on the "five good schools" list. And it turned out their schools sounded great and their kids were doing fine.

    Meanwhile, PPS convinced SFUSD to pay some attention to marketing, so the perception of other schools improved, and perception became reality. Soon it was clear that there were many, many more than five good schools.

    So when SFUSD expanded the form to offer spaces for seven choices, I decided to see if I could come up with seven schools in my part of the city (southwest quadrant) that I would find acceptable. I started listing, and got to 12 before I got distracted. I could have kept going.

    There are some caveats. For one, I'm actually into comprehensive middle schools. I know this sounds unthinkable to parents of little kids, as it did to me when mine were small, but middle schools offer vastly more opportunity for kids than the little dinky 6-7-8 grades in K-8s. My friends at Rooftop have watched enviously as my kids had separate honors classes, full band and orchestra, and competitive sports teams at a full-size middle school, all of which small K-8s lack.

    So, my list of acceptable schools DID include some K-8s, which I actually might not want to include if I were doing this in real life. I still could list more than seven, though.

    And just to give you an idea of how much things have changed -- as I said, we had to appeal to get into Lakeshore. Our son was originally assigned to Miraloma Elementary, around the corner from our house, which was viewed as unthinkable. During the appeals process, we were offered Alice Fong Yu, which was not all that popular at the time (we chickened out on the Cantonese immersion, though we probably would have accepted Spanish if it had been offered in our part of town). We looked at Alvarado, which was then easy to get into, but thought it looked a bit disreputable. For the newbies, all of these schools are now wildly popular. So that's just to show how things have changed -- and really improved, since there are so many good schools and so much better information about them now.

    For further perspective, my son is now a junior at School of the Arts, which attracts a lot of kids from private K-8s since there aren't any arts-focused private schools in S.F. So we have classes where kids from SFUSD K-8s mingle with kids from private K-8s. If it were worth paying $15,000-$20,000/year for private, you'd think you'd see some pattern demonstrating that, wouldn't you? But actually, kids from SFUSD and private are representated among the kids who are academic superstars, who are struggling students and who are on the spectrum in between. There's no discernable pattern at all.

  9. One particular point of interest that was brought to my attention: the decision between a school that runs k-8 vs k-5. At this point we are feeling a bit frenzied and anxious and one cannot help but feel going with a school of one's choice(if the planets align as hoped) why not make it for k-8, then sigh , you are done and do not have to encounter this level of stress until high school, which seems pretty far away when your child still welcomes your arrival at the end of the school day with a hug and a smile. The other side offers that a middle school experience can offer children more electives especially those departments often lacking in elementary such as drama and sports. This might also influence your direction of school. Of course the safety and sense of community that is developed from attending a school from k-8 cannot be underestimated. It could afford your child the confidence to approach high school and all that comes with it. Middle school can be a frightening time of transition for the child due to emotional and physical changes, the security of knowing a school and having achieved 'big kid' status could ameliorate some of this.

  10. I don't have the statistics at my fingertips, but I believe they bear this out: Most families do get the middle school of their choice, so it's far less stressful than the K search. Plus by then most parents have calmed down about the whole thing, with years of school experience behind them.

    It's definitely true, as I previously posted, that comprehensive middle schools offer more electives, extracurriculars and programs. The difference in personal safety is not all that clear-cut, despite the image of hordes of hulking middle-schoolers vs. a few older kids in leadership roles at the top of a sweet little K-8. I'm in my sixth year as a parent at Aptos Middle School, and neither of my kids has ever had a problem.

    Many people see middle school as a valuable transition to high school. I know one family whose kids went to a prized SFUSD K-8 and then on to Lowell, just one year apart, and BOTH were knocked flat by the sheer size and scale of Lowell and wound up transferring to a smaller, less high-achieving high school. That's just one family, but it does give a snapshot.

    There are kids in my kids' middle school who have transferred from K-8s, choosing a comprehensive middle school instead -- I know kids like that from Rooftop, Alice Fong Yu, S.F. Community and probably others, plus some privates. So that's doable too, if someone chose a K-8 and then changed their mind and wanted a comprehensive middle school.