Monday, January 7, 2008

Hot topic: working the system

At private schools, applicants are expected to use personal connections to express interest in a school. Letters of recommendation from friends and family are commonplace. When you apply to a school, you're asked if any other family members attended the school. Plus, independent schools are hand-picking their students. They're looking for families eager to give time or money so I imagine that applicants get creative to show that they're willing and able to make a strong commitment to the school. And I can imagine that sometimes applicants get a little carried away in their enthusiasms. Don't we all.

But in the SFUSD, there's a lottery system following specific guidelines and rules. It's supposedly fair and equal, within reason. Yes, siblings get priority. Makes perfect sense. And I imagine that a child can attend a parent's school. I would hope so if that's what the parent wants. Gosh, it really wouldn't even bother me if a child wanted to attend her aunt's school. I've heard of cousins requesting the same treatment as siblings and getting it. Seems fair to me. But an SF K Files visitor has suggested that possibly there are some people who are seriously bending the rules to get into a school. I'd be curious to hear what that's all about.


  1. As a teacher, I must go through the first round like all other first timers. I get no priority in the first round. So, if i don't get picked for the school I teach at and it fills in the first round, there is a possibility that I might not be able to get my child in. I can, however, use the appeals process to move to the top of the waiting list, if I need to.
    I don't know of anyone who has been able to get around the lottery system. There was a time, while the district was still under the Consent Decree and race was a viable criteria for admission, when some parents would lie or exaggerate a student's racial background but that was quite a while ago. I'm not sure how one could "work" the system.

  2. For private schools, this is new to me that there is a lot of talk about who is writing what letter of recommendation - and we are applying to several. We were actually told by our preschool and other parents who have enrolled their children in privates that some schools view "the thicker the file, the thicker the kid." I have been told that letters really only help if the writer actually knows the applicant (child) well, and that often they make the applicant look high-maintenance. Call me pollyanna (or a cynic, or both), but I do think that private schools look for families that are a good fit in terms of being on board with the mission, being supportive (yet not too high maintenance), and most importantly, having a bright, easy going kid. I have also been told that in competitive schools, it is often not a person decision -- they are looking for kids that fill out the demographics -- girl vs. boy, zip code, ethnic makeup -- as well as kids that diversity by zip code, etc. We're not famous, and definitely not extremely wealthy, so I guess we'll see.

    As to public schools pulling strings: I know of two examples. One, someone who works directly for the superintendent of schools got the kids of her fiance into AFY, and people claim that was thru connections. I don't know if that is true or not. Two, I have heard of people doing all sorts of "medical appeals" or "hardship appeals" based on things like being near a hospital (Claire Lilienthal) or just going to a school next door to them rather than having to drive. Again, it's hard to know what was through connections and what was just via the system doing its thing.

    When systems are such black boxes, it's impossible to know for sure, isn't it?

  3. Well, in our experience (9 years in the SF public schools), I have seen quite a few kids that attend SF schools while they live outside the district, in South San Francisco, Daly City and even some East Bay cities. There are legitimate ways and reasons to do this, such as having a parent who works in the city, but in most of the cases I have seen, the families have used a phony SF address and told their kids 'not to talk about where they live'. I have heard that using a false SF address is even more common in high school for families wanting their kids to attend Lowell, but I don't know this personally. I suppose that we could take pride in the fact that our schools are so desirable that people are lying to get their kids into a SF public school, but when they displace a legitimate SF resident in a sought-after school, it doesn't seem right.

    Many thanks for starting this blog, it has sparked some very interesting and provoking discussion.

  4. A co-worker of mine sends her children to Rooftop (one I think is in high school now). She said that she was able to find a spot at Rooftop after the City conducted an audit and swept hundreds of non-resident children out of the system.

    Nowadays you really do have to show a lot of proofs of residency. I think it would be hard to mislead by a work address alone - but maybe not?

  5. Sorry, I didn't mean to say that people were using their work address to establish residency. There is some sort of exception made that allows families living outside of the district to have their children attend school in SF public schools when a parent works here in the City. I don't know the details of how this works, but I believe that SF residents are given priority over these kids. If that is the way it works, then the over-enrolled schools (Rooftop, Clarendon etc...) should't have any students that are from outside the District. But I know that this isn't the case...

  6. In the past, the SFUSD enrollment system was definitely more easily manipulated by assertive, empowered, determined parents. The appeals process was open to anyone for any reason; you could make any case for your child. A thick file impressed SFUSD too.

    Now the appeals process is strictly for extraordinary, documented medical needs. For the rest, it's "everybody into the wait pool."

    But even I was startled to hear recently from a district insider I trust that in that past era even cheap bribery worked -- cookies to the staff, etc. I used the "assertive, empowered, educated parent" advantage to the max, but wouldn't have thought to try bribery. I didn't send cookies until AFTER we got the school we wanted in the appeals process.

    The current process is much less subject than the old one to pressure by assertive parents -- for good and for bad.
    That's much more fair to the less fortunate; not so great for those of us who are good at throwing our weight around.

    I just can't guess about insider pull, though. I know exactly whom the poster who mentioned a district staffer's fiance is referring to. That whole situation was bizarre. I know Arlene Ackerman, and it's hard to imagine she'd pull strings for that schmuck -- I can't really imagine she'd have pulled strings for anyone -- but you just never know.

    Oh, re private schools -- one family in my daughter's time in preschool was looking exclusively at private schools, but the kid (while smart and sometimes engaging) was openly oppositional-defiant. So they either got rejected or waitlisted everywhere they tried. Then a number of their fellow preschool parents, including me, wrote letters of recommendation about how the mom had been a very effective fundraising coordinator (which was true). Suddenly Live Oak found them a spot.

  7. I really question that there is much parents can do to work the system. In the AFY situation, the person whose children were admitted is such a well-known loudmouth/exaggerator I find it difficult to believe it actually happened the way it's being described. Never say never, but I think SFUSD has really cleaned up its act in this respect and it is very difficult for even the most connected pushy parent to work the system. There was one such parent who vented a lot of frustration on the PPS list last year who did, finally, get a holy grail school -- a few days after school started. I would argue that success came from sticking with the process, not string-pulling.

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  9. And for those unfamiliar with the "wait pool", see SFUSD EPC Wait Pool info

    This has all the various priorities including the teacher one referenced earlier.

  10. So they either got rejected or waitlisted everywhere they tried. Then a number of their fellow preschool parents, including me, wrote letters of recommendation about how the mom had been a very effective fundraising coordinator (which was true). Suddenly Live Oak found them a spot.

    Caroline, in private schools (and not unlike in public schools), the real shake out comes after the decision letters are mailed. A family accepted at 5 schools can only pick one, leaving 4 empty seats. That's WHY there are waitlists. If a school has waitlisted you, it is (has to be!) fully prepared to accept you -- if you map to the vacated seat (gender, race, what your family brings to the table, etc).

    Your comment implies that you broke the news to the schools that your friend was a fundraiser, and that this news is what "suddenly" got their family in. Now THAT would be news.

    But I'm glad you brought it up, because one thing that everyone applying to private schools should know is that it is not uncommon to be waitlisted at every school you applied to. If you are waitlisted, IMMEDIATELY let the school know just how badly you want to be there. They can't make space for you if you'll mess up the balance, but other than that, your dedication (desperation?) does count for something. Your friend is an effective politician as well!

  11. To echo Caroline's experience, I have heard that, for private schools, letters of support are most appropriate when a child is waitlisted. Also, we received the same advice from our preschool as a previous poster did that many private schools say that a thick folder means a thick child. I'm sure that really good connections (friends with someone in the school's administration or friends with a major donor where, in either case, the person really knows you and your child) can help, but I think that these connections are a deciding factor for many fewer kids than we typically believe.

    For example, when I applied to grad school at Cal (and only to Cal as moving was not an option), I asked a relative (who does know me well) who used to be on the UC Board of Regents to write a brief letter on my behalf. Well, my very busy relative wrote the letter, and I received a copy from him. He had sent it to the admissions office after I had already been accepted and given a merit scholarship. He had not called Cal or anything like that. He just wrote a tardy letter. Turns out that I was fine on my own. However, if he had sent his letter in a more timely manner, I might have thought he got me in to grad school. Similarly, just because an applicant to a private school has a connection does not mean he/she was accepted because of that connection. I went to a private 7-12 school down the Peninsula, and I remember a kid in my class who was an excellent student and an all around good kid. He came from a wealthy, well-connected family. His younger brother was not nearly as good a candidate for the school (kind of a brat from what I recall, though I have no idea how he had performed academically at his elementary school). The family also made large donations to the school. Anyway, despite the donations, the connections, and being a sibling, the younger brother was not accepted to our school. While I am not naive enough to think that connections never matter, I do believe that their importance is overblown (at least for the majority of schools). Not all kids with good connections get in, and we have no way of knowing how many kids who are accepted and did use connections would have been accepted even without those connections. Please do not dispair if you are interested in private schools but don't have connections.

    As for using connections to get into the SF public schools, I had no idea! Maybe I should spend today and tomorrow at Precita Park so that I can meet someone from Flynn! :)

  12. I'm not a statistician or anything, but after reading the SFUSD wait pool prioritization, and from my limited understanding of how the lottery works, it seems like your best chance to get -a particular- school is to list only that school. You'll get an extra run through the computer before your (likely) non-assignment. Then, in the wait pool, after priorities #1-4 (medical, employee, hardship, sibling), you'll be right after "#5. Students who listed 7 choices on their application form in Round 1 and did not get an assignment to any of those 7 choices," which the district assures us is a relatively uncommon group (13%). Then you, with your list of one: "#6. Students who submitted an application on time for Round 1 and did not receive an assignment to one of their choices." Then following you: "#7. Students who submitted an application on time for Round 1 and received an assignment to one of their choices." That includes everyone who, for example, got their 3rd choice but choose to wait pool for their 1st choice. I guess you could try to bump yourself up to #5 by putting down only 100% oversubscribed schools, thereby increasing your odds of not receiving an assignment from your list -- at the risk of ending up #7 in case you did. Anyway, I don't advise anyone to try this. I'm just procrastinating at work.

  13. Re: private schools. I think -- or at least hope -- connections aren't as important as many parents believe they are. But I am also amazed at the lengths some parents undertake to secure such connections. It gets to be a little much.

  14. Beloved relatives of mine tried to get their daughter (now in college) into Presidio Hill and were rejected. They wound up at Adda Clevenger. We have friends who are longtime Presidio Hill parents and happened to mention at some point after our young relative had started school that she had applied unsuccessfully to PH. They said, "Oh no! You should have talked to us!"

    From what I hear, including from one friend whose paid job involves advising parents on the private school search, it is very clear-cut that references and recommendations -- including from parents at the school -- matter.

    Re the anecdote about the mom with the fundraising skills: It could be that Live Oak just had an opening. It could be that simply getting a number of letters, whatever they said, showed Live Oak that the family was committed to their school. It could be that the letters citing the fundraising expertise made the difference. Only Live Oak knows for sure. If I were trying hard to get into a private school, I would be assuming that the third of those options was accurate (that what the letters of recommendation said was what mattered) and acting on that basis.

    It seems to me that for applicants to private schools, it's to your advantage not to be naive and to be as savvy as possible about the process. It seems like some people are trying to believe that everything is totally impartial in that process. Honestly, I'm not just being a cynical b**** when I point out that that's not the way it works.

  15. It seems like some people are trying to believe that everything is totally impartial in that process.

    The process is not impartial, but it is practical and logical in so far as it supports the school's aims. That's what people need to understand.

  16. Yes, this was my point:

    The process is not impartial, but it is practical and logical in so far as it supports the school's aims.

  17. Anonymous said...
    I'm not a statistician or anything, but after reading the SFUSD wait pool prioritization, and from my limited understanding of how the lottery works, it seems like your best chance to get -a particular- school is to list only that school

    If there is only one school in the world for you then you should list just that one school. But this is not a good strategy, I know because we tried it and it did not work. You should try to find as many schools as possible that you would accept and put them all down. Please try to get away from the idea that you have to have the best school. Good luck everyone!

  18. Agreeing with Andrew. Please keep in mind that the stress and anxiety can be quite intense if you are not assigned in the first round, and worse if not assigned in the second round.

    I guess you have to know yourself and your own ability to handle the uncertainty, as well as your family's personal big picture. Let's say waiting for Rooftop until the 10 day count is what you want to do because you have three kids and it's K-8. Makes sense, you know what you want and you can settle in for the long haul. The people I knew for this year who weren't assigned were VERY anxious until September when things were ultimately resolved.

    If you get assigned to a decent school, you can sign up and breathe a huge sigh of relief. You can start focusing on the school, talking about it with your child, driving or walking by, playing out the stories of their new big kid life. And as you start putting the word out about where Johnny was assigned (and registered) you'll start hearing about other kids who were also assigned there and can set up playdates over the summer which is so great for the kids AND for the parents.

    And you'll cross a big thing off your list of things to do!

  19. Caroline,
    Your advisor friend *might* be right for some private schools, but certainly not for all. I don't know about Presidio Hill as we are not applying and don't know any Presidio Hill families. However, I do know that many kids get into top private schools without using connections. I'm sure I can think of as many of these examples as you can of people who used connections or think they didn't get in because of a lack of connections. I am not naive. Of course a school might be swayed by finding out that a parent, such as the one you mentioned at Live Oak, is an excellent fundraiser. However, what I'm hoping to stop is the perpetuation of the idea that only kids with connections get into private schools. We can each come up with anecdotes about cases where it seems that connections made the difference or where no connections were needed. Statistically, our anecdotes are irrelevant. Unless someone conducts an appropriately designed study, we will never really know the answer. What I do know for sure is that there are kids who get into these schools without special references. I think that this is a stressful enough time for everyone that statements such as "it is very clear-cut that references and recommendations -- including from parents at the school -- matter," which cannot be proven in any way and are your friend's opinion (unless she has conducted a well controlled statistical analysis), are tantamount to fear-mongering. I am not in the least saying that private school admissions are impartial. And, of course, the reference from the preschool is quite important. Each school looks for certain qualities in the students and families it admits (e.g., participation at the child's preschool, a mix of temperments). I am saying, however, that most SF private schools are not using connections or references from other families at the school as some sort of litmus test. If you have a great connection, by all means use it. If not, do not fear that your child has no chance of getting in. That just simply is not the case.

  20. One last thing I forgot: my husband knows the head of a prestigious private school down the Peninsula and asked him several months ago about how his school handles promises of donations and letters from "influential" people. This person responded that the letters get opened because the admissions director does not know what the letter is until it is opened but that the letter is not put in the child's admissions file for review when the committee meets. They have no interest in these letters (or in promised donations as there are enough people in SV who could buy their way in to the school that the whole process would spiral out of control).

  21. There are limited spots at many of the private schools and sadly, connections do play a significant role in this process.

  22. I think that was a logic puzzle, KJ. It seems apparent that connections are helpful and in some cases could be the make-or-break difference. But that doesn't mean connections are always necessary to get into private schools.

    I was commenting in response to questions about whether connections make any difference at all, not in order to claim it was imopssible without connections.

    It would probably be impossible to do a study, since a sampling of private schools would have to open their entire admissions process to public scrutiny. And even if they wanted to, that would be pretty hard to do without seriously violating individual applicants' privacy. The advisor I mentioned has to draw on her own extensive experience, not data about statistical probabilities.

    I am, obviously, not a private-school booster. But I've still helped friends get into private schools when that's what they felt was best for their kid. So my comments are in that vein.

    If I were applying to private school, I would assume that connections and anything else that might lend weight to my application would be beneficial, and make an all-out effort. That just seems prudent to me.

    For that matter, we're waiting right now for a decision on my daughter's audition for School of the Arts (SFUSD public high school that admits by audition), and we acted on that basis. We included more recommendations than requested, a nice resume of her musical achievements, etc. -- material we hoped would give her chances a boost.

    And also: If connections matter in private-school applications, as I hear over and over and over -- being aware of that might take some of the pain out of being rejected, should that happen. Perhaps you weren't rejected because you were unworthy, but because other applicants had some insider pull.

    Oh, and regarding the waiting list, don't forget that there's no commitment to keep the applicants in any order. That's where the recommendations about the mom's fundraising skills might come in.

  23. Regarding the schmuck who's kids got into AFY - I, too, know who this guy is and can't imagine anyone at SFUSD would have done anything to pull strings for him - especially at the time his kids would have been old enough for kindergarten. But what a hypocrite! He was a 'devout' and outspoken advocate insisting on neighborhood school assignment (lived in Potrero) yet insisted that AFY was the only public school he'd send his kids to (across town.) Apparently, neighborhood schools were what everyone else was supposed to do, but not him. That's the problem with moving to a neighborhood school assignment system - it only works if it is the ONE school you want your kid to attend (I didn't want my neighborhood school, and opted for a different neighborhood school nearby.)

    I also concur that while maybe in the past 'working the system' was possible, it no longer is. In the end, it's fairer for everyone and I'm glad SFUSD has been strict about holding to the assignment process they laid out (recognizing there are still improvements that can/need to be made.)

  24. When I was the fundraising chair of our coop preschool a friend who's kids were at one of the most coveted private schools let me know that they REALLY liked parents who came with fundraising skills and that it would be a big plus to get into the school. I didn't apply (couldn't begin to afford the $20K+ per kid) but always thought in the back of my mind that maybe I could leverage that experience somewhere sometime in the future! (as it is, I just put it to good use at our public school.)

  25. Your fundraising prowess may also help your child get into a charter school (whose admissions decisions are somewhat nebulous). A friend's child was accepted off the waiting list to CACS shortly after s/he wrote them that s/he solicited the largest number of auction donations for the preschool the child currently attended and hoped to similarly help CACS.

  26. Just to add another anecdote, we were accepted to CACS off the waitlist as well, and fairly early on (I think about 2 weeks after we got our other assignment). We had no fundraising expertise and submitted a very basic application.

  27. What does it even mean to say "connections are important?" And is that a bad thing?

    For example: I know many, many people who have gone through this process and ended up at private school and started out with absolutely no connection. But they MADE connections along the way. In other words, they connected with the admissions directors and they showed along the way how they are a great family with a wonderful child.

    Meanwhile, these families were well known at their preschool because the parents were always involved, helping with fundraisers and events and attending parent organization meetings. And their chldren are well known because they are sociable, bright and friendly.

    So they get in! Was this because of connections?

    Sure, sure, there are numerous extremely wealthy and famous people in this city. We all hear stories about how, for example, the owners of certain restaurants, or fashion designers, or authors, or hedge fund owners were courted by every private school. But the private schools contain numerous people that don't fit into any of those categories. There just aren't enough!

    So there has to be room for regular working stiffs like Kate and Ryan (and me and my husband!) with great kids like Alice (and like ours :)

    Let's see what happens in March!

  28. At our preschool which leans heavily private, no one has been able to get into MCDS for the past 10 years or so even though the parents are highly active, serve on the board, fundraise lots, etc. I have to believe it's the lack of connections with MCDS that's the cause - many families go on to other very exclusive privates. The common course of action if you want to get into a private school is to immediately find someone at the school who will write a letter to vouch for you, especially if it is for your first-choice private school. However, there is a tacit expectation that you must accept an offer of admittance if you pull this string.

  29. I'm the anonymous two posts above, and yes, I actually wasn't including MCDS into my discussion, because I actually don't know anyone who sends their kids there who isn't supremely connected, incredibly wealthy or a legacy. My statements apply to all of the other privates, though, at least as far as I've seen.

  30. ... but, I hope that Kate proves to be an exception to that rule!

  31. I'm sure Kate is savvy enough to have her bases covered as should anyone who is seriously considering private schools. At least she says as much in her post...

  32. I guess so. But I would be pretty disappointed if Live Oak shares that quality with MCDS. They just seemed like very different schools to me.

  33. " You'll get an extra run through the computer before your (likely) non-assignment. Then, in the wait pool, after priorities #1-4 (medical, employee, hardship, sibling), you'll be right after "#5'"

    Reread the SFUSD application guide. If you listed less than 7 schools, you're in a waitlist priority group *after* the folks who listed 7 but didn't get any of them. So this method is unlikely to work at e.g. Rooftop, where there'll be a long waitlist of none-of-the-seven.

    If you want to game the system in this way, then the best way would be to list the 6 most popular schools after your first choice. But to me, that's just wasting most of your application. There are schools just as good as Rooftop, etc. out there, but with less buzz.

    You'll find the problem not to be "how can I get into the one" but "how do I narrow the choices to just seven".

  34. That is what I said: you'll be right after #5 (listed 7, got none), which is #6 (listed 1, got none). If you list 7, you will likely get 1, thereby putting you at #7 if you go wait pool. But hey, I'm just having fun with statistics at this point. I repeat: I do not recommend this strategy.

  35. I have heard of a couple of kids getting into MCDS without connections, but the only ones I know of were diversity candidates. I don't know if it's deserved but the school does have a reputation for requiring a fair amount of lobbying, including use of connections. People get very jacked up about applying there because of this. Perhaps it's inevitable given how popular it is had how few spots it has.

    My impression is that short of being incredibly wealthy or an obviously very qualified diversity candidate, it's very hard to feel super confident about getting in there. But maybe I'm being too negative.

    Good news though is that there are a lot of excellent schools in SF and many kids (and parents) do great at them. I wouldn't fall too much in love with one school, public or private, given the realities of admission in SF.

  36. One thing that hasn't come up too much yet is the role of the preschool directors in private school admissions. Some of the preschools are very closely connected to the private schools and the admissions directors work closely with the preschool.

  37. last year a non-diverse (i.e., white, relatively well-off) girl got into mcds and i was never particularly impressed with her. i guess it depends on the pool of children you're competing with. but she is being raised by a single parent so that may have helped her.

  38. Having a single parent makes you a "diversity" candidate.

  39. On MCDS, they allocate half the slots to SF families (the other half to Marin) so getting in while living in SF is actually easier, since many don't apply due to the bridge.

    With regards to letters of recommendation, they should never be referred to as such. Instead, we consider them "letters of introduction." It is normal to have 2 maybe 3 of them (more discouraged) with the statement that they sender knows the family, and hopefully the child, applying and that the family would be a good member of the school's community.

    They do have some benefit. They are not the sole criteria of course.
    They also show a level of seriousness and understanding of the school.

    They are not required though, and I would be not upset if I didn't have any.

    With regards to promises of future financial support, at many schools an overt offer would automatically disqualify the applicant. There are more subtle ways of suggesting such perhaps, but don't be overt about it.