Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Hot topic: Strategies for Attacking the Kindergarten Application Year

An SF K Files visitor asked me to post the following:
There are so many public and independent schools throughout the Bay Area. Is it advisable to start touring two years before you would be applying for kindergarten for your child? If so, it seems like all you can do in a year you are not applying is visit Open Houses. Are these worth it? What do you learn on an Open House versus a Tour?


  1. You can tour a year before! All you do is call the school to set up the tour, and show up. It's an easy way to get a feel for the school, particularly if you're not rushing to schedule scads of them into your life during one brief touring season.

  2. In hindsight, I think tours were misleading. My impressions were based on such superficial factors -- the enthusiasm of the parent leading the tour, what the kids in class are doing for the three minutes I was watching, how friendly the principal was.

    Open houses were better, but realistically most people just don't have time to visit all their school options.

    I suppose a superficial impression is better than none, but I like the advice in Adam's Spreadsheet -- find a few schools that work for you logistically (start time, on your commute path, after-school care available, enrichment activities you like, etc.). Don't even bother with the schools that get 20 applicants per spot unless you have a solid backup plan. You can then visit your top 2 or 3 choices just to make sure nothing stands out as a dealbreaker.

    Then remember it's all a lottery. You're probably not going to get your #1 pick in the first round, so relax and know that there's a lot of movement in the waitpools all the way thru summer and into school starting next year.

  3. I don't know much about access to private school tours/open houses. However, I can say that the public school tours and open houses are open to parents who wish to tour a year early. In some cases, you may have to call ahead to register for them. More information will be coming out in October--I would start with the PPS website for consolidated information, but you may have to call the individual schools too. Contact info is available on the website.

    The first thing I would schedule on your calendar is the big school fair--again, info on the PPS website. Try to go to this, if you can, without your 3/4 year-old kid. It is big and loud and a perfect place for a young child to melt down into a screaming tantrum. It is also great, however, as a one-stop introduction to a variety of schools. You can talk to parents and principals, and pick up literature, and look at photo displays. I know several families who were swayed by this event to check out schools they had never heard of before.

    If I were a parent of a child set to enter in two years, I would take this year to check out some off-the-radar schools. The really popular schools, like Clarendon and Rooftop and Miraloma and Lilienthal, have HUGE tours of herded parents. Better to tour in a smaller and more intimate setting first and get a sense of what your questions are in actual conversation with people who are there. It will also help you determine a strategy for the lottery the following year. I see two main strategies, that require two different kinds of parental courage:

    One, if you have your heart set on one of the more popular schools, is to apply only to those, hope to be one of the lucky 5% in R1 in being one of the 40 out of 800 applicants, or likely failing that, have the nerves and guts of steel to stick it out through R2 and probably the whole summer through the 10-day (or 3-day) count. You can see from another thread here that several families have heard good news from schools like Miraloma, Clarendon, Alvarado. As folks in those large, large waitpools start making tuition payments to private schools, or leave town, etc., those with the fortitude to hang in there may very well (no guarantees though) get the good news call in September.

    A second strategy is to find a few schools that are not oversubscribed, and put them on your list. Basically, find the ones that have energy, but not so many middle-class or upper-middle-class kids (% free lunch qualification is inversely correlated with popularity--it's not actually that simple, but it works as shorthand). This might require some parental courage to overcome the idea that your kid can't learn well in a school with working class kids who may not look or sound like your kid. My thing is that not all schools that are under-subbed are the same, so it is well worth looking for the ones that have the energy and movement in this category. This is a great task for a year out from applying.

  4. Re my Strategy #2, finding not-so-popular schools to check out, here are some ideas. This list is hardly exhaustive, and some are more popular than others. Just my suggestions about where to start.

    North side of town:

    Rosa Parks JBBP. Great parent base, diversity, grant money, energy. Nice location that brings together several cultures and is on a major commute route.

    William Cobb. Growing Montessori program.

    Redding. Off the radar, but sweet school, diverse, decent test scores, not far from downtown so accessible for school events during the day.

    Parker/Spring Valley/Yick Wo. Chinatown/Russian Hill Schools have excellent test scores, and may be accessible to non-free-lunch families. Yick Wo has bus service from Bernal & Mission.

    Southeast side of town:

    Daniel Webster. Active parents, Spanish Immersion, great location for Mission/Potrero/SOMA. This will be a rising school, fast. Greening and new paint look great.

    Marshall. Already on the bubble in terms of spots vs. apps, but a good option if you are committed to language immersion, if you are English speaking and non-free-lunch qualified. Active parents, neighborhood in transition, community involvement. Near BART. I have seen non-working class, anglo parents not apply there because it is heavily Latino and working class (and test scores reflect the demographics), and the neighborhood isn't exactly Noe Valley or Laurel Heights, but if you are willing to brave being in the definite minority, your kids can do fine and be bilingual. A sweet community that inside is a lovely, protected space.

    Moscone. Again, not a significant anglo population, but excellent test scores and good leadership, new school building. A place for those kids who would thrive in more structure.

    ER Taylor. Same as Moscone. Both of these fill up in R1, but if you are not-poor, you would have a shot.

    Paul Revere. In transition, K-8, SI program, nice old building if you like those aesthetics, great location for Bernal families, lots of Title 1 money to play with over there. Committed to immersion? I would absolutely check it out.

    Southwest side of town:

    Glen Park. Not over-subbed yet, great location for families in several neighborhoods (Glen Park, Bernal, Noe, Excelsior, Miraloma), and on BART/280. Rap has been a difficult, old-school principal who has been resistant to parent efforts--but there will be a transition there soon. There is a group of Glen Park co-op parents giving it a try this year.

    Sunnyside. Already over-subbed, but not wildly. Small neighborhood school with active parents. Accessible to 280.

    Jose Ortega. MI program is popular, but also check out their up-and-coming GE program. A very sweet school with test scores rising rapidly. Accessible to the Peninsula and SF State, SW neighborhoods, 280.

    West side of town.

    Notoriously difficult location--very popluar schools. Peabody is one that has been less over-subbed, and I'd look at Lafayette too.

    Center of town

    Harvey Milk. Also a bubble school--gets filled in R1 or just after--but definitely better odds than nearby Alvarado & Rooftop. Diverse school with a strong emphasis on teaching how to live in diversity. I know several happy families there. One that I would say is LGBT-friendly along with Alvarado (and others I'm sure, but these are ones I know that have intentional welcome).

  5. Oh--in central SF I forgot to add DeAvila Chinese immersion as a better-odds school this year. I guarantee you it will be very, very popular over time, but this year and maybe next the odds will be better than most CI schools because there are not so many older siblings who are guaranteed spots. Therefore your odds as a first-time applicant are higher.

  6. I have a comment as a veteran parent (one class of '09 graduate, one high-school sophomore). Back when we started, we heard wisdom along the lines of "there's one right school for your child, and you'll know it when you see it." And I still hear that sentiment being passed on to younger parents.

    You know what -- I really don't think that's accurate. Of course there may be some settings in which a kid does better than others, but most kids can thrive in many different settings.

    One view that we had that I think was correct: Our son would not have adapted well to a rigid, controlled, desks-in-a-row-type setting. On the other hand -- well, my husband was worse about this than I was, but he was absolutely convinced that only ONE school would do for our kid -- it happened to be Lakeshore. And our kids WERE happy and successful at Lakeshore, but now I realize we were being ridiculously narrow-minded.

    So from the perspective of experience, I'm debunking the notion that only one school will do for your child.

  7. Yes, it is advisable to start researching 2 years before applying to K, especially if you are interested in public AND private. I got to know the public school system and did a few tours 2 years in advance. Start the private school tours and open houses 1 year in advance (which is how they prefer it anyway). I'm applying for K 2010 and am so glad I started the public research 2 years ago. It really helps decrease the overwhelming feeling of it all.

  8. Do tour a year early. We did most of our public elementary tours a year in advance, and were more focused in the year of the application.

  9. I feel like I keep saying this, and I apologize in advance if I sound like a broken record, but remember that the school board will vote a new assignment policy in place ahead of the 2011-12 enrollment season. So those whose children are scheduled to start school in Sept. 2011 will be following different enrollment rules and procedures next year.

  10. Good point, Rachel, and thank you for the reminder.

    I still think it is worthwhile for prospective parents for 2011 to learn more about under-the-radar schools, especially those in their nearby geographical swath. No, we don't know what the system will be, or whether it will allow district-wide parental preference or limit preference to geographical areas, a la Berkeley. But it certainly can't hurt you to know something real about your local, under-the-radar school. In any case, seeing it will give you some perspective in any system.

    I think we all need to understand that in the new system, parents will still be trying frantically to get their kids into Rooftop or whatever is the "popular" school in their new landscape, whether that landscape is more limited or not--the point is that no assignment system can possibly eliminate the problem of perceived scarcity of desirable spots! It can only move the chess pieces around. So having a leg up on a greater number of decent options, especially ones in your neighborhood if geography comes into play, will be important in any case. Of course, if they end up with cross-town neighborhood pairings this won't help as we don't know yet what these pairings might be.

    I know I sound like a broken record too, but I'd suggest that 2010 and 2011 parents tour the following depending on your location: Cobb, Parks, Redding, Parker, Yick Wo, Webster, Marshall, Moscone, Revere, Taylor, Glen Park, Sunnyside, Longfellow, Ortega, Peabody, Lafayette, De Avila, Milk. Some are more popular than others, but none is yet wildly oversubbed like Rooftop, Clarendon et al.

  11. Hi - I live in the Outer Sunset, and from the outside, the schools in walking distance (Francis Scott Key, Sunset Elementary) seem nice enough...yet nobody ever mentions or even reviews these schools. What makes popular schools so popular? What makes unsung schools so unpopular? I doubt at our neighborhood schools there's violence or crime or anything hideous.

    I'm thinking kindergarten in 2011, and I made such a hash of finding a preschool that I'm trying to get all the advice I can!