Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hot topic: High school enrollment

This from a reader:

Would you start a thread for a discussion of high school admissions?


  1. My kid is heading into the 8th grade next year, so we start this process. We will be likely be benefiting from CTIP 1 status (didn't ask for this favorable treatment at all, it just happened; I was expecting the old lottery to persist at this level.) Therefore I am less worried about "can my kid get in" then about which schools to pick.

    Specifically, I would love to hear from families that chose Balboa over Lowell or Lincoln; anything about teacher quality at Lowell, which I hear to be hit or miss, and is it a pressure-cooker focus on grades; teacher quality at Lincoln--we've heard a lot about the excellent science program but not the other departments; and anything at ALL about Galileo or Wallenberg. I know Washington is supposed to be fine, but it may be a too far to trek over there.


  2. When you say choose Balboa or Lincoln over Lowell, do you mean, deciding not to apply to Lowell at all? They way HS enrollment works, you have to apply to Lowell on the same form as with all the other HS you are interested in. You don't get more than one offer. If your are selected for Lowell, and you put if first, you will be offered it. You will never know if you also could have been considered for Lincoln or Balboa. It is different with SOTA though. You can apply for Lowell, the other Gen Ed schools and also apply to SOTA for the arts. Kids who audition at SOTA will get an offer before the general assignment letters come out. We have friends who did get in to both Lowell and SOTA, therefore they could choose between more than one public HS.

    I would say that Lincoln, Balboa and Washington are really great schools. Galileo is a good bet too. Wallenberg is smaller, but more people will probably start looking at it. And don't forget Gateway.

  3. This is 1:23 again. Thanks for the response.

    We have friends whose kids are thriving at Gateway, but it wouldn't be a good fit for my kid.

    Not SOTA either, for different reasons (no serious art interest), although I appreciate your clarification that you can apply to SOTA separately from the others.

    Yes, I did know that you have to apply to Lowell as your first choice if you choose to apply at all, but it is good to clarify that as well for anyone else.

    My kid is definitely academically inclined (and gifted) but is not a grind. This is a kid who hates jumping through stupid hoops but will gladly write an extra paper, or make a paper extra-long, if the topic warrants it. The classic bright AND spirited child. A joy, and a challenge, and I'm not kidding about either. Spirited enough to make it a challenge to get into private school even if I could afford it (I can't), and spirited enough to be one of those kids who thrives in a large, vibrant, public setting.

    This context is why I ask about Lowell versus Balboa and Lincoln. We're not sure if Lowell would be the right fit if the teachers are not all that great, and if the atmosphere is nose to the grindstone. My kid's greatest successes have been with the creative teachers who recognized the spark and were willing to extend the lessons way beyond, while easing up on worksheets and spelling lessons. Math probably demands a certain amount of repetition, but fortunately the other subjects have really been taught very creatively and also with rigor.

    We have heard very good things about Lincoln's science program, a path that even leads to college-level work at the upper levels, the international competitions and so forth. Collaboration with UCSF. Don't know much about the rest of the departments over there.

    I've heard great things about Balboa too, but my kid isn't thrilled about the closed campus, or about the small vocational groupings--prefers more freedom.

    Lowell obviously is filled up with bright kids, but everyone--everyone--I have talked with has had something negative to say about at least a few of the teachers. Although it's great to have intellectual peers, I worry about the teaching issue for my kid in particular. Bad teaching is a real turnoff. I guess that is true for all kids, but some seem to have the ability to be steady about it in a way that I worry my kid would not. So I wonder how pervasive that issue is.

    And I don't know too much about Gal and Wallenberg.

    So the real question is, Lowell or no Lowell. Second question is, how to rank the rest.

    Any insights appreciated! Thanks in advance.

  4. Hi its me again. We were in the same boat as you. Our child wanted to put Lowell first. Second choice was Balboa, then Lincoln, Washington, SOTA (regular academic program - take a look at it), Gal and we finished with Wallenberg. We got Lowell.

    It is my perspective that you are going to have some great teachers wherever you go, and some less then great teachers, even at the best schools. I was concerned about Lowell's rep as an intense school etc. and I will be monitoring that over the next 4 years.

    I was at Lowell the other afternoon, and I must tell you it was so lovely to some many kids active in a variety of afterschool activities. I LOVED Balboa and felt it was the right school to put down as our second choice, should we not get into Lowell.

    I even confirmed with PPS and EPC that in actuality putting Balboa second was really our first choice, since Lowell goes through a different selection process. I guess it is for expediency that they have parents put Lowell on the same application as the other schools.

  5. Can someone tell me what it is like in High school in SF?

    Are there football teams and basketball teams? My son is on target to be 7 feet tall. Do they have afterschool practice? Are the athletic teams competitive? Do they have pep rallies and school dances?

    For some reason - I have this idea in my head that the high schools are somewhat different than those in the burbs. Is it true?

  6. "So the real question is, Lowell or no Lowell."

    I think you answered your own question.

  7. Really interesting question about sports at SF high schools. Would like to hear more.

  8. "So the real question is, Lowell or no Lowell."

    I think you answered your own question.

    No, I don't think I did! This has been a topic of conversation both with the 7th grader and between the parents for some months, and everyone has gone back and forth on the Lowell or no Lowell question. (You can't help but pay attention to this issue because Lowell admissions depends in part on grades in 7th grade.)

    The positives for Lowell are intellectual peers, lots of freedom to pick and choose classes, lots of great classes on offer and extra-curriculars, and some good sports teams (oh yeah, forgot to mention the sports interest).

    The negatives (we have heard) are serious though too, especially for this child: uncreative, phone-it-in teaching, particularly in the math department. And a grade-competitive school culture that is about grinding away at the books.

    I would love to hear any honest assessments about this! I'm not expecting you to make our decision, but I would love to hear a deeper view, if that makes sense.

    Even if we did put Lowell first, we would want to have a reasonably ordered list to follow--and if we didn't put Lowell first, then the list is of course very important. I know people at Balboa and at Lincoln who love their schools; this is not about yay or nay but more about which of the remaining schools would be the better fit for my child.

  9. Regarding sports, the answer is yes!

    For more on middle and high school sports, check out the school sports page:

    Middle school has basic sports like volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball, baseball, track. Depending on the school, high school adds additional sports such as football, swimming, tennis, badminton, fencing, golf.

    Schedules are listed on that website. I strongly suggest attending some of the games to see what they are like! I have always thought, traveling around the world, that attending sports and theater events is the best way to get to know a culture. Same with the schools. The citywide track meets will be happening in a month or so, always a very fun place to be.

  10. If you have a child who is in the mix to make the Lowell cut, you do have to first decide: Lowell or no Lowell. Because once you put Lowell, you have made it your first choice. You can't list it third or fourth, only first.

  11. I went to Lowell - I graduated 10 years ago, though, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think I may be somewhat like your kid (I've heard the word "spirited" more than once), so I hope this is helpful.

    First, on the teachers - I agree that any environment will have some good teachers and some, well, less so, but on balance, I'd say my teachers were great. The teachers tend to want to be there, which obviously helps. When I reflect back, I can only think of one or two teachers I didn't really like, and far more that I would consider excellent, even inspirational.

    As for your kid not being a grind, that's absolutely not in conflict with enjoying Lowell. The best part of my experience there was just how dynamic and active the student body was. There were something like 60+ clubs (which was a constantly growing number), a large student government that planned over a dozen dances each year, the most sports teams of any school in the district, etc. The students were passionate and driven, so they really made things happen.

    My freshman and senior years were great - I just really had a great time. My sophomore and junior years were harder - I worked really hard, probably didn't sleep enough, etc. I still had a great experience, I was still happy there, but I definitely felt somewhat more of that "pressure cooker". That said, I made an informed choice to put myself in that position - taking nearly as many honors/AP classes as possible while being heavily involved in a few time-consuming extracurricular activities. Ultimately, my assessment was that the kids who felt a lot of pressure were either 1) children whose parents put a lot of pressure on them, or 2) children who put a lot of pressure on themselves. They would have felt pressure no matter where they went. The pressure wasn’t coming from their peers, nor from their teachers – it wasn’t coming from being at Lowell.

    One important difference between me and your child is that I don’t particularly mind jumping through hoops. I mind being put into a box, or being limited, but I’m ok with doing my best on a dumb assignment if it serves my goals. I’m not saying that Lowell requires more or less hoops than anywhere else, just that I might not have noticed one way or the other, and that my experience might not be reflective of your child’s. My brother, who also went to Lowell, was also not a big fan of hoops as a teenager, and I think he had a good experience there. That said, I think I fulfilled my potential in high school more fully than he did, but who knows why that was – he’s since more than made up for it.

    Anyway, I obviously would recommend seriously considering it, particularly for a kid that would thrive on really getting involved in an active community. I expect that your kid will have a gut instinct about whether it’s the right fit for him or her in particular.

  12. 6:17--it's me again (Lowell or no Lowell)--many thanks for the reflection. This is the kind of thing I am looking for, and I appreciate your taking the time! I will be sharing this with my kid for sure.

  13. I am the poster whose kid just go into Lowell. We visited Balboa twice, and we just loved it. It is a different school from Lincoln. In certain was, Lincoln is more like Lowell, and Balboa is more kind of regular HS, with an amazing Principal and support staff. We thought some of their pathways were just grand. I thought they were more interesting then the ones at Lincoln. So I think it comes down to would your child thrive in an up and coming school that has a lot of moxy, or a tried but true school like Lincoln, with really nicely upgraded facilities and some killer science classes. And then of course their is Lowell. I must say it does blow them all out of the water. Different league entirely. Having said that, my heart still belongs to Balboa!

  14. Thanks for all these comments! As a parent of a 7th grade boy, we are having all the same comments. Keep it coming!

    I heard that there were a lot of kids who ended up unhappily at Burton, Mission and O'connel from the west side. Any ideas if this is different or same as past years?

  15. Yes, please keep the comments coming, from current high school parents and also students and alums! It is so hard to get qualitative information about these schools. I happen to know several (fabulous) teachers at Mission High, but otherwise I'm going on a few comments of parents a few years ahead of us, whom I know from elementary or social events, etc. My kid seems very locked into her grade level peers, so that isn't a big help. And most of them seem to be older children or only children, as she is (not sure why).

    I would love to hear more, anything really, from the inside at Galileo--a school whose test scores have been on the rise for a few years now.

    And Balboa--please tell us more about how those pathways work. And also what makes people say they really "heart" Balboa? I hear that a lot, but haven't been able to figure out why. I mean, I believe it, just would love to hear more.

    More on Lincoln--is the science as good as they say? What about the other subjects? It seems to be a decent, well-rounded high school. Am I missing something?

    Ditto Washington....

    Is Wallenberg on its way back up? What is its special "thing"?

    Any other place we should be considering?

    Thanks so much!

  16. "More on Lincoln--is the science as good as they say?"

    Well, a team from Lincoln went to a competition on synthetic biology and kicked the butt of teams from Harvard, MIT, and the University of Cambridge:

    Yeah, it's pretty freakin' good.

  17. "Middle school has basic sports like volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball, baseball, track. Depending on the school, high school adds additional sports such as football, swimming, tennis, badminton, fencing, golf."

    To the high school level add wrestling, cross-country, gymnastics, spirit squad.

  18. Not a high school parent, didn't go to any of the schools mentioned, BUT: You didn't say if your kid is a girl or boy. I say it's important to send a smart, iconoclastic girl with good analytic capacities to a school with a strong science program that isn't dominated by boys. If either Lowell or Lincoln are that school, and my daughter hadn't developed a complete aversion to science already, I'd send her. Why, says this humanities teacher? Because girls get tracked out of science, losing that entire side of their education and cognitive development, as well as the confidence that they are analytically smart and as well as creative. At the UC where I teach, it's the girls with strong science interests who are the most active in class.

    The other important thing to pay attention to, for both sexes, is writing: do they teach it systematically (not just grammar but style, rhetoric, argumentation, etc.)? How much of it do students do, and are they asked to revise? Are research protocols (primary/secondary sources, scholarly library and database searches, note-taking, citation) taught? Is creative writing part of the curriculum? I am flabbergasted by how many of my lower-division college students claim that they have never written a long paper (> 5 pages) using outside sources, or can only write canned 5-paragraph essays.

    Not that that helps shed light on individual SF high schools, I realize. But it might be food for thought as you look at school curriculae with college success in mind.

  19. How abot girl's sports? I am hearing that there are few if any girl's soccer teams in middle school/high school?

  20. Hi again. I am now a HS search veteran. The HS have both evening open houses and several also give tours during the day. Last year we went on a tour with the Principal of Lincoln - he was great-very engaged ,upbeat and confident. In my impression it is a solid school. The issue is, can you get in. I think it is a crap shoot, becuase of siblings, and the fact the Principal made it clear that they were trying to make the school somewhat smaller in population size. I think putting this school as number one is like putting one of the uber-trophy schools as number one.

    You may have a better chance at Wash, as we call it (we are a Presidio MS). This school is solid too, maybe a little bit more worn around the edges, but the Principal is also really strong, and gunh-ho. I was impressed with the chairs of their foreign language and history depts.

    Galileo has had a serious facility upgrade and their visual and performing arts classes seem pretty amazing. I didn't get as great a feel for the core academics compared to Lincoln and Wash.

    Balboa may be more in the category of Galileo, but add the very dynamic Principal, the astonishing array of afterschool clubs/programs and I think the best pathway courses in the City, and I think you have a REALLY great HS.

    I didn't check out Wallendberg myself, but I would certainly put it on your radar school. It is a smaller school, so that is a plus, but I don't know about its other stregnths. I would venture to guess that alot of kids who may not have gotten into Lincoln/Wash and didn't make the Lowell cut end up here. So I would think that their is a solid group of kids at the school.

    And then comes Lowell, which makes you want to cry that there is such an amazing PUBLIC HS like it. Truly it is a cut above the others.

    To further engage HS kids, to help them figure out what career they may want to pursue (either after college or finishing HS), each HS has created 3 or 4 pathways. Ususally it is in the uppergrades that you can take classes - in law, bio sciences, environmental sciences, etc... Definitely check out these course offerings when learning about the different schools.

  21. Thanks, 11:05, for the synopses! Very helpful.

  22. 8:32, I appreciate your comment about girls and science. I'm a humanities person myself, and female, but with a growing appreciation for the rigor of scientific study and its importance for girls.

    Re writing. I'm a writer myself, so I do look for this. I'm glad to say that much of what you mentioned--specific forms of argumentation, style, rhetoric; and research protocols, including internet and book sources and which forms of internet are/are not appropriate, as well as citation, note-taking, revision, and length of more than 20 pp for the term papers--these are being taught in my child's honors classes in MIDDLE school. I'm thinking specifically of language arts and social studies. Language arts has also including creative writing, including poetry. Science writing has primarily been lab reports, although 6th grade science included writing a biography of a scientist or environmentalist--the question was, did that person make a difference to the world, and how? Which I suppose is technically history of science. There has been at least one persuasive essay assigned on a controversial topic (GMOs) in 7th.

    I certainly hope they keep up the focus on good writing in high school--and will be looking for that.

  23. Re girls' sports: by law they have to offer equivalent opportunities. Thank you, Title IX!

    At the high school level there is girls' soccer. I believe at middle school the soccer teams are mixed, and each team must recruit a certain # or % of girls. Other middle school teams are not mixed (basketball, volleyball, softball/baseball). The track teams are mixed, but events are run by gender.

    In high school, fencing and swimming are co-ed too, but with girls' and and boys' events within them. Then there are specifically girls' teams for softball, volleyball, basketball, golf.

    Not sure I got everything. If you are thinking of a particular sport, you should definitely check out the cifsf website or ask at the school.

  24. Veterans of the process: Does it help to list your number one school seven times or do we have to put down seven different schools on our list? Thanks.

  25. I'm not personally qualified to answer the questions about sports, because my kids attend/ed SOTA, which has no sports teams. But I still wanted to mention that some of our friends have been very involved in sports at other SFUSD high schools, particularly one girl who was deeply involved in Lowell basketball. The parents were every bit as engaged in following (obsessing with) the exciting round of competitions as any male football star's mom and dad.

    None of this has touched my life, but my daughter is on SOTA's Mock Trial team, which came in No. 2 in the state of California last weekend! Those competitions were edge-of-the-seat exciting too (more so than sports to my taste).

  26. ...also, re the degree of emphasis on various aspects of writing, I'd say it varies teacher by teacher. SOTA English teacher Keith "Mr. C" Carames is outstanding on mechanics, though some find that intimidating (not his personality at all, just his rigor). Also, may I plug SOTA's Russian teacher, Andy Padlo. The first week of Russian 1, the assignment is to learn a version of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" in Russian, then teach it to someone who's not taking Russian and film them performing it. This year in Russian 2, the classes did a field trip via 38-Geary to the Richmond District, where the teacher had set up a treasure hunt that required the students to go into Russian-owned businesses and ask questions in Russian. (This is a field trip that Walnut Creek schools can't replicated, at least not without coming to the big city.)

  27. What other languages does SOTA offer?

  28. I wouldn't list the same school 7 times. There are several schools - maybe not quite 7 - maybe 6 that are really pretty darned good (Lowell included).

  29. I wouldn't list the same school 7 times. There are several schools - maybe not quite 7 - maybe 6 that are really pretty darned good (Lowell included).

  30. SOTA currently offers Mandarin, Spanish, Italian and French. One of them may be a victim of the cuts, though, hopefully temporarily!

  31. It would be silly to list the same school 7 times as it wouldn't help you get that school. And there are a half-dozen quite good schools that are probably much preferable to some of the ones that just made the failed-school list I'm sorry, I am not trying to dis them, and I know teachers at several who are amazing, and great kids too, but the fact is that a significant proportion of that list was high schools, and they will be going through yet more changes because of making that list. In other words, if you don't want to be sent to those schools, you would be wise to list some others, such as those that have been mentioned here already.

    It's unfortunate that there is so much an east-west chasm at the high school level here. Much more than elementary. However, it has been good to see schools like Balboa and Galileo join the ranks of improving and even successful.

  32. I'm a sophomore at Balboa now and I know Bal was the right school for me to choose. Balboa's old reputation as a "tough school" doesn't fit the school today.

    At Bal, the class size is still relativly low, which means that the teachers have more time to concentrate on each student. They notice if a student is falling behind and offer tutoring before and after school and at lunchtime if someone needs the extra help. I really liked my freshman geometry, sophmore modern world classes.

    Several of our sports teams are competitive as well. Last year, J.V. baseball and girls and boys volleyball made it to the championships. This year, the cheer team won a first in dance and a first in cheer at the All-City competition. Bal has less students than many of the other SF high schools, so it seems easier to join the sports teams, and kids can get more playing time. Even though we are a smaller school than Lowell, Washington, Lincoln, we still hold our own against them in sports.

    In our junior year we have a choice between four pathways. (LAW, CAST, WALC, or AOIT) While I don't know too much about the details of each pathway yet(we have a pathways assembly next month where we learn more about each one and choose), I know that CAST concentrates more on graphics, visual, media and arts, WALC is based around the enviromental science and the outdoors, LAW focuses on social and legal justice issues and AOIT's concentration is on computer science and information technology.

    I know that at some schools it is hard to fit in and make friends, but I have found that Bal has tons of clubs and teams to join. The clubs and teams are the chance to bond with your fellow members/teamates and make good friends.

    Bal does have a closed campus, which means freshman and sophmores can't leave during lunchtime and we have to eat lunch on school grounds, either the quad, the cafeteria, the football field or in a classroom. Juniors and seniors with at least a 2.0 can leave for lunch.

    Overall, Bal is a good enviroment for learning. The classes can be challenging, but I haven't felt like I am are drowning in homework. There isn't overwhelming pressure, so students can grow and improve.

  33. Thank you so much, Bal student! I appreciate your input and so will my middle-schooler.

  34. I don't think anyone mentioned shadow visits yet? To me, the best way to get a feel for the elusive thing called "school culture" is to attend a morning, afternoon, or whole day with a current student - that way, the prospective student can be immersed for that short time and begin to see themselves there, or not. Of course, it is only a partial view - a few classes, a few teachers & classroom environments - but I think it's a great way to refine your list.
    For what it's worth, my daughter felt Lowell students were less likely to participate in class than students in some other schools she visited, but were very attentive.
    I agree that it sounds like it could go either way with your son at Lowell - so I really think he might get a good sense of whether it's for him while shadowing.

  35. Do they all offer shadowing? Are they mostly full-day or half-day? And how do the middle schools handle the absences--I assume they are excused, but that seems like a lot of absences if everyone does this (especially in the honors classes where so many are aiming for the same schools and the students are very engaged in the process).


  36. Yes, they all offer shadowing as far as I know. Usually it is from the beginning of the school day until lunch. Middle schools do excuse this, but of course the student is responsible for catching up on whatever s/he missed. My daughter only shadowed at 3 schools - I figured if she got assigned to a less popular public high school, we could arrange a last-minute shadow visit to see whether it could work or not. But the "over-subscribed" schools can be very rigid about visits, and do not go out of their system. Lowell and Lincoln, for example, I would contact in October about arranging visits (verify the timing, but Lincoln, I know, can run out of slots.)
    Good luck! Your son sounds live a vibrant personality and will most likely create his own fun wherever he goes : )

  37. I hear Balboa is now very hard to get into to, does anyone know how the lottery system will work in the Fall? Thanks!

  38. 11:04, it will be citywide lottery at the high school level, with some amount of seats (20%?) reserved in at least the first round for students from CTIP 1 areas (census tracts with the lowest 20% of academic performance--as a whole, correlates with high poverty--mainly this is the Inner Mission, Bayview/Hunters Point, Sunnydale, Western Addition).

    So, Lincoln, Washington, Balboa and Galileo will continue to be hard to get into, unless you are from one of those neighborhoods. The longer the list, the more likely you get something.

  39. I saw a couple of SOTA kids I know on the Mission High track team at the Kezar meet last week. They both did really well (won their events!)

    Can SOTA kids join other schools' sports teams?

  40. I seriously doubt that w/o school bus transportation many impoverished students from the Inner Mission, Bayview/Hunters Point, Sunnydale, and Western Addition would bother applying to Lincoln, Washington, Balboa or Galileo (assuming they even got their applications in on time for R1 in the 1st place).

  41. Yes, students at a sfusd high school (or middle school) can try out for sports teams at other high schools if their high school/middle school doesn't have that team sport. There are forms to be filled out, but it allows students at a school like SOTA to participate in sports since their school doesn't have any sports programs.

  42. Balboa is VERY close to an impoverished area, which was why not many folks from other parts of town would go that way. Now that has changed!

  43. Hello to the first poster

    I went to a special meeting at Lowell the other night for incoming freshman. We were able to meet with the Dept Heads, the Counseling staff and hear from the head of the Peer Mentoring program. Incoming freshman will be matched with an upperclassman peer for their first year to help them acclimate. The meeting was a time to talk about the assessments that take place for Math and language prior to the start of the school year to make sure students are assigned to the class that is the best fit for them. Students aren't assessed for honors English until the Fall semester. I am feeling better about Lowell in that I feel that the administration does care about the students wellbeing.