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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Choosing an Elementary or Middle School

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Whether your district offers school choice, you are considering private school, or you are house hunting, the fall brings a flurry of school tours. Many ask, “Where do I start?” I have searched for schools several times, and have helped numerous parents to find schools. Here are some basic steps you can take today.

If you are considering transferring from public to private school, this blog article will help.

  • Decide whether you want to consider public, private or both. Consider charter schools, which are independently run public schools.

  • Review important criteria for you, so that you can focus your search and tour evaluations. 

  • Prepare a tour list by soliciting opinions from parents who’ve recently been through the process, followed up by web research. 

  • Research the school assignment process for public schools in your district, including my SFUSD Lottery Strategy article.

Public, Private, or Charter

SFUSD Public Schools

As public schools, SFUSD schools are free and secular. The current system is a choice system with tie breakers, for 160+ school programs. Options include language immersion, general education, and K-8. The curriculum and services defined by Ed Code, state of CA, SFUSD school board, and teachers. Every child in San Francisco is entitled to a school assignment, but not to any one particular school. Special education services are governed by federal and state law, and children under special education are placed under the least restrictive environment. Applicable to some, SFUSD has no gifted program, does not offer Algebra I in middle school, and limits math to grade level before high school. Some parents address this with outside academic programs that supplement curriculum, such as math. Application for public school is currently in-person at the school district.

Charter Schools (Public)

Also public schools, charter schools are free and secular. There are 15+ charter schools in San Francisco, each with its own lottery, most of which allow application online. Children are not entitled to charter school assignment, but they are entitled to be considered without regards to race, religion, or special education needs. Special education services must be provided for children in inclusion classes, but charters are not required to have special education segregated classes. The curriculum and services defined by charter with flexibility within School Board or state of California oversight. Generally, charters follow similar curriculum as SFUSD, without above grade level math, but state approved charters can provide curriculum that the state approves in other CA districts, so it is best to check with each charter about your specific curriculum needs. As of this writing, I have found one charter that offers Algebra I in middle school.

Independent Schools (Private)

As private schools, independent schools charge tuition, typically in the $30-35k range, but a handful in the $14-25k range. Most independent schools offer financial aid based on financial need, and most of those use an independent service to collect your financial information. There are over 120 independent schools, many secular and several religious, but differentiated from the Diocese schools by their independence. Each independent school runs their own application system, typically with tours, open houses, parent essays, parent interviews, and children assessments to determine the fit of the parent and children with the school. Children have no inherent entitlement to a private school acceptance but do have the right to a process that does not discriminate based on their race and certain limited other factors. The curriculum and services set by each school; in general, independent schools have the most flexibility for acceleration and exceptions, but that policy is set by each school. Some but not all independent schools offer Algebra I in 8th grade, and some but not all offer academic acceleration.

Catholic Diocese Schools (Private)

As private schools, Catholic diocese schools charge $8-12k tuition, the number varying a bit among schools, but in general much less expensive than independent schools. Catholic diocese schools offer financial aid based on financial need, and they use a common online service called TADS for the collection of documents. There are over 30 Catholic diocese schools in San Francisco, with their curriculum and services defined by archdiocese. These are separate from the independent Catholic Schools, such as Sacred Heart. Typically, Catholic diocese schools offer Algebra I in 8th grade, and some offer additional academic acceleration. A similar non-Catholic school is Zion Lutheran.

Criteria for School Decisions

There are so many factors, that it can become overwhelming, so I recommend to start, that you and, if you have one, your partner, look at the list and mark each factor with a high, medium, or low for importance. Narrow down the schools for the factual items first, ie the distance from your home and cost are easily calculated, and then look for the intangibles. If you toured a school several years ago, and it met the tangible criteria but felt off, give it another chance as schools evolve over time, as do we as parents. Heads of schools change periodically, and they can change the strategic direction of a school.

  • Location. Will the commute work for your family, with consideration for locations of your home, work and other children’s schools? For those without cars, what are transit options? Is it walkable or bikeable? Does the school offer a bus?

  • Physical Setting. Some schools offer classrooms with more light, on-site playgrounds, a garden, separate bathrooms or playgrounds for kindergarteners, libraries, art rooms, computer labs, cafeterias vs outdoor seating, theaters, and more. Even among public schools, facilities vary, and it’s not necessarily the high income school with the nicer site. Pay attention to each classroom, such as the layout of the desks, artwork on the wall, and the book selection in the classrooms. Look at assignments the children have completed, and see what resonates for you.

  • Community. Does the community feel like a fit? Attend community events, as you see them, especially family events (not fundraisers), to get a better feel. Ask about the PTA or Parent Association. How much funds do they raise, what types of activities do they sponsor, and how could you get involved. What time are meetings, and is this doable with your schedule.

  • Diversity. We all want our children to work with different types of people. So, I looked at all types of diversity - racial, religious, income, family composition and more. Some is available on the school website, but others require more attention to learn about. For public schools, you can see the racial and poverty rates on their SFUSD page. For private schools, some data is also on their website, such as how many children receive financial aid, what types of diversity they value, what types of clubs or committees address diversity, and you can ask more on the school tours. 

  • Hours of Operation. Consider your work hours, your other children’s school hours, and how would drop off work considering the location. Whether you are one parent or two, there are often times when a parent has meetings. Some parents prefer early starts so that they can arrive to work without paying for before care, while other parents prefer late starts because they have flexible work hours. Even if you have one stay at home parent, consider how a parent returning to outside work would affect your decision.

  • Before and Aftercare. Considered with the school hours, extended care hours can be critical for working parents. Consider whether you need to add before care, and if so, how that affects your finances. Ask whether extended care operates on or offsite, what is the cost, and is there any subsidy of financial aid for the program. In terms of capacity, ask whether the program is available to all children in the school, or does the program fill up, and if so, do other programs pick up at the school. For instance, SF Recreation and Parks picks up at many public schools, as do some private programs, such as the JCC, and many of these offer financial aid. At many private schools, drop in extended care can help with occasional needs. Some schools offer Enrichment Programs, which allow your children to try art, engineering, or a sport without your needing to drive them.

  • Finances. Consider, if applicable, tuition and cost of before and aftercare. If you might qualify for financial aid, apply, as most schools are need blind in admissions, even if they don’t have the budget to meet the financial needs of all children.

  • School philosophy. Private schools will often call themselves progressive or traditional. Progressive schools typically offer a hands on curriculum, such as inquiry based vs project based learning. According to Wikipedia, inquiry-based learning starts by posing questions, problems or scenarios in order to develop deeper thinking and problem-solving skills. According to Edutopia, project-based learning involves identifying a real-world problem and developing its solution. Traditional learning may be more worksheet oriented. Policies on differentiation and acceleration also vary.

  • Foreign Language. Foreign language programs can vary from immersion (80% of instruction in the target language) to one-hour weekly, so ask each school and check their website to learn more. The more hours in the language, the more likely the children emerge fluent, but for your family, instruction weekly or a few times a week might meet your needs.

  • Religion. Some parents enjoy religious instruction at their schools, some parents are ambivalent, and others prefer secular. Among religion-based schools, there are varying degrees of religiousness and frequency of the instruction, so tour if you are unsure and would like to learn more.

  • Class size, Teacher/student ratio, Combo Grade Classes. Public schools in SF typically have 22 kids with one teacher in kindergarten thru 3rd grade, and up to 33 in 4th and 5th grade, with combo 4th/5th grade classes at schools where the ratio requires it. Some public school PTA’s pay for class size reduction in 4th/5th grade, and this may or may not result in combo classes. Most independent schools will have an assistant teacher or smaller class size, so that the ratio is much lower throughout the experience, and class size/ratio will vary across Catholic diocese schools. Ask for the class size and number of adults in each classroom if this factor is important to you.

  • Middle School. Public and private schools might be K-5th or K-8th, with 6th-8th in middle school. Public K-5th schools have middle school feeders, and it will be challenging to obtain a non-feeder public school assignment. Private schools in SF might have 5th-8th grade in middle school, or they might have 6th-8th in middle.

  • Special Education. Public and charter schools are required to meet special education needs as set by the federal government and further refined by the state. Private schools are not required to offer services, but some private schools are organized around meeting these needs with more resources than often provided in CA public schools, and other private schools offer some resources in a general population. 

  • Gifted and Advanced Learners. If your child is above grade level, you may want a school that offers acceleration and supplemental learning opportunities. While SFUSD no longer has a gifted program, several private schools in San Francisco are gifted friendly, and, outside of the city, there are a handful of gifted private schools. Ask what is the school’s approach to teaching different levels in the same classroom, as even gifted schools will have a range of abilities. Determine whether they split out into reading or math groups by level, and whether that division is adjusted over time. 

  • Math Curriculum. In SFUSD, Algebra I is taught in 9th grade, and students who would like to take Calculus in high school can double up or take a compression class. Many private schools offer Algebra I in 8th grade, and a handful earlier. This choice is personal to a family and their child.

  • Test Scores, aka Great School Ratings. While tests scores (the main determinant of Great School ratings) seem important, they are highly correlated with parental income, education, and English. Great Schools penalizes schools with subgroups that underperform, which sounds great at first, until you find out that schools with under ten children per grade per group do not split out the results for the subgroup because of privacy concerns. Meaning, a school without much diversity, ie with 9 kids per grade per underperforming subgroup, will not be judged downward, even if the subgroup is underperforming. Whereas a school that is one-third of the underperforming group may have the same scores but is judged anti-diversity despite being higher diversity.

  • Past Experiences, Hopes, and Fears. Our own experiences as children affect what we want for our children. If we loved our schooling, we seek similar experiences for our children, whereas if we had an unhappy schooling, we seek a different experience. If two parents had different backgrounds (say public vs private school), this can raise differences in expectations. Understanding our own hopes and fears can help us better assess schools more analytically.


SFUSD Public Schools

Charter Schools

Private Schools

Need more help?

Vicky consults with families to help select public and private schools in San Francisco. Email to learn more about her services.

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