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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Middle School Already?

Updated: Jan 25, 2020

As kids approach upper elementary school, parents often turn their thoughts to middle school. Maybe you don’t love your feeder middle school, maybe a smaller class size, or maybe an alternative math pathway. Whatever your reasons, there are many options for middle school in San Francisco.

SFUSD Public Schools

All SFUSD public elementary schools have a feeder middle school. Except for K-8’s, the middle school feeder is not automatic nor guaranteed, but most children can get acceptance to their feeder, the huge majority in round 1, and the remainder over the summer. Language pathways also have feeders, and while not guaranteed, due to attrition, again, the assignment should be satisfactory, if not in round 1, then by the end of the summer. Due to the feeder system, it is highly unlikely to obtain an assignment at a popular non-feeder middle school, so be open minded to your own feeder. You must apply for middle school, and you may turn your application into your child’s SFUSD middle school.

This school year, three middle schools are piloting a new middle school curriculum that includes a block schedule and more time for electives. This curriculum will be rolled out to other SFUSD middle schools for the 2020-21 school year. Applicable to some, SFUSD does not offer Algebra I in middle school as they believe in waiting for high school to offer math acceleration pathways. Some parents address this with outside academic programs, such as online math. If you go this route, and your child takes a UC-approved Algebra I, they may take a placement test in 9th grade called the MVT. 

Charter Schools (Public)

Several charter schools offer middle school programs, including programs that start in 5th or 6th grade. Each charter runs its own lottery, typically online from their website. Some of the K-8 charters add seats for 6th grade, but these will be more competitive than applying to a charter the first year it starts, ie 5th or 6th grade. 

Charter curriculum must meet the same endpoints as SFUSD curriculum, but can do so with different methods. As of this writing, only one charter middle school offers Algebra I, so families take a similar approach as district families, and either wait for high school or supplement with online math.

Independent Schools (Private)

Many K-8 and K-12 independent schools add seats for middle school. Be on time! Many of the middle school slots at independent K-8’s are added in 5th grade, as schools have trended towards moving 5th grade to middle school. Some newer independent schools start at 6th grade. Outside of San Francisco inside the Bay Area, there are many independent schools for 6th-12th grade.

Independent school curriculum varies by school. They may be progresive or traditional, they may include advanced math, they may have block schedules, or they may have their own way of approaching education. It’s critical to learn about each school individually and not to create any categorical judgments. Private schools will often call themselves progressive or traditional. Progressive schools typically offer a hands on curriculum, such as inquiry-based learning or project-based learning. Some independent schools offer Algebra I in 8th grade or earlier, and others do not. Most offer a foreign language in middle school, even those that are not immersion schools, but this is not uniform.

Most independent school class sizes are in the 15-20 range, with one teacher, whereas public middle schools may have 30-35 kids per class. To that end, overall school sizes are much smaller than the stand alone SFUSD middle schools; some children prefer the intimacy of 40 children per grade, while others prefer a larger environment with more social circles. 

The process for independent school involves mutual selection, including the following steps. Most independent schools have agreed to a common notification and decision date, so that you are not required to respond before hearing from all. This deadline is typically after you will receive your SFUSD and charter school notifications, allowing you full information before placing a deposit, but you will need to commit to a year of tuition at most schools before SFUSD round 2 results.

  • Tour and open house. Tours are mandatory, and the open houses are highly recommended. Most open houses for middle school include your child, but not younger siblings. My kid’s favorite part were mini-classes, which gave him a snapshot into how the schools teach.

  • Parent essays. Applications kick off with a series of essays for the parents to write. Typically, schools will ask about your child and also about what type of school you are looking for. They may also ask about your family, what types of activities you like to do together, and how you might volunteer at the school. These essays help schools assess fit.

  • Parent interview. Most independent schools interview the parent(s) to get a sense for your fit with their program. Questions are similar to your essays, and should feel like a conversation. Remember that admissions teams are hired for their ability to communicate with prospective children. Don’t take a wonderful conversation as an indication of whether your child will be admitted, as it is typically too early for them to do so, and many a disappointed parent has received wait pools after a wonderful interview.

  • Student visit. Your student will typically spend a day at each school they apply to. Most schools set up the day aligned with a student host that they shadow, and a pull out for about an hour of assessments for reading, writing and math. There are exceptions, so ask before your child’s day what to expect.

  • Student testing. Most schools expect some sort of admissions testing, such as the SSAT or ISEE. Students can take the test more than once, if this helps them. For students who don’t test well, you can hire a tutor or find a course. 

  • Student essays (uncommon). A small number of schools require your child to write essays. One school required a special project. Plan for these during their holiday breaks, such as Thanksgiving week and the winter break, so that they are not overwhelming. 

  • School records. Past year and current half year grades and standardized testing must be sent by the school, typically this is the principal’s responsibility if you are in public elementary school.

  • Recommendations. One or two teacher recommendations are required and submitted directly to the school, typically online through the admissions portal. Some also require the principal to recommend your child. Many use a common form to make it less work for the teachers. Urge your child’s teacher to keep a copy in case it is lost. Write a thank you note to your teachers afterwards!

  • Financial aid. Financial aid is need based, but need is a subjective decision. Be sure to document all areas of the application and think carefully about your ask so that you receive enough to afford the school but don’t ask an amount that might insult a school, based on your means. Many schools use the same portal, but all schools will ask for similar information. Plan to file your taxes early! 

Catholic Diocese Schools (Private)

While private, Catholic diocese schools are under the umbrella of the San Francisco diocese or similar organizations. These are separate from religious independent schools, which operate under their own board of directors, such as Sacred Heart. Most Catholic diocese schools have similar curriculum, which includes Algebra I in 8th grade, but ask about each school’s unique offerings. Many accept non-Catholic students.

The application process for Catholic diocese schools is abbreviated compared to the independent schools. Typically, applicants will complete

  • School tour and open house

  • Application with one or two essays

  • Onsite testing at the Catholic diocese school

  • School records

  • Recommendations

  • Financial aid application (optional)

Criteria for School Decisions

At this point in your child’s life, they will be a partner in decision-making. While you have a say as a parent of a ten-year old, your ten-year old will have just as much to say. The wonderful part of student-included tours, open houses, and shadow visits, your student will see a more complete view of the school than you can. Listen to your child and what’s important to them. Also explain to your child your family’s constraints, such as financial cost or commute. 

Some special situations to consider.

  • Special Education. Private schools are not required to offer services, nor to accept children with special needs. Even so, it is critical for you to be honest with the admissions staff. Remember that the worst outcome is not a rejection in March, but an acceptance followed by either a bad experience without enough support or counseling out of the school. If your child has significant special needs, some private schools are organized around meeting these needs specifically with more resources than public schools can afford. 

  • Gifted and Advanced Learners. If your child is above grade level, you may want a school that offers acceleration and supplemental learning opportunities. My blog on this topic helps you address which features are most useful for your own child. 


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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