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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

School Primer for Parents Educated Abroad

Parents who didn’t grow up in the United States often reach out to me when their kids approach elementary school or transferring into a local school from abroad. Facing a system that is different from their childhood, they ask for a primer.


Types of Schools

Schools in the United States are considered either public or private, based on the funding source, and each category has subcategories. An overview follows.


Public Schools

  • District Schools are run by the public school district for your home address. Some districts, like San Francisco Unified, assign schools based on a lottery. Other districts assign schools based on your home address, unless there are too many children for that school, in which case they assign some children to other schools within the district.

  • Charter Schools utilize public funds from the state but are run independently. Most charters operate on a lottery system with a priority for the residents of the school district where they are situated. They must meet state educational standards, but can do so with more flexibility than district schools. Some parents love this flexibility, whereas other parents feel that charters siphon funds from their home district and/or the easiest children to educate.

Private Schools

  • Parochial Schools are run by the Catholic diocese or other religious churches directly. In the Bay Area, the Catholic Diocese of San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo Counties runs many schools. This category does *not* include faith based schools that are run independently and are therefore considered Independent Schools.

  • Independent Schools are nonprofits run independently by a board of directors. Many in the Bay Area are accredited by the California Association of Independent Schools.

  • For Profit Schools are either family owned or investor owned chains. The best known in this category are Stratford, Challenger, and Basis, which are traditional schools with a focus on advanced academics.

Style of Education

  • Traditional programs are teacher-led and focus on academic topics, such as reading, writing, math, science, and history. They may use essays, worksheets, teacher lectures, and other modalities such as online learning. Many parents grew up with these types of educational programs.

  • Progressive programs focus on project-based learning, social-emotional learning, and inquiry-based learning to provide a student-led educational experience. Many parents feel this type of program teaches a love of learning and a deeper understanding.

  • Moderate programs include elements of each traditional and progressive philosophies. You canview educational philosophy as a scale, with traditional on one end, progressive on the other, and moderate in the middle.

  • OtherMontessori, Waldorf, International Baccalaureate (IB) – also exist throughout public and private schools. Many of my international clients attended IB schools themselves, so find these particularly comfortable, whereas others seek a different education for their families.

District

Charter

Parochial

Independent

For Profit

Control

Government

Independent

Diocese

Independent

Board

Cost

Free

Free

$10-12k K-8

$25-30k HS

$18-42k K-8

$45-60k HS

$20-30k

After Care

Sliding Scale or $$

Sliding Scale or $$

$$

$$

$$

Minimum age for K

5 by Sept 1

5 by Sept 1

5 by Sept 1

Varies, many prefer older

Varies, often younger

Student Teacher Ratio

K-3rd

22-24:1


4th-12th 33:1


K-3rd

22-24:1


4th-12th 33:1


20-40:1

K-2nd

9-12:1


3rd-12th

12-15:1

Typically 20:1

Style

Moderate (usually)

Moderate Traditional Progressive

Other


Traditional (usually)

Moderate Traditional Progressive

Other



Traditional (usually)

Special Education

Required

Required

Optional

Optional

Optional

Gifted Education

Rare in Bay Area

Rare in Bay Area

Occasional (gifted- friendly)

Occasional (gifted-only or gifted-friendly)

Occasional (gifted- friendly)

Structure (typically)

High

Varies

High

Varies

High

Foreign Language


*not immersion


Varies SFUSD: Cantonese, Filipino*, Japanese*, Korean, Mandarin, Spanish,

None


Varies

Spanish*

Varies:

French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish*, Hebrew*



Varies: Mandarin,

Nothing




When to Start School Research

How early you start researching school options depends if you want to take your time to weigh and research options, and if your work requires busy periods. At minimum, school tours start the fall before your child will attend. For instance, if your child will start kindergarten in fall 2024, you would sign up for tours around Labor Day 2023. Applications will be due between December 2023 and January 2024.


Role of a Consultant

Given the huge range of schools, a consultant can save you hours of research by helping to narrow down your options. A good consultant will listen to parents and assess what type of school will be the best match for the family – both the parents and the child. There is no one perfect school, so the ideal consultant will present options that are as close as possible to the needs of the family, balancing time-saving with choice.

Independent school applications require parent essays, a parent interview, a group event for children, and often videos of children. Your school consultant can review your parent essays, prep you for the interview, and review the children’s videos. Understanding how to present your child and how your child can be a fit for each school is critical for essay-writing and editing. Lastly, when schools return the decisions, your consultant can help you to weigh the pros, cons, and fits of each choice.


Want more input on schools?

Vicky consults with families to help apply to and select public and private schools in San Francisco in an environment of non-judgment. VIP and Season packages include a discussion to review school options, applications, and key decisions. Vicky offers a limited number of packages each year to assure her availability.

Vicky’s own children have attended both public and private schools; her elder is in high school, and her younger in middle school. New clients can email to learn more about her services, or see her website to learn about her packages.



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