What is the top concern for families with kids moving to the San Francisco Bay Area? Schools. Parents confront two Herculean tasks when moving to the Bay: finding both the right home and the right schools in a tough, competitive and confusing environment. They worry about the many changes their kids will go through and look for ways to ease the transition of the move. Those of us who have navigated the Bay Area educational and housing mazes know the familiar feeling of anxiety and uncertainty when looking at such a large set of variables at once. This brief guide is designed to break down the process of researching and choosing Bay Area schools into manageable steps. These are tips I give my clients to successfully find a school for their children, and now I pass them along to you! Chances are if you are reading this post, you are moving to the Bay Area or are thinking of a move here. Keep in mind that looking for a great school for your child works in tandem with finding the right home in the right neighborhood.
1) Answer the question: who is my child?
Try to be as objective as possible and brainstorm your child’s unique gifts as well as the areas in which they need support. Doing this will help you objectively consider whether or not a particular school's environment will support your child’s unique growth and development. This includes extracurricular activities and interests! Also list a few details about your child’s background in school so far (small private, large public, progressive, parochial, etc) and cultural heritage so these details are in your mind when you begin the process of research.
2) Prioritize what you’re looking for in a school.
Next, as a family or with your spouse, make a prioritized list of what to look for in an ideal school environment. It’s important to list things in priority order because there will always be a need for a compromise. Will you find the “perfect school” that meets every single criteria? Probably not, but you will have the best chance of finding a great school that suits your family if you are prepared to let go of the lower priority items when necessary. Cultural diversity, language education, progressive vs. traditional education, test scores, leadership reputation, school size, sports teams, access to arts and music, after-school programs, and school day length are all examples of items to add to a prioritized school “wish list”.
Tip: After you’ve made this beautiful prioritized list, let go of the idea of the perfect school and embrace the idea of a school that meets most or almost all of your important priorities.
3) Ask yourself: how much uncertainty can I handle?
This is very important! If the answer is “not very much”, private school options may be your best bet - if you can afford it. Once you apply and get into a private school, you can rest assured your child will attend that very school. Student placement in public schools, however, can be difficult to predict because of statewide class size limits and school lotteries that randomize placement in certain cities. Some public schools have a “school choice” system, where parents list their top school preferences in March and find out during the summer which schools their kids have been placed in. Some school districts operate by a “lottery system” that could place your child in a school far from your home, adding 30-60 minutes to your daily commute. Some cities share school districts with other neighboring cities where school quality varies dramatically and some do not. In other towns, every school is highly regarded from elementary to high school, guaranteeing a highly rated school for each grade level. This can provide a sense of security for some parents to know that school quality is consistent, as reflected by API scores, statewide testing, and school ratings. Be sure to research how each school district works, how student placement works in that district or city, and consider the level of uncertainty you are comfortable with.
4) Research more than just test scores!
Test scores aren’t everything. Although they can be a good place to start and can be a reflection of the academic performance of a school, there are more subtle qualities that reflect the best fit possible for your child. For example, school leadership can be important: how a principal and teachers respond to parent concerns can really impact the school experience in unanticipated ways. Is bullying tolerated? How does the school leadership handle conflict resolution? Does the school have character goals for the students and reinforce these values? What clubs, extracurricular options, and after-school activities are available? Are the arts and music programs strong? Is there diversity in the staff and student body?
Tip: Read what parents think from the source by visiting school message boards and review sites. These reviews can be taken with a grain of salt but if you identify with the voice of the parent writing, often it is a good piece to add to the puzzle while researching a school.
Berkeley Parents Network is a good resource: http://parents.berkeley.edu
GreatSchools now shows statistics on diversity in the student body, and how low-income students and students with disabilities are doing to get an idea if the school is meeting the needs of these students: http://www.greatschools.org/
4) Get Support! (Don’t Do This Alone!)
Finding the right school for your kids in a complex educational environment with myriad choices and a maze of school tours and applications can feel like a full-time job. Here are some ways to get the support you need, either from a professional or from the online community.
If the group is large enough, the “hive mind” can answer even the most detailed question you may have about a school or district. (Again, a grain of salt here). As an example, there is a 10,000 plus Facebook mom’s group that never fails to answer the most mind-boggling, school-related questions: https://www.facebook.com/groups/160635350641172/
Mom’s groups (some have fees, some do not):
If you know someone in a school district you are interested in, ask them to post a question on Nextdoor for you to find out more about the actual community experience at the school if not much info is available online. Keep it brief and simple to get the most focused response!
For a fee: hire an expert education consultant. If you have had it with the full-time research job of finding a great school, there are highly qualified education consultants in the Bay Area whose only job is to match families with the perfect schools and help them get in. A good education consultant can save you days, weeks, and even years of anxiety by helping you avoid pitfalls, asking carefully tailored questions, and navigating you safely through the maze of public and private school options in the Bay Area. It is worth it!
5) Location, Location, Location!
This is not just for real estate! Commute times can be tricky in the Bay Area and school location can affect your commute and quality of life as a family. When choosing a school for your child, don’t forget about you: you are the chauffer and commuter in the family. So, the amount of time it takes to get from home to school, drop the kids off, and then get to work are important aspects of choosing a school that many parents may overlook. If the commute time is long or traffic conditions in the evening habitually create that ”Must.Get.Back.Before.School.Closes.” stressful feeling, everyone’s quality of life can be impacted. If the only option is a harrowing commute, check out these pro tips on the Bay Area commute.
Tip: Test drive the commute if you can from your home or potential new home to the school in the morning and evening and notice any red flags that you may have to address if you choose that school.