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Schools in San Francisco

Laurie Jo Miller Farr
Children at school

In 1851, San Francisco created the first municipal school district in California, established in the Gold Rush Days when the burgeoning city's population exploded from fewer than 1,000 to over 35,000 in four short years. As of 2017, the 10,000 employees of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) serve nearly 56,000 students from entry through high school in 136 educational institutions. An additional 26,000 attend 111 independent schools.

Basics of San Francisco Public Schools

San Francisco's public schools are open to enrollment by current school-age residents of the City and County of San Francisco. Facts-at-a-glance published by SFUSD indicate key points:

  1. Each January, San Francisco parents rank their preferences for public school admission. Results are released in June, with most getting their first choice and nearly three-quarters getting one of their top choices. For popular, over-subscribed schools, a system of tie-breakers comes into play, namely:
    • Have siblings already enrolled?
    • Have they enrolled in an attendance-area pre-kindergarten?
    • Are they applying from a neighborhood where average test scores are low?
    • Are they living in the chosen school's attendance area?
  2. Entry in the city's public school system via its Early Education Department can begin as young as pre-kindergarten for children turning age 3 on or before December 1st of the enrollment year.
  3. Kindergarten school enrollment starts for children turning 5 years old by September 1.
  4. Among the mix within the San Francisco Unified School District are:
    • 12 early education schools
    • 72 elementary schools (grades K-5 or K-8)
    • 13 charter schools
    • 14 middle schools (grades 6-8)
    • 14 high schools (grades 9-12)

The academic year typically commences the third week of August and continues until late May. SFUSD administrative offices have their headquarters in the Civic Center neighborhood near City Hall at 555 Franklin Street in San Francisco. The phone number is (415) 241-6000.

Beyond the Basics

Students at school

To foster a positive culture and deliver a well-rounded education above and beyond the core curriculum, "classroom learning emphasizes problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity," according to the SFUSD.

Teaching is enhanced with modern technology and devices, teaching of the visual and performing arts is strong, and physical education is time-tabled. Healthy school breakfasts and lunches are provided and pastoral care is available via professional counselors and nursing staff.

Overall Academic Performance

According to the California Department of Education, a high school diploma requires 13 specific yearlong courses, including three English classes, two math classes, and two science courses.

San Francisco Unified School District results in 2016 assessments for English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics compare favorably to the state overall. In 2016, SFUSD had the second highest Academic Performance Index among the seven largest California school districts in California, as reported by the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.

Top Rated School

An academic standout is Lowell High School, ranked 59th in the nation and 6th in California by US News 2017 "Best High Schools" report. With a large student body numbering over 2,700 pupils, Lowell High School offers Advanced Placement courses for college readiness, ranks high in athletic championships, and boasts three Nobel Prize winning alumni.

Enrollment in San Francisco Public Schools

To apply a child for enrollment or transfer, a parent or guardian must complete an application form and make a timely personal weekday visit to the appropriate office at SFUSD headquarters. Careful attention to documentation is required.

Prospective parents can register for a school tour, have a child assessed for special education needs, apply to a charter school, get translation assistance, read about sibling policies, transfers, and obtain information on many more services by consulting Enrollment Policies on the SFUSD website.

Determining School Placement

Attendance areas are the geographic borders drawn around elementary schools throughout the district. While your residence will be inside a specific school's borders, SFUSD points out that you are not required to choose your attendance area school, nor can you be guaranteed a place at your attendance area school.

Several elementary schools are citywide. Middle and high schools do not have geographical borders. An interactive map pinpoints schools by type in each of the city's neighborhoods.

Private Schools in San Francisco

Girl in school uniform

According to Private School Review, there are 111 independent schools in San Francisco. These schools encompass pre-schools, Montessori, religious- or language-affiliated, single sex, special education needs, sports academy, and those with a special program emphasis such as performing arts.

As in any metropolitan area, the decision regarding public versus private education involves a number of factors, including location, selective admissions, college preparation, specific AP courses, religious affiliation, boarding versus day schools, and budget.

Several San Francisco private high schools rank among the best in the nation, according to a 2017 study by Niche, an online data aggregator for schools and neighborhoods. Those receiving an A+ or A rating include Lick-Wilmering High School, San Francisco University High School, The Urban School of San Francisco, St. Ignatius College Preparatory, Lycée Français of San Francisco, Convent & Stuart Hall, The Bay School of San Francisco, and the Jewish Community High School of the Bay. Tuition can top out at just below $45,000 per year.

International Language Schools

San Francisco is a linguistically and culturally diverse city, which is reflected in its student population. Therefore, parents may pursue a number of dual language options in the public or private system. Older students may opt for additional elective language instruction.

Bilingual Instruction in Public Schools

Teacher in class

Dual language support in Cantonese and Spanish is available for pre-kindergarteners. SFUSD also offers three elementary school-age pathways, depending on fluency, for elementary school students to learn English as well as another language. Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino, Mandarin, Spanish, and Italian are part of this framework.

Some students remain involved in the dual language track through 12th grade. Many public middle schools and all high schools provide elective language courses open to every student, including the above mentioned languages plus French, Hebrew, and Latin.

Immersion Options in Private Schools

The Chinese American International School (pre-K through grade 8) is the nation's first to offer Chinese-English dual immersion education. The French-American International School (pre-K through grade 12) is the city's only educational institution offering the full International Baccalaureate Diploma Program. La Scuola International School provides Italian immersion for grades pre-K through 8.

To College and University

Students flock to San Francisco and the Bay Area for its excellent institutions of higher learning, the relaxed lifestyle, and for post-graduate career opportunities. They attend private colleges and universities, academies, community colleges, and public universities within the highly rated California state system. Read more about San Francisco's colleges and universities and internationally famous schools such as the University of California at Berkeley, University of California San Francisco, and Stanford University.

Schools in San Francisco