By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor
Finally! My daughter got into a school! True, not until eight days after school started and having a nervous breakdown (read here and here on my public school nervous breakdown), but Molly is in kindergarten. The school wasn't my first, second, third or even fourth choice, but I'm hopeful it will be a good fit.
But who knew school “choice,” well, wasn’t. Ultimately, I didn’t have a choice about where (or when!) she went – the school district decided that for us. I didn’t have a choice that school would start and Molly would miss the first week and a half of kindergarten - missing the first days when all the kids were welcomed into school, given the lay of the land, and started making friendships. I also didn’t choose to be at the mercy of a bureaucratic, somewhat well-meaning but enormously frustrating and flawed public school system in San Francisco that leaves hundreds of families without a school for their child – days, weeks, and even months after school has started – and sends so many running for the suburbs. Many still don’t have a public school for their child. Some are taking drastic measures since the promise of “choice” has of left them with little of it: home schooling, moving away, quitting their jobs and home schooling, taking out a second mortgage and begging their way into a private school.
So I’m more than grateful that this torturous process of “gutting it out” for a public school is over. During those tough couple of weeks when our daughter didn’t have a school to attend, I learned so much that I wish I’d known months earlier. Like a homeowner who after buying a house learns she should have had the foundation checked and asked first what the neighbors are like, now I know what I should have, could have, would have done differently when it comes to applying for a public school in a challenging and highly competitive school district:
1. Visit more schools than you can possibly imagine.
I visited only a few public schools in San Francisco – most of them “great” schools I’d heard about from other parents, that scored well on GreatSchool ratings. I reasoned I was too busy to visit more than about five schools (I have a busy job writing about great schools!) and with some measure of magical thinking, was convinced we’d get our daughter into one by sheer force of will. Yet force of will doesn’t stand a chance when faced with the whims of a dispassionate lottery. If I’d visited more schools – especially ones that aren’t necessarily the most popular (and thus the most difficult to get into) – we might have found a school that’s great but that’s not on everyone’s radar.
2. Don’t judge a school by ratings alone.
In San Francisco, if you don’t win the school lottery and get any of the schools you’ve applied to, the district picks a school for you – usually a low-scoring one that isn’t in high demand. We were assigned an extremely low-performing “struggling” school with a GreatSchools’ rating of 3. We turned it down without even visiting or thinking twice. Later I heard that the school has some great things to offer, including beautiful school garden and an hour of Spanish a day. A representatives from Parents for Public Schools said it was a “sweet” school. It still might not have been the school for our child, but it wasn’t fair to reject it without seeing it and talking with parents whose children attend. (See number 4.)
3. Come up with Plan B, C, and D
I didn’t. I simply had Plan A: We’ll get a school we want. In the back of my mind, I knew there was a possibility that we wouldn’t, but I didn’t make any plans if this would actually happen. When it did and Molly had no school, my husband had to take off a week of work. We also applied to a local Catholic school – and unfortunately Molly didn’t get a spot because they didn’t have any openings in kindergarten, only first grade. Because she just turned six, she would have qualified for first grade, but she didn’t test well enough in math. (Another tip: GreatSchools’ worksheets will get your child school ready!)
4. Talk with every parent who has a child in school in your district.
Make it your part-time job to find out everything you can about schools in your district. If you hear of a promising one (even if it doesn’t have stellar ratings . . . see Number 2 above), ask how those parents got their kids in. Often, there is a loophole. Last week, I learned from my neighbor that she finally got into our terrific neighborhood school after transferring from a low-performing (somewhat promising but ultimately troubled) school because the district gives preference to families transferring from struggling schools. I hadn’t known about that provision and realize – much too late – that we could have tried the low-performing school we were assigned. If ultimately the school didn’t work out, I could have tried to transfer into our neighborhood school, which is near impossible to get into otherwise.
Also, if you have any public school teachers who are friends and who you trust, take them out for a drink and get the inside story. Again, too late, I learned from a teacher friend that a nearby public school that was failing three years ago now has an exceptional immersion program and among the best teachers in the city.
5. Know what you want
An addendum to Number 4: Just because a school is all the rage, doesn't mean it's for you. Maybe it’s intensely academic and in truth you want a school that focuses on the arts or sports. Maybe the "in" school is enormous, but your child will thrive better in a smaller school (like mine will). Maybe the "great" elementary is across town, but what’s most important to your family is to be able to walk to school.
6. Don’t get caught up on “great” schools
Yes, I work for GreatSchools and believe in finding the best possible school for your child. But school shopper, beware. The search for the fountain of educational gold can be a futile and heartbreaking one. For starters, there are no perfect schools. There are exceptionally rated schools. There are schools that get all the buzz and are on the top of everyone’s list. Then there are some solidly good schools that might have mediocre ratings, but a committed parent community, kind children, and some exceptional teachers. There are hidden jewels that everyone will be talking about in a couple of years – and you can applaud yourself that you asked so many questions and got your foot in the door early on, before everyone else is trying, with no luck, to get into that authentically great school.