Elizabeth Weise

What can parents and communities do to create socioeconomically integrated schools?

A look into San Francisco’s education market

with 8 comments

Updated March 29–I found one more school that opened this year.

By Beth Weise             

March 27, 2014

A total of 14,154 students recently received offer letters to San Francisco’s public schools for the 2014-2015 school year. As is common, demand far exceeded capacity at the most popular and high-scoring schools. Concurrently, a start-up private school here reported getting $33 million in venture capital funding.

While our public schools have broadened their reach, in terms of the socioeconomic diversity of families enrolled, we face a growing problem in San Francisco: public schools are losing out in the local education market place.

Approximately one-third of the City’s 80,000 school-aged children attend private schools. Between 2009 and 2015 eleven new private schools will have opened in San Francisco. An existing school recently announced plans to double its enrollment. When full, these 11 schools could enroll as many as 5,000 students. That’s almost 10% of San Francisco Unified School District’s current 53,000 students.

The staff and teachers of the San Francisco Unified School District work incredibly hard to make sure all students succeed. Sixty-one percent of SFUSD students are eligible for free lunch. Twenty-seven percent speak English as a second language. Twelve percent have an individualized education plan. These students need and deserve services to help them learn and thrive. Increasing the percentage of students enrolled in SFUSD by enticing families with children currently attending private schools would drive increased resources to SFUSD through per-pupil funding allocations and contribute to a diverse – racially, socioeconomically, and culturally – student population; all things the District wants.

Yet little is done to understand why families choose to privately educate their children and even less to lure them back to public schools. Education is a market. Like auto insurance or health care, it’s a market where consumers are legally obligated to purchase the product, but many families in San Francisco get to choose from whom.

Strong efforts by both the District and Parents for Public Schools have expanded the list of schools that are considered “good” over the past decade and the city is full of schools that have turned around or are still hidden gems. While schools still ‘flip,’ they are not doing so at the rate private schools are opening.

As a city, we are facing an economic turning point. Will famously liberal San Francisco become a place where the poor and working class attend public schools and the upper middle class and wealthy attend privates? San Francisco is an outlier. In Manhattan, only 20% of students attend private school. California-wide, the number is 9%. The national figure is 10%…and falling.

We need to look honestly at what’s happening in the City’s educational market place to understand what is driving nearly one-third of potential customers away from public schools and catalyzing the opening of ten new private schools in six years.

What do these families want, but are not finding, in our public schools? What do private schools offer that leads families to willingly spend as much as $23,000 for a private elementary school and as much as $35,000 for a private high school?

Without acknowledging, understanding, and correcting for this enrollment discrepancy, San Francisco will become even more divided at the K – 12 level. Our schools will become less economically diverse, more racially segregated and there will be less public focus and interest in bettering them.

SFUSD’s own data points

  • One-fourth of the children born to San Francisco residents leave the city before entering kindergarten, one-fourth attend private schools, and one-half attend public schools.[1]
  • Of students who enroll in public kindergarten, 13% exit the public school system by the time they reach the eighth grade.[2]
  • Higher family income is the single most important characteristic of children in private schools, even when controlling for race, place of birth, and area of residence.[3]
  • SFUSD’s demographic analysis from 2010 presumes almost all its enrollment growth over the next 30 years will come from families in public housing.[4]

Are private school families not open to public schools?

Far from being aghast that one in three families reject our public schools, there seems to be a belief in San Francisco that the status quo is set in stone and immutable. It is not clear this is true.

For parochial schools, the presumption is that the families are Catholic and want a Catholic education for their children. However, according to the Archdiocese of San Francisco Department of Catholic Schools, one in five students in San Francisco’s Catholic schools do not come from Catholic families.[5]

Another frequently cited ‘fact’ is that San Francisco’s private schools are full of old money families who have always sent their kids to Town, Hamlin, Burkes and other similarly long-established schools. They will not change because it is their family tradition.

However the number of new schools opening to fulfill market demand clearly shows this is not correct. Anecdotally, a large number of San Francisco families who have children in private schools today attended public schools in the towns and cities they grew up in. They are products of public schools with no ties to the private school world. And yet in San Francisco they choose private.

What’s to be done?  

There are two questions to answer here:

The first is whether the families choosing private are simply misguided and could find just as good an education in the public schools. If the answer is yes, all SFUSD needs to do is trumpet the facts for all to hear. Job done.

The other is whether the privates do indeed offer things the public schools don’t.

Actually, we know that there are dozens of excellent public schools in San Francisco that offer an education just as good as or even superior to that offered by many privates. The question is, can SFUSD leverage its ability to provide excellent education so it reaches a larger number of potential customers?

Meet students where they are

Let’s be honest. San Francisco is getting wealthier and more educated. San Francisco was second in the nation for job growth in 2013.[6] However one might feel about it, the trend is real. These families want schools that will meet their children where they are. Many find themselves assigned to schools they feel will not.

The top ten most requested elementary schools for 2014 were also among the highest scoring in the district. Clarendon, which had a stunning 61 applicants per kindergarten seats, has an API score of 956 out of 1,000. Families are clearly motivated strongly by academics.

However, many parents report perceiving a general attitude from some SFUSD staff (often at the District level) that the public schools exist to serve struggling students first. The message they perceive is that students working at or above grade level do not need nor deserve programs that meet their needs. One mother who toured the school her daughter had been assigned to was told, “Our focus is literacy. Getting students reading is the priority.”

When she said her four-year-old could already read, she was told her daughter could tutor other students still learning to read. While not philosophically opposed to that for part of the school day, she felt the school had little to offer her daughter in the way of learning because there was such a small cohort of students in the kindergarten at her daughter’s level. Her family ended up taking a spot in a private school.

We have a school district with a high proportion of students who are learning English or who are coming into school less academically prepared. But in meeting the needs of these students, we cannot ignore the needs of students who come in more academically prepared.

We have many public schools that do just that. We also have schools that do not. To pretend all the schools are the same is to ignore reality—and lose far too many families to the privates or the suburbs.


What might the District offer to bring these families back?



Public language immersion schools have been hugely popular and many families who chose immersion programs report they would have gone to private schools had the opportunity not existed. The market is paying attention. Two private immersion schools, one Italian and one Chinese, opened in San Francisco in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

After a wonderful ramp up of immersion school opportunities in San Francisco, our public schools have not continued to target what is a clear market. In fact, SFUSD has turned away parents eager to roll up their sleeves and make more.

San Francisco has three French immersion private schools that cannot accommodate all the students who want to enroll. In 2009 a group of parents began meeting to create a French immersion program within SFUSD. When they made their proposal to the District, they were told that the program would appeal only to English-speaking families. Because it did not serve the needs of an English Language Learner community, it would not be considered. Those families went private.

New York City’s public schools have taken an opposite approach. There, eight public schools offer French immersion, with two more scheduled to join in the fall of 2014. At least seven groups of parents are currently lobbying to include their local schools in the immersion program.[7]

We know immersion works to keep families public. The RAND Corporation has a three-year research project[8] underway in the Portland Public Schools. Portland has focused heavily on immersion and currently offers programs in Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and Vietnamese. One RAND finding is that students in the district’s lottery who win assignment to a language immersion program are much more likely to enroll in kindergarten, as opposed to leaving for the suburbs or private school.

Thirteen percent of students who got their language immersion choice enrolled in kindergarten, compared with 37% of didn’t get their choice and then didn’t enroll in a Portland Public School kindergarten.  RAND also found that students in immersion were 10% more likely to stay in the district in first grade and 18% more likely by sixth grade.


The new Common Core math curriculum will offer more in-depth math at all levels, which is an excellent outcome. However, in middle school the School Board has voted to do away with honors math in the schools that offer it, saying such differentiation is inequitable. The District cited a book[9] by San Francisco State University professor Maika Watanabe to support its decision.

On February 25, Professor Watanabe emailed the Parents for Public Schools’ listserve group to say that while research shows it is possible to challenge already high-achieving math students while simultaneously addressing the needs of students who are struggling, it takes teacher support and small class size.

Dr. Watanabe suggested schools aim for 22 students per class. As the schools that were losing honors math have 35 students per class, many parents questioned whether their math-loving children would continue to be challenged.

The market sensed an opening. In February, The Proof School announced it would open a private math and science-focused school serving 7th through 12th grades in downtown San Francisco. The school plans to offer three hours of math a day. It doesn’t even have non-profit status yet but is already getting donations. Its website says the school “is for young people who live and breathe mathematics, who yearn for a peer group to learn with and a community of mathematicians to learn from. They may survive at other schools; they will thrive at Proof School.”

AltaVista School, founded in 2010, and Brightworks, in 2012, also are math and science focused.

With the large number of engineers, scientists and programmers in San Francisco it’s no wonder there exists a large group of children who come to school hungry for math. The public schools could easily support multiple high-level, rigorous magnet schools devoted to math and science. We have none.

No GATE or Honors

There is effectively little or no GATE in SFUSD elementary schools, due to funding cuts. In the past, our schools had robust Gifted and Talented Education programs that featured pull-out programs for GATE identified students. Those have been eliminated. In 2012, the District’s GATE coordinator advised parents whose children needed a challenge to enroll them in one of the District’s Chinese immersion programs in lieu of GATE.

In 2011, SFUSD began a quiet effort to end existing middle school honors classes in the name of equity. Instead, teachers are to differentiate. However as a vice principal at Hoover (a school that ended honors this year) said on a tour, that’s extremely difficult to do in a class of 35 students.

The marketplace is clearly responding to families seeking schools that meet children at their academic level. On March 18 the San Francisco Chronicle reported AltSchool had received $33[10] million in venture capital money. Its business plan is to offer students a technology-intensive, personalized learning program while automating administrative services to keep other costs low. The school’s first site opened in September in the Dogpatch neighborhood. It plans to open a dozen more such spaces in San Francisco next fall.

There’s also the Stratford School, which opened a San Francisco campus in 2009. It advertises itself as a school with an “accelerated curriculum.”

What should SFUSD do?                                                                                       

Any business that loses one of every three potential customers and sees ten new companies offering the same product launch in a six-year period would go on the offensive. SFUSD needs to find out why it is losing potential customers and figure out how to get them back. Education is not widgets but it is a marketplace. However, too many parents report hearing these responses when they raise this issue:

  • SFUSD families are happy with the education we provide.
  • Parents don’t realize our schools are just as academically strong as the privates. They should come and visit us so they can see what a great job we do.
  • We’re busy taking care of the students we serve now. We don’t have time or energy to worry about students who go elsewhere.
  • Families who send their children to private school are elitist.

This is a call to arms. San Francisco cannot and should not lose one-third of its students to private institutions. But if we do not offer what families want for their children, they will leave. SFUSD and PPS need to dig deep into this. We need:

  • Surveys of families who chose private for kindergarten.
  • Exit interview with families who leave at middle school.
  • Focus groups to ask families what would bring them to public schools.
  • Political will to create programs that appeal to all San Francisco families.

If the problem is misinformation, inform.

If the problem is not meeting students at their ability level, meet them.

If the problem is not offering what families want for their children, offer it.

Do not blame families for leaving—entice them into staying.


SF private schools opened since 2009:


Proof School

7th – 12th

Downtown San Francisco

Math and science focus

No projected enrollment numbers available

No tuition numbers available



Live Oak

Will double enrollment “to meet increasing demand”

Potrero Hill

K – 8, “The private school for public school parents.”

260 students now, rising to 500 by 2022




Golden Bridges School


K – 8, Waldorf




Alt School

Planning for five locations: Dogpatch, Hayes Valley, SMA, Marina

K – 8, “Personalized learning.”




LePort School

Mid-Market, Pre-K, moving to K-8. Montessori.

No tuition listed.



Presidio Knolls

SOMA, K – 8. Mandarin immersion.





Mission, K -12. Science, hands-on focus.




La Scuola

Alamo Square, K – 8, Italian immersion.




San Francisco Schoolhouse

Inner Richmond, K – 8. Parent cooperative




Alta Vista

Portola, K – 8. Math and Science focus.




Marin Prep

Castro, K – 8. Spanish “infusion.”




Stratford School

Oceanview, K – 8. Accelerated curriculum


Beth Weise is a long-time member of Parents for Public Schools. She was a founder and sits on the board of金山中文教育会/Jinshan Mandarin Education Council, the parent-led non-profit that supports SFUSD’s Mandarin immersion program. She is the PTA newsletter chair for Starr King Elementary School. And yet her family will be leaving the public schools at middle school.


[6] Carey School of Business, Arizona State University. Top 10 Cities and States for Job Growth. March 20, 2014.

[8] Jennifer Steele, Robert Slater, Gema Zammarro, Jennifer Li, Jennifer, “The Effect of Dual-Language Immersion on Student Performance in the Portland Public Schools: Evidence from the first year study.” Presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness fall conference, Washington D.C. September 28, 2013.

[9]“ Heterogenius” Classrooms–Behind the Scenes: Detracking Math and Science–A Look at Groupwork in Action (Teachers College Press, 2012)

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Written by Elizabeth Weise

March 21, 2014 at 5:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this. I have a 4 year-old and I really want to go public next year. This essay sums up my feelings perfectly.

    Remy Marathe

    May 12, 2014 at 6:11 pm

  2. My kid is set to start K, and the school has been responsive beyond my wildest dreams about how advanced he is. Perhaps the issue is more at the district level. Other than calling 27% “almost a third”, which in my math brain is much closer to a quarter, you raise interesting points. Why not start something and propose specific changes? Run for school board or endorse a candidate with a plan you agree on? Certainly, we at minimum have a marketing issue. With the potential influx of money from the newest donations, there’s a potential to propose changes.


    May 31, 2014 at 8:23 pm

  3. Well done, Beth– you have touched on many important issues with this article. I hope SFUSD listens.

    meg neville

    July 3, 2014 at 3:41 am

  4. I have two children and put them in private school because I wanted to avoid the “teach to the test” problem and wanted them academically challenged. When I toured one public school and asked about challenging my daughter with math, a teacher informed me superiorly that it was wrong to give any child any opportunity all children didn’t receive and that she would never let any kid do more advanced work than the others. Sigh. My kid already knew how to multiply and understood negative numbers before she started kindergarten. I was afraid she’d lose interest in math if she were bored for years in unchallenging classes.

    My older daughter is actually now moving to public school for high school, taking a spot at Lowell. The application process for Lowell was eerily like applying for disability. My daughter and I were unsettled by the relentless emphasis on hard luck through this process, making a middle class kid feel like the process was slanted against her and that she was not wanted. I wrote about this: http://www.drunkenhousewife.com/2014/03/oddly-same.html

    There is so much demand for Lowell and SoTA. It’s really pretty appalling that there is no magnet school for science and math (which would indeed be our daughter’s choice).

    I can state definitively that if the SF public school system offered meaningful opportunities for academic high-fliers, I would have had my kids in public school all along. But there is no way I’m going to drive my kid across town to a crappy school where she’ll be underchallenged and ignored, not when they were accepted at more rigorous private schools and given financial aid as well.


    August 8, 2014 at 7:37 pm

  5. School starts in two weeks and ALL the middle schools have long waiting lists except for one, which is a 1 hour muni ride away (with 3 transfers) from our home. We’ve been holding out hope for a spot in our neighborhood middle school feeder school and are sitting in excruciating Round 4 limbo. We’d be insane if we didn’t line-up a Plan B. And by this point Plan B has been way more responsive as welcoming to us than SFUSD. It seems from our perspective that SFUSD is just plain too full of students to take just one kid from our family, and sadly we will be moving out of the system. How would SFUSD ever manage the influx you are suggesting, when they currently don’t have enough seats for the families that really want to go?

    Shoshana Zisk

    August 10, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    • There is a dearth of middle school seats right now because Willie Brown is closed. It will re-open as a Math and Science Magnet School next year and we’ll add 600 middle school seats.

      Elizabeth Weise

      August 17, 2014 at 5:37 pm

  6. So Beth, as a mom of two fifth graders who shares your concerns, where should I send my kids to middle school next year? What middle schools are you considering? I can’t believe they won’t get algebra in 8th grade anymore because the SFUSD version of Common Core will contain no “accelerated pathways.” My son is already complaining that math is too easy.

    Annette Hurst

    September 11, 2014 at 3:23 pm

  7. I enjoyed your article and feel your pain. I had heard that SF eliminated the college bound track but didn’t believe it. In fact, I expected to type San Francisco into google and see dozens of links to public outcry over the decision. I found none. I had to dig just to find this one. Is it possible that (most) everyone that cares is already out of the system?

    Robert Hansen

    October 1, 2014 at 11:54 am

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