It's that time of year again. As we lament the appearance of Christmas holiday decorations before Halloween, the search for Fall 2012 schools also begins in earnest here in San Francisco. School tours begin, 8th graders start shadowing at prospective high schools and parents across the city harken back to the days when, "We just went to the school down the street... now it's like applying for college."
This is a very stressful time of the year, especially for those considering public school here in San Francisco.
To fill you in if you are not from The City, part of the stress inducer -- in addition to a population with MANY high-achieving and over-functioning parental units -- is our complicated system of school placement. While there is some zip code weighting, we are predominately a city-wide school district. In January parents fill out a list of schools they would be open to attending and in March are placed. Most get a school on their list, but many do not and have to navigate a complicated appeals process to get into a school that they want. I know that many have very strong opinions about the topic, so in full disclosure... I am a strong supporter of citywide school placement. Once one of the more integrated urban school districts, as we have moved closer to neighborhood placement and away from race-influenced assignments, our schools have become more segregated. Add to the mystery matrix of placement, the growing number of charter schools, some excellent independent schools and a growing home school community, it is no wonder that so many just walk away and move to the 'burbs.
I hold no ill will towards those who have made the choice NOT to participate directly in the public school system, but my wife and I have chosen to raise our three daughters here in the city and like many, are committed to public education. All three of our children attend public school, 3rd, 5th and 9th, and we have had a very good experience. I also have friends who have chosen the home school or independent school route and we even explored sending our high schooler to one of them private schools. Unlike many who are a little too "public school or nothing" for me, I think a middle-class progressive angst around school choice is very real and the more information we can share the better.
It is with the lens of someone who is living through parenting three kids through the San Francisco public school system and have found it to be a meaningful experience, that I offer a few things to remember as you discern your next educational choices.
- Public school is not a co-op... Every year is seems that a parent wants the administration and/or PTA to set a required level of time or fiscal contribution. This is just not appropriate in a public school. There is no assumption of parental involvement let alone equitable parental involvement. With the variety of family structures and home situations, there will always be some parents who will be able and willing to put in more of the on-site and structural time. If you are a parent who wants everyone "to pull their weight" and will resent it what this does not happen, public school may not be for you.
- Public school is inherently diverse... As we toured private school options for our high-schooler it became clear that public schools will ALWAYS be more diverse than any other option. Yes, some private schools try to achieve some ethic diversity, but as far as other kinds of diversity, they can pick and choose. Because of who comes to public schools there will always be a greater breadth of diversity: culture, class, family structure, language, learning ability, etc. While frustrating at times for all of us, this is one of the richest parts of the public school experience. If this kind of community is not something that you see as valuable, public school may not be for you.
- Public school is gritty... When I walked through my daughter's high school on back-to-school night I felt like I was on the set of some bad 80s urban high school movie. Bathrooms were operational, but creatively "decorated," hallways were painted with various murals, and you would be hard pressed to find more than about 10 matching chairs in any one classroom. With scarce resources of time and money, public schools must make choices. Sure, most schools would love a new computer lab, matching furniture or renovated buildings, but there really is something endearing about facilities that feel lived-in and hold some history. Now I am not romanticizing unsafe conditions, but if you want Ikea-like conditions, public school may not be for you.
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