Choosing the “Right” Elementary School

It’s that beautiful time of year again in San Francisco: Karl the Fog (yes, we’ve named the fog) has receded, so it’s warm enough to wear shorts and eat outside without freezing. It also happens to be the start of school admissions season. My two girls are now in the same K-8 school—hooray for single dropoff—but several friends with younger children have asked how we navigated the jump from preschool to elementary school, so I thought I’d share my personal experience…

I grew up in a small town in New England, and like many of you, I went to the only school option available. My parents didn’t have to decide where I went to school, it was already a forgone conclusion. In San Francisco, however, there are so many different options available, it’s hard to even know where to begin. Then, once you start narrowing down the options, you realize that other families have set their sights on the same schools you are in love with, and it starts to feel like a rat race… I envy my parents, who didn’t have to stress out about where/how to send me to kindergarten!

From what I understand, many cities in the U.S. (and around the world) have similarly competitive processes, and it’s only getting crazier. While I am not an admissions professional, here is one mother’s perspective:

Have a conversation

One night, as my husband and I were getting ready for bed, he said, “Let me ask you something…” (This is how most important conversations start with him, by the way.) He asked what my top 5 criteria were for a K-8 school for our older daughter, who was in preschool at the time. Did it matter whether it was a co-ed or single-sex school? How important was learning a second language? Were we singularly focused on academics, or did social issues and/or sports receive equal priority? Did we care how far we’d have to drive to/from school each day? How much were we willing to spend on tuition? And what about the parent community? He then listed his own top 5, and we proceeded to rank our combined list. (Thankfully, we weren’t too far off from each other!)

Once we had our list, we tried hard to keep it in mind throughout the process. This was really helpful for us because every time we looked at school brochures, went on admissions tours or talked to current parents, we asked ourselves how each school reflected our top criteria.


Start the process early

Once dates were published for the various school tours, we started booking them as early as we could. We wanted to quickly review the options as a starting point, so we could be in a position to spend more time with schools that seemed to be a good fit.

Narrow down your list

We made an early decision to focus on only a handful of schools. Partly because we felt we had a pretty good idea which schools would or wouldn’t be a good fit for our family, and partly because going to multiple events hosted by 10-12 different schools would drive us crazy!

Putting aside our personal criteria for a moment, we also tried to summarize—based on our tours—what each school really cared about. (It still amazes me that schools so close to each other geographically can be so different in their missions and values.)

Meet people

As our dream school came into focus, we realized we hardly knew any parents at that school 🙁 However, as we met with friends and fellow parents along the way, we would ask them for their opinions, and every so often, they would introduce us to such-and-such parent whose children were at the school. This was an organic process that took several months, but the major benefit was that we got a much clearer idea of what the parent community was like, how these parents raised their children, and how they felt their education was going. (Just talking to the Principal and Director of Admissions about their school is like asking the CEO and Head of Marketing of a company whether their product is any good… of course it is! *wink wink*)

Take a deep breath

Towards the end of admissions season, we were worn out! We met up and became good friends with several prospective parents that were on the same tour “circuit”, and together, we sat back and laughed about how crazy the process was. I’d like to think that I turned out OK even though I never really had much of a choice in schools, so maybe some perspective is in order.


Honestly, I think the most important thing we did in the process was to really take the time to figure out what we wanted our children’s education to look like. We considered their strengths and weaknesses, what they enjoyed doing, and how we thought they would best learn. This is different for every child, and so is the process of choosing a school.

Looking back at the past three years, we couldn’t be happier with the school we chose. Our girls love going to school each day, they are learning and thriving in their environment, and the faculty and parent community are wonderful. I hope you find the same for your children, now and in the future!