10 Important Questions to Ask When Choosing a High School in San Francisco

These past few weeks have been a tad bit stressful in our home. Not only do we have a high school senior who is fully immersed in her college application process, but even MORE stressful -- we have an 8th grader beginning to go through the high school discernment process in San Francisco.

Between the two, the high school process is more stressful - and more work.

You think I joke. For those who are not familiar with the way that the high school selection process works in San Francisco Unified School District when choosing a high school in San Francisco, because there are SO many options: public, private/independent, homeschool, charter, parochial, parents of 8th graders have to go through a process of trying to figure out where to go. Each school  has its own admissions process: most publics and charters are lottery-based, others are application-based and others may use academic performance or auditions as criteria.

Seriously, this is no joke.

If I had a dollar for every time I or another parent in this process uttered the words, "Back in my day, we just went to the nearest high school" I would have about $165 give or take. That said, I also know that one of the wonderful things about being in a city with the geography and diversity such as San Francisco, is that we have an amazing number of options. After all, for most of us, "Back in your day . . ." mean that you HAD to go to that school whether or not it was a place where you would thrive.

So here we go again, talking with our child, exploring options and walking with other parents through what can simultaneously be an energizing and overwhelming process. As we walk this road again, we also know that our middle daughter is a different kid, so we must approach this time of discernment with as much openness as we did our first. To help maintain some perspective, my wife and I have found there are a few filters and perspective worthy of keeping in mind. These are both big picture and nitty-gritty in nature, but I hope helpful as you strive to find the best match for your child.

10 Important Questions to Ask When Choosing a High School in San Francisco

Is my child in danger of not going anywhere for high school next year?

I am not making light of some young folks who are struggling with school and there is a distinct possibility that high school may not happen. I know that for many kids our educations systems are not positive places, leading to high push-out and high drop-out rates. It pain me to see classmates for my kids for whom this next stage is going to be difficult to say the least.  That said, I do think that for a vast majority of students in San Francisco Unified School District and, honestly, most of the people who read my blog -- YOUR CHILD WILL GO TO HIGH SCHOOL SOMEWHERE!

This is your permission to loosen up and exhale because, it will be okay. Sure, you may not get the exact school you and your child want, your child may need to transfer or you may need to be more involved than you really want to be, but I firmly believe that there are more good options than bad here in San Francisco.

Seriously unclench and breathe.

Will I support and be supported by others in this process?

If you feel like this process is a survival of the fittest, cutthroat, olympic competition, then you probably should just answer "no" and back away slowly. Because if that's how you feel you will inevitably say or insinuate something about your kid, a friend's kid, a school choice, an administrator, etc. that will be about making sure that your kid succeeds at the expense of others. That said, if you genuinely want to see children and families, other than your own, to discover helpful high school options, please lend your support.  I have always been fully aware that not everyone has the kind of flexibility in life to navigate the application and visitation processes, that I do, so I thoroughly enjoy helping other parents to try to stay on top of this process.

Even though our family has been through this before, during this second process, I have already discovered things that I didn't know before and have learned about changes that have taken place over the past few years. Because our worldview is limited, our perceptions relative and judgements strong about so many aspects of the process, we need others to help widen our openness to possibilities that we may not have even know existed.

Thanks in advance to everyone who will be part of this process.

In what kind of academic experience will my child thrive?

There was a time when my Eldest daughter would say, "I am going to X school, but I did get into Lowell." as if to lift Lowell up as THE penultimate San Francisco high school experience. (For those not from SFUSD, Lowell is a nationally ranked high school known for its high academic performance). The reality is that not every child will thrive in the academic setting of Lowell. I have been surprised by the students who have or who have not done well there. There are a myriad of reasons why this is the case, but I lift up Lowell because it is a great example of a school that gets a well-deserved"academic" label, but one that has reinforced that idea that academic strength is all relative.

A great aspect of San Francisco schools is that there are a growing number of educational philosophies and structures available to explore. Some schools are doing more track-based learning allowing kids to focus on particular areas of learning. Some schools are shifting away from AP/Honors while others are ramping up. Your child may thrive in large-scale academic environment while others may need a small seminar styled experience. And still others may need creative and active outlets, while others simple want to hit the books.

For those thinking ahead about high school implications for college, I know of kids who have gone to a variety of great schools (And by "great" I mean school "where the student thrives") from high schools that offer a breadth of academic structures. Again, San Francisco offers such a wide variety of academic settings that it's more about finding the right match than going to THE traditional academic school.

In what kind of social setting will my child thrive?

Our daughters have attended a small K-8 public school (roughly 60 per class) so much of our searching has been about the question, "How does this compare to our current school?" Being in a small school has been great, but there are limitations when it comes to many things: class options, social circles, athletics offerings, etc. a larger school will have more possibilities. Staying with "what you know" is always the easiest when it comes to social interaction, so really knowing your child's social tendencies, talking with current teachers, and have conversations about this with your child are really important. The transition to high school will be hard enough, so the more they are ready for and open to the changes in social structures the better.

In what kind of cultural setting will my child thrive?

Progressive middle-class-ish confession time -- we are seriously considering private school.

I'll wait while a segment of my readership scoffs disappointedly.

We are committed to everything that public school stands for, but we are and have been open to the possibilities that private school might offer. I could write about a lot this journey: how we approach the financial implications/limitations, our struggles around public/private, and the massive preconceptions that we have held about the private school thing, but I shall save that for another day. Yes, we have definitely run into private school families - parents and kids - who fulfill every elitist, smug, sheltered, patronizing stereotype that one can imagine. That's been fun. At the same time, we have also met some great kids who have thrived in these settings, not just academically, but socially, emotionally and spiritually -- so we are remaining open to the possibilities.

There are obviously many cultural contexts to consider when choosing a high school: ideological/theological perspectives, socioeconomic diversity, approaches to gender and sexauilty, etc. We will prioritize differently and not every cultural context makes sense of every child.  In our case I would say that the overriding cultural question is around racial and economic diversity. The reality is that to attend one of the many independent schools and some parochial schools in school San Francisco is to choose to be part of a setting that is going to be predominantly white, and in many of the independent schools, wealthier than we are.

This question about cultural diversity is different for kids who are white and kids of color. To be "one of many" or "one of the only" are experienced differently by different ethnic groups. Layered on top of racial diversity, economic realities can be chasms apart, and if not ready to deal with this, these differences can be a huge obstacle for your child. The social and cultural setting that your child will be a part of every day and how these experiences will shape their worldview is important, so if you are a public school family with kids of color, as we are, making sure you are prepared to address these issues is vital.

How much participation will my child have in the process?

From choosing a list of school to shadowing to making a final decision, you not only need to know up-front how much your input your child will have in the discernment process, but how much say they will have in making the final decision. To some extent we parents have been building the foundations for this process for a while by how much we "do for" or "do with" our kids, but it is in this high school search where this part of the parent/child relationship can be really powerful. There will be affirmations of how things have been done in the past, changes to how you would like things to be done in the future and new discoveries of agency for both parent and child.

This is a wonderful opportunity to begin to shape the next stages of our relationship with our kids.

With our first, and second child, we have simply talked about different schools - public and private - and mutually came up with a list of possibilities. We arranged the open house and shadow visitations and then we talk about each school. Unlike the college search, we are still playing a pretty large role in guiding and directing possibilities. We are not open to parochial schools, we have significant financial limitations and we reserve the right to veto. That said, we also want our child to attend a school where she wants to attend. In the end, while we definitely have preferences for our daughter, would like to avoid having, "I never even wanted to go to this school!" screamed at us during moments of struggle and stress.

How will I help this process to not stress my kids out?

We have discovered that there are times when our laid back approach to the whole process, college and high school, sometimes stresses out our kids. Sure, there may be some oppositional behavior going on (I'm looking at you Eldest), but I am also aware that for some kids hearing "Breathe, take a break, you are doing fine, it will be okay.." only means that they are not preparing enough and the whole thing is stressing them out.

Now before you hop on "damn hippie parents" train, this also goes for you overbearing parents who have been doing test prep courses since inception. Remember, our job as parents is to lessen anxiety, not raise it or pass on our own. For some of us this may mean adding more structure so our kids feel secure and confident while others may need to lighten up a bit and give your kid room to navigate this time on their own. Yes, we must find a balance between letting go and prodding, but healthy harmony between parent and child can only be found it we adults are willing to admit that we may have to shift our own approach in light of our child's own needs.

Where is it located?

How much you, your child and any siblings will be spending in a car, on a bus or walking is important consideration. Add on any other activities, where you may work, where you live and proximity to public transportation, surprisingly location has been a major factor in our thinking. From our place in the southern part of San Francisco, if our daughter attended some schools, she could spend well over three hours a day on the bus travelling from home, to school, to activities and back home. Would geography be the deciding factor? Probably not, but it's wise to be aware of the possibilities beforehand to make sure your kid is up for it.

Is this where I would want to go to high school?

When my oldest daughter was deciding between schools; there were three viable options, a combination of independent and public schools. The family meeting went something like this,

Mom, "Well, I really like [Mom's first choice]."

Dad, "That school is fine, I really like [Dad's first choice]."

Daughter, "I will probably do just fine at any school, but I would really like to go to[Daughter's first choice].

Yep, my wife, my daughter and I each had different first choices. But it really was a no-brainer. Not only did she know how to win us over, but she was right. As we have reflected back on that process, for my wife and I, it was more about where WE would have wanted to go to high school, than where our daughter would thrive.  So the answer to this one is, "It does not matter if you want to go."

Remember, you are not the one who will be going to high school. You had your chance.

Will this be a place where my child will thrive AND become the kind of person whom I hope they become?

Please notice that I connected the thriving child and parental hopes with the word AND and not OR. I firmly believe that, as parents, we must be careful in expressing own hopes, dreams and expectations for our child that our expectation do not come at the expense of the genuine happiness of our child. Whether you are an overbearing Tiger parent or a laid back hippie (Yes, those are your only two option.) we must find a way to broaden our expectations of the high school experience, expand our understandings of success and stay ever-vigilant that at the core of our child's mind, heart and soul, they are experiencing the joy. I am confident, no matter the academic, social or cultural hopes we have, we all want our kids to grow in healthy ways, so we all need to remember that fact through this process..

I am sure that I may be missing some good tips and questions, but I hope this has been helpful for some of you who are are going through this process. For those who have been through this before and/or going through it for the first time, please feel free to offer more suggestions.

In the mean time be sure to check out Parents for Public Schools and read the blog of my friend, Alison Collins, SF Public School Mom.