Enrolling in Childcare & Schools in the Bay Area

Parent Q&A

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  • Hi,

    I am relocating with my family to Berkeley from Europe in March and we are not familiar with US kindegarten (childcare) system.

    Our 2,5y old daughter is currently attending kindergarten (8am to 5pm) and we would like her to visit kindergarten also in Berkeley, so that she does not lose her habits.

    What options do we have? 

    Do I understand it correctly, that public childcare is not available and our only option is a private childcare?

    Which areas of Berkeley are best for families with small kids taking into consideration vicinity of childcares?

    Thank you in advance. 

    Welcome to Berkeley! 

    You are correct, childcare works very different here than in most European countries. For example, Kindergarten is a specific term only for the year before kids start 1st grade and it is part of the school system. Your daughter being 2.5 means she falls in the age range for preschool.

    Where are you moving from? I am originally from Europe too and would be happy to help you navigate all the options. Feel free to message me and good luck with the move, Heike.

    There are some state-funded child care options, but they tend to be reserved for low-income (and especially homeless) families, or those who qualify due to a disability.  Mostly, you are on your own.

    If you will be in Berkeley, the child care referral agency for our area is Bananas. You can find a lot of information (but not "recommendations") there.  https://bananasbunch.org/

    Let’s sort out the vocabulary first. In the USA kindergarten is part of elementary school. It’s the grade before first grade. What you are looking for, is called preschool.

    If you are looking for a German-speaking preschool, there is Bay Area Kinderstube (BAKS) in Albany and the preschool of EBGIS in Emeryville.

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Welcome to the Bay Area!   This page has advice about how to find childcare or schools for your child if you are new to the area, especially for families that are new to the US.

  1. How Old is Your Child?
  2. Public School vs. Private School ...  Which Public School? ... Which Private School?
  3. How to Register your Kids for School
  4. When Does the School Year Start & End?
  5. How Much Does School Cost?
  6. Kids Who Don't Speak English

How Old is Your Child?

0-3 years

There is no free childcare for children under 5 unless you qualify for a low-income program. These are the most common types of care for children this age:

  1. Nannies are very popular for babies, and many parents share a nanny with another family to make the cost more affordable. Nannies come to your home during the day to care for your child. Parents may use a nanny for the first year and then switch to a home-based daycare or childcare center once their child is crawling and walking.  You can find a nanny or a nanny share by viewing Childcare postings on the BPN website.  To learn more about prevailing nanny rates and practices, see BPN's nanny surveys.
  2. Home-Based Daycares are popular for children older than 6 months.  Daycares are licensed by the State of California for either 6 children ("small" daycare)  or 14 children ("large" daycare), and they take place in the caregiver's home. Daycares are more affordable than a nanny or a childcare center. Parents usually choose a daycare in their neighborhood, or close to work, and may change their child to a preschool when they reach 3 years old. Some daycares offer a preschool program. Search Daycares with reviews on BPN.
  3. Childcare Centers are large sites for babies and children ages 0-5, such as the centers operated by UC Berkeley for faculty, staff, and students. Some childcare centers include a preschool for 3-4 year olds, and many accept infants. View Childcare Centers with reviews on BPN.

3 & 4 year olds: Preschool

Most children attend preschool for two years before starting kindergarten.  For the most part these are privately-operated preschools that charge tuition. Some cities and some school districts also operate free or low-cost preschools, and might be income-based.  Preschools might have their own building, licensed by the state, or they might be in someone's home and licensed as a home-based daycare. Some preschools have a Pre-K program for 4.5 to 5 year olds, some are parent co-ops, where parents take turns working at the school, and some are affiliated with a religious organization or follow a particular philosophy such as Montessori or Waldorf. Search Preschools with reviews on BPN.

Children must have reached their 5th birthday by September 1 in order to attend Kindergarten at a public school. Most private schools also follow this rule, although there may be some flexibility about the cut-off date. Public schools provide a free "Transitional Kindergarten" (TK) program for children who will reach their 5th birthday between September 1 and December 31. 

Most local elementary schools are either K-5 or K-8 at their own site. There are a few private schools that are K-12. Most of the local public and private elementary schools are reviewed on BPN's website Here.

11 to 13 year olds:  Middle School
Most local public school districts have one or more Middle Schools that are located at their own sites, although a few districts have schools that are K-8 inclusive. There are some private schools that cater exclusively to middle school students, and others that are K-8. See BPN's list of Middle Schools to read more.

14 to 18 year olds: High School
Most of the local school districts (Berkeley, El Cerrito, Albany, Piedmont) have only one high school, sometimes with an additional "alternative" school. Bigger districts like Oakland have multiple high schools. In many school districts it is common for children who attended private schools K-8 to switch to public school for high school, so there are not as many private high schools as private elementary schools. See BPN's list of local public and private High Schools.

Public School vs. Private School

Public Schools are funded by local, state, and federal taxes and they are free for children who live in the district. Most children here in the Bay Area do attend public school.  Each city operates their own school district. Some cities have joined together with other cities to form a larger school district. Your children are entitled to attend the public school in the school district you live in - you will need to provide proof of an address. It is unusual for children to attend a public school in a school district that they don't live in.

Charter schools are also free public schools, but they are run independently of local school districts, although they must be approved by the local district. Any child who lives in California can apply to any charter school, regardless of which city they live in. Some charter schools give preference to children who live in the same city as the charter school. Not every city has charter schools. For example, there are many charter schools in Oakland, but only a couple in Berkeley.

Private Schools, also called "Independent Schools", are privately run, usually by either a non-profit corporation or a religious organization. You must apply to these schools, usually one year before your child will start school. Some private schools receive many more applications than they have spaces available, and parents plan years ahead of time to apply. Other private schools have openings throughout the year. More information about this is below.

Which Public School?

Which public school your child can attend depends on which city you live in (except Charter Schools - see below). If you are affiliated with UC Berkeley, you might be living in Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, Kensington, Albany, El Cerrito, or one of the other nearby cities. Oakland is the largest local school district, followed by San Francisco, and then Berkeley. Each of these cities has its own school district, and as a general rule, your children may only attend a school in the city you live in. Every school district has its own rules about how children are assigned to schools. An impacted district like Berkeley, which has a number of elementary schools, may only have one school with enough space for extra children. Oakland is a much larger district, so there is more flexibility about which school your child attends. Tiny districts like Canyon and Kensington that only have one school may send children to other districts when they are filled to capacity.

Most local school districts have "neighborhood schools." This includes Oakland, Albany, El Cerrito, and Richmond. This means that your child will usually be assigned to the school that is closest to the neighborhood you live in.  In these districts, you might be able to request a school in a different neighborhood. A few school districts including Berkeley and San Francisco assign children to schools based on socio-economic factors in order to balance the school population. In these districts, you can request the school you want, but you may be assigned to a different school depending on the district's needs at the time.

You can find maps of neighborhoods on the school district's website, along with more information about all the schools in that district. See BPN's list of Public School Districts to see a list of schools in each district, read parents' reviews, and find links to the school district's page.

You can apply to attend a school in another school district, or you can request a different school in your home district from the one you were assigned to. This might be easy or hard, depending on the district. For example, it is next to impossible to attend Berkeley, Albany, or Piedmont schools if you do not live in these cities. BPN has many discussions about this - see pages for the districts you are interested in.

Charter Schools

Charter schools are also public schools, and they are open to all children in California regardless of which school district they live in, although some charter schools give preference to children who live in the city where the school is located. Charter schools are a relatively new concept in California, and there can be a lot of fluctuation in enrollment and popularity among charter schools. Oakland has a great many charter schools; other East Bay cities have few or none. Some charter schools are very popular and are difficult to gain entrance to, others are easier. You can read reviews of some of the charter schools Here .

Which Private School?

Choosing a private school really depends on what type of environment you are looking for, how much money you can spend, and how far you are willing to drive.  BPN's Database of K-12 Schools groups local private schools by city. Most students at private schools in Oakland, for example, do live in Oakland. BPN also has reviews of schools based on criteria such as religious affiliation, academic philosophy, art and music programs, and more. See School Reviews by Type of School.

How to Register your Kids for School

Public School Registration

You can register at any time. You will need to visit the school district's office in person to enroll your child, and you will need to have proof of your residence, such as a rental agreement, bank account, utility bill, etc. Each district has its own rules about how they establish residency. This means that you will most likely be registering your child after you have already moved here and have found a place to live. In addition to proof of residence in the district, you will also need your child's birth certificate and immunization records. Some districts also want to see grade reports from previous schools. If you register during the official enrollment period, usually January and February for the following Fall, you have a better chance of getting your choice of schools within the district.  But public schools admit students year-round, and your child will be assigned to a school regardless of when during the year you register.

Once you have registered, your child can usually begin attending school immediately. All residents within a school district are guaranteed a place in a school in the district. Each district has its own requirements about what is required, so check their website (see BPN's list of Public School Districts for links.)

If you are interested in a Charter School, you will need to contact each charter school directly. Some charter schools are very popular and do not have openings, others have openings throughout the year. See the list of local charter schools .

Private School Registration

Most local private schools follow a yearly application cycle that goes like this:
- October, November, December: the schools host tours, informational sessions, and open houses for prospective students
- January: deadline for applying to the school for the following August
- March: acceptance notices are sent out
- August: school starts

Information about admissions events and applications can be found on each school's website, and many of them also post announcements to BPN during the months of October through February.

What if you did not apply during the admission cycle? Or if you arrive mid-year?

Some local private schools are always full to capacity, and can never accept a new student mid-year. But many private schools do have openings here and there throughout the school year, because families move away, or financial situations change, or people fall out of love with their child's school. You will need to contact each school individually. Look for the email address for the Admissions Director on the school's website. Keep an eye on the announcements about openings on the BPN website.  If you are arriving very late in the school year - such as April or May,  there may be few private schools that are willing to accept a new child even if they have openings, just because it's a bit disruptive to the class when a new child is added that late in the school year. But perhaps arranging it in advance might work in your favor.  Many private schools are interested in enrolling students from other countries, and are enthusiastic about families who have an association with UC Berkeley.

When does the school year start & end?

Every school district and each private school makes its own calendar, but in general, most preschools and K-12 schools follow this schedule:

  • School Year Starts: mid to late August
  • School Year Ends: early to mid June
  • Winter Holiday: 2 weeks from just before Christmas till just after New Years
  • Spring Holiday: 1 week in March or April - varies widely by school and district

There are 8-10 additional one-day holidays per year, either federal holidays or teacher conferences, workshops, and the like.

Most local private schools (and at least one public school district - West Contra Costa) also add an additional week-long holiday in February, usually called "Presidents' Week" but also called "Ski Week."

Please check the website for your school district or private school to find out what the exact dates are.

How much does school cost?

Public schools and charter schools are free. You may need to pay for lunches and before-school and after-school care, which might be subsidized based on your income. Be aware that most schools run from around 8am to 3pm, so after-school care for younger students will be a financial consideration.

Private Schools in 2019 range from $8,000 a year for some Catholic elementary schools to more than $40,000 a year for some private high schools. Financial aid may be available. Nearly all local private schools list tuition amounts on their websites. BPN has a searchable database of local K-12 schools here: https://www.berkeleyparentsnetwork.org/schools

Kids Who Don't Speak English

Because of UC Berkeley's international reputation, many families come to Berkeley every year on sabbatical, or as visiting scholars, or as students, from all over the world. Schools in the city of Berkeley and surrounding communities are very accustomed to admitting children who do not speak English, or who don't speak English well. Public school classrooms in the Bay Area typically have children who speak a number of different languages, and it is not unusual, especially at younger ages, to have a child or two in the class who starts the school year not speaking English. Children pick up a new language very rapidly. Many public schools have special programs for English language learners.

Many local private schools are also accustomed to students who do not speak English. How common this is at any particular private school depends on the school. If you are interested in private schools, you should contact the school directly to find out how they support students who do not speak English.

There are a number of schools in the area, mostly private, but some public, that are either bilingual or are exclusively non-English, especially Spanish, French, and Mandarin. On BPN's K-12 School Database you can search for "Language immersion" schools.