How to Find a School in the Bay Area

Parent Q&A

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  • We will be moving to San Francisco this summer with our two kids, who will be in 4th and 1st grade next year. We are still trying to determine if we can find a good-enough school in San Francisco, or if we'll prefer living in Berkeley or Alameda. 

    How we can find out which schools in SF will have openings for those grades next year? If possible we would like to find a place to live close to the school our children will be attending. 

    What happens if we're still in temporary housing at the start of the school year? Would the kids be able to go to school somewhere? Would they have to change schools if we move to a different district within the same city?

    Any tips on school that aren't over-enrolled in SF? We are hoping to find a diverse school with small class sizes and a lot of parent involvement (at least that's what seems to help our current schools most). Our oldest is currently in a GATE class and we hope whichever school he ends up at will challenge and engage him.  Thanks for your help! 

    For SF proper, the SFUSD Educational Placement Center (EPC) is who you need to call about school placements & availability. They can tell you which schools are more likely to have spots. But you won't be able to get a school placement until you have your SF address, so you can't plan ahead on living near your school. 

    School placement in SFUSD is really tough. Diversity & small class sizes are there at every school. Academics & school quality varies tremendously. But the schools with more parent involvement are always the more "white/wealthy" schools, which correlates to high test scores & PTA fundraising too, and those are the schools that are hardest to get a place at. Especially to enroll two kids.

    'Good enough' means different things to different people -- ask at EPC for 'hidden gems' where both of your kids can get a place, hope that it is 'good enough', and apply for a school transfer for the following school year if needed (lots of families switch). 

  • Hello,

    My family will be spending Winter 2017 in Berkeley as I have a visiting professor position at UC Berkeley from Jan to April.  I am looking into school options for my Kindergartner and 3rd grader.  Does anyone know of private schools that might offer temporary placements?  Or tutoring/enrichment programs that might offer daytime instruction?  

    Thanks for any suggestions or advice!

    Do you know which city you will be living in? It is very easy to enroll your children in the local school district once you have a rental agreement in hand. You'll need to visit the school district in person. Usually your children can begin attending school right away. Schools in the East Bay around UC Berkeley are very accustomed to having children in the class from other areas and other countries. I really recommend you try out your local public schools since you will be here for only a short time. There is a good page about this on the BPN website:   Moving to the Bay Area with School-Aged Kids 

    You should check out Walden Center and School near Cal:

    My kids are in 6th and 2nd grades there and we love this school. In the past Walden has offered placements to children of visiting faculty members.

    Speak with Admissions coordinator Vicki Edge: 510-841-7248 ext 1

    Good luck!

    A happy Walden mom

    As it happens there is a child in my son's class who is leaving mid year so it would leave a spot open in winter. You would have to ask about kindergarten. We are at The Berkeley School which is not far from campus. We have been very happy there and the kids are generally very kind to new kids who come in. Take a look

Hi! I just moved here (August 2019) with my two daughters (7 years and 2 years) from Germany. We live close to Rockridge Bart/Elmwood and it is a very nice neighbourhood (also, on the pricey side). But I can highly recommend it! We have our 7 year old daughter in a public school (Kaiser Elementary) because we could not get into the ones closer to our home (Peralta/Chabot). We are very happy with Kaiser and I can highly recommend it. This school is going to merge though with Sankofa Academy in 2020/21 which will make it easier to reach (right now it is in the Oakland Hills) but I cannot say anything about the merged school. It might be worth checking out though, especially as it will be close to Temescal which is a very nice neighbourhood too!  If you are currently in the area I would like to give you one advice that I wish someone gave me before we moved here: It is impossible to handle school affairs via email from Europe, so I highly recommend that you visit the OUSD or the different schools in person if you want to make arrangements for the school!!! Being used to german bureaucracy it took some time for me to learn that here it is very often the best choice to visit in person and not use email or phone (especially with the OUSD/BUSD). Also, I do not think that Oakland is using the lottery system next year, I think they rely on the neighbourhood school system. Be aware though that you are not guaranteed a spot in your neighbourhood school. If it is full you will be assigned to a school that still has space (that happened to us). The most important date is February 7th (end of registration for schoolyear 202/21). You can still apply later but that will make it more difficult to get into your desired school. Unfortunately there are not school buses in Oakland (Berkeley has it because they are distributing the children all over the city).

If you want to get into contact with me to share experiences moving from Europe to the Bay Area feel free to contact me! 

Good luck!

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Moving from UK, starting Kindergarten in fall

March 2015

Hello! We're moving from Scotland in April. My son will turn 5 this summer so will start Kindergarten in September. As my husband's new job is in Berkeley, we'll most likely live in Berkeley (though we would consider Oakland as well). My question is, does anyone have experience with arriving having missed the entire registration deadline? What was the process like? I look at all the documents you need to register and imagine it will take another month or two to gather these as we also need to find a place to live, etc. So does that mean we won't be able to register until May or June? Will all the schools be completely full then or is it normal to have places available? It's hard to imagine my five year old taken a school bus, we're very used to walking everywhere (his nursery school is just around the corner), so I'm hoping to live near a good school. Is it possible to ask for a school close to where we find a house? Thank you very much. I'm sure I'll have many more questions in the years to come. mrsfilms

Hi and welcome! We missed the deadline last year when we enrolled our T-Ker. I don't think it was a big deal. You will be allowed to enroll if you live here. All the schools are good & most of us just want to go to the closest one. BUSD uses an algorithm to ensure that every school is equally diverse with respect to a bunch of socioeconomic factors, which allows for a pretty consistent experience across the district. BUT it means that some people are assigned to schools on the opposite side of town from where they live. Berkeley itself is not a large city, fortunately, and they guarantee bus transportation outside of 1.5 mi radius from the school (and will bus others too if they can). Kindergartners do ride the school bus. Hey, they have to learn some time.

The one major pain for us was that we wanted afterschool care, and it turned out to be tough to enroll late for afterschool care. (Kindergarten is 8:30-1:30, or 9:30-2:30 at the late-start schools.) We got on a waiting list & did eventually get a spot a week or so into the school year. Apparently if enough people sign up after school starts, they will hire additional staff to cover those students, so they do do their best to get everyone care who needs it. Missed the deadline

Both Berkeley & Oakland have wonderful neighborhoods! I also wanted to mention the towns of Orinda, Moraga & Lafayette as an option. There are excellent schools here too. I'm up In Moraga and it has a wonderful small town feel. Off the top of my head, I know four British families living here with kids in kindergarten and first grade. Christina A.

Is a spot guaranteed in public schools anytime?

Sept 2014

We are moving from MA to the bay area next month and will be late to enroll our daughter into kindergarten. Do the public schools in various towns guarantee a spot to the residents even if one is late to enroll/register? -thanks. Vikas You are guaranteed a spot in public school, but you are not guaranteed a spot in a particular school. So you may not want to count on getting your kids into the neighborhood school or a particular school of your choice. Parent

We moved west to east last year and its very different. When buying our home and moving in late August I was very concerned about a 'spot' - the staff at our school had a hard time even understanding my question! In the Bay Area at public schools there are lotteries in some cities (Oak, Berk), enrollment into neighborhood school (Alameda - but you would get a spot where they had one as some schools over enroll), not sure about Orinda, Moraga, Lafayette but I think it may be like alameda - neighborhood/zoned school but if its full the school with an opening. Good luck with your move

Yes, public school districts are required to educate all school-age children residing in their district. However, you may not get to choose the specific school. It really depends on what district you move to, and how schools are assigned there. Public school mom


Moving to the Bay Area - which public school system?

Nov 2012

My husband and I are relocating to the San Francisco Bay Area from Central Illinois in January. We have two children ages 7 and 9. We absolutely LOVE their current school which includes class size of 20 students, PE everyday, recess everyday, drama, technology, art, music, and strong teacher autonomy. It is a University lab school and there is no tuition. Our biggest concern about moving is finding a similar school. We have heard horror stories about California Public Schools. We will not be able to afford private school tuition. I am open to home schooling but would really like to have them in school if we can find one that meets our needs. Can anyone recommend an area or specific school where we are likely to find the things that we love about our current school? My husband will be working in San Francisco. We are assuming that we will be living somewhere in the East Bay area. Jennifer

You should really take a good look at Berkeley . BUSD has very good schools from K-12. They are not perfect, but we are educated (dad is Ivy-trained physician; mom has Master's degree), and are very happy with the education our 3 kids are getting. It is a well-rounded, enriched district, with gardening, art, cooking, dance, PE, music, excellent teachers, principals, & staff. Each school varies slightly in which programs they offer, but all offer a variety of ''extras''. There are no ''bad schools'' in Berkeley. The city buses the elementary kids, to ensure racial and economic equality across the city. BUSD mom of 3, ages 7-12

If you are working in San Francisco, you should consider RENTING a place in Marin County (Mill Valley School District, MVSD). The rents are not much more than other parts of the Bay Area and you don't have to pay for private school. It's very expensive to own a home, so many families rent. Many families are moving to the area for the excellent schools, so the class sizes are starting to increase, but the class sizes are still smaller than other parts of the Bay Area. Mill Valley is an easy commute to San Francisco with excellent public transportation options (nice commuter buses and/or the ferry). The five public elementary schools in Mill Valley are excellent (high test scores, PE/Recess everyday, Arts/Music education, etc.). Parent

Moving to the Bay Area - which school district?

March 2007

Hello Everyone, I just have to say that I love this newletter. My family and I are returning to the Bay Area and looking for a great public elementary school for my 5 year old who will be starting Kindergarten in the fall. Can anyone recommend any? We are looking into Concord, Plesant Hill, and Walnut Creek. We would like a school that has a strong curriculum, resources, etc. Also, does anyone have a preference of which of the three cities they recommend? And any advice on renting a house? Thanks so much! Janeth

Having just done this two years ago, this is my advice:

(1) Realize that CA's school funding formula -- which requires local funds to go to the state for redistribution -- makes schools terribly underfunded generally, and increases the inequity (rather than decreasing it, as was meant) because PTA's and local education foundations end up making the schools ''livable'' by raising money from the surrounding communities. So, sadly, what you're looking for is a financially generous community. This not only means that the community members have disposable income, but also means a low percentage of people who opt out and send their kids to private school as well as a high percentage of community involvement. (And you can go to the state website to get Annual Yearly Progress scores, which will give you an idea of the AVERAGE intellectualism of the students, though not much else.) You also should be thinking that you'll put in a minimum of $200-500/child annually in parent night requests for cash and other fundraisers.

The neighborhood I'm in -- which has top schools, but isn't in your area -- is $1000/month more expensive than an adjacent neighborhood with a worse (not terrible, just average) school.

(2) Renting: craigslist.

Last year saw 110's for a week in the area you're mentioning -- and it didn't really cool off much at night. Energy is expensive and getting more so. So I'd choose the smallest and most energy efficient space you can be comfortable with, and unless you're all VERY good with sleeping in a hot room, I'd recommend requiring air conditioning.

Get school district maps for attendance boundaries, and have them handy so you can know whether what you see on craigslist is in your target attendance area or not.

You can also call the school PTA and talk to them about the pros and cons of the school. (You should do a bit of volunteering for your PTA when you arrive anyway to connect to the local school community.)

(3) Also as for budgeting, keep in mind that since land is so expensive, everything is: supermarkets, dry-cleaning, etc. - Sticker-shocked, but still happy to be back

How does the elementary school system work?

Jan 2007

My wife and I grew up and were schooled in Europe. We've now been through the US experience of day-care waitlists for our now 10 month old. Although I *hope* we are addressing this in time we are now thinking about schools for him. Could someone provide a basic summary of how the system works, at what age the child goes to school (about 4 in europe) and anything else we should be thinking about at this point. In case its relevant, we live in montclair. Thanks

I am also European and had questions similar to yours. Our children are now almost 3 and 6 and I'll give you the info that I have (and that differs from the system that I am used to). In Europe most children go to a 2-yr Kindergarten which starts at age 4. Here they have only one year of Kindergarten which starts at age 5. The Waldorf system is an exception to this. They have a 2-yr program available, depending on when your child was born. The public schools often provide a half-day Kindergarten class only. There are some exceptions, though. Your child can also go to preschool. Most preschools seem to accept children at the earliest when they are 2 yrs and 9 months old and potty trained. We found a full-day (8:30 AM - 3:00 PM) preschool for our daughter when she was 3 yrs old. She only went 3 days a week. When she turned 4 she started going 4 days a week. And now, that she is 5 and in Kindergarten, she goes 5 days a week.

Most public schools have Kindergarten through Grade 5 classes. Grade 6, 7 and 8 are Middle School. Grades 9, 10, 11 and 12 is High School. Some charter and private schools include middle school grades in their program, so the children don't have to go to a separate school.

Next to public schools, you can also check out Charter Schools and, of course, private schools. The following is just my opinion and is therefore very personal. I am not impressed with California's public school system. The current system focuses very much on reading and math only. The system is based on passing tests and teachers teach their students to pass tests - not to learn something comprehensively. Sports, music and arts are at best after- school programs and that can only be funded if the school has a very active PTA (Parent Teacher Association).

Wikipedia had a pretty good description of what a charter school is: They are basically a public school, receiving funds through their school district (there are no fees to enroll your child), but usually they have a ''private'' curriculum. They often use different teaching methods that are only found at private schools. They are accessible to all students. They often use a lottery process to allow children into their school. This means that children of teachers/staff get first priority, followed by siblings of current students. Children who live in the school district have priority over children outside the school district.

The Bay Area has many private schools to chose from. If you plan on going that route, I would probably already start doing some research on those, because you may find that they have long waiting lists or they may have preschools that your child may be able to attend.

Socio-economics vary greatly in the Bay Area. Though the average income is fairly high compared to the rest of the country, there is also a large group of people living in poverty. The school system seems to reflect that perfectly. Public schools in poor areas have little or no parent involvement and often perform poorly. Schools in more affluent areas often show heavy parent involvement and the students seem to perform accordingly.

Private schools can offer amazing programs. They can be very costly, though. The private schools that I checked asked between $12,000 and $17,200 per school year. I found a couple of websites that helped me in my search In the upper right corner you just type the school district that you are interested in and it will give you all the schools (public, private and charter) for that district. Another good site to check is this: This shows what charter schools are in your county. JOJ

Your child may enter kindergarten if he is 5 years old by December 15th of that school year. Enrollment would be the previous January. The trend seems to be for parents of boys to hold them back another year (thus making the class quite an imbalance of younger girls to older boys), but you can go with your gut feeling of what your child would be best suited for. Having said that, kindergarten is NOT required for California children. Ellen

Moving to the Bay Area - where should we rent for a good school?

May 2006

We are relocating to Bay Area this summer from Boston and we are trying to find a place to rent close to a (public) Elementary School since my son will be entering K this fall. My question is (since we already signed him up here i Boston a LOOONG time ago) - how does it work in the Bay Area? Are you ''guaranteed'' a slot for your child when you move in to an area? It would be quite a disappointment if we found a good school and a nice house and it turns out that the Elmentary School close to the house is ''full''..?! How can I find out if a school has openings? Do I call the principals office? Any help and hints around this would be much appreciated. Thanks in advance :-)

In Berkeley, there are three zones with three or four elementary schools in each zone. You are not guaranteed a spot in the school closest to your home. Families send in a form with their top choices early in the year (this past Jan or Feb) and have already been informed as to which school their child was assigned to. They have a better chance of getting into the schools in their zone. Some schools get requested more than others, so not everyone gets their first choice. However, many who don't get their first choice in the first round, get on a waiting list and do end up with their first choice by the time kindergarten begins.

As to how the assignments are made I could explain that BUT it would take up a bunch of that info (and a bunch of other info) can probably be found in the archives of this list serve AND through the Parent Access/ Admissions office at the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) main office. The web site (with maps and forms and etc.) is

I recommend that you call Francisco Martinez and his staff at BUSD Admissions at (510) 644-6504 to see what schools currently have room, and what the process would be for you if you were to rent in Berkeley. The Principles have no control over admissions in Berkeley, and may not even know the number of new students they are getting yet.

We love our kids' elementary school, as do many families at many public elementary schools around Berkeley. However, if you want certainty in attending a specific school, you may do better to rent in an adjacent town.
BUSD Parent

Hello, I would recommend the public schools in Lafayette, Moraga or Orinda, which is just ''thru the Caldecott tunnel'' from Berkeley. Yes, call the school you would be in to be sure before purchasing your home.
All for public schools