Moving to the Bay Area: Which School?

Questions & Responses:
Moving to SF Area with 1st and 4th grader(1 response)
Which pre-school/day care for 4YO coming from India?(4 responses)
Temporary school placement for K and 3rd grader?(3 responses)
Archived Responses: 

Welcome to the Bay Area!

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

General Information about Bay Area Schools

Reviews of Local Schools

Related Pages

Questions and Discussions

Options by Age of Child 

There is no free childcare for children under 5 unless you qualify for a low-income program. 

0 to 3 years old

  1. Nannies are very popular for babies, and many parents share a nanny with 1 or 2 other families to make the cost more affordable. Nannies come to your home 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.  You can find a nanny or a nanny share by viewing Childcare postings on the BPN website.  
  2. Home-Based Daycares are popular for children older than 6 months; a few daycares accept babies younger than 6 months. Daycares are licensed by the State of California for either 6 children or 14 children, 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. The preschool may have its own building, or it 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.

5 year olds:  Kindergarten

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 reach their 5th birthday between September 1 and December 31. 

5 to 10 year olds: Elementary School

Most 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 more than one high school. 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 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 are free. Most children here do attend public school.  Each city operates their own school district, although some cities have joined together to form a larger district. Your children are entitled to attend a public school in the school district you live in.  It is unusual for children to attend a public school in a school district that they don't live in.

Charter schools are also 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, sometimes 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 the school district for 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, maybe only have one school with enough space yo add 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 may apply to attend a school in another school district, or you may 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 List of Private 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 to 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 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 September through December.

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

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.  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. 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 school year:

  • 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 are free. You may need to pay for lunches and before-school and after-school care, depending on your income.

Private Schools in 2013 ranged from $6,000 a year for some Catholic schools to more than $30,000 a year for some private schools. Financial aid may be available. Nearly all local private schools list tuition amounts on their websites. Check the List of Private Schools to find a link to the school's website.

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 it well. Public school classrooms 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. See BPN's list of Bilingual & Immersion Schools .

Questions & Discussions

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